Reports Nov 27, 2020 | 10:21 AMby Colin McGourty

Skilling Open QF2: Day of the Comebacks

It’s Carlsen vs. Nepomniachtchi and Nakamura vs. So in the Skilling Open semi-finals after a day of incredible comebacks. Only Magnus Carlsen managed to convert his lead from the previous day into victory, holding Anish Giri to four draws. Elsewhere the Day 1 losers hit back to force playoffs, with Hikaru Nakamura powering to a 2.5:0.5 victory over MVL and then again bouncing back from losing the first playoff game. Ian Nepomniachtchi and Wesley So scored convincing rapid and then playoff wins over Levon Aronian and Teimour Radjabov.

Wesley So stood out at the start of play, before 8 players were reduced to 4

You can replay all the Skilling Open knockout games using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.

And from Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev, with a guest appearance by Harikrishna.

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Magnus Carlsen: “It was a difficult day”

There was a feeling of déjà vu about the second day of this match, since once again it was Anish Giri making all the running in the first game of the day. In a far from quiet “Giuoco Piano” opening he’d soon planted a white pawn on g7, and it was only after Magnus Carlsen’s 17…Qd6!? that Giri started to think.

Unlike the day before it’s possible that Anish was wrong to reject a queen trade and a better ending at some point, while putting a bishop on e5 proved to be a mistake.

The bishop could have been on e3 instead, when the following trick wouldn’t have worked for the World Champion: 27…Bxd4! 28.Qxd5+ Qe6!, and when queens were traded off the rook ending was a comfortable draw.

It was a day when little was comfortable, however, with Carlsen summing up the course of the match:

It was a difficult day. Basically I was worse in the first and third games, significantly worse, and I was significantly better in the 2nd, and then in the 4th I think I was much better, but I was generally just steering the game towards a draw, so that was fairly comfortable.

In the end the whole match had turned on the final game of the first day, when Magnus fashioned a win out of nowhere. That fact wasn’t lost on him:

In general I definitely have to commend Anish on a very tough fight. It was never easy for me at any moment and the whole match just came down to one game that I managed to eke out, so definitely very, very tough.

Giri vowed he’d be back.

He’s already got the Rocky Balboa style trailer...

Hikaru Nakamura finds a way

Hikaru had incredibly thought he was out of the tournament after losing to MVL on Day 1, but he put his second life to good use when he stormed to a 2.5:0.5 victory in rapid chess on Day 2. Maxime’s return to playing the Najdorf backfired, when we got to see that even the Frenchman’s instincts for his favourite opening can be wrong.

The standard break 9…d5?! looked to be premature, since after 10.Bg5! Hikaru went on to win a pawn and then get total control of the position. His play was fearless and convincing, until MVL had seen enough in 27 moves.

Maxime was pressing in the next game with White but never got anything tangible in a 70-move draw. Then it was back to the Najdorf, with Maxime varying with the more circumspect 9…g6. It didn’t change the outcome, however, with Maxime’s sacrifice of a pawn to disrupt Hikaru’s play on the queenside only leading to more trouble. When the Frenchman grabbed a hot pawn it soon led to his needing to give up the exchange, and Nakamura made no mistake as he wrapped up victory both in the game and the mini-match.

The momentum was now all in Hikaru’s favour, and as the world no. 1 rated blitz player he’d now become the favourite. Maxime is world no. 3 in blitz, however, and an incredibly dangerous player. Everything turned on move 37.

37…Qxd5 or 37…Qxf6 seem objectively to be close to drawn, though White would still have had serious practical chances in the play ahead. Instead Hikaru went for a spectacular but flawed continuation: 37…Rh1+? 38.Kxh1 Qxd5 39.Qxh6! Qxf3+ 40.Kg1 and though Black is temporarily a rook up he needs to stop mate. 40…f6 was Hikaru’s move, but Maxime spotted the forced win.

41.Qh8+ Kf7 42.e6+! Ke7 43.Qxe8+ and it turned out White had a conveyor belt of new queens to come. Hikaru threw in the towel on move 47.

Suddenly it was Hikaru who had to win on demand, and perhaps surprisingly he switched from 1.e4, inviting the Najdorf in which he’d been so successful, to 1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5, the Trompowsky, that he’d also used in the last game of the previous day. Once again the opening proved something of a disaster, as Hikaru ended up losing an exchange by force.

22…Nb4! picked up material, and it seemed Maxime should easily be winning a game he only needed to draw, but perhaps that was the problem. Unsure of what result to play for, Maxime made a number of strange decisions that eventually led to a lost endgame. Despite being low on time, Hikaru was absolutely ruthless in the play that followed.

That meant Armageddon, and as the higher finisher in the preliminaries Hikaru got to choose colour. We saw in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour that he’s a big believer in Black, who gets one minute less but only needs to draw the game. Hikaru went on to do that with some ease, with 61.e6+ not enough:

Hikaru calmly fell into the “trap” with 61…Kxe6 62.Nf4+ Kf5 63.Nxe2 since he saw that with just one White pawn remaining the extra knight wouldn’t be enough to force a win. After thinking he was out of the tournament the day before, Hikaru was in fact the first player through to the semi-finals!

Nepomniachtchi sets up Carlsen clash

Ian Nepomniachtchi had lost the last two games to Levon Aronian on the first day, but in a long and entertaining post-match interview he explained that he’d actually felt he was playing better than his opponent.

First of all I’d like to point out that I completely and totally admire Lev as a chess player and a personality, and it’s also a pleasure to play against him, but you know, as they say, with all the respect, I think yesterday I seriously had such an upper hand!

That inspired Nepo on Day 2, and it didn’t do any harm that he got off to the perfect start, with 20.Rad1! essentially clinching victory.

Black can’t simply move the queen to c8 or b8, since Nxf6+! gxf6 Qxf6 would follow, threatening checkmate and hitting the f5-bishop. 20…Qe7 runs into 21.Nd6!, so Levon decided to give up his queen with 20…Bxe4, but it was never enough.

Levon missed a great chance to hit back in the second game, while Game 3 was a quick but spectacular draw. Levon therefore needed to win Game 4, but instead we got to see a brutal win for Nepo, with the kind of final position you don’t see every day.

The first playoff game featured perhaps the most amazing moment of the day, though it was so lost in the manic action elsewhere that Nepo was surprised not to be quizzed about it immediately when he came for the post-game interview. On move 30 Levon played 36.Qc8+?? and Nepo automatically replied 36…Kg7??

Ian explained that he still hadn’t realised what had happened until checking with a computer after the game.

I would never spot this even after the game unless I checked briefly with the engine, and it said -68. ‘I’m sorry, what is -68?’ It’s Qxc8, actually… That’s a lesson for me to learn. And here Qxa6 makes a draw, so Qc8 was a brilliant trick.

It would have been a brilliant trick if Levon had intended it and played 37.Qxa6, but instead after 37.Qd7? he later allowed Nepomniachtchi to launch a winning attack.

That meant that the Russian no. 1 only needed a draw in the second blitz game to clinch victory, but although he infamously made three identical 14-move draws in the preliminary stages (he explained he just felt he was in terrible form and it was safer to take such draws), here he went for a wild attacking game.

It was a brilliant victory, with Levon resigning a move before checkmate.

Wesley also strikes back

If Nepo exuded confidence despite his first day loss, Wesley So was the opposite, telling Kaja Snare and the Oslo crew:

To be honest with you, I didn’t expect to make it today because yesterday Teimour just played so wonderfully, needing only three games to beat me, so today I didn’t have many expectations.

In fact, he had a more or less smooth day at the office, which he showed us in a tour of his house!

He drew with Black in 32 moves in the first game, then struck in the second game, when a sudden mating threat on h8 forced the win of a pawn.

Teimour could have held a rook ending two pawns down with perfect play near the very end, but the win for Wesley was the natural outcome of the game.

That was in fact the only decisive game of the day in this pairing, though that was more a case of Wesley doing just enough. After a quick draw in Game 3 he could have won the 4th rapid game, but a draw was enough to force playoffs. Wesley explained he was happy that both blitz games were also drawn, since he’d been playing faster than his opponent and felt that difference would tell in an Armageddon game with no extra time added each move.

So it proved, with Teimour already significantly worse before playing the losing 22.Qxf3? (22.Bxf3! and the queen on e2 would support Bd2, stopping what happened in the game). Wesley pounced with 22…Qc3!

Both rooks are attacked, and there’s no way to avoid the heavy loss of material. Teimour played on a rook down after 23.Rd1 Qxa1, but it was a case of going through the motions. The game ended when Wesley allowed a courtesy draw by repetition on move 34.

That means Wesley goes through to an all-US clash against Hikaru Nakamura, while Teimour was out despite brilliant play on the previous day.

The full semi-final pairings look as follows.

There’s no rest day and the two-day format remains exactly the same, with the action each day starting at 18:00 CET. When it was suggested to Ian Nepomniachtchi that he was one of the few players who doesn’t fear Magnus, he responded:

With all due respect, I don’t think that anyone on the roster is afraid of Magnus. This is more hype… We all know each other pretty good, so I don’t think this is the way to set up this question, but of course he’s probably the most challenging opponent for me, and probably not for me only!

Tune in to all the action from 18:00 CET!

Also a reminder for premium users: you have a chance to vote one of the players who failed to make the knockout stages back into the next event on the Champions Chess Tour, a 12-player $200,000 Major tournament starting on December 26th: Vote for your favourite player!   

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