FTX Crypto Cup 7: Carlsen & So meet in 3rd final

Magnus Carlsen will be hoping it’s 3rd time lucky on Sunday as he takes on Wesley So in the FTX Crypto Cup final after losing to Wesley in their two previous Meltwater Champions Chess Tour finals. Wesley was on top of his game as he calmly dealt with everything Ian Nepomniachtchi threw at him to win their semi-final with a game to spare. Magnus said he’ll need to play better to beat Wesley, but even while not firing on all cylinders he won the 1st and 4th games against Teimour Radjabov to book his spot in the final.

You can replay all the games from the knockout stages of the FTX Crypto Cup, the 6th event on the $1.5 million Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, using the selector below.

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

And David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.

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There was no need for blitz tiebreaks as Magnus and Wesley wrapped up victory in the rapid games.

Wesley’s “impeccable calculation” brings victory

Ian Nepomniachtchi needed to win in rapid chess on Day 2 after losing to Wesley So in the last game of the first day, a clash remembered most for Nepo’s battle with a horde of mosquitoes. It seemed he’d dealt with those creatures, but Wesley So proved a much tougher opponent.

After playing 1.Nf3 on Day 1 of the match, Ian switched to 1.c4, before going for an old line with 5.Nd5 0-0 6.Ng1.

This had been played all the way back in 1937 by Salo Flohr, but after 6…0-0 Nepo’s decision to play the immediate 7.Nh3!? was already a novelty. The knight continued its journey to f4 and we soon got a completely unorthodox position that grew wilder by the move. Wesley admitted he was “under severe pressure” and the best chance for White perhaps came after 25…Nxd4.

The quiet 26.Qd3! is the computer’s suggestion, when Black has nothing better than 26…g6 27.exd5 gxh5 28.Bxd4 cxd4 29.Qxd4 and the kind of heavy piece position where Magnus Carlsen has mentioned that Nepomniachtchi is particularly strong.

Instead Ian immediately went for the dramatic 26.Bxd4 cxd4 27.Rxg7 d3! 28.Qf2 Qxe4 29.Re1 Ne3! 30.Qxe3.

The threat of Qh6 and a quick checkmate is real, but Wesley has one move to save himself: 31…d2! after which it turned out that Nepo had to force a draw by perpetual check with 32.Rxh7+! Kxh7 33.Nxf6+! Kg6 34.Qg3+ and there was no way for Wesley’s king to escape the checks.

After that pure thriller the players took a breather with a lightning fast draw in Game 2. Wesley was happy to get closer to the winning line, while Ian decided to stake everything on the white pieces in Game 3. 

This time he chose 1.d4 and was soon echoing Radjabov the day before by pushing his h-pawn and bringing his rook to g3 rather than castling. He then sacrificed a pawn to open up lines to the black king with 19.d5?! exd5 20.Bb2, but Wesley here showed his fantastic calculating ability.

Not fearing any ghosts, he went for the only winning move 20…dxe4!, allowing White to capture on g7, since after 21.Bxg7+ Kh7 22.Bxf8 Bxf8 the e-pawn is still attacking two pieces and Black emerges material ahead. 23.Rg4?! accelerated the end, with the remaining moves agony for the Russian no. 1.

Ian was impressed.

That means we won’t get to see a match rehearsal for the World Championship in Dubai, though Nepo also won’t be switching to other tournaments quite yet as he still plays in the 3rd place match.

For Wesley, meanwhile, that’s now 29 games unbeaten in the FTX Crypto Cup. He commented:

I haven’t lost any games this tournament yet so far, which is a huge blessing, but in all fairness I’d like to apologise to Ian for the match. I think he might still be a bit tired from the Candidates, so I don’t think he played his best today, but in all honesty I think he was putting me in a lot of pressure in a couple of games yesterday.

Wesley revealed his main preparation had been to get 10 hours’ sleep. Next up is Magnus Carlsen, the other standout performer on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, who found a way past Teimour Radjabov.

Carlsen holds off Radjabov

Magnus Carlsen had suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of Teimour Radjabov in the last game of the first day of their semi-final, and it felt like it was still having an impact in the first game of day 2.

Peter later commented that if you’d asked him at this stage what Black’s winning chances were he’d have said zero. Magnus said something similar:

I can’t say that I had a very aggressive mind-set but I decided at least I wanted to play something less theoretical and try and get a game, but realistically I think I messed something up and I was just quite a bit worse.

It looks like Teimour misplayed the position when exchanging queens, with Magnus continuing:

Fortunately I managed to solve my problems, he probably didn’t choose the right way, and after that I already felt like I had some psychological initiative, so I tried to find a way to play for a win and finally he blundered, which was very, very satisfying, because it was easy at some point in that game to be satisfied with the fact that I solved my problems and that I could make a draw, but I was trying to keep some life and it really paid off.

The black a-pawn became a thorn in White’s side, though the game only finally ended abruptly after 44.Kc5? (44.Kc3! and there’s still work to do).

44…Na5! made Nb3+ an unstoppable threat. 45.Nd4 would run into 45…Rxd4! and Nb3 anyway, so that Teimour simply resigned.

Game 2 was a cautious Berlin and Game 3 looked set to be another dry affair, when Magnus repeated a pet line of Wesley So’s.

Both in the Skilling Open against Radjabov and against Nepo in the FTX Crypto Cup Prelims, Wesley had played 21…Rd5 and soon eliminated the e5-pawn. Here, however, Magnus played 21…Rd4?! and found himself simply a pawn down in a tricky endgame.

How tricky and hard to judge was evident from the fact that neither Peter Svidler nor Peter Leko were sure if it was a win or a draw, but it looks as though they were right about the moment Magnus was finally safe.

Here Teimour played 51.Rg8+, which only gave Magnus a crucial tempo (51…Kf7) to start the transfer of his king to the queenside, while his rook could handle the h-pawn. What was happening on the chessboard was still far from obvious to mere mortals, but Sesse computer’s evaluation dropped from +8 for 51.b3 for Teimour to 0.00, and Magnus’ relief at the end was plain for all to see.

Allegedly he even broke into song…

That meant Magnus now only needed a draw with the white pieces to reach the final, and desperate times called for desperate measures for Teimour. He played a “reverse Adhiban”, 1.e4 b6!?, and although he managed to keep pieces on the board that was where his achievements ended. 17…c5!?, giving up the chance ever to play c6 and try to break apart White’s structure, was a surprise.

Magnus could simply have played to keep the position closed for the whole game, but instead he accepted an invitation to play 25.f4! and easily refuted the tactical try 30…Bf5?

31.exf5 Qxf6 32.fxg6! was winning in all kinds of different ways, with Magnus ultimately picking one in which he trapped the black queen.

The smile said it all!

That meant that Magnus has now reached four of the six finals on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, but the most relevant fact is that he’s lost the two finals he’s played against Wesley. Does Wesley feel like the favourite?

He’s not showing any signs of slowing down at this point in his career, so he’s still the favourite in any match, but again, as usual, I hope to put up a good fight and [bring] some entertainment. It’s hard to say, but any match with Magnus is a big honour already and a good learning experience.

Magnus feels he needs to improve.

It’s been awfully tense. I can’t say that my play is flowing great, but I’m in the finals and that’s the most important thing! You can always improve as you get there, but as I’ve said before as well, I think I need to play better to beat Wesley than I have so far, but the way the tournament has been going even being in the final is obviously a massive achievement for me.

“He’s not an easy person to beat”, added Magnus, though he did note that he has beaten Wesley on the tour in a 3rd place match. On this occasion, the third place match will be between Radjabov and Nepomniachtchi.

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