Magnus Carlsen wins 4th Norway Chess title

“I came away with absolutely everything I could have hoped for,” said Magnus Carlsen after winning Norway Chess for a 3rd year in a row and a 4th time in total. He did it with another Armageddon win over his World Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi, who called his own performance “completely disgusting”. Alireza Firouzja took 2nd place for a 2nd year in a row with a stunning win over Richard Rapport that completed a 4-game winning streak. It was a tough end for Richard, but left both in the World Top 10 for the 1st time in their careers.

You can replay all the games from the 2021 edition of Norway Chess using the selector below. 

And here’s the final day’s live commentary from Judit Polgar and David Howell. 

The final day saw Alireza Firouzja pick up the full three points for a win, while Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin picked up 1.5 points for winning in Armageddon.

Magnus Carlsen pulls off a double over Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi will still go into Game 1 of the 2021 World Championship match in Dubai on November 26th with a 4:1 lead in classical wins over Magnus Carlsen, but the reigning champion finished on top of every other battle in Norway Chess.

Going into their final day clash Magnus, who had won his last four classical games in a row, knew that a draw in the first game against Nepo and a win in Armageddon would guarantee him at least a playoff for 1st place. For Ian, meanwhile, there was nothing to hope for in terms of the tournament — his one win, two losses and seven draws left him out of the battle for the top places.

That didn’t stop it being a tense struggle in classical chess, with both players not hiding the fact that they wanted to be solid, though Ian, with the white pieces, could allow himself the more ambitious goal of applying some pressure at no risk to himself. After another little dance with the ceremonial opening move…

…Ian went for the Italian (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4) and a line which he noted, “was played dozens of times recently in online events”. It was a opening where Magnus had lost no less than three games, in three different Meltwater Champions Chess Tour events, to Wesley So, with the World Champion admitting:

I’ve suffered quite a bit in this line, to be honest, so in that sense it was a good choice, and I decided to go for something solid, but Black is always a little bit worse… I think he wanted to play it relatively safe and have some chances to win, so I think in that way he succeeded. It was certainly a try.

The players were only in entirely unchartered territory by around move 20, with Ian’s choice on move 23 raising some eyebrows.

Instead of slower moves such as 23.Bd3, he went for the radical 23.Bxc4!? (“it was surprising to me as well!” — Magnus), but after a series of precise moves Magnus seemed to completely equalise: 23…dxc4 24.Re1 Qf7 25.Qe2 Ba5 26.Qe3 h6 27.Ba3 Rd8 28.h4 Kh7.

Magnus had solved all his problems, though he confessed he wasn’t seeing everything:

I have to say it was a bit embarrassing that after 29.Qh3 my intention was to go 29…Bc7, which I thought was very clever, with the idea of 30.Re7 Re8!, and I do think this works, but as Ian pointed out after the game, 29…Rxd4! would be even better!

29.Qh3? Rxd4! would just win on the spot, since 30.cxd4 runs into 30…Bxe1. Instead Ian played 29.Re2!?, which was already somewhat inaccurate, allowing 29…Qf5! 30.Qc1 Rd5!

Ian said that after this move, with the threat of sometimes playing Rb5 and Rb1, “it was never a one-sided game, as I wanted it to be”. Magnus felt he missed a chance, however, when he was spooked by the reply 31.f3.

He said after the game that he missed this idea of Rd5-Rb5, but I’d also missed 31.f3, as a matter of fact, because I thought I was just doing very well, and then he had this idea of f3 and g4 and I sort of half-panicked a little bit. I really regretted that after I’m made the move. 

I should have done something like 31…h5 and then Bc7. I have such control of the central squares that my king is not really in danger and the rook can possibly go over to b5, or even a5, and I don’t think I’m in danger here at all. So I was regretting this slightly after I’d made my move, but 31…b5 at the very least was quite safe.

After 32.Re4 Bb6 33.Be7 Ian offered a draw and, after some thought, Magnus accepted. 

That meant that once again their clash would be decided in Armageddon, and although by this stage it was looking unlikely that Richard Rapport would win his game, Magnus still needed to win (i.e. at least hold a draw with the black pieces) to ensure a playoff in case Richard did beat Firouzja.

The opening once again had an online chess twist, with Magnus noting that up until 6…d5 it was something which Alireza Firouzja had played against him in their Banter Blitz Cup final.    

Here Alireza played 7.Nf3 and went on to beat Magnus, setting up the first “match point” of that epic encounter. Ian instead went for the pawn grab 7.exd5 Nxd5 8.Qh5, which didn’t get the World Champion’s stamp of approval:

Alireza played it against me in the Banter Blitz Cup actually, this 5.Bb3 thing, and I didn’t take it seriously at all then, but it’s actually a serious line. Usually White goes 7.Nf3 instead of taking on d5, and then 8.Qh5 I thought was a bit nonsensical, because you get typical Marshall compensation but with I think a bunch of extra tempi, and the fact that I was a little bit worse later in the game was not the position’s fault, it was rather my fault!

It was an Armageddon game, and we got a curious moment with 16.d4? by Nepo.

When this was pointed out to Ian by Anastasia Karlovich afterwards, he reacted somewhat angrily:

It’s good that you are so strong, when the interviewer is playing so much better than a player!

In this case, however, 16…Ba6 wasn’t a move you needed to be a great player or even use a computer to spot (which you could argue for Rapport’s missed win against Nepo in the previous day’s Armageddon). Magnus had an explanation for missing it completely:

I was not even seeing tactics at all in this game. I was tired, and I think he was kind of outplaying me at some point and I was a little worse, but I think with the bishops you always have chances.

Ultimately Magnus was able to completely take over with his bishops, as his king also entered the fray. The desperate 47.d6 illustrates the point.

The bishops completely control the pawn, so that Magnus could have ignored it and played 47…Ke4! here. 47…Bxd6 was fine, as was the 47…cxd6 he played, so that the only question that really remained was whether the game would end as the draw he needed to win Armageddon, or he’d actually win the game as well. 

It proved to be the latter, with mate-in-4 on the board in the final position when Nepo resigned. 

It would soon be confirmed that Magnus had won the tournament, so that after not winning the first three editions (1.Karjakin, 2. Karjakin, 3.Topalov), he’d now won four of the last six, including the last three in a row. Magnus felt the narrative pushed by the Norwegian media deserved to change.

On the other hand, when Magnus was tied for 4-5th place after making four classical draws and then losing to Karjakin in Round 5, it was far from obvious that he’d storm to the title on the back of four wins in a row.

Magnus himself couldn’t really explain it, and didn’t think he was out of form at the start.

I don’t think I was even rusty, I was just not getting anywhere. It has to be said that the pairings were a lot better for me also in the last circuit, that I had three Whites, and Black against Aryan, so that was quite favourable, but I don’t know what happened in the first half — I didn’t feel too differently. Frankly I was just seriously running out of steam in the last few games, but it was enough. I think everybody was running out of steam at the end.

He told Judit and David of the wins:

What I would say is I worked really, really hard at the board during these games, so that part I’m very happy with. Everything else, you know, there are a lot of things to improve, it wasn’t sparkling at all, but I think under the circumstances I came away with absolutely everything I could have hoped for. 

Magnus was asked by Anastasia how it felt to win for a 4th time:

I feel it’s even better this time. It was really, really tough this year, and frankly at the halfway point it didn’t seem likely at all, so yeah, it’s a really satisfying victory! 

“November will be fun!” was all Magnus had to say about the World Championship match, while he’s going to be busy first. On Sunday he travels with Aryan Tari to Ohrid in North Macedonia for the European Club Cup (his team Offerspill will be starting without him today) before he plays in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals from September 25th. 

Ian Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, was being more cagey about any plans before the match (“my main plan is to prepare”), and will want to forget most of what happened in Norway in a hurray. As he summed up:

The result is disgusting, completely disgusting, considering all the chances I spoiled, and especially these two games against Firouzja and Aryan, but at the same time, I believe it was quite useful. 

He scored -1 in classical chess (1 win, 7 draws and 2 losses), while he won 4 and lost 3 of the Armageddon games. At least his compatriot Sergey Karjakin saw some hope for the World Championship match:

[Magnus is] strong, but he makes mistakes, and if he will make the same mistakes in the match I think that Ian will be ready for this and to use his chances, but it will be a new tournament and we will see!

69 days and counting to Game 1!

Alireza Firouzja almost matches Magnus

18-year-old Alireza Firouzja’s win over Richard Rapport confirmed Magnus as the Champion, and he reacted immediately when he was congratulated by Judit and David:

Thank you! And that means that Alireza is 2nd I suppose, and he ends with four wins on the trot. Now two streaks of four wins in the second half is pretty sick! 

I didn’t see that coming, to be honest! Because not only was he not winning, but the game he won against Aryan was not impressive at all, and even in the games he was making a draw he was generally worse, so that’s an amazing turnaround, and it’s the same as last year actually, that he made the same score as I did in classical, but the Armageddon decided it.

Magnus scored 4 wins, 1 loss (to Karjakin) and 5 draws in classical chess, for a 6.5/10 +3 score (using the regular scoring system). Alireza won 5 games but lost 2 (to Rapport and Magnus), with 3 draws, which is also a 6.5/10 score. Magnus won all 5 Armageddon games, however, to finish with 19.5, just as he scored in 2020. Alireza lost all 3 Armageddons he played, to finish on 18, half a point less than when he finished 2nd in 2020. A curiosity is that after Round 3 not a single match of Alireza’s went to Armageddon!

The final standings look as follows.

Alireza commented:

It feels great! After the very tough first half I’m happy to be back to the tournament. 2nd place is kind of ok after the loss against Magnus. I couldn’t imagine, because I was down almost 6-7 points.

That also meant Alireza, and his opponent Richard Rapport, finished the tournament in the Top 10 on the live rating list

They’re likely to be in the Top 10 on the official October 1st rating list, though the European Club Cup gives players such as Shakhriyar Mamedyarov a chance to move above them.

As well as sheer stats, however, there was the final game itself, which was another brilliant performance by Alireza, even if Richard, who had led the tournament for so long, had reasons to regret. He said it was “generally a bad opening choice by me”:

I went for a sharp Sicilian, I think it’s very dubious for Black, then he sacrificed this rook. It’s very logical because he’s completely developed, and actually it’s just an exchange, he’ll collect back the knight on a1. After that I was basically under some practical pressure all the time.

It was here that Alireza spent 12 minutes coming up with an extremely bold choice to give up the rook on a1: 10.d4! cxd4 11.Qxd4! Nc2 12.Qe4 Nxa1.   

Alireza explained:

I think if he played this line he should have prepared this line, because I think this rook sacrifice is very interesting. I didn’t prepare it before, I just came up with it during the game. I thought I could just sacrifice, there’s no way I could be worse here, because it just cannot be possible!

Despite that certainty, Alireza still spent almost 38 minutes on 13.Bf4!, in the process boosting Richard’s practical chances. 

It was a good move, though after 13…Be6 14.Rxa1 Rc8 Alireza’s 15.Nd5!?, instead of his own later suggestion of 15.b3, may have been inaccurate, and the watching Magnus Carlsen was beginning to worry that Richard might win the game.

Up to a point Richard was doing everything right, but the pressure was relentless and things went downhill fast after 21.Re1.

Richard said the strong 21…e5! was one of the moves he was considering, but instead he went for 21…Kf7!? 22.Nd4 e5? and suddenly he was lost. The problem was the position after 23.Qd5+ Kg6 24.Bxe5!

Richard was relying on 24…fxe5, when after 25.Qxe5 Rxd6 White has nothing better than to force a draw by perpetual check. He now realised, however, that White has 25.Nf3! instead and the threatened fork on e5 is crushing. Richard switched to 24…Rxd6, but not with any hope.

I missed here Nf3. I thought it’s a perpetual, but Nf3 and I can just resign. After 24…Rxd6 it’s not really interesting — it’s just over, basically… So it’s another blunder, but ok, he played well, I guess, and I was under pressure the whole game, so this is what happens usually when you’re under pressure, sometimes you make some serious mistakes.

After 25.Bxd6 Bxd6 there was nothing Rapport could do about the pinned d6-bishop, as Alireza made no mistake.

There was a last nuance here, since 32.Nf5?? immediately runs into 32…Re5, and it’s a draw, but after 32.Qd3+ got out of that tactic, 33.Nf5! next would win a piece and the game.

So it was a fantastic result for Alireza Firouzja, who once again confirmed he’s the real deal, but a wonderful tournament had ended badly for Richard Rapport, who ran out of steam at the finish with losses to the two players who finished above him. Still, a place in the Top 10 and a 6/10, +2 score in classical chess remains a great result. Richard summed up:

I had some nice moments, I had some bad ones, I also didn’t score as many Armageddons. I won the first one and that was it, pretty much. It’s an interesting memory… Finally it’s over — this is always my favourite part of every chess tournament, when the misery ends!

Unfinished business

When all the top places had been decided there was still a Karjakin-Tari Armageddon game in play, but a draw in the classical game had already ensured that Sergey would finish above Aryan. The Russian former World Championship Challenger wasn’t thrilled with his performance, that included four classical defeats:

My overall result of course is very bad. It’s hard to say why, maybe because I didn’t have a rest day, and actually Ian also didn’t have a rest day, and I felt like he was also tired at the end of the tournament.

Sergey said he wanted to play creatively since, “I don’t know when I’ll play a tournament game the next time”, and he got to revisit the one big high of his tournament — beating Magnus after playing an exchange sacrifice on c6.

20.Rxc6!? against Aryan was an interesting try, though this time the game only fizzled out to a draw. Sergey noted that he could have done the double against Carlsen since he’d seen that Magnus had a defence to his 30…e4? the day before, but was just gambling on the World Champion not finding it in time trouble. 

The other bright spot for Sergey in Norway was Armageddon, where he scored 4 wins out of 5, only beaten by Magnus’ 5/5. Karjakin commented that against Rapport, “I played my favourite blitz move 1.b3,” and although the opening wasn’t an overwhelming success he went on to win comfortably in the end.

Aryan had lost five classical games and all four Armageddons, but it was never going to be easy as the huge underdog in Norway Chess for a second year in a row. He commented: 

It was much better than last year, at least. I’m very happy I won one game here. It’s very difficult to beat these guys, so that I won with Black against Ian was a big achievement. Overall, I think I missed quite a lot of chances. I could have had many more points, but at the same time I also played a lot of good games and some good moves too. I could have won against Magnus, I missed it, so a lot of things to learn, and I’m happy for the experience!

So that’s all for Norway Chess 2021, but there’s absolutely no break in the chess action. As we’ve seen, Magnus and Aryan will be among the stars in action in the European Club Cup

There’s also the Hou Yifan Challenge, the 4th event on the $100,000 Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour, with Vincent Keymer, Praggnanandhaa and many more young chess stars getting another chance to shine. Both those events start today, and there are too many others to list — check them all out here on our events page! 

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