Reports Mar 19, 2021 | 9:30 PMby Colin McGourty

MCI 7: Magnus self-destructs after epic fightback

Ian Nepomniachtchi will play Anish Giri in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational final after a spectacular end to Day 2 of the semi-finals. Magnus left himself needing to win two games on demand after losing to Nepo, but he did it, following a clutch win in a thriller with a smooth game to force a playoff. The good work was undone in the final blitz game, however, as Magnus overpressed and crashed to defeat. He'll now play his perennial rival Wesley So only for 3rd place, after Anish Giri tricked the US Champion into a blunder in their final game.

Magnus Carlsen tried one last-ditch trick, but it's Ian Nepomniachtchi who plays the final against Anish Giri

You can replay all the games from the Magnus Carlsen Invitational knockout 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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The final day of the semi-finals was everything we could have hoped for, with both matches going down to the wire. So-Giri was decided in the final rapid game, while Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi ended in the second blitz playoff game, just when it seemed we were going to Armageddon!


Anish Giri 2.5:1.5 Wesley So

“I thought I shouldn’t disappoint the crowd, and let them see a Wesley So against Magnus Carlsen match!” quipped Anish Giri after making it through to the final in a dramatic last game, though before that the games were never as quiet as they might have seemed.

Both players had real but fleeting chances in the first two draws. 36.h4! would have given Wesley a dominant position in Game 1, while 14.Nf6! may have been even stronger than 14.Nd6+ for Anish in Game 2. Game 3 saw Wesley with his last chance to play for the win he needed with the white pieces, but our commentator Peter Leko wondered if 4.c4!? was some kind of mouse-slip. 6 minutes down on the clock with a worse position after 8 moves certainly wasn’t what Wesley was hoping for.

He held things together, however, so that it all came down to one game where Wesley had to win on demand with Black to force a playoff.

Up to a point Anish controlled the game, but the position was already tricky before he played 26.g4!?, one of those moves balancing on the border between folly and genius.


Anish commented:

I sort of decided, let’s go for it with this crazy move g4, but it was so, so dubious and so uncalled for, so uncalled for!

It worked like an absolute dream, however, since after almost 3 minutes of thought Wesley played 26…Qc7?, a logical move with just one, huge drawback – 27.Rxe6! won the game and match on the spot! After 27…Rxe6 White has 28.Qxf5+ and wins back the rook with an extra piece.

Anish had, like Peter Leko, seen it coming:

Remarkably this blunder I actually saw. It’s such a ridiculous move, but I actually considered it for him, and I was actually hoping he would fall for it, but of course it’s crazy, I don’t even really have a threat, and there’s so many moves, he can push my rook back - it’s very unclear.

Anish commented, in a quote even more applicable to the other semi-final:

These last, decisive rounds, nobody’s himself - even the greatest players become a shadow of themselves! You are of course grown up and you’ve been there, done that, so it’s not consciously there, you’re not thinking every minute, oh my god, I should win, or I shouldn’t lose, but it’s just somehow at the back of your mind and it’s messing with your brain. It’s a peculiar phenomenon - I think it should be studied.

It was pointed out to Anish that he’s said in the past that winning tournaments doesn’t actually matter that much to him. He explained:

Honestly the thing is I should probably care about tournament victories because people around me seem to care about them! That’s why, because honestly, as I told you, it is how it is. I’m unhappy with this last game but happy with many things and my process just never stops. Every day I wake up, I turn on my chess software, I look at new ideas, I prepare, then I play a tournament, then I go back again. It’s a continuous thing, and whatever happens the machine will keep on moving, so for me it doesn’t affect anything actually, but people around me will probably be happier if I win! The whole purpose of course is to win, that’s the whole goal of everything, but some things are under your control and some are outside. But I think I’ll have a good shot.  

Anish will be facing Ian Nepomniachtchi in the final on Saturday and Sunday, after the Russian no. 1 and Candidates Tournament leader managed to hold on in an incredible match against Magnus Carlsen.

Magnus Carlsen 2.5:1.5 Ian Nepomniachtchi (Nepo won the tiebreak 1.5:0.5)

This match was quiet for just one game, the first, where the World Champion comfortably held with Black and even enjoyed the rare luxury of a significant edge on the clock against his notoriously fast opponent.

It was incredibly tense as four players battled for a place in the final

After losing Day 1 of the final, Magnus was staking his hopes on the white games on the second day, but in Game 2 he was surprised on move 5 and burnt up over 4 minutes on the clock before ending up in an unpleasant position. Everything seemed to be going Nepomniachtchi’s way, until he went for 19…h4?!


He called it “an absolutely awful decision” and explained he’d simply missed that after 20.gxh4 Qf6 Magnus could play 21.h5!. He described it as a “more or less lucky moment for me that I’m not losing immediately”. 

It seems Magnus had better ways to punish 21…c5!? than the one he found in the game, but he still had an extra pawn and all the winning chances, until 34…Kf8:


35.Rc7! and Magnus would likely have ended up in a safe ending with a passed a-pawn and winning chances, but instead 35.a5!? was a little too slow. Just as Peter Leko was pointing out you need to be a computer to navigate such positions perfectly, Ian found the computer’s choice of 35…f6! and after 36.Re6 Nf5! it was suddenly Black who had the bigger threats.

Magnus gave up his h-pawn with 37.h6! to temporarily relieve the pressure, but it was high time to pull the emergency brake and play strictly for a draw. Magnus either didn’t want to do that or couldn’t find a clear way, and in what followed we saw a familiar story from the day before as he found himself low on time and out-calculated. The final mistake of 42.Rxa7+ was made with under a minute on the clock, and Ian had soon woven a mating net.

That left Magnus with a mountain to climb, since he now needed to win both remaining games on demand to reach the playoff. Ian only needed a draw with the white pieces to clinch victory, but as he commented:

Obviously I wasn’t able to do anything today, because there are like 1001 ways to make a draw with White, and I thought, let’s play a normal game, so I don’t want to go for a draw, and at some point I was, I think, almost winning out of the opening, but ok, this is just very typical, when one player has nothing to lose and another player has everything to lose, normally a miracle comes!

Magnus picked an offbeat Sicilian and gradually equalised, but his king was weak and on move 31 Ian had a huge chance to wrap up victory.


31.Nxg7! is the move. If Black ignores it with e.g. 31…Qe7 32.Nf5 he’s just lost a pawn, but if he plays 31…Kxg7 White responds 32.Qf6+ and forces a draw by perpetual check. The point is that the attempt to run with the king with 32…Kf8 loses to 33.Qh8+ Ke7 34.Rxf7+! Kxf7 35.Qh7+, picking up the queen on c7.


Instead, however, 31.Nxd4?! allowed Magnus to take over, and though more mistakes followed by both sides, there was also brilliance.


Defending the bishop gives Black no more than a draw, but Magnus here unleashed the piece sacrifice 39…d3!

Soon the game became study-like, and particularly the position after 44…c3.


The computer doesn’t have a worry in the world, since it sees it can give its bishop for the c-pawn and stop the d-pawn with the rook – for instance, after 45.Be4 Rc1 White plays 46.Bd5+ and 47.Bb3. 

White is surviving by only the smallest of margins, however, and after 45.Kh4? Kf8 it was suddenly all over. There’s no longer a bishop check on d5 to allow the bishop to reach b3, and 46.Bf3 was no fortress. Magnus had soon pulled off that most difficult feat of winning on demand with the black pieces.

The World Champion was still scathing of his play later on:

Today was really very, very poor and it's not the kind of play that I want to show at all… The thing is, I actually played really poorly in the first black game that I had to win. I made several blunders there, especially early on and also later, so I felt like it was more him stumbling there rather than me doing something great.

Magnus still had to win a game on demand, but this time with the white pieces he made it look incredibly easy. He played 6.a4 in the Najdorf and followed up with the 8.g3 that Giri had used to beat Nepo in the preliminary stages of the Opera Euro Rapid

“If Magnus will win and playing my own idea that will be beautiful,” said Anish, before explaining that the “only issue with the Najdorf is the d5-square” and as long as you can control it with Black all should be well. He also pointed out that the one thing you don’t want is to get a position with a wonderful white bishop on d5 against your locked in bishop on g7… which was exactly what happened in the game!

You might expect Magnus to have been buzzing, but he commented:

The second game that I won on demand that was just, yeah, ok, I played decently, but I didn't have to make a single difficult move, so I don't think that was anything special.

There was also psychology involved. Magnus continued:

Ultimately what decided the match is that he managed to keep his head pretty calm in the blitz and I most certainly did not, and I was obviously happy to get to the blitz, but I still had an iffy feeling, because I knew that the job was far, far from done, and even if I'd won a couple of games there I felt like I still wasn't playing great. And in his case he was still playing with house money there, because he knew even though he'd collapsed and lost the last two games he still could start from scratch in the tiebreaks.   

Nepo felt the balance of power had shifted:

At least once we reached the blitz stage Magnus also finally had something to lose, so it was already something at stake from his side. I guess that’s why chances were more or less equal.

The first blitz game followed the pattern of Magnus equalising comfortably with the black pieces, until he could even think of pressing for a win. There were signs of nerves, however, with Magnus getting down to just 2 seconds on his clock when he made the move 51…Rd4

Magnus fans could then breathe a sigh of relief when he converted the position into pure Rook + Knight vs. Rook. It’s a theoretical draw that’s vastly easier to defend than Rook + Bishop vs. Rook, but at least the worst that could happen was a draw? In the end, yes, but only after Magnus managed to mouse-slip away his rook!

Fortunately for Magnus, Knight vs. Rook is still a draw, but it meant the indignity of another 50 moves of shuffling the pieces in a nominally inferior position.

Still, Magnus had the white pieces in the final blitz game and couldn’t complain too much of the outcome of the opening. Peter Heine Nielsen had shared a suggestion during the break, and Magnus went for this somewhat outlandish position.

Ultimately it didn’t come to much, but Magnus was the only person playing for a win, since Nepomniachtchi had clear weaknesses on b7 and d5.


The World Champion could probably have won a pawn here with 28.Ra8+ Kh7 29.Rd8, or simply 28.Ra5, but instead chose 28.Qb6!? and after 28…Qe7 29.Qa5 Qd6! suddenly Black’s position was much healthier. The queen is perfectly placed on d6 and the white rook can’t leave the first rank without allowing mate-in-1.

It was of course still equal, but what followed was reminiscent of Vladimir Kramnik in the latter stages of his career, when the 14th World Chess Champion woul keep pressing for a win in any position.


Here the logical end to the game would have been a repetition after 42.Kg1 Qc1+ and we’d have gone to Armageddon, but Magnus instead played 42.g3!? hxg3+ 43.Kg2!? As with Kramnik’s adventures, this has a touch of genius, but it was a foretaste of what was to follow. Soon Ian was able to start pushing his b-pawn, and even then Magnus kept looking for tricks, next temporarily sacrificing his h-pawn.

There was still a wide drawing margin, but at some point, with no time and complicated lines to calculate, the door slammed shut. Nepo was winning, and Magnus’ last act of the match was to put his queen en prise in a typical online trick – if Ian had automatically queened his b-pawn suddenly Magnus would win, but the Russian doesn’t make that kind of mistake. He picked up the free queen and it was all over!

That means that since winning Altibox Norway Chess in mid-October 2020 Magnus has failed to win a tournament in six attempts: the Speed Chess Championship, Skilling Open, Airthings Masters, Tata Steel Masters, Opera Euro Rapid and now one that may hurt even more due to its name, the Magnus Carlsen Invitational. Some have asked the perhaps valid question of whether we’re now witnessing a decline from Magnus after a decade at the very top, but that seems to be going too far. 

Although Magnus hasn’t shown his usual consistency this season, only his 3rd place opponent Wesley So could claim to be more consistent. Hikaru Nakamura has failed to live up to last year’s Tour, while Magnus managed to win every preliminary stage of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour and will end his namesake event by moving up to no. 2 behind Wesley in the Tour standings whatever happens.


Ian Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, has now knocked out both Hikaru and Magnus, but continues to downplay his achievements:

Clearly today it was a lottery and I was the one who got the winning ticket. It wasn’t about chess, most of the games, most of the mistakes, clearly it’s what happens, I actually mentioned this before, when you play many days in a row without any rest. You end up blundering things, blundering in one and so on.

There's still one challenge remaining for Ian, as he takes on Anish Giri for the $60,000 top prize and a guaranteed place in the final in the headquarters of Tour sponor Meltwater in San Francisco in September. He explained, however, that goal no. 1 is not to lose the social media battle!

I’ve got to think of some quote for my Twitter, so not to lose the Twitter battle before the game begins! I also read some tweets from Magnus and from Anish, and for a second I thought that probably these guys are using these artificial intelligences just to write tweets, not to analyse positions. Some neural network just to write tweets, some completely random words, in a completely random order, and I couldn’t understand both of these, so this was probably some deep reference to something, and something and something, but it was too deep for me, so I thought, maybe I use this Leela to prepare and they use Leela to tweet.

This was what Ian was talking about:

Anish responded:

Then the final battle began, with Ian also channeling Yoda...

And here’s Anish, with a sly Eminem reference to a man bun...

If the chess can live up the tweets, you don't want to miss it! Tune into all the action from the usual time of 17:00 CET live here on chess24.

See also:


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