Reports Jun 1, 2021 | 12:00 AMby Colin McGourty

Magnus Carlsen wins “absolutely insane” FTX Crypto Cup final

Magnus Carlsen let out a roar of joy and talked of “massive, massive relief” as he beat Wesley So in Armageddon to win the FTX Crypto Cup and book a place in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals in San Francisco. Magnus won the first game of the final day but Wesley hit back straight away and then took the lead when Magnus blundered in the first blitz playoff. It looked as if the World Champion would lose a 3rd final to the US Champion, but Magnus stormed back to win the next two games and claim the title. Ian Nepomniachtchi took 3rd place after four fighting games against Teimour Radjabov.

You can replay all the games from the knockout stages of the FTX Crypto Cup, the 6th event on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev.

And from David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare. 

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Magnus Carlsen: “I’m just so happy to have pulled through!”

The big question going into Day 2 of the FTX Crypto Cup final was what kind of form the World Champion would be in after he said he felt bad and just didn’t want to play chess at the end of Day 1. The first game provided a resounding answer, as Magnus traded down into an ending and, without any glaring blunders from Wesley So, had soon achieved almost total zugzwang. The most sadistic moment came after 35…Kd8.

With Black desperately trying to keep his house of cards together (the c6-bishop makes a particularly sad impression), Magnus could do almost anything, and contented himself with the solidifying 36.b3!, passing the move back to Wesley. There followed 36…g5 37.Bc7+ Ke8 38.Bb6 (the b5-rook is now completely immobilised) 38…f4 39.Rg7.

The g-pawn dropping is the least of Black’s worries. Wesley had seen enough and resigned.

Magnus had also led on Day 1 of the final and must have drawn conclusions over how to try and keep a lead against Wesley, but whatever they were they were thrown out the window not long into Game 2. Magnus played one of his pet lines in the Sicilian, featuring an early e5, but was in deep trouble by move 8.

It wasn’t clear what exactly had gone wrong, though perhaps Wesley’s 7.Bb3 instead of the 7.Bc2 Fabiano Caruana played against Magnus had made all the difference (one point is that the f7-square is now weak in some lines). 7…Nge7 is good against Fabi’s move, but much worse against Wesley’s, so that 7…Bb7 should perhaps have been tried.

In any case, over five minutes of thought didn’t yield Magnus a solution, and he was soon simply lost. 23…Nh4 was the move of a desperate man.

The tactical point is that 24.Nxh4 Bxh4 25.Qxh4?? Qxg2# is checkmate, but Wesley wasn’t going to fall for that, and in fact had a trick of his own: 24.exf7+ Rxf7 25.Qxf7+! Kxf7 26.Ne5+ Kf8 27.Nxc6 and White emerged an exchange up with all the compensation.

It was understandable in the circumstances that Game 3 was a very nervous draw, where it felt as though both players were walking a tightrope, low on time, in a seemingly quiet endgame. That left Wesley with the advantage of White in the final rapid game, and since he’d won his previous two white games against Magnus it wasn’t an advantage to be taken lightly. There was some shock, therefore, when Wesley opted for the infamous 14-move Anti-Berlin draw.

He said he had no regrets afterwards, though it did feel as though fear of failure in a single game was the overwhelming motivation for choosing to prolong the match.

If I push hard in the white game I could be successful, but at the same time I could also lose, and I think the possibility of having a blitz playoff for everyone is more exciting than just going all-out in the last game and possibly lose.

It was certainly true that the blitz playoff provided us with an enormous amount of excitement, and Wesley’s choice was soon looking very good. Magnus sprung the surprise 1.b4, and although Wesley responded solidly it still seemed as though the World Champion had a small edge. 

He was let down by his clock handling, however, until short on time he paid a heavy price for not having given his king an escape square when he had the chance. 27.Qxc5?? ran into 27…Rc6!

28.Qxc6 would be met by 28…Qxc6! 29.Rxc6 Ra1+ and Black gives checkmate on the back rank. Magnus stumbled on with 28.Rbc3, but he was just down a whole rook and soon had to resign. The moment of the blunder provided the first evidence of just how much it mattered to Magnus.

When he came back for the next blitz game he was wearing a T-shirt, with some conspiracy theories of what had happened in-between!

Magnus himself later said, “before the 2nd game I was mainly kicking and screaming in disgust”, and you could understand his despair. It wasn’t just that he’d blundered a simple tactic, but that he’d lost with the white pieces and left Wesley So, perhaps the toughest player to beat in world chess, needing just a draw with White to take the title. There was also a precedent - Wesley had won the first blitz playoff game and drawn the second when he won the Skilling Open in November 2020, in the process ruining Magnus’ 30th birthday.

The World Champion managed to put those thoughts aside, however, to play a very good game. Wesley later regretted playing 1.e4, and what he chose on move 8.

The urge for clarity in a high pressure situation is understandable, but 9.Nxe5?! (9.d4!) was a mistake after which Black was already on top. Magnus later managed to create a passed a-pawn and gradually outplayed his opponent. 

At the very end Wesley was relying on Bxe6+ to indirectly defend the rook on a2, but 36…f5! put an end to that resource. When Wesley resigned, the sheer determination and relief of Magnus was obvious for all to see.

That was just the beginning, as the players now switched to Armageddon. As the higher finisher in the prelims, Wesley got to choose colour and picked Black, meaning he had a minute less on the clock but only needed a draw. Was Magnus feeling confident?

I wouldn’t say I was confident per se, but I did feel as though there were decent chances. I wasn’t even that unhappy that he chose Black. I thought if neither of us are playing our best then having the extra minute is nice, and in the end that turned out to be pretty important.

The Armageddon game in fact went like a dream for Magnus. He switched back to the tried and tested 1.e4 and played the Italian Opening. Wesley was moving fast, but perhaps too fast, with his 12…d5?! a nervy decision.

13.e5! saw Magnus seize space in the centre, and soon White was completely dominant. He barely put a foot wrong to go on and win the game, with his response when Wesley resigned showing just what it had meant.

So much for chess being a cerebral game and not a sport!

That victory saw Magnus pick up $60,000 plus a Bitcoin bonus of around $22,000, and meant he’d secured his place in the September finals of the Champions Chess Tour in the Meltwater Headquarters in San Francisco. That wasn’t why it meant so much, however, with Magnus explaining what a rollercoaster tournament it had been.

It’s pretty sick! I came back five times when I sort of needed to win, and I also lost twice when I was up, so it was just absolutely insane, and I’m just so happy to have pulled through.

He continued:

It’s a massive, massive relief. I do feel at the end that we were both pretty broken, and sometimes it goes your way, but yeah, it was a great fight.

If it hadn’t been so tough it wouldn’t have been so satisfying:

This was never, ever my tournament, nothing came easy at all, so that’s why it’s really, really, really satisfying to come out on top. I think both Wesley and I can play better, but it’s not really important to me right now! Winning this one with all the best guys is a massive deal, and I’ll try to take the no. 1 seed into the final, which I should have a very good chance of doing.

“After I won the first blitz game I almost had it in the bag,” said Wesley, but it was another great Meltwater Champions Chess Tour performance for the US star. Overall he was rightly satisfied with how he’d played.

First I’d like to thank the Lord Jesus for letting me play extremely well in this tournament. I think I did much better than anyone expected, including myself. I’m actually pretty pleased with the way I played today, probably except the Armageddon, which was so bad. Of course it’s heartbreaking, but I’d like to congratulate Magnus on a great performance. He’s a well-deserved winner for this one.

Redemption as Nepomniachtchi wins 3rd place match

Ian Nepomniachtchi and Teimour Radjabov had come in for a lot of criticism for making short draws in all four games on Day 1 of their 3rd place match, and it seemed they’d both decided that whatever happened there would be no repeat on Day 2. They may even have taken things a little too far, as the first game began 1.b3!? b6!?

Nepomniachtchi went on to take the lead, but then in the next game adopted the kind of setup people usually only choose in must-win games with Black. It provided Teimour Radjabov with the chance to hit straight back, as he did, although it took him 95 moves to break down a fortress of bishop + knight against queen.

Nepo stayed true to 1.b3 in Game 3, and although Radjabov chose a more conservative response it was another win for the white pieces, before Nepo finally chose solidity for the 4th game, where he scored the draw he needed to clinch the match.

The World Championship Challenger took a swipe at some of his internet critics afterwards…

…while Teimour clearly felt there had been enough off-the-board drama.

The final distribution of points, cash and bitcoin was as follows.

So that’s all for the FTX Crypto Cup! We hope you’ve enjoyed the action and our coverage here on chess24. 

For some of the players, including Teimour Radjabov and Wesley So, there are just four days to go until the Superbet Chess Classic, the first event on this year’s Grand Chess Tour, begins in Bucharest, Romania. It’s a 10-player classical over-the-board event, with Wesley noting it’s 17 months since he last played over-the-board! Stay tuned to all the action here on chess24.

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