Magnus Carlsen will face 19-year-old Arjun Erigaisi, who he described as “amazingly strong”, in the final of the Julius Baer Generation Cup after overcoming tough resistance from Vincent Keymer in the semi-final. Arjun made it past Liem Le, but only after getting taken to tiebreaks for a second day in a row.
Magnus Carlsen vs. Arjun Erigaisi is perhaps the dream final of a chess tournament showcasing a clash of generations, but both players had to work hard to reach the final.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen said of 17-year-old Vincent Keymer:
I’ve got to say, especially the first game, I was really impressed with his play. He’s very, very strong!
It had seemed Magnus was doing Magnus things, since his b5-pawn push was strong. The undefended a8-rook made capturing on b5 impossible, while surely no-one would consider castling kingside as Black!? Keymer did, stunning his coach Peter Leko!
It turned out joining the rooks on the back rank was worth details like king safety and the h6-pawn, with the computer even claiming Vincent was better a couple of moves later.
He didn’t follow up as forcefully as he could, allowing Magnus to restore a slight edge, but ultimately Vincent was able to force an utterly deserved draw.
“Not much happened” is how Magnus dismissed the 63-move 2nd game, where Vincent neither got any significant advantage with the white pieces nor looked in any danger. The 3rd game, however, was a classic.
For at least a hundred years chess players have been complaining of the “draw death” of chess, suggesting that opening ideas have been exhausted. It’s never really been the case, and feels more like a human inability to grasp the sheer vastness of possible different paths a game can take. From time to time we get an illustration of that, such as Magnus Carlsen managing to make an all but new move on move 3 of a top level game.
His 3.c4!? had been played only a handful of times before, and never by a top player, but it proved perfect to catch Vincent off guard and build up a big advantage in just 10 moves.
Magnus lamented afterwards:
The 3rd game… that was a shame, because I had done everything correctly up to a certain point, and then I blundered at some point, I made the wrong rook move, and I realised my mistake right after. A bit disappointing!
24.Rd2?! was the move that let a winning advantage slip.
24.Rd3! was the correct approach, with the difference that after 24…Nb4 Magnus would then have 25.Rb3!. His 25.Rd4 in the game also looked good, but Vincent was able to put up great resistance.
The problem playing Magnus, however, is that it’s not enough to escape to an almost dead drawn endgame — you also have to draw it! He was asked afterwards if grinding out such positions is his biggest strength in chess, while others given up.
No, but I don’t think anybody would have given up there. I wasn’t risking anything. I’d almost given up hopes of winning, but never completely. But it’s certainly one of the things that I sometimes do well. I play to win, I push, I push, and then if that’s not enough, I try to push some more!
Magnus kept the game alive, until the moment of truth finally came on move 81.
Vincent had a minute and got down to 14 seconds in what turned out to be a position with only a single solution. 81…Nf5! was the move, planning Ng3 and taking the h5-pawn while the king can handle the white a-pawn.
Vincent guessed wrongly with the very plausible alternative 81…Nc6, but it turned out that after 82.Ke4!, with the king heading to g6, Magnus was winning. Vincent resigned with the two white pawns alive, g7 about to fall, and his knight dominated by the bishop.
That 93-move game was a huge blow to Vincent’s chances and left him needing to win the final rapid game on demand to force a playoff. That was a lot to ask, and Vincent never came close, with Magnus blaming the opening:
The 4th game I think he just made a poor opening choice and I was just winning from early on. His pieces just had no scope whatsoever, so that was ok.
“Ok,” was not the adjective chosen by English GM Matthew Sadler, who found plenty to admire.
Magnus will now face Arjun Erigaisi, who he’d praised in the past and now praised some more. They’ve only met twice:
I only played a couple of games against him. The first was a draw in the world blitz, and the 2nd was the first game of the Preliminaries here, but he’s amazingly strong, very good practically as well, so he’s a very tough opponent, and as I said on an earlier day, I think he’s certainly a top 10 player in the world when it comes to rapid and blitz.
Arjun is already in the World Top 20 in classical chess as well, and while he did lose that first game in the Prelims to Magnus he went on to win the next five to finish in 2nd place. Magnus addressed the question of where Arjun’s ceiling lies:
It’s clear that he’s improving, he’s doing very well, and he’s probably also going to have challenges at some point, but that they come potentially when playing against the best in the world, and not before, is very, very positive, and I’m very curious to see how he will do also in other events against top, top players.
But how did Arjun reach the final?
At first everything seemed to go perfectly for Arjun Erigaisi. The first game of his semi-final against Liem Le fizzled out into a draw after early exchanges, while in the 2nd Arjun won a fantastically complicated game he seemed to approach with absolute calm.
It was full of brilliant moves.
22.Be4!, offering the f2-pawn with check, is not the kind of move you make lightly, but Arjun had correctly seen that upping the pressure on the exposed black king was well-worth the momentary discomfort. He eased to victory.
The match could have been over fast, since Arjun found a winning idea in the 3rd game only to miss the precise follow-up that would have clinched victory in the match. 35…Bd2! was the move:
The bishop makes way for the c-pawn that’s threatening to race down the board, while the other unignorable threat is Bxe3+ and a quick checkmate. The computer suggests giving up the rook with 36.Rxd2 as the best defence, which tells you how much trouble White’s in.
Instead Arjun went for 35…Be1+? and after 36.Kg2 it turned out Liem was in time to round up and capture the c-pawn, while the mating threat had gone. Arjun said afterwards:
The match was very close. I could have finished it off in the 3rd game, but I kind of hesitated, I didn’t find the killer Bd2, and after that I was very nervous and I played badly. After losing the 4th game I wasn’t sure how it would go, but I’m glad I managed to win it.
In Game 4 Liem played the Modern Defence and got all he could dream of when Arjun reacted badly to 20…c5.
The threat is f4, winning the bishop, but it’s not lethal yet, since you can allow f4 and escape with Qd3+. The immediate Qd3, or f3 are other options, but Arjun went for 21.f4?!, only to find his king suddenly in danger after 21…g4! Liem went on to crash through.
For a second day in a row Arjun had been taken to a playoff, and once again he bounced back to win the first blitz game. This time it was Liem who made a weakening move in front of his king and was brutally punished.
That meant Arjun only needed a draw in the 2nd blitz game to reach the final, but after seemingly doing everything right in the opening he suddenly went for a piece sacrifice!
It shocked our commentators, and was objectively a dubious idea, but the initiative is hugely important in blitz and soon Liem was unable to withstand the pressure. Arjun went on to win, with relief clearly the dominant emotion at the end!
So the top two players in the Prelims will now play a 2-day match for the Julius Baer Generation Cup title.
Will it be another milestone on the rise of a new generation, or will Magnus show he remains the boss, for now?
It will be very interesting to play against Magnus two days in a row, and I’ll definitely learn a lot. It will help me with my chess, for sure.
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