Magnus Carlsen won 8 games in a row, but Liem Le hit back in Round 5 of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals to take their match to Armageddon. Magnus won, and despite dropping a point he took a 4-point lead over Jan-Krzysztof Duda, who was beaten in Armageddon by Praggnanandhaa. Wesley So is 3rd after winning a 3rd match in a row, against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, while Arjun Erigaisi beat an out-of-form Anish Giri.
For four rounds we hadn’t had a single Armageddon game, but in Round 5 we got two, with Magnus Carlsen and Praggnanandhaa squeezing out victories.
It was a day of fast and slow matches, with two completed in just three games. Wesley So lost his first two matches in San Francisco, but has stormed back to win the next three, and in Round 5 he scored a 3:0 clean sweep against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Wesley commented:
Shakh is a great player, but this is also snowballing, because he’s lost his 3rd match in a row today, and it seems like he’s losing his form. Also, he wasn’t able to put that much pressure out of the opening. I was getting very playable positions.
It all went wrong from the first game for Shakh, with Wesley noting his opponent had taken the wrong pawn on move 21.
Shakh played 21…Nxe4?! and was ground down in the endgame after 22.Be7 Rf7 23.Rxc7, while 21…Nxa2! was much stronger. 22.Rxc7?! then runs into 22…Nb4! You can’t easily drive away that knight without allowing Nd3 and potentially Nf2+.
In Game 2 Wesley managed to trap Shakh’s rook on a5…
…while in Game 3 it was the queen that was left no escape from Rf3 next, so that Shakh resigned the game and match.
That meant Wesley had picked up 9 points, and $22,500, for the last three rounds. He was also enjoying his time in San Francisco, comparing playing in person to online:
I don’t like playing from home because then you’re just wearing your pyjamas, and you just barely woke up and your family members are there and they don’t know what’s going on. It’s very lonely playing at home, because I’m just in the room all by myself for the next 4-5 hours.
There’s also the appeal of playing from the San Francisco Ferry Building, which Wesley called, “one of the most fantastic buildings I’ve ever played in”. Wesley lives in Minnesota, and added:
It feels like being in California is a totally different country to me, but I love it here. I can understand why Bobby Fischer moved to California.
Anish Giri is also in San Francisco, but after winning his first two matches his game seems to have collapsed. He got ground down in slightly worse endgames in the first two games against Arjun Erigaisi, which made it a run of six losses in a row. He then played the King’s Indian in the must-win 3rd game…
…but never got any real chances and settled for a draw that meant match defeat — and a second win in a row for Arjun after his own bad start.
The main positive that Anish could see was that it was a good time to watch some basketball, as the players went to watch the Golden State Warriors beat the New York Knicks.
I think it’s good that today we have some basketball game, so it’s a good opportunity to reset. I don’t necessarily have major ambitions in terms of result, but I do want to improve my play in the last two rounds for sure.
17-year-old Praggnanandhaa also went to the basketball, and you could forgive him for taking a nap after winning an epic Armageddon battle against 2nd-placed Jan-Krzysztof Duda.
The chess match was wild, with White winning the first six games. Duda’s frustration was obvious when he couldn’t hold a draw that would have prevented a blitz playoff.
The remarkable thing was how crushingly White won every time, with Pragg’s win in the first blitz game one of the best examples.
Once again, however, Duda eased to victory in the next game with the white pieces to force Armageddon, and it was no surprise at all that he picked White for the final game. Praggnanandhaa said he would have done the same.
He was second in the standings, so he has to pick every time, but actually I didn’t rate my chances in the Armageddon, because White was crushing all the games, always getting a much better position out of the opening, and also I’m down by a minute and every time one of us was getting low on time, and also there’s no increment, so I didn’t think that I would make it this game.
This time, however, Duda didn’t manage to get a big edge against Praggnanandhaa’s Sicilian, and by the latter stages the game was a clear draw. That didn’t mean it couldn’t be won, however, since there’s no increment in Armageddon, not even from move 60. Therefore if Duda could “flag” his opponent, he could still get the win he needed.
Pragg was well aware of that and played fast himself, and he also thought Duda missed a trick by not pushing a pawn near the end to keep the game going. The 50-move rule was about to kick in (a game is drawn if there are no pawn moves or captures in 50 moves) on move 93 when the game abruptly ended on move 90 instead — the position had been repeated 3 times, at moves 66, 84 and 90.
That means that in a tricky tournament Pragg has now beaten two of the high-flying players, Liem Le and Duda, while in Saturday’s Round 6 he faces his biggest test, against Magnus Carlsen. When asked about the basketball Pragg commented:
I don’t think it’s the ideal opponent tomorrow to have the basketball match today, but I think I’m going to watch the match.
Is he looking forward to playing Magnus?
It’s going to be fun as always, and I hope to play some good chess tomorrow.
Magnus Carlsen will go into that match having won all five matches so far in San Francisco. Is it now a battle for 2nd place?
I can clinch it with a win tomorrow — that’s nice, but no, not yet! I wanted to go perfect, so I can’t do that anymore, but otherwise I really want to win the tournament.
Going perfect would have meant winning all 7 matches in rapid chess, picking up 21 points (7 x 3) and the maximum possible $52,500 prize money (7 x $7,500). As it happened, Magnus would drop a point and $2,500 against Liem Le, though it didn’t look that way from the first game.
A tense strategic battle suddenly changed its character when Liem went for what Magnus called the “decent practical decision” to play 27…Qxb2, inviting 28.Rb1.
Liem gave up his queen with 28…Qxb1+ 29.Nxb1 Rxb1+ and set about trying to prove he had a fortress. Magnus felt if his opponent had stayed passive it might have worked, but when Liem went for active play it backfired, until the d-pawn became unstoppable.
Magnus was absolutely flying, having won 8 games in a row, but Liem dominated almost from start to finish in Game 2, in which Magnus was the one giving up his queen.
Liem gratefully took the queen and made the rest look relatively easy. Magnus had some chances, but was always fighting an uphill battle before he resigned on move 51.
It felt like Magnus was shaken, and in the next game he had to battle hard to avoid losing with the white pieces. He would later comment:
It was clearly a lot tougher than some of the other matches. It was a combination of him playing a good match and me not really finding my rhythm after the first game, so I’ve got to do better in the last two matches.
Nevertheless, in Game 4 Magnus pushed hard with the black pieces in a bid to clinch the match without tiebreaks. 22…Nf4!, uncovering an attack on the queen on d2, was a fine blow.
Liem was in top form, however, and found the best response 23.exf4! exf4 24.h4! Qxh4 25.Nf5! Qg5 26.Nxh6+!.
Shortly afterwards he took a decision to trade down into a same-coloured bishops endgame, which looked dubious until he managed to hold it with barely any issues. The game ended on move 85.
That meant tiebreaks, and Magnus managed to regroup and win the first game with White, gaining an early positional edge and then never letting go.
When he later commented, “the blitz was really poor”, he was clearly only thinking of the 2nd game, where needing only a draw he completely lost control. He still had chances until the very end, but finally let the b-pawn run free and had to resign.
Magnus also picked White for Armageddon, and felt things were going his way when his opponent went for a line of the Open Ruy Lopez where Magnus got two minor pieces for a rook. Magnus felt it was easier for him to play in a fast game, but a lot turned on one tense moment.
Afterwards Magnus revealed it wasn’t that he was thinking about the exchange sacrifice but that he was trying to calculate 23…Nc5!, which is the best move in the position and one the computer says equalises for Black.
Instead Liem quickly went for 23…Bxf3!?, with Magnus commenting:
Then he just took on f3 immediately, which sort of shocked me. So that rattled me for a little bit, but it felt even after that the position is easier to play for me, and he couldn’t really change gears in time.
The final twist came when Magnus played 32.Rxa4!? (the computer much prefers 32.bxa4) and Le, instead of capturing the rook, went for the tactical 32…e3?
The point was that after 33.Bxe3! Rae8 Black is threatening checkmate, but it turns out simply 34.Bd2 is enough to parry all the threats, while Magnus quickly went for the even better 34.Rf4!, effectively winning the game on the spot. Six moves later and it was all over!
That means Magnus has dropped just one point and has a 4-point lead over Duda and a 5-point lead over Wesley So, the only players who can now catch him.
It’s not all over, however. Praggnanandhaa may not be able to challenge for 1st place himself, but if he wins the Round 6 match then it’s a big opportunity for Duda and So, who play each other.
Only a win in rapid chess is guaranteed to be enough for Magnus, since if he won in blitz and Duda won in rapid chess Duda would be three points behind — and able to close that gap, and get the better tiebreak, by beating Magnus in Sunday’s final round!
The games begin at 12 noon in San Francisco (15:00 ET, 21:00 CET, 01:30 IST).
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