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Reports May 2, 2020 | 11:48 PMby Colin McGourty

MCI Semi-final 2: Carlsen sets up Nakamura final

Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura began with five decisive games on Day 1 of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational and they’re going to meet again in the final match on Day 16 after Magnus won an epic semi-final against Ding Liren. The World Champion blundered horribly in Game 2 and was in huge trouble in Game 3 until Ding returned the favour by stumbling into checkmate. Both players rejected chances to draw in Game 4 before Magnus emerged victorious, later commenting, “I haven’t felt this kind of tension in a long while - this was real!”

The move that ended a thrilling match

You can replay the games all the knockout games using the selector below:

And here’s an unforgettable day’s live commentary from Peter Svidler, Alexander Grischuk, Lawrence Trent and Tania Sachdev:

For a video recap of the day’s action check out Pascal Charbonneau’s Aftershow:

It had seemed as though the drama of the Caruana-Nakamura semi-final the day before would be impossible to beat, but in the end Ding Liren-Carlsen was every bit as exciting. Let’s look at some of the key moments.

1. The quiet before the storm

Both matches got off to quiet starts, and there were none of the outrageous opening choices we’d seen Magnus make when he played Ding in the largely meaningless last round of the preliminary stage. “You see how seriously Magnus is playing when it's a real match,” commented Alexander Grischuk.

In the first game Magnus had White and built up a powerful looking attack on the kingside, but Ding Liren held with extremely accurate defence until we’d reached a position where there was no way to break through. Magnus could at least have some fun!

43.Bxg6 changed absolutely nothing in the position except the computer evaluations. Black had an extra piece after 43...fxg6, but there’s no way into the white position.

Game 2 was also quiet, up to a point, with Magnus commenting:

I think there were clearly two phases of this match. The first one was the first one and a half games, where I felt that I had some slight initiative but everything was kind of normal, and after that it was just mayhem!

Here’s the full interview, which we’ll be quoting game-by-game:

2. Magnus commits “a howler of unbelievable proportions” (Svidler)

Magnus had carefully equalised with Black in Game 2 and was hunting for more, when after 31.Qd3 he sank into thought:

Black has just picked up an extra pawn, but the position is dynamically balanced, with lots of options. 31…Rd4 was a move our commentators pointed out almost draws on the spot, while other possibilities include 31…Rc3 or 31…Rc1 – even 31…Nxe4 doesn’t lose, although it also doesn’t win. Instead, after nearly 5 minutes, Magnus played 31…Kh7?? and still hadn’t spotted what he’d done when Ding Liren replied 32.Rxf6!. It was only after 32…gxf6 33.Qe3 that the World Champion realised to his horror that he’d fallen for one of the most notorious checkmating patterns in chess – there’s no stopping Qh6-g7#

What had gone wrong on Planet Magnus?

Basically Qe3/Qd2 was a blind spot! I was thinking of his queen going to h5, and that didn’t seem to work to me. Basically when I played Kh7, I sort of felt like I have to be better, but I couldn’t make any of the forcing lines work, so finally I thought, if I can play Kh7, and it doesn’t lose to Rxf6, then that’s a good thing. As I said, it was just a complete blind spot!

3. Things get worse for Magnus before they get better

That meant the World Champion had two games to try and mount a comeback, but at first it looked as though the match was going to be over in just three games. Ding Liren was ready for Carlsen’s London System and by move 6 had created a new position on the board. Magnus thought for over a minute before 7.c3!?

That ran into 7…cxd4! 8.cxd4!? Bxf4 9.exf4 Nc6 10.Nb3 and White’s setup looked anything but sound:

10…a5 upped the pressure, and Magnus had no faith in his position:

I just missed cxd4, and then after cxd4 half of me wanted to resign and half of me wanted to offer a draw so at least I have a theoretical chance in the last game.

It wasn’t looking good. As Magnus put it:

Being 1.5:0.5 down and then almost lost in the opening with White - that’s rough!

3. Ding Liren returns the favour

The World Champion would later comment:

I didn’t really understand why he went for all this Nb3 and taking the pawn on a3 stuff, since then, as long as the game is not decided in a few moves, I always have some counterplay against his king.

He recommended that Black could simply have played Qa5+ (e.g. on move 12) and forced “a very good ending”, but at least according to computers there was nothing wrong with Ding Liren’s greed in going after the a-pawn. The point at which he slipped was playing 20…f6?!, stopping Ne5 or Ng5, but at the cost of weakening the position around the black king (it seems White has no way to punish 20…0-0):

The moment White took over was when Ding relatively quickly responded to 24.f5 with 24…exf5!?.  Alexander Grischuk’s explanation of why it’s not as simple as “taking time” on moves got Anish Giri’s stamp of approval:

From that point onwards it looked certain that Magnus would level the scores, but 31.Bxf5?! was a potential lifeline for the Chinese no. 1:

31…Qe7! seems to hold, but after 31…Nf3? 32.Bg6! the black king was suddenly caught in a mating net. The time Ding took to play 32…Ng5 33.Qc8+ and resign gave Magnus a chance to savour the moment!

For a second day in a row we’d seen a player go from despair in one game to joy in the next:

“There is no faking it at that point! That was just pure joy,” said Magnus.

4. An epic final game

That meant the scores were level as the players went into the final rapid game, where Ding Liren had the white pieces. The stakes were incredibly high, and both players would ultimately face the choice of whether to gamble on winning the game or bail out into a draw that would take the match to a blitz playoff.

At first things seemed to go well for Ding Liren, and he had some amazing options open to him:

Here’s the position after 21.Bf6!!:

Magnus admitted afterwards he’d missed this - “that would have been unpleasant!” 21...gxf6? 22.Qg4+! loses, 21...Qxf6 22.Rxd7 is bad, but when 21…Qe6! 22.f5 Qxf6 23.Rxd7 was pointed out to him he agreed, “that’s not a disaster”.

Instead in the game Ding began to lose the thread with 18.Ba3!? and soon it was Magnus who was taking over. Events reached fever pitch after moves were repeated to get to 28.Rf3:

Peter Svidler had immediately spotted that Black could win the exchange with Nc3, unleashing the c6-bishop to attack the rook on f3. It seems Magnus had spotted it too, but he was reluctant to pull the trigger:

The only problem is that it’s extremely unpleasant to play with all of this tension in a must-not-lose game. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t really even want to consider Nc3… In hindsight I probably should just have repeated moves, since if I don’t do anything it’s really hard for him to do anything either.

Ding met 28…Nc3 with 29.d5! Nxe2 30.Qxe2 and suddenly it was unclear if the Chinese star hadn’t trapped the World Champion:

White was soon better, then equal, and the logical end to the game would probably have been a repetition of moves… but this time it was Ding who rejected it!

37.Rg3 would have fixed a draw, but instead Ding decided to play on with 37.Nc3!? despite being down to 23 seconds on his clock. Magnus was asked if he would have repeated moves in the same situation:

The thing is, probably not, since it feels like you’re not risking too much at all.

The last big twist in the game, and match, came when the white knight reaching f4 forced Magnus to sacrifice a piece with 40…Bxd6!

Magnus didn’t pretend to have worked out all the details:

What can I say? I didn’t really calculate too much here - I just felt like I needed to break out, and that was it.

He was very happy to see 41.Nxe6?!, when he was sure he was safe, while after 41.exd6 it seems White would still have been better. The game ended abruptly a few moves later, with Magnus finding the winning blow at the second opportunity:

When I went 44…Bg7 [44…Rd2!] I was just so thrilled to have a safe position which I cannot lose, and then 45.Bc2 I was like, oh, 45…Rd2! just wins immediately – that’s cool!

The white bishops and the g2-point are all targetted, but Magnus pointed out he could still have blundered, e.g. 46.Bxg6+ Qxg6 47.Rg3 Qc2?? 48.Rxg7+! Kxg7 49.e6+! and there’s no more than a draw by perpetual check. Ding Liren didn't test that, but let his time run out.

Magnus Carlsen had therefore qualified for the final of the tournament with his name on it:

He paid tribute to his opponent:

It should be said well done to Ding as well. It must be an unpleasant feeling, but he already congratulated me on winning, graciously, and I hope he will be back for more events like this. As you all could see, I’m finding it extremely tough to play him and I think so will other people who try to stand in his way.

It had been a tough day in every way imaginable, but it felt like a coming of age for online chess.

Magnus admitted he’d found it even more nerve-wracking than playing over-the-board:

I haven’t felt this kind of tension in a long while. This was real! I think you could feel it on the guys yesterday as well, but this was real. As I said, the first 1.5 games, or almost 2 games, I thought I’m focused, I’m a little bit tense, but nothing special, but after that I was just completely hot-headed. I haven’t been in too many of these situations, to be honest, where I just face a bunch of adversity, so I guess it’s good for me.

Grischuk had suggested during Game 4 that if Magnus came back and won it would be the “biggest victory, his toughest” of his career. Svidler noted, “he did win a couple of World Championships”, but Magnus himself was open to the suggestion that this was one of his greatest comebacks. When Peter said both semi-final matches had been “unbelievable spectacles” but can’t have been enjoyable to play, the World Champion responded:

I think it’s the way it’s supposed to be! That’s really the point of this whole format, and no, it’s not pleasant for the players at all. All four of us could to some extent coast through the preliminaries at some stage, but yes, this was dead serious, and this is, as far as tensions go, as much as I’ve experienced in a long time. I feel sort of the same way as I felt after Game 10 of the match in London with Fabi. That’s really the sort of feeling I had, when I was just completely drained.

The Magnus Carlsen Invitational opened with a spectacular match between the two players now in the final

There’s just one day to recover, since on Sunday the event ends with a $115,000 final ($70,000 for the winner, $45,000 for the runner-up), where Magnus takes on perhaps his greatest historic rival in speed chess, Hikaru Nakamura. Magnus summed up:

I agree it’s going to be awesome tomorrow and I really got away with something akin to murder today, so I’m just really, really happy to be here!

This is one match you definitely don’t want to miss, starting at the same time of 16:00 CEST here on chess24, though the pre-show will be live an hour before that. You’ll want to stick around afterwards as well, since 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja will be playing Banter Blitz against chess24 premium members!   

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