Magnus Carlsen will be the top seed going into the knockout stages of the chess24 Legends of Chess after winning his match against Ian Nepomniachtchi in an Armageddon thriller. There was similar drama elsewhere, with comebacks in Leko-Gelfand and Giri-Ivanchuk before the 50-year-olds won their Armageddon games. That didn’t bother Anish Giri, whose 1 point was enough to seal a place in the Final 4, while Peter Svidler survived some tough moments to beat Vladimir Kramnik and become the heavy favourite to play in the knockout.
You can replay all the chess24 Legends of Chess preliminary games using the selector below – click on a result to open the game with computer analysis:
That meant that only Peter Svidler and Ding Liren picked up the full 3 points for winning in rapid chess, while the points were split 2:1 in the other matches after Armageddon:
We were privileged to be joined by Judit Polgar for live commentary on Round 8, with Judit combining with the established team of Tania Sachdev, Jan Gustafsson and Alexander Grischuk:
We’d reached the penultimate round of the preliminary stage, so the focus was all on the standings. Let’s first take a look at the key battles:
Both Ian and Magnus went into this match with a perfect record of 7 wins in 7 matches, but as Nepo had needed Armageddon on two more occasions he was trailing by two points. That gap could have been wiped out if he’d won the match in rapid chess, but that never looked likely. Magnus summed up the day:
I don’t want to talk about it too much - it was pretty bad! It was quite similar to yesterday (vs. Svidler), in the sense that I was much better in… well, yesterday I was actually slightly worse in one of them, but today I was much better to winning in literally every game.
Nepo himself didn’t look entirely convinced about the way he’d managed to survive the first game:
The second was a tour de force by Magnus, with our
commentators particularly impressed by 27.Bd1!
The only try for Black is to take the bishop (computers recommend just giving up a piece with e.g. 27…Qc4), but after 27…Qxd1 28.Qxd7 it turned out Magnus had an unstoppable attack on the black king. Magnus is nothing if not honest, however, and admitted afterwards that he’d only found that bishop sacrifice when he was surprised by 26…Qa4. He pointed out there were easier wins earlier, but that might have spoilt what became a brilliant game.
Pascal Charbonneau takes an in-depth look:
The next game witnessed a curious position where Magnus had an extra knight, but one with nowhere to go except to sacrifice itself for a pawn. Nepo drew with ease, but that meant he went into the final rapid game knowing he had to win on demand, with the black pieces, to force Armageddon. Remarkably, he did it!
First he provoked Magnus into winning a piece:
Magnus called that bluff and then must have thought he was simply winning when he attacked Nepo’s queen, only to get hit by 20…Rxc1!
As you can see, it was the kind of blow that can take a while to recover from, and by that stage Nepo had already sealed victory… and no run-of-the-mill victory. He ended with 15:05 on the clock, 5 seconds more than he started with!
“Then I just lost my mind in the 4th,” is how Magnus summed up that game, which took the match to Armageddon.
Magnus had Black and therefore only needed a draw, but initially everything went Nepo’s way – he got an excellent position on the board and at one stage had a 90-second lead on the clock. Magnus wasn’t going to go down without a fight, however, and switched on beast mode to blitz out dozens of moves using almost no time on the clock.
Magnus was completely winning in the final position, but a draw was enough to clinch victory. He’s three points ahead of Nepo and, since the first tiebreaker is head-to-head result, he would finish first even if he lost and Ian won on the final day of the preliminaries. That means that in the semi-finals he’ll play the player who finishes 4th.
Anish Giri’s match against Vasyl Ivanchuk was a case of losing a battle but winning the war. First blood was drawn in Game 2, when Ivanchuk’s position suddenly collapsed after 37.Rd8?
Things look normal for White, but his pieces are actually desperately short of squares, and the key point of 37…Nb3! is to deprive White’s knight of the a5-square. After 38.Rc2 b5! the only option for the knight was 39.Nd2, but that allowed 39…Re2+, and suddenly the invading black rooks combined to give mate just a few moves later!
It had escalated fast, although it was also a result 11 years in the making:
Ivanchuk shrugged off that loss, however, to win brilliantly in the next game, before Anish had the most chess reasons for regret after a draw in the final rapid game. Otherwise there was little reason for regret, however, since the minimum of one point he’d get for Armageddon was sufficient to ensure qualification for the Final 4 of the tournament. Chucky went on to roll back the years with a powerful technical win…
…but it leaves the Ukrainian star just too far back to qualify for the knockout.
“I don’t beat Vlady very often and it’s an occasion to celebrate!” said Peter Svidler after scoring a 2.5:1.5 victory over his Russian compatriot and lifetime rival Vladimir Kramnik. There was already fire on board in the first game of the day, when Peter picked up a pawn and played 13…Bh4+:
Our commentators were very unsure where to put the white king and it seems it was a critical decision. 14.Kd2! Qc6 would have allowed 15.Bxg4 without 15…Bxg4 being a check, and White seems to be clearly better. In the game after 14.Ke2!? Qc6 15.Rag1 Nxe3 16.Nxe3 g6 Peter was able to consolidate his extra material and go on to win an impressively smooth game.
Svidler steered for a solid draw in the next game, before Game 3 was the sensational clash on which the match outcome depended. Peter said he’d been spending all his time on calculating Nf5 or Nd5 for Kramnik on every move, so, “to somehow miss it in the one moment when it wins all the material is just bizarre!”
Svidler had nothing better than 19…Nxb3 20.Qxb4, but by the time the dust had settled the prospects looked bleak for Black:
White is completely winning after the computer’s suggestions of 27.g4!, 27.Re5! or 27.Rg7!, but 27.h4!? Rg8! was a first misstep by Vladimir. Others would follow, but he still looked on course to level the scores until playing 41.Rh4?
Kramnik had blundered 41…Bxb3!, when 42.cxb3 Rxb3+ and capturing on e3 would be a draw, at best, for White. Vlad played on with 42.Kc1, something he should have done a move earlier. Peter said that in that case, “resigning is not out of the question”.
That moment was the inspiration Peter needed (“I thought he will be so mad at himself…”) and, although Kramnik still had some chances to wrap up victory (50.Nc8+!), the game ended in a 115-move draw!
Our commentators praised Peter’s fighting spirit, which set off his self-deprecation reflex:
That’s like the buzzword for my performance in this tournament - “fighting spirit”. Code word for, “lost in every single game!”
Kramnik now had to win on demand with the black pieces, but although he came out of the opening well he misplayed the position and was dead lost by the time a “courtesy draw” was agreed to end the match. For Kramnik to reach the Final 4 he now needs to beat Magnus Carlsen on demand in rapid games (winning in Armageddon wouldn’t be enough), while Peter would have to lose to Anish Giri.
The remaining two matches were between players with no chances of qualifying for the knockout. Ding Liren, who was amazingly consistent as he reached the semi-finals of the previous three Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour events (losing to Magnus twice and Dubov once), has had a shocking event, but he managed to beat Vishy Anand with the Sicilian in 22 moves in their first game:
Vishy had some chances before a draw in the second game but then again lost to the Sicilian in Game 3 as Ding Liren wrapped up a 2.5:0.5 win with a game to spare.
Leko-Gelfand went all the way to Armageddon, with Boris opening the scoring with a fine victory in a rook ending before Peter hit straight back in the next game. The Armageddon ended up being a vindication of Gelfand’s approach of always thinking about his moves, whatever the format. He ultimately managed to weave a mating net despite a time deficit.
It was great to see Ivanchuk and Gelfand winning their Armageddon games, though the watching Magnus Carlsen explained how a more pragmatic player in Leko’s position would have traded down into a worse ending when he had the chance and simply won on time!
That leaves the standings as follows with one round to go in the preliminary stages:
Once again, Magnus can’t be caught and will finish 1st, while Nepo is 2nd. All the intrigue centres around places 3 and 4. Anish Giri is guaranteed to finish in the Top 4 since the first tiebreak is head-to-head encounter and he beat Vladimir Kramnik.
Kramnik can qualify, but only if he beats Carlsen in rapid chess (3 points) while Svidler loses to Giri in rapid chess (0 points). Ivanchuk is out of contention, since he lost to Svidler and would lose out on a 3-way tie with Kramnik and Svidler since Peter beat both Vlad and Vasyl.
Magnus commented after Round 7:
If I could knock out Vlad in the last round that would be a nice little carrot to look forward to!
It’s not just about pure qualification, however. If Peter wants to avoid playing Magnus when the semi-finals start on Friday (it’s no. 1 vs. no. 4 and no. 2 vs. no. 3) - and avoiding Magnus is something you might want to do! - then he has a clear task ahead of him of winning the match against Giri.
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