FTX Crypto Cup 2: Carlsen plays 1.b4 as race blown wide open

Magnus Carlsen started Day 2 of the FTX Crypto Cup with 1.b4 and followed up with 1.b3, but while those experiments went well he was cursing the “worst self-inflicted wound” of losing to Levon Aronian in the final round of the day. That left him in a qualification dogfight on 5.5/10, but he’s not alone, with the top 9 players separated by a single point. Fabiano Caruana came back from the dead to beat Alan Pichot, then take down leader Anish Giri, on the way to posting the day’s best 4/5 score and joining Hikaru Nakamura and Teimour Radjabov in the lead.

You can replay all the games from the FTX Crypto Cup, the 6th event on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev.

And from David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.

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It’s hard to summarise 40 games of chess, but by looking at how things went for world no. 1 Magnus Carlsen and world no. 142 Alan Pichot we’ll meet most of the main actors and get to see a lot of enjoyable chess.

Magnus Carlsen with some monkey business

Carlsen vs. leader Anish Giri was always likely to be a memorable start to Day 2, but Magnus ensured it got top billing with his very first move, 1.b4!? It’s variously known as the Sokolsky (Alexei Sokolsky, 1908-1969, wrote a book on it) and Polish Opening, but it’s most appealing name is the Orangutan! It was enough to inspire a young Peter Leko to play it, until he was taught better.

Why the Orangutan? Well, as Marcin Furdyna wrote in From Rubinstein to Duda: Polish chess in a nutshell:

Of the many brilliant anecdotes that circulate about Polish chess players, many concern Ksawery (Savielly) Tartakower. In 1924, while attending the New York International chess tournament, he visited the Bronx Zoo on a day off. At some point, he walked up to a cage with an orangutan, took out a small chess set and asked the animal what opening he should play in the next round. No one knows whether the animal had studied chess before, but she (as her name was Susan) reportedly told Tartakower to play 1.b4, and so he did.

It was once played by future World Champion Boris Spassky against former World Champion Vasily Smyslov, but it’s fair to assume it completely surprised the incredibly booked up Dutch no. 1. Anish picked the most principled response with 1…e5 2.Bb2 Bxb4 3.Bxe5 Nf6 4.c3 Be7 while with 5.g3 Magnus was already going where no strong player had ever gone before.

The offbeat opening paid off when Anish played the loose 18…g6?!

That left the f6-bishop undefended, which could have been exploited immediately with 19.Bxc6!? bxc6 20.Rxc6, hitting the queen and bishop, though some tactical details limit the damage for Black: 20…Bd7! 21.Rxb6 Bxa4 22.Rxf6 Kg7 23.Ra6 (the only square) and 23…Bb5 hits both rooks.

There was no need to get involved in that murkiness, however, since after 19.Rc3 Bg5 20.Rb3 Magnus was simply able to pick up the a7-pawn. It was the kind of position where with the World Champion playing White you expect to be able to write, “the rest was a matter of technique”, but in fact Magnus made what he called a “terrible” blunder later on and the game fizzled out into a draw.

A relieved Anish tweeted:

Giri was caught by Hikaru Nakamura after that draw, but regained the sole lead with a win over Alireza Firouzja in Round 8, only to get soundly beaten by Peter Svidler and Fabiano Caruana in the last two games of the day. Fortunes can change fast in these preliminaries!

Even the tweet proved a hostage to fortune, since after a solid draw against Ding Liren in Round 7, Magnus came back and played 1.b3 against Alexander Grischuk in Round 8. Grischuk met fire with fire, with his 6…d5!? seemingly a novelty. It invited Magnus to grab a pawn on g7, and he did, with chaos on board. Peter Leko thought Alexander was going about things the wrong way.

From the position on the big board here play continued 9.Nc3, and it looks like 9…Nb4! was Black’s chance to survive his adventures. Instead after 9…Ne7? 10.e3! it was all Carlsen, who found a beautiful finish with 25.Rg4!

The following may not be completely authentic footage of the players.

That first win since Round 1 for Magnus was followed up immediately by a win with the black pieces over his sometime nemesis Daniil Dubov, and on +2, just half a point off the lead, things were looking good for the World Champion.

It wouldn’t last, however, as disaster struck against Levon Aronian in the final game of the day. The Armenian no. 1 had escaped unpunished for some crazy king manoeuvres in a win over Grischuk at the start of the day, but since then had suffered. He rejected a draw offer from Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (“for a reason that I can’t explain”) and lost, and blundered horribly against a seemingly on-tilt Ian Nepomniachtchi with 28…Bb6?

The double attack 29.Qb7! won an exchange and the game for Nepo. 

“I had such a dreadful day except the first game, that I didn’t care,” said Levon of his approach to the last game, but a blunder in a good position perhaps helped him to win! 26.c4? was the move.

Magnus would later comment:

I have to say this really, really pisses me off, the last game. First of all, I played really, really poorly when I exchanged queens, and then he went for this insane c4 thing, which should never ever give him anything, instead of just going h4, h5 and being better. I’ve no idea what he was thinking there. Then I just made a number of poor decisions after that and then he converted well, but this really to me at least felt like the worse self-inflicted wound.

Levon admitted his move made “zero sense” and explained:

I blundered that he can just retreat with the king, otherwise I would have played h4 with just a very pleasant position.

After 26…Kf7! White’s advantage had gone, but not for long! Magnus was tempted into playing for a win and though it looks like Black is attacking, threatening the g4-pawn and Nd3+, in fact it’s all White.

I couldn’t find the right time to pull the handbrake and in the end I just blundered 35.Nxg5+ Ke7 36.Ne6 back, because otherwise I would be at least fine, but after I blundered that I collapsed completely. I feel it’s extremely unnecessary to end the day that way. 

36…Nd3? or 36…Nxg4 would be crushed by 37.Nxg7+, but it seems Magnus could have fought on with 36…Rxc1. Instead after 36…g5? 37.Nc5! Levon was in control, and he rubbed salt in the wound by getting to take a second pawn on g5 with the same knight later.

Levon is still a full point behind Magnus, but had reason to be relatively happy with his day.

Counting what I did today, scoring 50% is legendary!

Alan Pichot justifies his presence

If you have things tough in life, just imagine being Alan Pichot. The 22-year-old Argentinian player was voted back into arguably the strongest chess line-up ever assembled, and as world no. 142 is 114 places and 80 rating points below the next “weakest” opponent, Daniil Dubov. Alan began Day 1 with four losses in a row and might really have been fearing the worst, but a game against world no. 1 Magnus Carlsen was a good time to score his first half point. 

On Day 2 he began in the same way with a loss to Hikaru Nakamura, but then there were a wild few games he won’t forget in a hurry. First he got to sacrifice a knight on f7 on move 10 against 17-year-old superstar Alireza Firouzja. It was a sound enough sacrifice to make the game a thriller, but it looked as though Alireza might nevertheless come out on top until he blundered with 28…b5?

29.b4! Qd5 30.Bg2 suddenly trapped the black queen in the centre of the board. That should have been all she wrote, but Alireza put up a ferocious fight before finally falling to defeat. That first loss for Firouzja sent his tournament into a tailspin as he lost another two of the next three games to score only 1/5 for the day.

That was the same score as Alan, but it could have very different. He was much better in the early middlegame against Peter Svidler before suffering a tough loss. He followed that by gaining a completely winning position against Fabiano Caruana, after the world no. 2 either blundered or chose what turned out to be a tactical sequence that left White with a huge attack.

Alan handled it brilliantly until, with both players down to under a minute, he couldn’t find the knockout blow.

It was almost simple: 35.Nd8+! Kh8 36.Re8! and Black could resign, but there were so many tempting options that to single out that one was far from easy.

Instead Pichot went for 35.Ne5+ Kh8 and avoided a repetition with the unfortunate 36.Nxc4? when after 36…Nxe3! Fabi was right back in the game. As so often in such cases, he wasn’t just back but eventually found a way to win, with a nice zugzwang finish.

Alan’s head in his hands said it all. Overall, however, despite going on to lose the last game to Teimour Radjabov, it had been a good day for the Argentinian. 

It was an even better day for Fabiano, who followed that miracle win by smoothly defeating tournament leader Anish Giri in the final round of the day. Fabi leapfrogged Anish into first place, where he’s joined by Radjabov and Nakamura. It’s worth pointing out that although this is Fabi’s debut on the tour he’ll automatically qualify for the Tour Finals in September if he wins this Major.

The day’s Dubov moment

Daniil drew four games and lost one on Day 2, and has still only beaten Pichot in this event, but a day seldom goes by without something remarkable happening in his games. There was his Nf4! brilliancy against MVL on the first day, while he started the second day with an extraordinary game against Ding Liren.

If his 31.Rg3!? deliberately invited 31…Qb6+?! it was a stroke of genius.

It looks as though White is just lost, since after 32.Kg2 (32.Re3? c1=Q) 32…e3+ 33.Kh3 the c-pawn can’t be stopped from queening, but in fact that would lose for Black!

After 33…c1=Q 34.f6! Qf1+ 35.Kh4 the white king has escaped and there’s no good way to stop mate on g7. 

Ding fought on with 33…Qc5, but Dubov could have crowned an amazing game with a win. 34.Rxe3! is the move, but again after 34.Rxe3 Be6 to win you need to let Black queen with 35.Rf3!! when after 35…c1=Q 36.Qf6+ Kg8 37.fxe6 it turns out Black is helpless despite having an extra queen. The rook on f3 and the g4-pawn stop any checks, while White has a mating attack.

That might have been a bit much even for Daniil, however, and he forced a draw with checks from d8 and g5. 

At 4/10 he’ll have his work cut out to qualify for the knockout, but if he can put together a few wins it’s far from out of the question. In fact only Pichot and Alexander Grischuk can be ruled out (5 wins and 8/15 and even Grischuk might still creep in), while one round can change everything at the top!

With half of the world’s Top 10 currently in the drop zone the final day of the preliminaries is one you don’t want to miss! Tune into all the action here on chess24 from 17:00 CEST each day.

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