Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So tied the first day of the Skilling Open final 2:2 after an incredible exchange of blows. Magnus ground out an advantage and then finished off the first game in sparkling style. It looked to be his day when Wesley missed a big chance in the next game and was getting tortured again, but suddenly Magnus fell into a mating net. The World Champion recovered to win Game 3, but Wesley had the last laugh in the final game of the day. The $30,000 winner must be decided on Monday, when Magnus can wrap his own 30th birthday present.
You can replay all the knockout games from the Skilling Open using the selector below.
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell, who were joined at one point by Anish Giri.
14th World Champion Vladimir Kramnik was the surprise guest on the show featuring Tania Sachdev and Peter Leko.
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Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So are two of the most difficult players to beat in world chess, and they’d been showing that in the Skilling Open as well. Both players had suffered just three losses in getting to the final, despite playing over 30 games each. A tightly balanced final looked likely, and that was how the first game began, with queens exchanged on move 8 and the slightest of advantages for Magnus, who had White.
On move 23 Wesley could have played 23…Rc1!, with what our commentators felt would be a certain draw, but even after 23…Rc7!? the game still looked drawish. Magnus was digging deep, however, and 31…a4 allowed him to create a critical situation on the board.
After 32.g5+! Kxg5 33.Rxb5+! Wesley was later surprised to realise that 33…Kf6!, and a potential pawn ending that could arise by force, was only a draw. Instead he played 33…Rf5?, which turned out to be losing by force after 34.Rxb4. Both players got to queen their pawns and, at a glance, you might have thought it was just a draw, but Magnus spotted the win.
40.Qf4+! g5 (provoking this move is vital to leave the h5-rook undefended) 41.Qd6+! Qg6 42.Qf8+! Qg7 43.Rxh5+! and Wesley resigned. 43…Kg6 would run into 44.Rxg5+! and the black queen is lost. Even Wesley seemed to enjoy what had been an elegant finish.
Vladimir Kramnik joined Peter and Tania for Game 2, and he talked about how we tend to overestimate how big the difference is between Magnus and the other top players... though he did add a caveat!
Even if Magnus is the best player in the world, the difference with Wesley So is not so big. In one match anything can happen! I wouldn't say he has more than a 55% chance. He always has 55/60% against top players, but gets to 100 at the end of the day. That's the miracle of Magnus!
The way this game went seemed, until the very end, to support that thesis. So got such a good position out of the opening that Kramnik felt he had the pawn and the compensation, and Wesley did everything right after that, until move 36.
The winning move was 36.Bd3!, and though Wesley said he was “still not sure exactly why” after very briefly looking at it with the computer afterwards, the main idea is clear. e5 by White would then be mate-in-1, and if Black blocks with 36…e5 then 37.Bc4 again threatens mate. 36…Qd1 would run into 37.Qxd6.
In the game, however, Wesley played 36.e5? immediately, when the only move 36…Qd1! took away the d3-square from the bishop, as well as potentially supporting the queening of the c-pawn. Suddenly Wesley had nothing more than a draw by perpetual check, but he kept on playing, which ultimately gave Magnus winning chances. The best summary of the extended sequence of play that followed perhaps came from Kramnik: “I think both are trying to lose, but probably it will be a draw in the end!”
The draw looked inevitable after 88…Qd6:
Wesley could simply have exchanged queens, but he decided to give one more check, 89.Qe3+, that the watching Anish Giri described as “sort of meaningless”. Most replies draw, but as Wesley commented, “Magnus was generous enough to play 89…Kf8?? and run into a fortunate checkmate!”
As Anish put it, “wins feel good, but the lucky wins feel even better!”
It had been a tough blow for Magnus, but he managed to get straight back to business in the next game, catching Wesley out in the opening and then going for the bold 11.g4!?
Wesley called that “a fantastic move”, while his reply 11…g5?! was already a mistake after Magnus calmly responded with 12.Bg3! Wesley felt he was totally outplayed in what followed, which was perhaps a fair assessment, although the computers also point out some moments when Black could have got right back into the game. As Kramnik noted, however:
The most important is to play better than your opponent - that's enough. You don't need more than that, you don't need to play perfect chess, it just has to be a little better than your opponent's chess!
Magnus had taken a 2:1 lead and only needed a draw to clinch victory in the mini-match.
That looked a tough ask for Wesley, given he was facing a player who has been the undisputed king of chess for a decade and who Vladimir Kramnik thinks only a player from a younger generation will overthrow.
Once again, however, the opening went in White’s favour, with the sideline 9.Qf3 a6 10.Qa3! seeming to catch Magnus off-guard. 11.Bg5! already posed serious problems.
The ugly 11…f6 might be best, but Magnus went for the bold concept of 11…Be7!? 12.Bxe7 Kxe7. It looked risky, but subsequent play seemed to justify the World Champion’s choice until he played the loose 29…Bf5!?. Wesley met that with 30.Rh5, an odd-looking move that left Kramnik and Leko reflecting on how chess had changed.
There are no good replies, however, and after 30…Qc8 31.Qxb6! Ng4? Wesley struck with the devastating 32.Ba6!, after which a furious Magnus knew that he was lost.
Black can’t keep defending the bishop on f5 since 32…Qd7 runs into 33.Bb5!, while in the game Magnus went for 32…Re1+ 33.Ka2 Qe8 34.Rxf5 and resigned a move later, a piece down.
Magnus had earlier told Kaja Snare:
What happens after I lose a game is that I break stuff, and then I use the next hour putting these things together again!
Whether Magnus was slowly repairing the damage or not, Wesley was busy talking about how surprised he was to have drawn blood on the first day of the final:
Very surprised, because my goal in this match is to make it interesting, to try to put up a good fight, at least, because Magnus is really the better player and he’s the best player in the world right now, so just to compete with him is a very good feeling, and he’s better in all parts of the game than me. So I had to do my best or hope to catch him in an off day. I think today has been slightly an off day for him. I don’t think he even lost any game in the semi-finals [he lost one to Nepo] or the quarterfinals, so to beat him twice today is very special.
The 2:2 draw means we’re all square again going into the final and deciding day of the Skilling Open on Monday, which also happens to be Magnus Carlsen’s 30th birthday.
The only way we can now get tiebreaks is if the mini-match
on Monday finishes 2:2, in which case we’ll have two blitz games and then
potentially Armageddon to decide the fate of the $30,000 top prize and 40
Champions Chess Tour points. The runner-up gets $15,000 and 20 points.
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