Magnus Carlsen and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave began their Grand Chess Tour Finals semi-final match in London with a fantastically complicated Najdorf that had Levon Aronian predicting “some feathers are going to fly!” He wasn’t entirely wrong, as Maxime had chances in the middlegame before blundering a brilliant resource for Magnus… only to discover, to his relief, that it wasn’t winning after all. There was less drama in the other draw, as Levon referred to his jet lag as a “fog” that he needed to let pass before engaging in a real battle.
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The tone was set for the opening game of this semi-final when Levon Aronian picked 6.g3 against Ding Liren’s Semi-Tarrasch:
It was, as the Chinese no. 1 noted, a “solid” sideline compared to the main line 6.e4 or the 6.e3 that Levon had used to beat Wang Hao in the only game Ding’s colleague lost on the way to winning the Grand Swiss on the Isle of Man.
Levon himself didn’t try to pretend he’d gone out all guns blazing in the first game, noting the 4.5-hour time difference between London and Kolkata had been tough for him:
I had a really bad sleep, so I felt I just gotta play safe. It happens, because of the jet lag and feeling a little bit sick… When you have enough energy to prepare for half an hour only, then it’s one of those things. You just need to let it pass. As they say, it’s like a fog. It has to pass, and then you fight!
The game was most notable, perhaps, for the cute way it was wrapped up:
24.Qxa7! Rxc3! 25.Qxf7+ Kh7 26.Qg6+ and draw by perpetual check.
Peter Svidler noted that Aronian’s “I hope to sleep tonight, a proper sleep” was not the loftiest of goals, while Ding Liren was happy with his start:
Of course I was satisfied with today’s result - to draw with the black pieces.
There was much more to see elsewhere, with Levon summing up what Magnus had done in the opening:
It’s this approach that he tries to confuse Maxime by playing something that he probably analysed, but it looks very unusual, so I’m guessing it’s going to be a battle very soon. Some feathers are going to fly!
The prelude to this game saw the young Zak Middlehurst play 1.Nc3 for Magnus, then realise his mistake and replace the move with 1.Nf3!
The world no. 1 and world no. 4 weren’t quite so cute, but they certainly kept us enthralled in the opening. It wasn’t tough to predict that the game would be a Najdorf, but move 7 was one Maxime couldn’t have seen coming – 7.f3 was the 9th most popular move in the position (7.f4 has been played more than 10 times more than any other move) and had never been played by Magnus or faced by Maxime.
Magnus confirmed his intentions after the game:
I wanted to try something new, get some positions that he’s not that familiar with, and I think that succeeded fairly well.
Maxime agreed, but although his always playing the same opening against 1.e4 can be a liability it’s also a strength, since he noted:
I was always feeling reasonable about my position so I don’t think this position is the end of the world for a lifelong Najdorf player, but of course I knew Magnus would be ready for the challenge.
He used his experience to steer the game in a direction he was familiar with, playing 7…h6 so that after 8.Be3 he was back to positions he knew well, just with the h-pawn on h6 instead of h7, a factor that wasn’t clearly in either player’s favour. Magnus sank into deep thought as he spent an hour over moves 14-16, with a critical moment coming after 15.g3:
Basically the position was not so easy to play and it’s clear that I’m not getting g4 anytime soon, so really for a while the game revolves around whether or not he can get d5 favourably.
It seems 15…d5! immediately here was strong, but after the “crazy complications” (a phrase Magnus used a couple of times) of what the World Champion was planning - 16.Bf4 e5 17.exd5 Nxd5 18.Nxd5 Bxd5 19.Bh3 - he admitted, “who knows what’s happening!” Instead Maxime first played 15…Ne5 16.Rg2 0-0 17.h3 and only now 17…d5, though ultimately that could have proved highly effective, since it was a complicated enough position for both players to miss some tricks. Magnus thought he was doing well after 22.Re2:
Maxime commented, “here I thought about 22…b4, but I just thought it was too slow,” so he opted for 22…Bd5!?, “a much safer way of getting counterplay”. 22…b4 might have worked, though, since a puzzled Magnus wondered after the game, “I still don’t get at all why the computer is showing such a huge edge for Black”. He reeled off the line 23.axb4 Bxb4 24.Bg2 Rfd8 26.Bxe4 Bxe4 27.Qxe4 and asked, “what’s the big deal?” It was then that he spotted the big deal was 26…Qb6!
Suddenly it turns out the d4-knight is pinned and Black will simply win it by playing Rc4 next!
Magnus might well have spotted that in advance if 22…b4 had been played, but Maxime’s oversight occurred in the game. He’d missed from afar that 26…Rfd8 ran into 27.c4!!
Rather than being a defensive move Magnus said afterwards, “frankly I thought c4 was just winning”. Maxime feared the same, but considered it “a lucky break” that he was able to survive after 27…bxc4 28.Red2!? (28.Na4 was the way to try and play for more) 28…Qa1+! (28…Rxc5!! 29.Qxc5 Rb8! was also a draw, though neither player had seen it) 29.Kc2 Qa2 and it turned out the threat of c3 and Bb3+ by Black meant that Magnus had to play 30.Kc1 again and accept a draw by repetition.
It had been a fantastic game that neither player deserved to lose, with Magnus summing up:
I think it goes with the choice of opening. Clearly when you play that way with no forced lines at the beginning and castling on opposite sides then it’s going to be very complicated. Definitely we were both angling for that and that we got, and in such cases we often make some mistakes as well.
Maxime promised more of the same:
We’re ready for a fight! This was a good fight, but it’s not like we’re not prepared to play games like this and I’ll be ready to fight tomorrow again.
One great fight that did end with blood spilt was Gawain Jones vs. David Howell in the British Knockout Championship. Howell was lost on move 16 after playing the notoriously unwise f6, but Gawain could never quite finish off the black king that was stranded in the middle of the board:
21…Qxd6!? was perhaps born of desperation, but it paid off for Howell as after 22.exd6 Bxd4+ he managed to dodge numerous bullets and eventually win with the d and e-pawns:
Quite a game, and the six points for a win make David Howell a strong favourite to go through to the final against Mickey Adams or Luke McShane, who drew their first game.
The second and last classical games of the semi-finals take place on Tuesday, and you can tune in to all the Grand Chess Tour Finals action from London from 17:00 CET each day here on chess24!
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