Wesley So and Teimour Radjabov have one foot in the FTX Crypto Cup semi-finals after winning Day 1 of their quarterfinals against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Anish Giri, but the greatest drama took place in the drawn matches. Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura traded blows with White winning all four games in a throwback to the first day of the 2020 Magnus Carlsen Invitational, the event that launched the online chess revolution. New World Championship challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi looked set to beat ex-challenger Fabiano Caruana, but couldn’t draw the final game on demand.
You can replay all the games from the knockout stages of the FTX Crypto Cup, the 6th event on the $1.5 million, 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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Day 1 of the FTX Crypto Cup quarterfinals left Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Anish Giri needing to win on demand on Day 2 to force a playoff, while the other two matches are tied.
The Carlsen and Nakamura show
“It’s pretty unusual to have four such one-sided games that we had today,” said Magnus Carlsen after White dominated all four games of his match against Hikaru Nakamura.
It wasn’t unprecedented, however! When the Magnus Carlsen Invitational was hastily arranged in April 2020 just after the pandemic shut down over-the-board chess, no-one knew exactly what to expect, but the very first round provided an incredible slugfest between the players who would go on to dominate the first tour, Magnus and Hikaru.
The only difference this time was that Hikaru had White first and that there was no Armageddon to pick a winner.
Game 1 saw Magnus repeat a line of the Open Spanish that he’d played against Ian Nepomniachtchi in this year’s Magnus Carlsen Invitational, but when Hikaru varied with 13.Nxc5 (instead of 13.bxc3) we soon found ourselves in very old territory.
The 3rd World Chess Champion Jose Capablanca had won this position with White three times in 1915-16! (the Lasker who played it in 1916 was in fact Edward Lasker and not the 2nd World Champion Emanuel).
Did Magnus have some new twist in mind? It seems not, since after 15.bxc3 Rd8 16.Qc2 Ne7?! 17.Bg5! he was already in deep trouble and ultimately lost without being able to put up much of a fight. He later admitted, “in the first game I mixed up something in the opening and he just crushed me, to be fair”.
Game 2, however, was another flashback to the 1st Magnus Carlsen Invitational, since in the first game of the semi-final there Hikaru Nakamura had the same position against Fabiano Caruana.
Back then Hikaru played 14…Nxe3 and went on to make a draw, though Fabi was better out of the opening. This time the US star sank into an over 6-minute think before allowing a sacrifice with 14…c6. Objectively it was the strongest move, but in hindsight it was something to avoid like the plague!
Magnus blitzed out 15.Bxh6! gxh6 16.Qxh6 and here Hikaru made effectively his only mistake of the game, 16…Bf5? (16…Nh7! was the only defence).
The only problem for Carlsen is that he faced a common problem in modern chess – Hikaru hadn’t played the move Magnus remembered as the computer move, so one of them had blundered, but he wasn’t sure who or how to punish it!
Obviously in the 1st white game it was one of those situations where he went Bf5 and I knew that wasn’t the right move, but I didn’t know exactly why. This had been talked about a lot before, but it’s a situation when you know that your opponent is prepared, and then your opponent starts thinking, and then something in your brain tells me, ooh, I’ve probably blundered, since he’s not prepared, and it turned out that his move was just losing.
Magnus found the best response 17.Re5! and although after 17…Bg6 his 18.Rg5 wasn’t the computer’s top choice (18.Nh4!) he kept a winning advantage. The finishing touches were elegant.
Here 28.Qh5+ Kg8 29.Qg4+ first defended the d-pawn before Re1-e6 forced resignation. The black king is completely helpless.
When afterwards Magnus was asked about opening problems with Black he pointed out that he’d done ok in the third game, before move 16, when he spent an epic 7 minutes 12 seconds before deciding to break with 16…d5!? It wasn’t a bad move in itself, but after 17.dxe5 Nxe4 Hikaru found the powerful 18.f4!
The tactical justification for such a positionally desirable move is that 18…Nxf4? 19.Nxe4! loses on the spot. Magnus lamented:
The problem was that I spent a lot of time there when I played d5, and basically I didn’t spend nearly enough time considering f4 when he played that. Somehow I was focused on Nf3, and then I think I’m fine. So firstly, if I was going to play d5 I should have played it a lot quicker, and secondly I probably shouldn’t have played it at all! But anyway, then I was completely flustered when I realised that f4 was a lot stronger than I thought, and so I went for this 18…Nh4!?, which I hadn’t really considered much at all. I just thought, I wasn’t satisfied with Qh4, so let’s try the other one, but then he immediately had a very, very good ending and it was hard to get away from.
Hikaru calmly converted, with neither player believing in the fortress that the World Champion tried to erect.
So Hikaru only needed a draw to win the match, but once again an Italian opening went perfectly for Magnus, who was soon close to winning. Objectively his plan of pushing his c-pawn may have been flawed, but it proved as effective as it was stylish.
The computer suggests doubling rooks on the a-file with rook to a2, a3 or a4 to counter Black’s planned a-pawn push, but Magnus here went for 28.c5!? a4 29.c6! Qb6 (29…Rf8! would give Hikaru chances) 30.Qd3 Rb8 (again 30…Rff8 is better) 31.Rxa4!
The whole point, as Magnus explained, is that 31…Qxb5 runs into the winning in-between move, or zwischenzug, 32.c7! Hikaru played 31…Ng6 instead, but after 32.Rb4 Nf4 33.Rxf4! exf4 34.Nd4 Magnus had total positional domination and went on to win without any trouble.
A fun day at the office for the World Champion?
I’m not enjoying it at all, because I constantly have to win on demand!
Caruana frustrates Nepomniachtchi
This heavyweight clash between the former and current World Championship challengers featured just one comeback win, but it had enough drama for four games.
First, however, it was Ian Nepomniachtchi who took the lead after Fabiano Caruana decided to play the Petroff Defence. That’s perhaps the key opening that earned him a World Championship match and one he played in London against Magnus, but Peter Leko, on Team Nepo for the Candidates, was curious. Since Ian had played the Petroff himself against Wang Hao it meant he must have done serious preparation, so were we going to get a heavy theory battle? Instead Fabi played what Peter called “the old bad line” with Bg4, but the position remained roughly equal until 33…h6? proved careless.
Suddenly with Nepo’s 34.Be1!, announcing Bb4 next, it turns out the black king was in real danger, and sure enough, 12 moves later, the mating net was closing in.
It’s zugzwang, and although Fabi stopped the mate with the desperate 45…Rxa3+ 46.Bxa3 Nxa3 he was doomed.
Fabi had some chances in Game 2, before it was Nepo who was on top in Game 3, with one position from that game requiring a diagram!
Here, with his queen and bishop both attacked while he attacks Black’s queen, Nepo quietly attacked Fabi’s knight with the computer-approved 14.f3! Queens were exchanged with 14…exd4 15.Bxc7 and the game eventually ended in a draw.
That meant Caruana had to win the final game with the white pieces to save the match, but he got off to the worst possible start. 18.Nc5 would have given him a healthy advantage against Nepomniachtchi’s French, but 18.a5? blundered into 18…Ba4!
It’s too late for 19.Nc5?, since after 19…Bxc2 20.Qxc2 Black has 20…Bxd4+! and taking the rook on a1 next move. Caruana played on with 19.Ne3, but not with any great hopes!
It wasn’t supposed to happen like that! I was basically ready to resign after 20 moves, or whatever it was. My position was beyond hopeless – it wasn’t just bad. I missed Ba4, things had already gone wrong, and then it’s just resigns. If it wasn’t a must-win I would have considered resigning at some point, but somehow I kept finding moves to avoid losing immediately.
The turnaround came with the resourceful pawn sacrifice 24.c6!
Ian Nepomniachtchi pointed out that if he’d just wanted a draw (which was all he needed) he could have played 24…Nxc6, and although White wins the exchange with 25.Bxf8, Black is in fact much better. Instead he opted for 24…Qxc6?!, when after 25.Bc5 Fabi was happy to have finally defended his d4-pawn.
Surprisingly, just five moves later, White had taken over, and the game could have come to an abrupt end on move 36.
Caruana took the a-pawn seriously with 36.Ra7, but 36.Rf7!, as pointed out by Peter Leko, just wins the f6-bishop. Ian might have resigned, but he’d probably have preferred that scenario to what happened in the game. When Fabiano let another chance to play the move slip, Nepo was able to get his own pawns rolling in the centre and reach a drawish endgame. More mistakes followed, however, until it was White’s kingside pawns that triumphed. Ian’s frustration was plain for all to see.
The post-game interview merely emphasised the point.
I guess in the end from both sides play was… awful is probably too mild a word, so probably even worse than awful!
Fabiano was asked about his approach to the second day.
I hope not more of the same! I don’t think I’ll get this lucky again, so I should probably play better and not leave my fate entirely in my opponent’s hands.
So strikes against MVL
Wesley So made an incredible number of empty draws in the preliminary stages, but this quarterfinal clash was an example of just how strong he is when he decides to play chess. He had things under control in the first two games, except for one brief moment, when Maxime Vachier-Lagrave could have exploited pins down the c-file and the a7-g1 diagonal.
The miss would prove costly for the Frenchman, since Wesley won a Berlin ending that he’d lost to Maxime in a blitz game in the Airthings Masters. This time Wesley varied with 14…h6 instead of 14…b6 and went on to win one of the most crushing Berlins you’ll see from the black side. 22…f5! was one of the star moves, with the black bishops terrorising the white king.
By the end the attack was over, but White was just down two pawns.
Maxime found himself needing to win on demand with the black pieces and went for the Benoni, but Wesley swatted away the attempt like a fly as he took the lead in the quarterfinal with a 3:1 win.
Radjabov takes the lead against Giri
This clash was all about endgames, with the Berlin Endgame in the first game of the day lasting 161 moves, for reasons best known to the players. First Anish Giri failed to win with an extra pawn, then Teimour Radjabov failed to win with… a knight against a pawn. It’s possible the players were trying to build up 20 minutes on their clocks but were thwarted by the 50-move rule!
In Game 2 it was definitely Radjabov pushing for a win, and although his decision to exchange rooks looked questionable he did build up a winning position in a bishop vs. knight endgame.
47.Be4! here was the only winning move – the white king goes to h7, the bishop is sacrificed on g6 and the h-pawn queens, but since Black gets to queen a pawn as well it needs to be calculated precisely. Instead after 47.Kf6 Kxb5 Anish was obviously relieved as his knight was comfortably able to deal with the remaining white pawns.
Game 3 featured less drama, before in Game 4 Giri went for a bold idea (14…Bxf3!? 15.Bxf3 d4!?) in a position that had been played as far back as Larsen-Gligoric in 1968. He sat back and looked relaxed in his chair after 17…Ra7.
Black would in fact be doing fine, if not for the hammer blow 18.Ne4! After 18…Nxe4, White could have won almost on the spot with 19.Rc8!, but Teimour’s 19.Qxd4!? meant the players got to play another long ending. It took 62 moves, but the Azerbaijan star was always in control.
That means Giri, like MVL, needs to hit back on Day 2 to reach a playoff for a place in the semi-finals.