Wesley So spoilt two completely winning positions in a row against Hikaru Nakamura but still held on to draw all four games on Day 2 of their semi-final and reach the final of the $100,000 Skilling Open. His opponent will be World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who admitted “frankly I’m not playing that great” after another tough day at the office against Ian Nepomniachtchi. After several near misses the day before, the Russian finally won Saturday’s first game, but Magnus hit back in the next game and reached yet another online final.
You can replay all the games from the Skilling Open knockout stages using the selector below.
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.
Tania Sachdev and Peter Leko were again joined by Harikrishna.
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After the quarterfinals in which three of the four Day 1 losers came back to win, you might have considered Hikaru Nakamura the favourite to make a comeback against Wesley So. Few people in world chess are better at protecting a lead than Wesley, however, so if you just heard that there were four draws on Day 2 of the semi-finals you might assume he’d managed to drain all the life out of the positions and ease his way into the final. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Hikaru made his intentions clear in the first game of the day, when instead of playing his usual solid Berlin Defence against 1.e4 he went for a Ruy Lopez with 3…a6 and 4…g6, an opening he seems never to have tried before in a top-level game. It soon backfired, however, since Wesley was close to winning in 15 moves and could have put the finishing touches to the game on move 31.
31.Rf4! would have kicked the black queen from the f8-square, so that after 32.Nf7+ Rxf7 33.exf7 the f-pawn would be threatening to queen. Instead after the immediate 31.Nf7+?! Rxf7 32.exf7 Rxe4 Hikaru had chances again, but only briefly. Wesley regained completely control until he simply had two extra passed pawns which should have decided the game in his favour. The climax, however, came on move 60, just after Peter Leko had chalked up a full point for Wesley.
“Not winning the first game was very disheartening, of course,” said Wesley, but that was just the beginning. In Game 2 Hikaru’s position suddenly collapsed when he played 27.Nh5?, blundering 27…Nxg4!
After 28.Nf4 Rf6! Nakamura might simply have resigned in a classical game, but in rapid chess it made complete sense to play on. Hikaru kept things complicated until Wesley cracked on move 42.
Simply moving the g6-rook anywhere would have retained a winning position for Black, but Wesley tried to force matters with 42…Ne5? only to find he’d given away all his advantage after 43.Nxg6. In fact a few moves later it was Black who was left fighting to survive against the dangerous combination of a white queen and knight. Wesley pulled it off.
Looking back on the first two games, Wesley So said afterwards:
It’s always very tricky, because Hikaru’s very tactical and slippery and he makes use of all his chances and he never gives up. He has this tremendous fighting spirit, so he’ll just keep fighting until he doesn’t have any chances left, so when we get down to a minute or two minutes on the clock he plays just much better, while I simply panic with very little time.
You can’t get much more tension in a game of chess than in those games, but Game 3 was something completely different. Wesley switched to 1.d4 and the players blitzed out a draw they’d played against each other twice before, first in the last round of the 2018 US Championship and most recently in the last round of this year’s US Championship. It took barely a minute.
“I think taking the breather in Game 3 was a big help for me,” said Wesley, but Game 4 could have gone either way. Hikaru Nakamura had the white pieces and the clear knowledge that he had to win at all costs. The tension produced some bold and beautiful play.
Here instead of moving the e4-bishop Hikaru played not one but two “zwischenzugs”, first 20.c5! and then after 20…Qc8 a second in-between move, 21.Na4!? (after 21…fxe4 22.Nb6 the queen can no longer defend the e6-knight). Wesley would later comment:
I feel very bewildered with what happened in the last game, because I was fighting for my life and I was trying to generate some counterplay, but then he just blundered his knight in the end, so I’m still not sure what happened there.
That moment came after 29…Rd8.
30.c6!? was a spectacular attempt, and if Hikaru had followed up 30…Rxd5 with 31.Ba3!!, interfering with the rook’s attempts to stop the white pawns, it seems it would have been enough for a draw. But in the game 31.cxb7? was losing, as we saw after 31…Rd8 32.Ra1 Nc7 33.Ra7.
33…Nxb7! 34.Rxb7 Rd1+ 35.Kg2 Rxc1 and the game only ended in a draw since that was all Wesley needed to reach the final.
The comeback had been thwarted:
“I guess you always face Magnus, every single time in finals, doesn’t matter what tournament,” said Wesley.
Russian no. 1 Ian Nepomniachtchi had squandered two winning positions in a row against Magnus on the first day of their semi-final, but he finally drew blood in Saturday’s first game. He partly owed a fine victory to what was in fact a mistake, 31.Qe8?
Magnus was under a minute compared to Nepo’s six and blitzed out 31…Bxf2?, which would have been a good move in response to 31.Qc8! After the move Nepo played in the game, however, 31…Qc7! wins for Black. The obvious threat of a discovered attack – moving the rook so the queen attacks the king on f4 – is easy to parry, but there’s a second threat of Rd8!, trapping the white queen.
Instead in the game after 31…Bxf2? 32.Kg4! it perhaps surprisingly turned out that the black king was in far greater danger. Nepo was able to break through with a mating attack.
37…gxh5 38.Rg2+! Kf6 39.Rg6+ Ke5 40.Bb3+ followed, and Magnus resigned with mate-in-2 on the board.
Magnus needed to hit back and managed to do so immediately, though Game 2 was anything but clear. The World Champion grabbed a pawn on h6, more from a lack of better options than any great desire to pin his bishop to his queen.
It was objectively the best move, however, and Magnus was putting up a real fight until finally it was Nepo who cracked with 41…Qg7? (41…Kf7!):
The focus had all been on the kingside, but now after 42.Qe8+! the queenside pawns on b5 and a4 fell and the rest was just a mopping up operation.
Magnus would later say of his day:
It’s been like most others, frankly - very difficult! I haven’t been able to gain much momentum, I think. Even the game that I won was very unclear, and I think I was at some point even worse. Frankly I’m not playing that great, but it’s been enough so far. I think I’ll have to step it up in the final because Wesley’s extremely strong.
The final two games of the day were tricky, but now only needing draws again, Magnus never lost control. In Game 3, after surviving some pressure, he sacrificed the exchange by taking Ian’s knight on e4.
Objectively it wasn’t the best move in the position, but it drastically reduced White’s chances of mounting any kind of attack. The game ended in a 39-move draw.
That left Nepomniachtchi with the unenviable task of having to beat Magnus on demand with the black pieces. The World Champion forced queens off the board with 15.Qc4!?, an offer of an exchange you would have to be very careful about refusing! 15…Qb8?? or 15…Rc8?? would lead to a familiar tactics puzzle:
Either of those moves would run into 16.Qxe6+! fxe6 17.Bh5+ g6 18.Bxg6#
Nepo played 15…Qxc4 instead, with an advantage that was unlikely ever to be enough to win the game. Desperate times called for desperate measures, but his attempts to unbalance the position only led to a big white edge, with Magnus winning when he accepted his opponent’s draw offer on move 35.
Ian summed up:
Magnus, meanwhile, has a chance to start the Champions
Chess Tour the way he finished the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, when he plays
Wesley So in the final. Wesley famously crushed
Magnus 13.5:2.5 in the final of the 2019 FIDE Fischer Random World Championship,
but both players were downplaying that result. Wesley was asked if that victory
gave him confidence:
Yes, if we play Chess960, I feel very confident! But chess and Chess960 are just two completely different games, because Magnus knows already the typical plans and typical setups and the typical manoeuvres in basically every single opening.
Magnus pointed out that he’d beaten Wesley in other events, though he certainly wasn’t underestimating his opponent:
He’s very strong. When he’s at the top of his game it’s very hard to find any obvious weaknesses there, so he’s just very, very strong. Sometimes he’s a bit in his own head, that’s the only thing that can hurt him.
He’s a tough opponent, he’s one of the people that I find most difficult to play against, because he rarely makes either tactical or positional mistakes. So he’s just very, very strong and I’ll have to be on top of my game.
What will Magnus try to change?
I’ll try to play better, probably play a bit faster. I’m really, really playing slow the last couple of days.
The format of the final is exactly the same as the quarterfinals and semifinals, so the outcome will only be determined on Magnus Carlsen’s 30th birthday on Monday, whatever happens on Sunday. Don’t miss all the action from 18:00 CET here on chess24!
Before that we also have a full program of events starting with a Q&A session with 8-time Russian Champion Peter Svidler at 14:00 CET.
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