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Reports Nov 28, 2020 | 2:08 AMby Colin McGourty

Skilling Open SF1: Carlsen and So seize the lead

Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So need only draw on Saturday to reach the final of the Skilling Open after winning the first day of their semi-final matches against Ian Nepomniachtchi and Hikaru Nakamura. Magnus took advantage of Nepo blundering a piece on move 15 of their first game, but then admitted he was “mainly struggling” as the Russian no. 1 failed to convert two winning endgames. Wesley, meanwhile, didn’t lose control all day, and owed his victory to a swashbuckling attack in the 2nd game of the day.

Ian Nepomniachtchi's knight got caught in the centre of the board

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

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

And from Tania Sachdev, Peter Leko and guest Sam Shankland.

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Carlsen 2.5:1.5 Nepomniachtchi

Magnus Carlsen began the preliminary stage of the Skilling Open with a mouse slip in the very first game, blundering away his queen and losing a winning position to Ian Nepomniachtchi. Ian himself saw the irony as there was payback in the first game of their semi-final. Magnus played the 5.Bd2 line against the Grünfeld Defence, and later 11.Bxg7, a curiosity since it had first been played by Vishy Anand against Magnus in the first game of their 2014 World Championship match in Sochi, Russia.

At the time the move was a novelty compared to Moiseenko 0-1 Nepomniachtchi, played shortly beforehand, and Nepo explained that he’d looked at this line together with Magnus for the match.

Funnily enough, I believe we checked this line together in 2014, together with Magnus, a small piece of work. I remember well we had some discussion about this position, and now it appeared at the board - that was funny!

Nepo has also been involved in the later development of the line, playing Black twice against Anish Giri in the chess24 Legends of Chess earlier this year, but after 11…Kxg7 12.gxf3 Ne5 13.0-0-0 c6 Magnus varied with the new move 14.Bh3 instead of 14.Qc3. That move took control of the c8-square, but it would turn out to be just as significant that it also controlled the g4 and d7-squares.

After 14…Kg8 15.Qc3 Nepo lost the game in one move – not with what he said would have been the “more picturesque” 15…Qc8?? but 15…Qb8??

The immediate 16.f4 is well met by 16…Ng4!, since 17.Bxg4? would run into 17…Qxf4+. Alas, 16.d6!, cutting off the black queen's defence of the knight, does win the piece, since despite being in the centre of the board none of its eight possible squares are available. 16…exd6 17.f4 was essentially game over.

For a while it looked like it would be a perfect day for Magnus, as he was soon much better with the black pieces in Game 2, but then all of a sudden he exchanged queens into a deeply unpleasant knight and pawn ending. Nepo was doing everything right until move 50.

Tablebases (databases of all possible moves that allow us to see what perfect play would look like with 7 or less pieces on the board) tell us that 50.Ke4 is mate-in-29, while 50.a5 is mate-in-30, but here Nepo played 50.Ng6? and saw the win slip out of his grasp.

After 50…Nd5! 51.Nxf4 Ne3+ 52.Ke4 Nxg2! 53.Nxg2 Kc5 the black king would be in time to eliminate the remaining white pawn.

Magnus said he was “mainly struggling” against Nepo, and Game 3 was his toughest of the day. Magnus spent 6 minutes in a known position of another Grünfeld before going for the unconvincing novelty 13.Be3 (13.d5 is the standard move). It wasn’t just the position on the board that was concerning him.

Magnus explained afterwards:

What happened is that the browser closed for no reason that I could discern. It just all closed. I couldn’t log back in and I didn’t understand why. I could see myself losing a game there on disconnect and I really don’t understand what happened, because I think in general my internet was fine.

The new disconnect rule is that after 30 seconds of disconnect the game is paused and only resumed when both players are ready, so in fact Magnus didn’t need to worry, but in the game Nepo decided not to take a draw and played on. That was clearly a correct decision when he managed to take the pawn on a2 and start advancing his own a-pawn, until Magnus was in real trouble.

The computer suggests White’s best hope here is 28.d6!, with the point that after 28…exd6 White has the d5-square for his bishop. Instead Magnus went for 28.Bd1 and after 28…Qc3 he found himself all but lost. He did at least manage to simplify things, until we got a technical rook and pawn ending.

Once again, it seemed only a matter of time, but Magnus dug deep, exchanged off Black’s b-pawn and eventually reached a position where Black’s split pawns on the f and h-files were unable to force a win. Ian could only smile.

He commented:

As I think Lasker said, the most difficult thing in chess is to win a winning position. So that’s something I surely need to master before tomorrow’s match!

We can recommend a video series!

The final game of the day was a must-win for Nepo, which made it puzzling when he went for a drawish main line against Carlsen’s Berlin Defence. For once there was no drama, and Magnus was relieved to clinch victory with a draw. What will he do differently on Saturday?

I guess I’ll try to prepare better in the openings. As you could see in the first game, I was well-prepared and he made a mistake early on and I won quite easily, but in the others, especially in the third game, I didn’t really get what I want, so I’ll have to cook up something new there. But overall I’m pretty happy to have survived, and I feel like in these matches if you can survive your worst day, you’re probably going to be fine overall.

So 2.5:1.5 Nakamura

Hikaru Nakamura will have to do things the hard way again if he’s going to reach the final of the Skilling Open. He hit back after losing on the first day against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, but felt that things were a little different this time round:

The match against Maxime, when I lost on the first day I very easily could have won on the first day as well. I was winning both the white games and I had many opportunities, whereas today it didn’t really feel like I had that many opportunities. Maybe the last game was the only chance, when I felt that maybe I had some winning possibilities.

In fact Wesley So seemed to be in control from the start.

After 15…g6! it was Wesley who was pushing in the first game, but it fizzled out into a draw.

The turning point of the match was Game 2, when Hikaru tried a different approach to the Giuoco Piano opening but admitted he wasn’t ready for his opponent’s response. Wesley got a perfect setup and perhaps the biggest risk he faced was that he could end the game in a draw by repetition. He managed to resist that temptation, however, and was soon having all the fun.

Here Wesley’s position was so good that he could in fact play 32.Rxc4, “blundering” 32...Ba6, and still be much better, but instead he went for the stronger 32.Rec2! and only after 32…Ba6 followed up immediately with 33.h4!, commencing operations on the kingside after tying up Black’s pieces on the queenside.

After 33…gxh4 34.Qg4 Kf8 the position was ripe for tactics.

35.Bxf6! gxf6 36.Qxh4! and it was just a question of bringing a rook over to the kingside to finish things off. Wesley managed with little trouble, and even achieved the Queen’s Gambit style feat of leaving his opponent looking surprised by a mating attack at the very end.

Later 2018 US Champion Sam Shankland, who said we were watching the world’s 2nd and 3rd best online blitz players, shared what he thinks we get wrong about Wesley So.

It’s worth quoting his opinion in full:

I just think people are completely wrong when they think he’s all so solid and strategic. He’s most at home in wild, aggressive positions, it’s just you don’t get those very often in classical chess. I think he calculates absurdly well, his tactical vision is incredibly fast. I remember when I played the Banter Blitz Cup with him - I don’t think he demonstrated a better knowledge of the opening, I don’t think he demonstrated a better understanding of the game, but the tactics that it would take me 5 seconds to see, he would see in 2. That’s really not going to help you that much in classical chess, but in rapid and blitz that is a huge advantage. He sees this stuff really, really fast, every little trick just comes very quickly to him. His intuition is good, but I really disagree that he’s not a dynamic player. I think he’s very at home in attacking positions. He likes complications, he sees tactics very quickly, has a fantastic feel for the initiative. I don’t really see him as a positional guy.       

However good he is in messy positions, however, Wesley’s match or tournament strategy is all about keeping control and maintaining a lead when he gets it. When he talked about Saturday he commented, “Tomorrow I’ll try to play solidly, of course - four draws is more than enough”. We saw that in a very solid draw in Game 3 on Friday, while in Game 4 he handled Nakamura’s Dutch Defence well – Hikaru felt he had good chances, but it seems objectively Wesley was never in danger as he got the draw he needed to clinch the mini-match.

Of course afterwards Wesley was modesty personified:

I feel like it’s simply not Hikaru’s day and I feel very good. Today I felt like I played better than the last two days. I feel very good today, but at the same time, I think Hikaru played sub-par today, so I’m sure tomorrow he’ll play two times harder. I’m going to have a sleepless night! I’m sure he’ll bounce back tomorrow and I’m sure he’ll play much better, but today’s just not his day.

Saturday has a lot at stake as the players compete for a place in the first final of the Champions Chess Tour. Will we see more comebacks, or can Magnus and Wesley hold on? Don’t miss all the action from 18:00 CET here on chess24!  

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