Reports Mar 18, 2021 | 10:59 AMby Colin McGourty

MCI 5: It’s Carlsen-Nepo & So-Giri in the semi-finals!

Hikaru Nakamura, Alireza Firouzja, Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave are all out of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational after a brutal 2nd day of the quarterfinals. Three matches were over with a game to spare, with Ian Nepomniachtchi crushing Nakamura with shocking ease, while Wesley So played the move and arguably game of the tournament against Firouzja. Magnus Carlsen had some trouble, but had left Levon a mountain to climb by winning their first game. Anish Giri needed four games to beat MVL, but his victory was seldom in doubt.

When Ian Nepomniachtchi beats you on the clock and the board it can be brutal...

You can replay all the games from the knockout stages of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, the 4th event on the $1.5 million 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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In the Skilling Open three of the four quarterfinals went to blitz tiebreaks, while in the Airthings Masters and Opera Euro Rapid it was two. This time, however, all the ties were decided in rapid chess.

Magnus Carlsen 2:1 Levon Aronian

After winning Day 1 convincingly, Magnus was asked about the challenge of Day 2, and responded:

I think preparation for the first black game will be very important to set the tone for the rest of the day. That’s really been my problem.

Whether it was preparation or not, his 8th move in the Ruy Lopez seems to have been a novelty, and by the time he played 10…g5 the situation had become critical.

After 11.Bxc6 Magnus thought for over 5 minutes (11…dxc3 was a serious option) before going for 11…dxc6, which invited the piece sacrifice 12.Nxg5!. Levon returned the time by taking 8 minutes a few moves later before playing 15.Nge4 rather than what looks the better option of capturing on f7.

It was a tense and balanced struggle, until suddenly 21.h3 Bb3! made it clear that Magnus was in charge with the black pieces.

The double attack on the d1-rook and e4-knight can’t be solved with 22.Re1? since after 22…Bd5 (or 22…Bc2) White can’t support the knight with 23.f3 due to the pin from the a7-bishop. Levon found the one way to play on with 22.f7+! Kxf7 23.Rd7+ but he was left with a deeply unpleasant position that Magnus played to perfection. Soon the World Champion had swapped off all the pieces for a winning pawn endgame.

That loss left Levon with a mountain to climb. After losing on the first day he had to win the second 4-game match, which meant winning at least two of the next three games. The task got tougher after Magnus confidently held a draw in the second game, meaning Levon would need to win two in a row.

This time, however, he came about as close as you can without scoring. After the tricky first game in a classical Ruy Lopez, Magnus switched to the Berlin, but he admitted he was surprised in the opening and later blundered with 36…Nd4+? It didn’t matter, however, since Levon returned the favour on move 56.

Magnus commented:

I guess I was outplayed at some point and I certainly was lost, but somehow I managed to get out of it. I’d seen that 56.Nc4! won on the spot, but what could I do?

Instead 56.Kg4? allowed Magnus to win the d-pawn after 56…Kd6, and ultimately the game and match ended when Levon went for stalemate in a position he couldn’t win since his bishop was the wrong colour to support the a-pawn queening.

Magnus summed up:

I just need to pull myself together tomorrow, because I need to play a bit better than I did today, but obviously the worse moment for me today was that I could have lost a game that would have meant that I had to draw on demand with White in the last game, so in that sense it wasn’t bad at all, but certainly not quite as good as the other days.

Magnus will now face Ian Nepomniachtchi in the semi-finals. He commented:

It’s going to be a good match-up. I think he started out really poorly in the preliminaries and then caught fire towards the end, and I thought today he was very impressive, so that’s certainly going to be a great match-up.

The Russian star had blown away none other than Hikaru Nakamura.

Ian Nepomniachtchi 2.5:0.5 Hikaru Nakamura

Nepomniachtchi had been very close to winning the first day of this match, and the conventional sporting wisdom is that if you don’t take your chances you tend to get punished, especially when you face a speed chess monster like Nakamura. On this occasion, however, it was more of the same, except Hikaru failed to put up much resistance. A somewhat shell-shocked Ian commented: “I’m not very excited partially because the first two games were too simple, too easy actually”.

That sounds like an exaggeration, but Hikaru looked almost unrecognisable, with his choice on move 15 perhaps the start of his trouble.

Of the 9 games in the chess24 database for this position, Hikaru had been Black in 7 of them, against the likes of MVL, Grischuk, Ding Liren and Magnus Carlsen. In all cases he played 15…Nxg3, but this time he thought for a minute and a half before playing 15…Nf5!? instead. 7 moves later Hikaru’s 22…g6?! defence seemed only to weaken his king at the cost of a pawn.

You didn’t need to be the world no. 4, Russian no. 1 and Candidates Tournament co-leader to find Nepo’s finishing touches.

37.e6! fxe6 38.Bc3 e5 39.Rg7+ and Hikaru resigned. The audio in the clip below may not be 100% authentic… but it fits!

Hikaru still had three games to rescue his situation, but Game 2 followed the same surprising pattern. In a Sicilian Nepo has just played 12…b4.

This time you couldn’t say this was a Nakamura pet line, but it’s at least curious that back in 2003 he did have this position against Yannick Pelletier and went on to win after what seems the best move 13.Na4. This time he picked the retreat 13.Nd1!?, which turned out to be the start of trouble.

There’s no white king on the queenside, but a5-a4 evicted the b3-knight and allowed the black knight to jump to d4. White’s position went from bad to totally lost with shocking speed. 20…Bh4! was already inflicting heavy material losses.

21.g3 would just see White get killed on the b7-h1 diagonal, though if Black was feeling particularly sadistic he could just ignore the “threat” with a move like 21…a3. After 21.Bc1 Nepo took the rook on e1, so he was already playing with a material advantage as well as an overwhelming attack. Hikaru threw in the towel on move 28 – a curiosity is that both players still had 8 minutes 58 seconds on the clock.

That game was an example of Nepo’s strengths as described by Magnus:

I think the most important thing is first of all to pose him some problems in the openings, and then not to let him have easy play where he can just play quickly with little tactical tricks all the time, something that he does extremely well.

Hikaru now needed to win the next two games, starting with the black pieces, and to his credit he got some chances, though ultimately it was Ian who was closer to winning the 3rd game before the players drew in 80 moves. A strange encounter.

Wesley So 2.5:0.5 Alireza Firouzja

You could barely criticise a move by Nepo, but perhaps the most impressive performance of the day came from Wesley So, who faced the task of taming the burgeoning talent of 17-year-old Alireza Firouzja. The first game, where Alireza had White, was a hard-fought battle, but one that never went beyond the bounds of rough equality.

The second game, however, was a masterpiece, featuring what Peter Leko called the move of the tournament.

The spoilsport computer points it out instantly, but for a human it takes guts and serious calculation – Wesley thought for over 6 minutes – to go for the sacrificial 15.Bd3!!

We soon got to see the point: 15…Bxd3 16.Bxa5 Rxa5 17.Qd3 (hitting the g6-knight) 17…Kf7 18.Nxa5 Qxa5 (strangely enough 18…g4!! may be Black’s best chance to survive) 19.Qf5.

19…Nxf6 fails to 20.Ne5+, while in the game we saw 19…Qd8 20.Rae1! Ngf8. Here’s how it looked from the side of the Iranian prodigy:

Wesley’s delay here was probably because 21.Nxg5+ is also strong, but he went for the even stronger 21.Re7+! and after the forced 21…Bxe7 22.fxe7+ Kxe7 23.Re1+! Kd6 24.Ne5 it’s possible Alireza still had hope. 24…Qa5 would be winning for Black, if not for the killer reply 25.Nc4+!

Without that resource, the threatened knight fork on f7 is deadly. The one defence was 24…Rh7, but that ran into 25.Nxd7! and here rather than resign Alireza allowed a fitting finish for the game: 25…Qxd7 26.Qe5#

That left Alireza needing to win the final two games on demand to force a playoff, and he did everything right in the next, playing aggressively in the opening and creating chaos around his opponent’s king. Wesley was cold-blooded, however, and escaped the immediate danger before impressing in the endgame. 43.d7 by Alireza looks like a powerful move.

After 43…Bxd7 the youngster might have had chances, but Wesley found 43…Ra8! and it turned out White had nothing. In fact Wesley soon went on to win the game when Firouzja placed his rook on a square where it had no way to stop the black h-pawn.

Wesley So will now play Anish Giri in the semi-finals.

Anish Giri 3:1 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Anish Giri is in the semi-finals of a Meltwater Champions Chess Tour event for the first time this season, and commented:

So the thing is the following. Today was a win-win situation, because either I would start my [Candidates Tournament] training session, resume it, basically, or continue the tournament, but now the situation is the following, that no matter how I play I’m stuck for four more days, so I think now I changed the plan and I’m going to try and win this tournament!

Anish was referring to the fact there's a 3rd place playoff. Don’t miss a highly enjoyable interview.

The first game was a sharp draw, where both sides needed to be tactically alert. Here Maxime, who earlier made a piece sacrifice that couldn’t be accepted, has just played 35.Rxf8+

“Normal” recaptures on f8 run into serious trouble, but Anish blitzed out 35…Rxf8! with the point that after 36.Bxe7 he had 36…Qa7+ 37.Kh1 Qxe7, regaining the piece with a good position.

Game 2 proved to be the key encounter. Maxime is always willing to give up a pawn for activity, but after 23.Rh2 he went astray.

A move like 23…0-0 would allow Black to meet 24.Qxb4 with 24…d5!, or you could even play that break immediately, but the French no. 1 instead went for 23…f5?! 24.Bg5 fxe4 25.fxe4 0-0 26.Bxe7 Qxe7 27.Qxb4 when White was just a healthy pawn up. The rest proved easy for Anish.

That meant Maxime needed to make a comeback, but he got nothing in the next game with the white pieces. That left one game with Black and, as so often, the attempt to play sharply backfired.

It was the end of the road for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who can now turn all his focus to the Candidates Tournament, which he leads at the halfway point.

For Anish, meanwhile, a semi-final with Wesley So awaits. When it was put to him that Wesley has been beating Magnus in these events, Anish replied:

I’m not Magnus Carlsen, not even close! So in that sense that Wesley is a Magnus slayer is not my problem. I’ve had lots of games with Wesley, I’ve known him for a very long time. The first time I played him we were both kids, and it was a question, who was the bigger prodigy at the time – we were 13-14 or something, he was a year older, a step ahead, and then I met him later.

I’ve spoken to him way back when he was still in the Philippines and he was telling me how he lives alone and later the story about him has been told many times, and it’s sort of a sad part in his life, but at the time the way he said it to me didn’t sound so bad. He was saying, I’m living alone, I can watch movies whenever I want - I was a teenager listening to that. Yeah, sure, sounds good, but obviously eventually he moved to the States and all that happened, but I’ve known him for a very long time. I’ve played with him since the beginning of time.

There is a very fun clip of mine also when I was 13 or something, very embarrassing, you can find it, you’ll probably enjoy it, a good clip to show, how I beat him in the Wijk aan Zee tournament, the B group I think. It was very embarrassing, I was still a child at the time, but I know him for a long time, so it’s not like – he’s great, but the history is too long that it’s not relevant, we just start from scratch tomorrow.

Don’t miss all the action from 17:00 CET live here on chess24!

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