Magnus Carlsen won a thrilling match against Wesley So to take his Meltwater Champions Chess Tour season earnings to exactly $200,000 as the final event began in San Francisco. There were also wins for Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Anish Giri, who overcame Liem Le in a blitz tiebreak.
All eyes were on Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So as the two players faced off against each other with a view over the Bay Bridge on Monday.
It might not look so from the scores alone, but the match didn’t disappoint, with dramatic action in all four games.
The match began with Wesley picking the most solid opening with Black, but not one that was likely to catch Magnus off-guard. “It was not a shock to see him play the Berlin,” he told Tania Sachdev with a smile.
Magnus went for the modest 5.Re1, but what followed was an exciting game. He summed up:
I think I played decently for a while and then things got a little bit out of control and then at some point I chose the wrong setup and he managed to find some manoeuvres to equalise.
The critical moment may have come just when exchanges had left Wesley with a dangerously weak pawn structure.
34.Qh3! was a good start by Magnus, but after 34…Kg7, it seems 35.Qd7!, keeping pressure on Black’s weak points, was the way to go, since after 35.Kg2?! Qf7! Wesley held with little trouble.
“Drawing with Black against any top player, but especially Magnus, is a big deal,” said Wesley, and in the second game he got his first big chance of the day. He seemed to win the strategic battle in the middlegame, until Magnus took drastic measures with 21…d5, which was hit by 22.Rxd5!
22…cxd5? 23.Nxd5 loses the house, but Magnus had foreseen the sharp tactics of 22…Nxa4! 23.bxa4 cxd5 24.Nxd5 Qd6, when Black was holding on.
It was a tightrope, however, and later Magnus slipped so that Wesley was objectively winning, until 45…Bb3.
The problem for Wesley was that it wasn’t so obvious how to break through. Qd4-d6 is probably the most direct plan, while after 46.Bd5?! Qb8! 47.Qd4?! (47.Be4! was the last chance) 47…Bxd5! it turned out the worst was over for Black.
In fact Magnus was the one who had an incentive to play on, as he did, to move 113! “It’s always possible to blunder!” he said afterwards, when asked what he was hoping for.
Game 3 was the moment a player drew blood, with Magnus varying by playing the Anti-Berlin and getting a position that had good memories for him of when he beat Wesley in Bilbao in 2016.
The 3rd game there were a number of mistakes made, but I felt like practically I was always doing well with his weaker king, and I was also kind of encouraged by the fact I had a similar game against him back in 2016, where that was also a Berlin with 5.Bxc6 dxc6, where he went for a pawn on the queenside in the same way, and it was similarly bad for him. So I always felt like I had good chances there, even though there was a chance here and there for him.
This time the computer said Wesley was briefly better after grabbing a pawn, but Wesley lamented, “Magnus plays like a computer sometimes,” after his opponent soon took over. 30…Qa8? was the final mistake.
31.Nf7+! and it was a soon a question of picking a finish, with Magnus ultimately going for the elegant simplicity of exchanging off pieces and playing 39.Rb7! There was no defence, so Wesley resigned.
That meant that Wesley So had to win the 4th game on demand with the white pieces… which he very nearly did, with some help from his opponent.
I mixed up my preparation and got absolutely nothing out of the opening… Magnus was just playing so well in this match that even when he blundered with Qg6 he still saved it!
This was that moment:
Magnus explained of his 25…Qg6?
It was just a blunder. I was calculating, I was trying to be extra precise. First of all, 24…Bc6 was dumb, there was no reason for that, like Bc6 is trying to equalise a position where I’m not even remotely worse. So that was dumb, I was just thinking he has to go 25.Ne4, and then I didn’t really want to take and give him that extra time, but certainly I should have, and then just make a couple of good moves to make a draw. And after 26.Nf6+! I was shocked, I was shocked that he took my queen, because then I thought I had practical chances. If he takes my bishop instead I think I’m just dead.
The game and match depended on the position after 26…gxf6.
It turns out 27.Qxc6! is indeed more or less game over — and we would have had a playoff.
Instead 27.Rg3?! Qxg3 28.fxg3 Re6! left Magnus alive and kicking, even if he suspected that objectively speaking his position should still be lost. Wesley commented, “As Fischer said, patzer sees queen, goes for the queen!”, admitting he played Rg3 “without thinking”.
Magnus managed to set up an impenetrable fortress to win the match, and $7,500, in the process taking his tour earnings for the season to $200,000, exactly matching Wesley So’s prize for winning the Chess.com Global Championship.
The only downside for Magnus was the inevitable question about fortresses, which has haunted him since he said, “I’m not a very big believer in fortresses in chess,” during his 2016 World Championship match against Sergey Karjakin. Now he told Tania Sachdev:
People are going to ask me that every single time there’s a fortress on the board, so I’ll just reiterate what I said, at least what I meant the first time, is that I think that there are a lot of positions that look like fortresses that can be broken down… but some positions are obviously fortresses.
What did Magnus think of his play?
Not great. To be honest, the match today was pretty weak for our standards. I thought both of us could have done better, but the result against clearly the second favourite, and clearly one of the best players, is pretty good.
Elsewhere it at first looked as though Arjun Erigaisi, starting at 1:30 am in India, was going to get off to a flying start in his first Champions Chess Tour Major. Jan-Krzysztof Duda went for a piece sacrifice that looked to have failed when Arjun found a precise way to respond.
Here the “natural” 16…Bxf5?!, keeping Black’s pawn structure intact, would in fact have given Duda clear compensation as he could take on g7 and then push e4 and d4, building a huge pawn centre.
Instead 16…gxf5! stopped that plan in its tracks, and left Arjun close to victory, but when going for 23…Nxd3? it seems he must have miscalculated. Things look good for Black after 24.Rxd3 Bc4…
…but 25.Bd5!, forcing Black to take the exchange with 25…Bxd3 26.Qxd3, suddenly left Duda with just the kind of position he’d been dreaming of. Things went downhill fast for Arjun and he resigned on move 41.
It turned out there was no way back for the Indian star, as the 2nd game was a 65-move draw and then in Game 3, needing to win on demand, Arjun blundered as early as move 8 in a known opening position. His king was soon in huge trouble, and Jan-Krzysztof was ruthless as he finished things off.
The knight is headed to f7.
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, playing from Baku, Azerbaijan, finished his day at around 4am, but he was understandably in high spirits after he defeated 17-year-old Praggnanandhaa in the one match to feature a comeback.
Shakhriyar showed his intentions early on as he castled queenside with Black in an Italian and launched an attack that paid quick dividends. Pragg put up resistance, but couldn’t prevent a crunching finish.
Pragg resigned, since it’s mate next move.
Game 2 was drawn, but then the Indian star hit back in Game 3 after opening with 1.e3!? and going on to play a fine game. The 22nd move was key.
After 22…Be1 g6 Shakh would be back in business, but instead Pragg found 22.Rxh5! Bg6 23.Rxc5! bxc3 24.Rxc6 cxb2 25.Rb1 and went on to easily convert his extra pawn.
The final rapid game ultimately went perfectly for Shakh (sadly not playing from SHACK15 in San Francisco!) although, in the early hours of the morning, he admitted he wasn’t so ambitious.
It’s 4am in Baku — it’s not easy, of course! I just wanted to play very solid in the last game, but I missed his move Bd6 and after this I was very lucky not to lose my rook.
If Pragg was given the chance, Ne5 next would win the rook, but it turned out 16.Nd2! was enough for Shakh not only to save his rook but maintain an advantage. Eventually Pragg cracked and Mamedyarov was off to a great start, following up on reaching the final of the Aimchess Rapid.
The longest match of the day was Liem Le vs. Anish Giri, an encounter that Liem had won 2.5:0.5 in both previous Majors on the 2022 Tour. It began with four draws in which neither player at any point gained a significant advantage, with Anish responding (twice!) when asked if it was part of his match strategy to go to blitz, “Yeah, I had a strategy, and I just kept following it!”
The games weren’t contentless, however, with some nice moments, such as the unexpected 39…Rd2+! in Game 1, played at a moment when it seemed White was the one pressing.
40.Kxd2 would be met by 40…Bxa5! 41.Kc3 c5! and the rook is regained. Instead in the game we saw 40.Kf3 Rd3+ 41.Ke2 Rd2+ and a draw by repetition.
Giri also played an interesting exchange sacrifice in Game 3, but the decisive action had to wait for the 1st blitz game, when Anish won with a smooth positional masterclass. Peter Leko, who agreed with Rustam Kasimdzhanov that he and Anish had similar styles, was delighted that Anish didn’t have any trouble converting the advantage.
Liem Le then had to win the next game on demand, but never came close, so that he took 1 point, and $2,500, while Anish took 2 points and $5,000 for winning after a tiebreak. The early standings look as follows.
In Tuesday’s Round 2 we have Carlsen-Erigaisi, already a classic, Mamedyarov-Duda, a repeat of the Aimchess Rapid final, Le-So, a clash of Webster University teammates, and Giri-Praggnanandhaa, another all-San Francisco match-up.
The games begin at 12 noon in San Francisco (15:00 ET, 21:00 CET, 01:30 IST).
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