General Sep 27, 2020 | 10:50 AMby Colin McGourty

It’s Carlsen vs. So in the Banter Series Final!

“Oh boy, this is gonna be a rough day!” said Magnus Carlsen after blundering into mate to fall 0:2 behind against Levon Aronian in their chess24 Banter Series semi-final, but a brilliant 3rd game set the stage for a comeback. Magnus went on to score 5.5 from the last 6 games to set up a final against Wesley So, who had earlier cruised to a powerful victory over Liem Quang Le. Wesley won three games before Le hit back, but although the Vietnamese star lost 6:3 he’s already earned a place in the next Chess Tour as the best performing qualifier.

The final of the chess24 Banter Series, between Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So, will take place at 20:00 CEST on Tuesday 29th September, with a $12,000 top prize at stake. 

You can replay all the games so far using the selector below:

Let's take a look at the semi-final matches!

Magnus Carlsen 5.5:2.5 Levon Aronian

This match was a real treat for chess fans, and you won’t regret the time taken to watch the brilliant commentary provided live by both of the players. Here’s Magnus Carlsen:

And here’s Levon Aronian:

“Let’s play something that I don’t know – it can’t be a bad idea, can it?” said Magnus as he played an early h4 in Game 1 against Levon’s Grünfeld Defence, but it was an opening the World Champion had played before from the other side of the board, and up to a point all was going well. 22…Nxb5 surprised him, however.

Objectively White would still be doing very well after 23.Rxc4!, but the forced sequence of exchanges Carlsen initiated with 23.a4? Nxd4 24.Bg5 Nxf3+ 25.Qxf3 fxe6 26.Bxd8 Rxf3 27.gxf3 Bxa1 only left Aronian a pawn up with all the winning chances. The Armenian star went on to convert perfectly, and though Magnus was of course unhappy he gave credit to his opponent.

Well done to him - he was spotting some serious tactics there!

It was hard to retain such equanimity after the second game. After chances for both players it came down to an ending where Magnus was the one pressing. He could have taken a pawn and played a drawish 3 vs. 2 ending, but decided to “try to play for some tricks first”. In the end the only person he tricked was himself, as he blundered with 57…Ke4??

58.Rd4# ended the game abruptly! Levon wasn’t complaining.

Oh, I like this! This is pretty good. Right in my net!

Magnus, meanwhile, was repeating some of the phrases he’d used during the Banter Blitz Cup final he eventually lost to Alireza Firouzja.

Oh, that’s checkmate! So bad, just so bad! That was like a self-mate right there. Oh boy, this is gonna be a rough day. Not good so far, not good at all!

“I’m down two games already, this could be a bloodbath!” said Magnus, but Game 3 would be where the match turned. He decided “let’s go back to basics” with the London System, and ultimately won a fantastic game.

Things had been going well for Levon until he got over-ambitious with 20…c4?, hitting the queen and f5-knight.

After 21.Nxe7+! Kf8 Magnus was forced to calculate as though his life depended on it, and he was up to the task. He announced in advance the winning sequence 22.Rxc4 Kxe7 23.Qxd6+ Ke8 24.Rc5! Qb4 25.Re5+! Be6 26.Bb5+! and trading down into a winning ending. That was just the beginning, however, as the World Champion’s solution for converting the win made the game into an exhibition.

Here he gave up an exchange with 33.Rxd7+!! Kxd7 34.Nb6+ Kc6 35.Nxd5 Kxd5

The shallow computer assessment is that Magnus has given away the lion’s share of his advantage, but he’d assessed the four pawns vs. bishop ending as an easy win and went on to demonstrate that with supreme confidence.

In the next game Levon’s 25.Rc1? was a mistake his opponent pounced on:

25…Qd8! is a double attack on the d3-bishop and h4-pawn, and although after 26.Rd1 Bxh4 27.Bxe5 the material balance was restored Magnus was very happy to have traded his doubled e-pawn for the h-pawn. He went on to clinch a victory that levelled the scores.

It looked like it was all going to be about Carlsen in the next game, but he was cursing himself for getting “too casual” as he allowed Levon to pull off a great escape.

Magnus did then finally take the lead in the next game after winning a tense strategic battle, but only spotting he was giving mate at the last moment didn’t fill him with confidence.

He was ahead for the first time, though one glimmer of hope for Levon was his semi-final against Alexander Grischuk. That had followed exactly the same pattern of wins and draws… before Levon won the final three game and clinched victory. Would history repeat itself?

No! In a position that had become a long siege, Levon eventually cracked with 48…h4?! and 49…g5?, allowing Magnus to get his bishop to h5, exchange off the defending knight and win the e5-pawn. First he needed to attack it, however.

50.Qb2! Qd6 51.Rf1 Re8 52.Bh5 Re7 53.Bxf7 Rxf7 54.Rxf7+ Kxf7 55.Nxe5+ and the rest was easy.

That left Magnus with a 4.5:2.5 lead and a win away from the final. Levon had a mountain to climb, but he wasn’t letting that get him down!

Magnus was in the groove now, however, and ground out a win to clinch the match. He summed things up:

A very, very nervy start, but I’ve got to say 5.5 for the last 6 games - that’s pretty good. As I said, very nervy games! I have to play much better in the final.

Levon identified blundering Qd8+ in Game 4 as the main culprit in allowing the momentum of the match to swing.

I had fun! It’s a pity I didn’t get to the final, but he was playing well, and I still need to practice more online blitz, for sure.  

Wesley So 6:3 Liem Quang Le

Watch Le’s stream: 

Watch So’s stream (unfortunately the final section was lost due to a power outage): 

Wesley So’s route to the final was much smoother, as he was pressing right from the start, although Liem Quang Le did well to save the first game. Unable to force a win, Wesley went for an amusing stalemate.

Wesley made no mistake in the next game, this time with the black pieces, and Liem Quang Le found himself two points down when he marched his king into danger in Game 3. 44…Kg4?? shocked Wesley.

45.Kg2 brought resignation, as giving up a piece with 45…Qxf2+ isn’t appealing, but it’s worth at least noting that 45.Qe2+! Kf5 46.Qe6# is a completely forced mate-in-2.

Liem Quang Le stopped the rot with draws in the next two games, but each draw was just bringing Wesley closer to the final. The fate of the match was then all but decided in Game 6, when Wesley took over and then did spot a trick to force mate-in-2.

Le at least got on the scoreboard with a nice win in Game 7 after Wesley had mixed up his opening preparation (playing 8.exd5!? before his intended 8.Bxf6). After a draw in Game 8, Wesley put right that opening mistake and went on to clinch the match with another win.

Liem Quang Le’s constant refrain during the latter stages of the match was, “he’s playing so well… he’s playing so amazingly well!” and Wesley can be a very dangerous opponent for Magnus in the final. It’s also notable that he’s done good, targeted opening preparation before each of his matches so far.

The adventure ends for Le, but even by reaching the quarterfinals he’d already outperformed all the other qualifiers and hence earned one of the two spots in the first event of the next Chess Tour, set to start this November. “That’s great news for me!” he said, and the 2013 Blitz World Champion won’t be out of place. The other place for one of the qualifiers will be decided later in a separate event.

The next time we'll see Carlsen-Aronian will be in Altibox Norway Chess, starting in Stavanger in just 8 days' time! 

Magnus Carlsen vs. Wesley So, the grand final of the chess24 Banter Series, has now been scheduled for Tuesday at 20:00 CEST. There’s pride and a $12,000 top prize ($6,000 for the runner-up) at stake, and you don’t want to miss this. Tune in live here on chess24 for commentary by both the players and other commentators, in multiples languages!

See also:

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