FTX Crypto Cup 5: Are we headed for a Carlsen-Nepo preview?

We may get a World Championship match rehearsal, either in the final or the 3rd place match, after both Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi made it through to the FTX Crypto Cup semi-finals. Magnus took down Hikaru Nakamura after coming back from losing the first game on Day 2 of their quarterfinals to win a blitz playoff. Nepo also needed blitz to beat Fabiano Caruana and will now face Wesley So, who cruised to victory over Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Magnus takes on Teimour Radjabov, who knocked out Anish Giri.

You can replay all the games from the knockout stage of 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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Day 2 of the FTX Crypto Cup quarterfinals saw no comebacks for the players who lost on Day 1, but the other two matches were just as thrilling as on Day 1, with both going to blitz.

Let’s take the matches in order of how fast they finished. 

Wesley So eases past Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Wesley commented on his tournament so far after he’d beaten Maxime in three games:

I think I managed to minimise the mistakes I make so far and take the chances that my opponents give me.

One way of minimising mistakes was of course to avoid playing too much chess, with Ian Nepomniachtchi quipping, “eight quick draws are coming!” when he learned they were playing in the semi-finals. He added:

Jokes aside, Wesley is probably the most consistent player in the whole tour. Probably he doesn’t like to play, because I guess in the group stage he made eight quick draws this time, and in the long past days of my glory I only made three. Eight is definitely more than three, so there is another record to watch out for.

Ian also pointed out the dilemma for Wesley’s opponents, however:

It’s very difficult to pull him out for a fight, but if you manage to pull him out for a fight then you just lose!

MVL had found that to his cost on the first day of the quarterfinals, when Wesley won the final two games. That meant Maxime had to win the rapid portion on Day 2 to force a playoff, but he was willing to put the emphasis on the games where he had White, since he allowed Wesley another lightning fast draw in Game 1.

Game 2, however, effectively ended the match. The opening went badly for Maxime, but he had the chance to offer a draw by repetition of moves on move 34.

The way to do that was 34.Nf6, and if Wesley did decide to play on the battle would have been evenly-matched. Instead Maxime blitzed out 34.Nc7?, when after 34…Rc8! Wesley went on to consolidate and win easily with his extra exchange.

That meant to win the mini-match and force a playoff Maxime needed to do the near impossible and beat Wesley twice in a row, starting with the black pieces. He never came close, with Wesley better for all of the 3rd and final game, before the players agreed a draw on move 44. They both ended with more time on their clocks than they started.

Wesley felt his opponent hadn’t been at the top of his game:

Maxime is a great player but I don’t think he was able to play his best in our match today. I think compared to the match we played three months ago he was not able to put much pressure with the white pieces, unlike previously. Also I learned from my mistake which is not to play 1.e4 against Maxime!

Teimour Radjabov holds off Anish Giri

Radjabov is very much from the Wesley So school of chess and, after winning on Day 1, was happy to make identical 15-move draws with the white pieces in Games 1 and 3, saying afterwards, “I didn’t have any intention to play with White – why should I?”

Anish was also ok with putting the emphasis on his own games with White, and it was a strategy that might have paid off. Both were Anti-Berlins, and in the first he had a promising rook and pawn ending before trading down into a pawn ending. That ending was drawn, though it was tricky, and could have become study-like if Anish had followed a suggestion from his Dutch grandmaster colleague Benjamin Bok.

The only draw for Radjabov there is 56…Qf5+!, giving up his queen to get stalemate. White could refuse the offer, but can’t avoid perpetual check or losing his pawns.

In the final game Anish never really got any chances and offered a draw just in time at the end after making a losing blunder. The match had been decided by a single loss on Day 1, of which Anish commented:

Every loss is annoying in its own way, and how this loss is annoying is that there was nothing going on at all in the opening and I was in no danger whatsoever, but I followed the plan that I had prepared and looked at the same day, but in just a slightly different version, and that made a gigantic difference, and I just got a lost position from the get-go. If I was not prepared at all, I would just have made a normal move and not landed in trouble. Sometimes being not 100% prepared is worse than 0% prepared – sometimes the preparation can backfire!

That brings us to the two blockbuster quarterfinal clashes, which featured more action than can easily be summarised.

Magnus Carlsen triumphs after thriller

After all four games were won by White on Day 1 of this quarterfinal it looked as though Day 2 might get off to another win for White – at least if you looked at the computer analysis! From a human perspective, Hikaru Nakamura, playing Black, had come up with a new approach against the Italian that saw Magnus burn up 12 minutes from his 16th to 18th moves. Peter Leko felt Black was on top.

Magnus found some great moves that objectively did give him an advantage, but the time deficit became critical when he decided to go for a flawed sacrifice.

26.Nxe5? dxe5 27.Rxe5? (in fact 27.Rxa5! Rxa5 and the double attack 28.Qb4! could still have held the balance) 27…Rd8!

Hikaru blitzed out this move, which has the point that 28.Rxe7? loses to 28…Rd1+! 29.Kh2 Qd6+, picking up the rook.

After 28.Re6 Qg7 Magnus was down a piece, and although he put up strong resistance Hikaru maintained concentration and won, with a knight fork abruptly ending the game.

To lose with Black was a heavy blow, and it seemed chess fans hadn’t managed to unsettle Hikaru…

…but Magnus said afterwards:

It was unpleasant, obviously, but I did have this experience against him another day, or on many other days, it felt like when he’s got the first win he has a tendency to maybe tighten up a little bit and be a bit nervous, so I was hoping that was going to happen today as well. 

Magnus needed to win, but as he still had three games to go he didn’t need to go all-in just yet. That made his choice of a Hedgehog setup – seemingly modest but ready to counterattack – the perfect approach.

On move 18 Magnus pushed his b-pawn, inviting sacrifices.

Hikaru accepted the provocation with 19.Ncxb5 axb5 20.Nxb5 and after 20…h5!? 21.a4!? it was clear that the players were focused on opposite sides of the board. Magnus was going after the white king while Hikaru tried to promote his queenside pawns, but after 27.b6 it was Magnus who took over.

27…Qe5! 28.f4 Qc3! 29.Qe1 Qd3! was a bold queen invasion, after which Hikaru’s position rapidly fell apart. The play that followed wasn’t flawless from the World Champion, but it was practical and powerful and worked to perfection, with the white rooks ultimately helpless against Black’s coordinated forces.

After suffering in Game 1 in the Italian, what would Magnus do now with White? He played 1.b4!? again, with the stakes at their highest, a decision that provoked pure joy in Peter Leko!

As in the preliminaries against Anish Giri, Magnus soon got a decent position out of the opening, but he nearly got punished after 13.a3?

Hikaru pounced with 13…Bxe2! 14.Rxe2 cxd4 15.cxd4 Nxd4! 16.exd4 Rxe2 17.Qxe2 Bxd4

18.Ra2 Rc1+ 19.Bf1 Rxb1 20.Qd3 Rb2 21.Rxb2 Bxb2 and White was down two pawns, but fortunately for Magnus, 22.Qd6! meant his position was far from disastrous.

With such a dominant queen, and opposite-coloured bishops, Magnus escaped with only a slight scare. In the final rapid game Magnus played the Berlin and for once we got no real drama, with the action switching to a blitz playoff.

In contrast to most of the Carlsen-Nakamura contests we’d witnessed, the difference here was that Hikaru had finished higher in the Prelims so that if things did go to Armageddon he’d get to choose colours. First we had to get to Armageddon, however, and Hikaru’s choice to start with Black went badly.

Magnus switched to 1.d4 and managed to confuse Hikaru, whose 10…c5? already landed him in deep trouble.

After 11.Nb5! Ne8 12.dxc5 Peter Leko could understand the US star not wanting to enter an unpleasant ending with 12…Qxd1, but that would have given much greater chances than the position after 12…Nd7?, when Magnus had complete dominance.

There was a funny moment at the end when Hikaru moved his queen and completely forgot it needed to defend the c5-bishop, but by that stage it was hopeless anyway.

With the way the match had gone you certainly couldn’t rule out Hikaru hitting back with the white pieces to force Armageddon, but in fact Magnus was already better a dozen moves in to an Anti-Berlin. It soon became an absolute massacre, with Magnus Carlsen overjoyed after 37…Bxc2 ended the game. White can’t take back or the e1-rook falls, among other issues!

Magnus summed up:

I’m happy of course, but I think it was more a question of him not playing to anything close to his abilities in the blitz. So I didn’t really have to do too much apart from not putting something en prise, seeing as I was winning after the opening in the first game, and in the second game I just had to put my pieces on decent squares and not blunder – but obviously very satisfying!

Magnus was full of praise for his opponent, and the respect is mutual.

Obviously as well thanks to Hikaru as well for making it a great match. It’s always a pleasure to play these matches against him and they are never boring!

Magnus was expecting a much cagier semi-final match against Teimour Radjabov, who he beat after winning a single game in the New in Chess Classic quarterfinals, but his self-assessment sounded ominous for his opponents:

My own play was ok. There were some good moments and definitely some bad moments as well, but I do feel that while I can obviously play better, I feel like I’m sort of into the rhythm now. I got a serious wake-up call here in the preliminaries, and the quarterfinals were just a continuation of that really, that there were never any easy moments. Right at the end that’s the only time I actually led, which is actually what happened against him in the tour finals as well. So I definitely feel ready for more fights now.

Nepomniachtchi eventually gets past Caruana

We could now get to see a Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi match as a teaser for the World Championship match in Dubai, after Ian Nepomniachtchi found a way to get past Fabiano Caruana. The Russian no. 1 was scathing of the play of both players:

Speaking about the quality it was maybe the worst match for both sides for the entire tour. It will be very difficult to break this record!

That wasn’t really true, just as it wasn’t true when Nepomniachtchi said he was losing in more or less every game, though it was close! The most dramatic occasion was in Game 2 where, a pawn up, Nepo went for 60.Kh2? and after 60…Kxh4 61.Qe7+ we got the moment of truth.

Here Fabi, perhaps happy to have survived a tough game, went for 61…Kh5 62.Qe3 Kh4 63.Qe7+ and a draw by repetition. Ian said afterwards:

In Game 2 probably I made the only losing move, Kh2, and somehow Fabiano went for a 3-fold repetition. I was very shocked.

It was an echo of the preliminaries, where Ian’s chances of qualification would have been over if Anish Giri hadn’t taken a draw in a winning position. In that case it made sense for Anish, but here a win would have been huge for Fabiano, who should have played 61…g5! Since 62.fxg5 Qf2+! is mate-in-4, Nepo would have to play 62.Qe3, but after 62…Qh3+ 63.Kg1 Qg3+ 64.Kf1 g4! Black should triumph. 

The next big miss came when Fabiano suddenly took over after a long war of attrition in the next game.

He has total control of the position, and could have picked up material while retaining his grip with 53.Ra6! Instead after 53.Qxf6!? Kh7 54.Be3? Qg6! Ian was right back in the game and eventually managed to hold.

Ian had some chances in the final rapid game, but after a draw the action switched to blitz. In the first game, Fabiano seemed to mix up something in the opening and was soon in dire trouble, but he put up great resistance.

In the end, however, Nepo took the lead going into the final blitz game. Just when it seemed we were going to have no more drama, Fabi suddenly gained a big advantage in a rook ending, but eventually it fizzled out into a 69-move draw. Ian Nepomniachtchi was a relieved man.

So after a great tour debut, Fabiano Caruana was out, while Nepo goes on to face Wesley So in the quarterfinals. The winner will play the winner of Carlsen-Radjabov for a top prize of around $80,000, depending on the varying fortunes of Bitcoin. The players who lose will play a match for 3rd place.

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