FTX Crypto Cup 3: Carlsen-Naka in QFs as Magnus & Nepo scrape through

Fabiano Caruana cruised to 1st place in his debut Meltwater Champions Chess Tour preliminary stage, scoring 10/15 to finish a full point ahead of the field. He plays Ian Nepomniachtchi in the quarterfinals, after the new World Championship Challenger scraped an unlikely win against Alexander Grischuk in the final round. That almost knocked out Magnus Carlsen, with the World Champion calling it a “massive relief” that he ultimately beat Teimour Radjabov on demand. Levon Aronian and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov were the players to suffer last-round heartbreak.

You can replay all the games from the FTX Crypto Cup Prelims using the selector below – click on a result to open a game with computer analysis or hover over a player to see all of his results.

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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Four of the world’s Top 10 – Ding Liren, Levon Aronian, Alexander Grischuk and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, joined star names Alireza Firouzja, Peter Svidler and Daniil Dubov in crashing out of the FTX Crypto Cup in a brutal final day of the Prelims.

For some of the players at the top, however, drama was kept to a minimum.

Fabiano Caruana cruises to victory

World Champion Magnus Carlsen had won all five preliminary stages of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, but this time it was the debutant world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana who took control. After winning a seemingly hopeless position against Alan Pichot on Day 2 he never looked backed, with victory over Alexander Grischuk in Round 12 meaning he could relax.

33…Kd6? was a blunder that lost on the spot.

34.c5+! meant Fabi was winning the black bishop on a6, so Grischuk resigned.

In the end Caruana made it six wins and one loss, as he finished a full point ahead of the four players in 2nd place. He commented, “After the 1st day it went as well as I could have possibly hoped for,” before adding, “it’s easy to enjoy yourself when you’re doing well!”

The next five players also wrapped up qualification with at least a round to spare, with Wesley So, the only player to remain unbeaten, summing up the pragmatic approach. He began the tournament with wins over Alexander Grischuk and Daniil Dubov and decided, correctly as it turned out, that a +2 score would mean qualification. So he set about drawing games, with only two of the draws in the next 10 games featuring any real play (against Svidler and Nepo). Wesley then made things safe by beating underdog Alan Pichot in Round 13, before returning to another two instant draws. Half of his 12 draws lasted exactly 14 moves.

No-one else took things to quite such an extreme, but Anish Giri recovered from his wobble at the end of Day 2 to beat Teimour Radjabov in Round 11 before cruising home, while Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was also safe after a brilliant win over Ian Nepomniachtchi in the same round. Hikaru Nakamura had a tougher final day, as we’ll see, but bounced back instantly from a loss to Alireza Firouzja.

Teimour Radjabov would ultimately finish 7th, but had wrapped up qualification before the final round, with a win over Ding Liren immediately undoing the damage done by a loss to Anish Giri in the first game of the final day. The Chinese no. 3, again playing in the middle of the night, made a very uncharacteristic error.

With the top 6 getting the job done early, they would be able to enjoy the show in the final round.

Before we get to that, however, let’s look at the players who were out of contention before that round.

Firouzja, Svidler and Ding fall short

Alan Pichot was the only player who went into the final day of the FTX Crypto Cup with no chance of qualifying, and although there were highs – drawing against Magnus, beating Firouzja and almost beating Caruana – the Argentinian 22-year-old performed roughly as expected, with 8 losses in a row at the end.

Alexander Grischuk needed five wins to have a chance and started the last day with a win over his good friend Peter Svidler, but a loss to Fabiano Caruana ended any potential challenge. Caruana also put the final nail in the coffin of Daniil Dubov’s hopes, though Alireza Firouzja had struck the first blow in Round 11. 

After a game in which Daniil was pressing with White, Alireza suddenly met 32.Kh2? with the winning 32…Ne5!

The only way to avoid losing an exchange to Nf3+ was to except the sacrifice with 33.fxe5, but after 33…Qf3! Black was threatening Bxe5+ and mate-in-3. 34.Rg2 stopped the instant mate, but ran into 34…Bxe5+ 35.Kg1 h3! and Daniil had to give back the piece with 36.Nxh3. The rest was easy for the Iranian youngster.

Alireza Firouzja was left to regret a disastrous 2nd day on which he lost two more games after blundering his queen against Pichot, since he put up a real fight on the last day. After finding some great resources in a draw against Magnus Carlsen, he won a model Benko Gambit against Hikaru Nakamura.

A win over Levon Aronian in the penultimate round would have given him a real chance of qualification, but instead he overpressed and lost.

We saw Ding Liren’s endgame blunder against Teimour Radjabov, and the loss of a must-win penultimate round game against Ian Nepomniachtchi meant the Chinese star was also out.

The last player whose chances had gone all but mathematically before the final round was Peter Svidler, who was in fact the only player who ended Day 2 in a qualifying spot but failed to qualify. His last day featured just three draws and two losses, but that was little reflection on the 8-time Russian Champion’s play. Peter was a very healthy extra pawn up against Magnus Carlsen, but the grimly determined World Champion tricked his way out of danger.

Peter was then pushing hard against Hikaru Nakamura before falling for another sucker punch.

He came close to drawing that game anyway with a fortress, but let it slip, before a tough day to take was rounded off by missing some winning chances against Alireza Firouzja in the last round, though by that stage it wouldn’t have mattered.

Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi survive and incredible last round

That meant four players went into the final round with their fate undecided, and as none of them were playing each other there were countless possible scenarios. Magnus Carlsen and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov had a half point lead, which meant Levon Aronian and Ian Nepomniachtchi knew only a win was likely to give them a chance.

Levon Aronian appeared on paper to have the easiest game, since he was facing an Alan Pichot who had lost the last 7 games in a row, and although Pichot was objectively doing very well according to the computer it’s unlikely Levon was disappointed to see his opponent’s king on e2, on a board full of pieces, by move 11. After 16.Be3? it was all over.

Only one move wins, but it’s a crusher – 16…d4!, opening a path for the b7-bishop. After 17.Bxd4 Raf8! 18.Qb3 Black began to collect with 18…Rxf3! Alan only staggered on for another 7 moves.

Since Levon had beaten Magnus in Round 10 and head-to-head encounter was the first tiebreaker, that was bad news for the World Champion, though there was better news in Dubov-Mamedyarov. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov had been in the qualifying spots since beating Pichot in Round 11, but soon got into a difficult position and lost with Black to Daniil Dubov.

For Magnus Carlsen, the final day had been yet another ordeal. He later commented on his event so far:

So the first day was really, really bad and the second was a lot better but a really, really poor last game. And today was just nerves. I felt really, really uneasy after losing the last game yesterday, and I never could find my rhythm at all today, and I’m just happy to survive.

In fact the day should have got off to a perfect start for Magnus, since he managed to outplay his great rival Hikaru Nakamura.

The advantage grew for Magnus, but with so many pieces still on the board, and the white king soon exposed, it was tough to navigate with time running out. His hopes finally faded on move 48.

48.fxe3! fxe3 49.R2d3! was the way to deal with the black pawns while retaining the pin on the d-file. The white king could now handle the remaining pawn and Magnus would win easily.

Instead we saw 48.Rd1? e2! 49.Re1 Ne5! 50.Rxe5 Bxe5 and here Magnus missed his last chance when he played 51.Kg2?! and after 51…Rf8 he agreed a draw.

In fact he could have played on with 51.Rxe2! Qh3 52.Rd2! exploiting the weakness of Black’s back rank. The desire to end a game that had gotten so out of control was understandable, however. If Magnus was half-joking when he described Nakamura as the “most annoying” player in the FTX Crypto Cup, Hikaru had lived up to the description perfectly.

When it comes to resilience then I think Nakamura is the one who speaks out the most as somebody who’s just annoyingly hard to get through and to break down. He always seems to come back and find resources when you expect him to go down.

The day didn’t get easier for Magnus, who seemed to be getting the upper hand against Firouzja until he delayed pushing his h-pawn and allowed Alireza to push instead. Then there was a little trick.

33.Nxh6! was based on 33…gxh6?? 34.Qxe5!, and although after 33…Qxh5 Black was fine, any winning chances had gone.

We’ve seen how Magnus suffered to survive against Svidler, and then he decided it was time to calm things down and play the Berlin against Fabiano Caruana. Even there he had to work harder than in the 14-move Anti-Berlin draws we’ve become so used to.

That meant it all came down to a final game with the white pieces against the already-qualified Teimour Radjabov. Magnus knew that only a win would ensure him a place in the quarterfinals, so the pressure was on.

I was aware that I would very, very likely be out with a draw. I was following the other games a bit, but there was only so much that I can do. Fortunately I managed to pull it off myself in the end, but it was nerve-wracking.

The opening went well for Magnus, but it was a tricky position where you had to be very sure you’d correctly calculated the moment to cash in.

The computer calmly suggests 23.Bxf4! exf4 24.Qxg4, but note that’s not simply winning a pawn – after 24…Rg6 25.Qxf4 Black can take the exchange with 25…Bxa1 26.Rxa1. That position is winning for White, but Magnus instead went for 23.Bc1!? and only later went for the sacrifice: “I sort of just decided that I’d had enough of this and I just wanted some clarity, so I sacked the exchange”.

He did it at a moment when it wasn’t actually winning, but more swings followed until ultimately it came down to a drawish queen ending. At that time it looked as though a draw might be enough for Magnus, but fortunately for the World Champion after 44.g5 Radjabov cracked.

44…Qe6? 45.Qxe6! fxe6 suddenly left Carlsen with a winning pawn ending. The ordeal was soon over.

“Getting through is the most important thing, but obviously it’s a massive relief!” he commented afterwards. He said he didn’t know what Teimour was thinking to go into the pawn ending, before coming up with a plausible suggestion.

It was a strange situation in a sense, because he had nothing to play for in this game, while I had everything, so maybe at the end he thought, ok, this ending is difficult, I don’t want to suffer, let’s see if the pawn ending is a draw, but obviously it’s not.

That victory turned out to be absolutely essential for Magnus, who would have been knocked out if he’d drawn, while instead it was Levon Aronian who suffered heartbreak at the hands of Ian Nepomniachtchi. Ian said immediately after victory over Alexander Grischuk:

It was exciting! I think it was never anything close to this in terms of excitement in Yekaterinburg [where he won the Candidates Tournament to become Magnus Carlsen’s World Championship Challenger]. This was like really, I struggled for every half point, and many thanks to Anish, who decided to make a perpetual check instead of winning.

Nepo had started the day with a loss to MVL, bounced back to beat Alan Pichot, but would have been out of contention if not for Anish Giri’s decision to show mercy at the end of their game.

Anish decided simply to confirm his own qualification with 33.Qf8+ Rg8 34.Qf6+ and a draw by perpetual check, but he could instead have played 33.Qxe5! when, for a player of his level, overpowering Black’s defences wouldn’t have been tough. For instance, 33…Qa4 34.f6! Rf7 35.Re1! and Black could resign with a clear conscience.

Instead Nepo was given a lifeline and went on to beat Ding Liren in a must-win game for both players, to go into the final round with a chance. The chance seemed slim when Alexander Grischuk once again acted “like a terrorist”, as he’d said of his game against Anish Giri in the penultimate round of the Candidates. In both cases Grischuk went for a position where his opponent could only reject a draw by accepting a bad position.

That’s what Nepo did, but when he didn’t go for a tricky tactical shot (32…Rxg2+!) we got an ending where Grischuk looked favourite to get a draw or better.

In slow motion you could point out moments when Alexander could have given Aronian a place in the quarterfinals, such as here. 49.Qb4!, with both the c6-bishop attacked and the threat of Qf8, Qg7#, forces off the queens, and in fact the ending after 49…Qxb4+ 50.Kxb4 is just won for White.

The game was played in real time, however, and with three seconds remaining Grischuk went for 49.Qc4 instead. A few moves later Nepo had stabilised and was able to play 52…h4!, starting a triumphant march of his kingside pawns that brought him qualification for the quarterfinals.

Nepo now faces world no. 2 Caruana, but he was just glad, like Magnus, to have pulled through.

I’m pretty happy that I will play somebody in the quarterfinals! If things would go differently for me I would face some Banter Blitz, or some commentary, or I would face probably I should spend these coming days for some preparation for some other event, but for now I’m really happy I’m still in and it doesn’t really matter for me who to play with.

As well as Nepomniachtchi-Caruana, we have MVL-So, Giri-Radjabov and Nakamura-Carlsen, a repeat of the New in Chess Classic final.

“I guess it’s not ideal for either of us, but it’s a lot better than being out!” summed up Magnus. There’s no break in the tournament, so the quarterfinals start at 17:00 CEST on Wednesday May 26. Don’t miss all the action right here on chess24!

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