If Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So are going to meet in a 3rd Meltwater Champions Chess Tour final they both need to win on demand on Day 2 of their Magnus Carlsen Invitational semi-finals. Magnus regretted a “massive own goal” as he spoilt a great position in the 3rd game against Ian Nepomniachtchi and was then outplayed in time trouble. Anish Giri got off to the worst possible start by blundering and losing with White to Wesley, but he hit back to win the last two games of the day and take the lead.
You can replay all the games from the Magnus Carlsen Invitational knockout using the selector below – click on a result to open the game with computer analysis.
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Tania Sachdev and Peter Leko.
And Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.
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Day 1 of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational semi-finals saw the underdogs win, meaning that if Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So are going to get to the final they now need to win the 4-game rapid matches on Day 2 and then win the blitz tiebreaks.
A poll of our Instagram followers before the semi-finals began made Magnus an 85:15 favourite to win this encounter, but Game 1 immediately made it clear we were in for a real battle. Magnus got nothing out of the opening and, like almost all of Nepomniachtchi’s opponents, found himself significantly behind on the clock. In the end, however, it was the World Champion who did all the pushing, with Ian lamenting:
I’m very sad about the first game when I was slightly better after the opening and then ok, I really wanted to play this on, but then at some point I lost control and actually at some point in a time scramble I was losing. Ok, it ended up in a draw, but you’re not [supposed] to give such chances out of nowhere in such a position. Trade pieces, make a calm draw and play the next one.
Nepo cracked on move 56, when both players were down to under 30 seconds.
56…Qb2+ is the way to force a draw (e.g. 57.Qc3 Qf2+) by perpetual check, but after 56…Qd1+ 57.Ke5 the white king was escaping the checks. Magnus was briefly clearly winning, but he also went astray and only got to torture Ian in a tricky but objectively drawn queen ending a pawn up. It ended on exactly move 100.
Game 2 allowed the players to get some respite. Nepo, who had White, said he mixed something up in the opening, and after taking an almost unheard of (for him) 5-minute think he decided to force a draw by an early repetition of moves.
Game 3 was the turning point. Magnus came prepared in the opening, playing a more ambitious 6th move than in the first game of the match and building up a healthy advantage, though he later regretted burning up too much time, “choosing from a wealth of good options”. Both players agreed that the critical point of the game was move 22.
It’s worth noting that the computer considers Carlsen’s 22.Nxd6!? here the best move in the position, but that after 22…cxd6 it would follow up with 23.Qxe6 and not Magnus’ 23.Bg2!? Both players, however, considered the capture on d6 a blunder.
Magnus said he’d “miscalculated something extremely simple” and later elaborated that he’d gone for the move with the idea of 22…cxd6 23.Bg2 Nc7? 24.b3!
Unfortunately for him, there was absolutely no reason for Nepo to play like that. After 23…Rde8! there was no b3-break and most of White’s advantage had gone.
The move Magnus wished he’d played was 22.Nc5 (22...Bxc5 is best met by 23.Ne5!), since after 22.Nxd6 cxd6 he regretted that Black had the c5 and e5-squares covered. He commented:
The way it happens in the game it looks extremely simple, because in reality I’ve just made a very simple positional mistake, and that’s extremely disappointing, because obviously I know that this move is in general wrong, but I thought somehow I was following it up with b3 and that was just really, really bad, because on any of the previous moves any idiot could go Nc5 and just dominate the game really. So overall you shouldn’t lose as White, and especially not in this manner.
Nepo felt the same:
I guess he pointed out that Nxd6 is a weird decision. To me, if you don’t win the game on the spot or something you’ve got to have a very big and firm reason to play like this, because Black’s going to get a good pawn structure after this move and practically it’s unclear. Of course it’s much more human to play Nc5 and I was very worried about this move, but what can I do?
The next turning point was 26.Bc3?!, which shocked Nepo, since he’d been contemplating sacrificing a pawn on c3 to lure the bishop away from covering the f4-square.
“He blundered the only active idea for Black,” commented Ian, who said of his 26…Nf4!, “who am I to reject such a gift!” After 27.gxf4 Rg4…
…Magnus had nothing better than 28.h3, giving back the piece. Up to 28…Rxh4 29.Bxb7 Kxb7 30.Qf3+ Ka6 White could still survive, but here it made all the difference that Magnus had under a minute while Ian still had 7 minutes on his clock.
31.Kh2! and, after a similar sequence to what we saw in the game, White could force perpetual check. The bold 31.d5?, however, proved to be the losing move after 31…Nxd5 32.Rxe6 Rxe6 33.Qxd5 Rg6+ (this check is the crucial difference) 34.Kf1 and White isn’t in time to give perpetual check with Qc6+ since Black has 34…Qb5!
Magnus had nothing better than to swap down into an ending where he was an exchange down, but it was a hopeless situation and he resigned on move 45.
That left Magnus needing to win on demand with Black in the final game of the day, and he came close. Our commentator Peter Leko was speechless about the way Ian handled the opening in a game he only needed to draw, though Magnus felt he had nothing. It was only what Ian called the “unnecessary brilliancy” of 48.Bf3!? that gave the World Champion a glimmer of hope, but he felt he squandered the chance on move 51.
Here Magnus blitzed out 51…Qxe3, but after 52.g6+! Kg7 53.gxf7 the game fizzled out into a draw. Instead he could have played 51…Qh3+!.
If I go Qh3+ there I think in practice it’s a pretty difficult defence, for instance Kf2, I give a check on h4, or h2 for that matter, it’s just as good, and the thing is whenever he goes to f1 I take on h5 and I go to f3 and I take e3 with check, and my king is going to be active and this ending is just horribly unpleasant for him.
White should probably still hold, but it would have been very tricky to play. Instead Magnus finds himself in the position of having lost the first day of a match for the first time on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, and it’s also different than in the previous tour where matches were usually held over three days.
The situation is completely new to me actually, because normally in the format we had last year I would need to win the match, but I wouldn’t need to win it by full time. I would have the safety net that I could still go 2:2 and win then.
This time if the 2nd match ends 2:2 after the four rapid games Nepo would be the winner and we would have no tiebreaks.
“That was a very dumb game,” said Anish of how he suddenly collapsed in what had been a promising position in Game 1 of this semi-final. 29.Nf5? was a losing blunder, allowing 29…Rxe4!
Perhaps what was missed in advance was that after 30.Rxe4 Rxe4 and now 31.Ne7+ Rxe7 32.Rxe7 Black has a winning move.
The fork 32…Nd5! clinches victory. In the game after 31.Rf1 Qg5 Anish fell on his sword with 32.Nxh6+ gxh6.
That left Giri in the difficult position of having to win on demand against arguably the most solid player in world chess. Wesley could have all but sealed victory if he’d won the next game with the white pieces, but instead he was content to take a quick draw by repeating a game he’d played against Nepo in the Airthings Masters. David Howell asked Giri if the chess gods had later punished Wesley for that decision.
They don’t exist, David, believe me! I’m too long in this chess business. I wouldn’t make a general statement in terms of religion and atheism, but when it comes to chess religion, the chess gods they don’t exist. I’ve seen so many people get away with so many chess crimes and I’ve also seen some generous, tremendous, karmatic play not getting rewarded, so this chess, it’s all nonsense, forget it, it’s just about who’s getting lucky in the end.
Though he did later add:
It’s a bit like, I don’t believe chess gods exist, but what if they do, so I’m not going to tempt them. Better safe than sorry!
In the third game Anish went for an aggressive g4-push that objectively left Black in a strong position, but there was a psychological aspect, as Anish explained:
It was not easy for him, because he wanted to clarify the situation, while probably he has to play for an advantage, and it’s difficult to play for advantage when a draw is good. He was probably hesitant there, because it’s clear my king is a little bit weak there somewhere, he has to start attacking himself, but he was playing a bit shy, and then as he played too slowly I took over.
As in Game 1, a blunder would decide matters, with 31…Qd5? (31…f5!) inviting 32.exf6+ Kxf6 33.Re5! and Black was in deep trouble.
33...Rxe5 34.dxe5+ would of course lose the queen, but after 33…Qd7 White had a completely dominant position. What followed wasn’t without some heart-stopping moments for Giri’s fans, but the Dutch no. 1 found some only moves before clinching victory.
Wesley still had the advantage on paper with the white pieces in the final game of the day, but things had already gone wrong before he played 24.f5?
Giri quickly played the strong 24…gxf5, but later agreed when it was pointed out to him that 24…Bh6! would just have won on the spot – trying to defend the e3-pawn with 25.Nd1 runs into 25…Ne4! Again, Anish felt it was about psychology:
I think he realised that things are getting out of control. He thought it was going to be a safe game, and now he saw that things are getting tricky, I also have winning chances, and then it was just panic. f5 was panic, and then to be honest after that it was very hard to play. I don’t think anymore it was really a blunder or anything, just it was hard to defend with no time on the clock in a pretty bad position from a human standpoint.
Wesley had got back into the game until he allowed his f5-bishop to be pinned along the f-file, with the game ending when the piece was finally captured.
That means both Wesley and Magnus must win Friday’s 4-game rapid matches and then the tiebreaks if they don’t want to find themselves in a 3rd place match this weekend. As Anish mentioned, that match could be even trickier than usual:
I was thinking, it’s really, really unfortunate if you have to play Magnus for the third place, it’s not the kind of match you want be in!
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