Reports Apr 28, 2020 | 6:28 PMby Colin McGourty

MCI 11: Magnus makes Final 4 despite meltdown

World Champion Magnus Carlsen began his Round 6 match against Ian Nepomniachtchi with an extraordinary blunder on move 7, later admitting, “I just completely blanked and couldn't remember what to do”. Spoiling a winning position in Game 2 left Magnus even more furious with himself, but he hit back to level the match and eventually win in Armageddon. The other match saw 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja climb to 5th place after beating Anish Giri, though both players missed great chances in a fierce exchange of blows.

You can replay all the games from the Magnus Carlsen Invitational using the selector below:

That meant Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi split the points 2:1 after Armageddon while Firouzja picked up the full 3 points for a win in rapid chess:

You can replay the day’s live commentary, with Tania Sachdev, Jan Gustafsson and Peter Svidler joined by Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and later Magnus Carlsen and Alireza Firouzja, below:

Pascal Charbonneau again recapped the day’s action in his aftershow:

Magnus Carlsen 3:2 Ian Nepomniachtchi

Magnus Carlsen won the match, but victories like this could take a while to recover from! The first game must be up there as a candidate for the worst game played by the World Champion since he turned professional over a decade ago. He began by dodging Ian Nepomniachtchi’s Najdorf with 5.Bc4!?

So now we knew that it definitely hadn’t been an accident against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in Round 4. Back then Maxime didn’t dare to take the pawn on e4, and after 5…e6 he later ended up in a lost position before escaping with a draw. Ian has never been one to shy away from sharp positions, so he “called the bluff” with 5…Nxe4. Magnus swiftly followed up with 6.Qh5, but after 6…e6, the first move of the computer, he froze… for an extraordinary 6 minutes and 31 seconds!

Normally we’d say that MrDodgy was just joking, but how else could you interpret the pause… or what followed. The clearly upset World Champion played the blunder 7.Nxe6? and after 7…Bxe6 8.Bxe6 Qe7! White just ends up a piece down whatever he does:

He could have resigned on the spot, though he struggled on to move 28. What on earth had happened? Well, we got our answer in an equally remarkable post-game interview:

That was pretty sick! I just completely blanked after e6. I knew that this was fine for White, and I’d gone over it before the game against Maxime, and then then I just completely blanked there. I couldn’t remember what to do! I knew these lines with Bb5+ deep into them, but for a second there I didn’t know how I should get there at all, and so I just sat thinking for 5-6 minutes and my mind was just blank – there was just nothing. I saw that 7.Nxe6 loses a piece, I just at the board didn’t even consider Bb5+, even though I’d reviewed it before and knew it was the correct move. That was just total insanity.

7.Bb5+! and then 8.Nxe6, after either 7…Nd7 or 7…Bd7, does indeed seem to be playable for White.

That game would be enough to put anyone on tilt, and it certainly looked that way when in the second game Magnus opened with the rare Nimzowitsch Defence, 1.e4 Nc6!?. Once again Ian didn’t shy away from going for the most ambitious lines, and this time, without any crude blunders, Magnus nevertheless found himself balancing on the edge of a precipice. Danger seemed to inspire him, however:

Computers tell us the only defence here is what Magnus played: 25…Kd7! 26.bxc7 Rc8! As Fabiano Caruana would later note, speaking from personal experience, in such positions Magnus often doesn’t just manage to equalise but instead somehow “imperceptibly” goes from worse to immediately better. That was what happened here, and he was winning until 49.Rf8!?

Although objectively Nepo’s move isn’t great, it suddenly ups the stakes – Black’s threat is to play Qe3+, Qh3+ and then give mate in combination with the rook attacking f5. There are plenty of ways to stop that, but Carlsen chose 49…Kg5??, allowing 50.Qe3+! and Black has to accept a draw by perpetual check or he gets mated. The game ended: 50…Kg6 51.Qe6+ Kh7 52.Qg8+ Kg6 and so on.

Magnus was livid:

This time Carlsen confessed that he’d just missed 50.Qe3+ completely:

After 49…Rf8 I thought any decent move should win, like 50.Qd4, for instance, then 50…Kg5 or something, and then I thought, no 49…Kg5 is just very, very easy, because I thought he doesn’t have a check, which is just insane. For god’s sake just centralise your queen when you have the chance! Make your life a bit easier, huh?

Ian Nepomniachtchi retained his lead and our commentators were struggling to describe what was happening. Hikaru Nakamura also used the word “insane”, and Peter Svidler summed up:

This match so far is an episode of Twilight Zone - I don't know what this is!

It would arguably get stranger still before order was restored, with the opening of Game 3 reminding Jan Gustafsson of an infamous pre-arranged game where White gets stalemated in under a dozen moves – he showed it on the board (you can see the real Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi position, for comparison, in the small board on the right):

It wasn’t long, however, before Magnus took over. He drew attention to the position after he played 20.Bh2:

Play continued 20…Nde5?! 21.Nb6! Rd8 22.f4!, of which Magnus noted:

I’m going to go f4 anyway next, and he just loses two tempi by playing Ne5 and loses the right to castle queenside, which is sort of insane.

The immediate 20…0-0-0 may have been a better option for Black. Magnus still wasn’t happy with what followed – “the conversion was awful, but fortunately my position was so good that I couldn’t mess it up!” – but the win, which came in 56 moves, was never in doubt.

With the scores now level the players calmed down in the opening of the final rapid game, though Magnus got into trouble with the black pieces and had to play with extreme accuracy to hold a draw. “I think I was markedly worse, but I managed to save it,” he concluded.

That meant Armageddon, and when Magnus won the toss he picked White, giving him 5 minutes to Ian Nepomniachtchi’s 4. A draw would see Black win the match, however, and at first that seemed the more likely outcome, since Nepo was somewhat better and the World Champion’s choice to swap down into a drawish ending looked questionable. It proved to be the perfect strategy, however, since he handled the endgame much better. He said afterwards:

I felt like I was making some progress and then obviously it was just a draw, but towards the end I was sort of torn, because I felt that I didn’t really actually need to win, because I’d already secured qualification, but I really wanted to flag him! In the game it’s sort of a mix between flagging and playing for a win, because obviously the position is a draw, but most of the time you’re going to win it on the board and on the clock.

In the final position White is also winning even without his opponent's clock having run out:

Ian Nepomniachtchi was frustrated:

In an over-the-board Armageddon game the players would usually get an increment after move 60, but the regulations here didn’t include that (it's not yet a Playzone option to give an increment only after a certain move). Magnus saw no problem with flagging:

That’s why it’s Armageddon and you have one extra minute. I understand that he was not happy and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think in an Armageddon that’s completely fine.

That meant Ian no longer has any chance of reaching the Final 4, while Magnus can relax. When asked who he’d rather face in the knockout he responded:

They’re all pretty good, huh? I don’t really think about it. I’m just relieved to have gotten there since the last couple of matches have been really, really tough. Now I can relax against Ding. Obviously I’m going to try and win, but I was really worried that I would have to get a score the day after tomorrow, and now it’s all good.

Alireza Firouzja 2.5:1.5 Anish Giri

This was also a very enjoyable match between two players who had hit top form. Alireza Firouzja had defeated world rapid no. 2 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the previous round, while Anish Giri had of course taken down none other than Magnus himself, in the most memorable fashion:

Anish still had a mathematical chance of qualifying for the Final 4, but the way the match went on balance supported Hikaru Nakamura’s assertion that Firouzja was already the favourite in fast chess. In Game 1 a couple of passive decisions (26…Rh8?!, 35…Ne6?!) saw Alireza take over on both sides of the board and go on to score a convincing victory.

It seemed as though that same scenario would be played out in the second game. Alireza instantly pounced on an inaccuracy to invade with his queen on the white queenside, and until 28.Qe3 the Iranian was cruising to a win that would give him an almost unassailable 2:0 lead in the match:

As Alireza pointed out afterwards, simply Nc3-e4 would have been crushing, but instead he went for a tactical “solution”, 28…Nxd4? What he’d missed came after 29.Nxd4 Rxf1 30.Rxf1 Bd2:

Black would be winning this position if not for 31.Rf8+!, when it turned out White was right back in the game. Many adventures would follow, but Giri showed he can execute a mating attack if you give him the chance:

“It's a miracle that he's still alive in this match - his position was a complete wreck,” said Fabiano Caruana, and Firouzja felt the same:

Suddenly it became a very tough match. I lost this second game that I think I was completely winning.

In the next game Anish played the Grünfeld Defence and soon took over until it seemed time to strike:

26…g4! is already very playable and Firouzja admitted he didn’t see a defence to Black’s kingside attack. Giri thought for almost 3 minutes before switching to 26…Bd8, which in itself is a good move, but after 27.Ra1, a concession by White, it was definitely time to push the g-pawn. Giri instead concentrated on the queenside, but his positional advantage was such that even after an exchange of queens there were still winning chances – in fact the computer says Black was winning as late as move 48.

Instead, things seemed to be petering out into a drawish ending. Firouzja said he didn’t understand afterwards why Anish didn’t just play 55…Ra4, “an immediate draw”, but went for 55…Ra1:

One answer to that is that the move in the game also seemed to be forcing a draw. Our commentators expected White simply to play 56.Rb1, since allowing the rook to get to g1 looked too dangerous. Then after 56…Rxb1 57.Kxb1 it really is a dead draw.

Alireza is incredibly tactically alert, however, and it seemed here he’d already seen a chance of glory. 56.Rb6! was the start of one of those “devilish” tricks that had hurt Magnus in the Banter Blitz Cup final. Giri continued oblivious with 56…Rg1 57.Rh6! Rxg2+ 58.Kc3 Rf2? (any legal king move, Be8 or Ba4, and even Rg1 and Black could have averted disaster):

59.d6+! and suddenly it’s too late. After 59…Kf8 60.Rg6! there’s no stopping mate on g8. The game ended 60…Rxf3+ 61.Kb4 and Giri resigned. “A beautiful swindle”, said Fabi.

That meant that Giri’s hopes of the Final 4 were definitely over, but despite losing five matches he’d beaten Magnus Carlsen. Nakamura commented, “I think if you asked Anish before the tournament if he would beat Magnus but lose every other match, he would be happy with that,” though Caruana, for one, disagreed.

For Firouzja it was a 2nd match win in a row, catapulting him from last place to a respectable joint 5th with Nepo, his final round opponent. Alireza commented when asked why he’d struggled at the start:

My first four matches were stronger than these three matches, of course. I had world numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, I guess, now it is world numbers 7, 6 and 8!

As Svidler noted, “clearly much, much softer opposition!” Alireza’s figures might not quite check out, but he had a point about the strength of the field. He’s faced:

Round 1: Ding Liren | world no.  3 (also 3 in rapid) | LOST
Round 2: Magnus Carlsen | world no. 1 (also 1 in rapid) | LOST
Round 3: Hikaru Nakamura | world no. 18 (4 in rapid) | LOST
Round 4: Fabiano Caruana | world no. 2 (11 in rapid) | LOST

Round 5: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | world no. 5 (2 in rapid) | WON
Round 6: Anish Giri | world no. 10 (24 in rapid) | WON
Round 7: Ian Nepomniachtchi | world no. 4 (9 in rapid) | STILL TO PLAY

It hasn’t been at all bad for a 16-year-old! Here are the standings:

We can now say that Magnus Carlsen is in the Final 4, while Giri, Firouzja and Nepomniachtchi can no longer make it. MVL has an outside chance since he can reach 11 points if he first beats Fabiano Caruana on Wednesday, then Nakamura on Friday, though even then other results must go his way. 

Fabi-MVL will therefore be the one to watch, but Hikaru Nakamura and Ding Liren have a chance to take over from Magnus at the top of the table in the other match of the day. 

Tune in to all the action live from 15:00 CEST here on chess24!

See also:

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