Reports Mar 17, 2021 | 12:58 PMby Colin McGourty

MCI 4: Carlsen & So to meet again?

Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So are potentially on course for a 3rd Meltwater Champions Chess Tour final clash after they both won Day 1 of their Magnus Carlsen Invitational Quarterfinals with a game to spare. Magnus convincingly took down Levon Aronian, while Wesley had some close shaves against the always tricky Alireza Firouzja. Nakamura-Nepomniachtchi and Giri-MVL are tied at 2:2 after the players traded blows in the first two games before drawing the next, though Ian Nepomniachtchi was a whisker away from defeating Hikaru Nakamura.

Magnus got off to the best possible start

You can replay all the Magnus Carlsen Invitational knockout games using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Tania Sachdev, Peter Leko and guest Nils Grandelius.

And Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.

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After the outbreak of draws the day before, it was normal service resumed as the first 8 games in the quarterfinals were all decisive.

Let’s take a look at the matches one by one:

Magnus Carlsen 2.5:0.5 Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian partly owed his place in the quarterfinals to Magnus Carlsen failing to convert a winning position against the Armenian star on the final day of the preliminaries. There would be no such charity in the knockout, with Magnus getting off to a flying start with a hard-fought 75-move win in the first game. He had the white pieces – he was able to choose as the higher finisher in the prelims – and commented afterwards:

It’s been a pretty consistent theme, I feel, at least in the last tournament and this, that I play well on the first day. I think my win rate with White in the first game must be pretty high, and that sort of sets the tone for the rest of the day.  

The second game was the World Champion’s favourite, since he got all you could ask for – a space advantage, a good bishop versus a bad bishop and control of the b and ultimately the d-files.

Here Peter Leko and Nils Grandelius were highly impressed by Carlsen’s 26.Nh8, but the most impressive thing was perhaps that the knight didn’t need to make another move as Magnus smoothly wrapped up victory 7 moves later. He commented:

I guess the second game was nice. It was pretty straightforward in a sense, but it’s always nice to play games where you follow a plan and then everything goes as it should.

Levon now needed to win the next two games on demand, but he never came close, with Magnus taking a draw that meant he’d won the first day’s match.

He explained why he didn’t play for a win afterwards:

Obviously in the last round a draw and a win are absolutely equivalent and there is also no rating at stake, so it didn’t make any sense really to torture him there.

Wesley So 2.5:0.5 Alireza Firouzja

The So-Firouzja match followed exactly the same pattern, though Wesley could have made his life much easier if he’d defended his c7-pawn on move 38.

After 38.Rxd6 the players found themselves in a rook endgame that at least at some point was drawn, but our commentators explained it was very tough to play in a rapid game. Sure enough, Wesley eventually found a way to win.

Wesley went astray with the black pieces in the next game, but Firouzja then let his edge slip before blundering with 57.Rd8?

After 57…Rxd8 58.Rxd8 Nd2+ White was suddenly lost, with no way to stop the black knight jumping around and picking up pawns. Play continued 59.Ke2 Nxe4+ 60.Ke3 and Firouzja’s despair was obvious as he waited for Wesley to decide between the winning 60…Nxg5 or 60…Nxf6 (his eventual choice).

There was no way back, and Firouzja also now found himself needing to win the next two games on demand. As usual, he managed to whip up chances, and he could have won perhaps the game of the day.

25...gxf3 26.Bxg6+ is just a draw, but 25…Qxg2+! 26.Kxg2 gxf3+ would have left White defenceless against the massed black forces. 25…Nh4? also looked promising, but it turned out Wesley had everything under control. He even had his own winning chances in the play that followed, but a draw was enough.

Hikaru Nakamura 2:2 Ian Nepomniachtchi

Hikaru Nakamura was at the centre of a draw controversy in the preliminary stage after 5 of his last 6 games were drawn by quick repetitions of moves. Anish Giri defended Hikaru, and others, in his interview:

It’s not really about the players, because the players are being shaped by the regulations, especially people like Hikaru and Magnus, who are just so geared towards the result, and they’re playing the way the regulations are forcing them to play. If you tell them that a draw is 0 points and a win is 1 point and a loss is also 0 points, you’ll see they are going to play to the very end. Of course that would be a bit weird, because a draw is an essential part of chess, but basically I’m curious if you want to affect that somehow in the qualification stage to make it even more exciting, to make sure everyone fights to the end, even those who have already won a few games and are just cruising towards the qualification. I’m curious how the organisers will try to do that - it’s a big challenge.

In the quarterfinals, however, the gloves were off. On move 9 Hikaru rejected a well-known draw by repetition and went on to get a winning position after Nepo played 17…Bxb3?

We’re all taught to “capture towards the centre”, but the automatic 18.axb3? would run into immediate turbulence with 18…Qa5! and if 19.Kb1 then 19…Nb4! However, after 18.cxb3! it was all White and Hikaru finished things off very crisply.

29.Bxd4! Rxg3 30.Bxf5+ Kg8 31.Bxc8 and White had three pieces for a rook - an overwhelming advantage that Hikaru duly converted.

If that was a brutal game, it was nothing compared to the way Ian struck back in the next. The players repeated their Berlin draw from the preliminary stage until Ian improved with 13.f4! It was amazing how fast Black’s position deteriorated after that, until 23.Rxf8+! provoked resignation:

As Peter Leko pointed out, it’s possible to miss from a distance that after 23…Kxf8 the killer is the simple 24.Bxe7+! when after 24…Kxe7 25.Rxg7+ it’s even mate-in-9.

Nepo had some chances in the 3rd game, before he missed a huge opportunity in the last game of the day. The best chance was after 38…a5.

Ian’s 39.g5? suddenly allowed Nakamura to create counter-chances by running his e-pawn down the board with 39…Bc3+! 40.Kd6 e5! and so on.

Instead 39.a4! was the best move, with Nepo explaining:

Just a4, and once he played a5 there are no defending ideas for Black and sooner or later he’ll get into zugzwang, so when he moves away his bishop I just play Be1 and he resigns. This is what I would do probably 99 games out of 100, but today was a slightly different day!

The Russian star even explained that beating Hikaru in this kind of game is his speciality:

Normally it’s like a piece of cake! I guess I won especially against Hikaru 3 or 4 bishop endgames, and this is probably what I do for a living, just playing these endgames against Hikaru. But well, happens!

This time there was a final twist, with the game ending the way players dislike the most in this era of computers that instantly spit out evaluations.

Here again it turns out 55.a4!, with Kb6 next, is winning. It wasn’t obvious to Ian during the game or Peter Leko in our commentary, though the Russian star was disappointed not to have played on in any case at no real risk. Afterwards he was immediately confronted by his mistake and noted, “you seem to be so strong all of you!”

He also tweeted:

That means it’s all-square going into the 2nd day of the quarterfinals, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Ian needs reinforcements.

I guess I have enough fire power myself without inviting seconds like my cats, but thank you for a good idea!

The remaining match-up is also level:

Anish Giri 2:2 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Anish Giri said the day before that he wasn’t sure Maxime wanted to qualify for the knockout as the Frenchman had been playing so recklessly, though he did give the backhanded compliment: “I thought he was playing very irresponsibly with both colours, so it just goes to show how talented he is!”

Maxime didn’t exactly made Anish eat those words, but he did comment afterwards when both players were interviewed:

I know Anish likes some kind of banter - that’s fine, he was even discussing my willingness to qualify, but I’m sure after today he’s not discussing that anymore!

The first game was initially going Giri’s way, until a rush of blood to the head.

Quiet moves would maintain a big advantage, but 28.c4?! just weakened the white king, which was about to go on an amazing journey. Anish commented:

At some point it was clear I’m much, much better, I was not sure if I’m completely winning, but it’s obvious that I am definitely better, and some idea occurred to me which is something I would never do, open my own king. It was just so ridiculous, but somehow I thought maybe it’s the way to go, but it was clearly going against the intuition, and the same thing happened in Game 3 as well.

In what followed we saw the black king safely make it to a7, while the white king did well not to get mated before it reached the distant g7-square, though it did no good.

Game of Kings!

Anish resigned here, but managed to hit straight back when it was Maxime’s turn to go astray in a good position. He decided to press on with an attack regardless, but it was easily parried and it was time to resign.

Both sides missed chances in a nervy third game before the fourth was the day’s only completely uneventful draw.

The players will have another day to battle it out, though it’s unlikely Maxime feels quite the same way as Anish!

We get to know each other a bit better before the Candidates again and it’s nice, it’s like the more dates you have the better it is in your future life. It works everywhere, pretty much.

Levon Aronian and Alireza Firouzja must win on Wednesday to force tiebreaks, while one way or another our four semifinalists will be decided. 

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

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