MCCT Finals 1: Carlsen and So score max points

Magnus Carlsen blew Jan-Krzysztof Duda away in 18 moves as the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals began, before going on to wrap up match victory with a game to spare after Duda fell for a fiendish trick in the 2nd game. Wesley So kept pace with Magnus by also winning in rapid chess, over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. The remaining matches went to a playoff, where Anish Giri and Vladislav Artemiev defeated Hikaru Nakamura and Teimour Radjabov in blitz, before Aronian-MVL was decided in Maxime’s favour only in Armageddon.

You can replay all the games from Round 1 of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour using the selector below. 

And here’s the day’s live commentary from David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare in Oslo. 

And from Peter Leko and Lawrence Trent. 

It was a dramatic first day of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals, including comeback wins for MVL and Anish Giri.

Carlsen 2.5:0.5 Duda

This battle featured both players competing from the studio of our Oslo broadcast, and it was easy to imagine that Jan-Krzysztof Duda was somewhat overawed. Magnus had experience of a similar situation — playing the New in Chess Classic from the Oslo offices of tour sponsor Meltwater — while for Jan-Krzysztof it was all new. 

The players were able to listen to music to block out the noise around them, with Magnus commenting:

I loved the fact that I could listen to music during the games. I talked about that a bit earlier, that when I’m sitting at home I’m used to having something on my ears to shut out everything, and it was just really nice. 

What did he listen to?

We were given three choices. It was like the Norwegian Top 40, Polish Top 40 and Dutch Top 40, which I thought was pretty humorous… I’m not sure, actually, I just listened to the one that was the first option, put the headphones on, there was some music there, so I just kept on listening to that. 

The first game went like a dream for Magnus, from the moment he sprung the opening surprise 9.Rb1!?

Duda didn’t take the offered pawn on c3 immediately, but after 9…Nd7 Magnus provoked him with 10.Bd3!? (the previous two games had see 10.c4) and Jan-Krzysztof took the bait, with 10…Qxc3+ 11.Kf1. It took just two more moves for the position to become absolutely critical: 11…Be7 12.h4! 0-0 13.Rh3!

Suddenly Carlsen’s brutal plan of Rh3-g3 and an all-out assault on the black king was revealed, and it’s already here that Jan-Krzysztof may have made essentially the final mistake. He thought for just 49 seconds before going for 13…Nf6? (13…Qc7!, keeping pressure on the e5 and g3-squares, seems to restrict White’s attack), which was met by 14.Ne5! 

Duda later commented:

In the first game, for example, I got smashed in 18 moves or so, because I didn’t remember the line exactly, but I could have thought. I just played Nf6, and after Ne5 I think I was already busted, all his pieces were in the attack and I was unable even to develop.

Things escalated fast with 14…Qa5 15.Rg3 Kh8?! (15…Ne8 is better, but still looks grim) 16.Bg5! h6 17.Bxh6! gxh6 18.Qf3!

There were multiple ways to win, but Magnus’ choice of 18.Qf3! was the most brutal. After the sacrifice on h6 he didn’t even target that pawn immediately, since he saw he had time to take control of the f-file and only then play Qf4-Qxh6. The threat of Nxf7+ essentially stops any attempt to defend. The World Champion commented:

I’m at least happy that I got to play one nice game today, in the first round, even though it wasn’t too difficult. I thought especially my last move was very nice. That’s the kind of move that’s easy to miss when you’re not on form, so I was happy about that.

Perhaps Magnus had got a bit carried away, since he confessed:

I think the second game was a bit dubious — I probably played a bit too riskily there!

Duda chose the aggressive 3.f3 and Magnus met fire with fire by playing a King’s Indian setup.

We weren’t disappointed with what followed, as Magnus admitted, “I was just trying to stay afloat”, and Duda looked to be right on course for a comeback.

This proved to be the turning point, however, as Duda thought for 1 minute and 42 seconds and then instead of playing 29.Rxg1, when Magnus was planning to fish in murky waters with 29…Qd4! but objectively White is much better, the Polish star went for 29.Be5?!. That was a brave decision, since as he noted afterwards, he’s a rook and a knight down, and it turns out it loses to the amazing computer-move 29…Rxf4!! 

That didn’t happen, and the game was close to dynamically balanced when Magnus played 29…Nf6!, admitting afterwards:

I was trying to at least play quickly in a bad position to stress him, and then I was really, really hoping for this Ng4 trick, and fortunately he fell into it, otherwise I probably would have been in quite some trouble. 

Here Duda blundered with 30.fxg5?, allowing Magnus to unleash 30…Ng4! (it turns out 30…Bg4 also wins).

31.Bxg7 is simply met by 31…Rxf1+ 32.Bd1 Kxg7 and, when you count the pieces, Black has two rooks and a bishop for the queen — an overwhelming advantage.

Duda lamented:

I blundered at least five moves this game, which I didn’t see, and actually playing fxg5 was kind of an insane move, completely stupid, just losing on the spot! Ok, I played this, and after Ng4 I could have resigned already. Such things happen, unfortunately, and I will have to do something not to blunder that many tactics tomorrow. 

Duda tried to play on with 31.Bf6, but after 31…Bxh2! Magnus was a full rook up, and found a clear and safe way to liquidate to an easily won position.

That seemed to break Duda, who now needed to win two games in a row just to force a playoff, but instead was soon worse with the white pieces and accepted a draw by repetition in 19 moves.

He confessed afterwards he just didn’t believe in a comeback given the way he was playing.

So 3:1 Mamedyarov

That win in rapid chess for Magnus meant he scored a maximum 3 match points, but Wesley So ensured the World Champion’s 4-point head start to the tournament didn’t grow by also winning in rapid chess himself. Typically, to hear Wesley tell it, it was almost a miracle that he’d won the match. 

It’s a very long tournament, so one match at a time, but it’s very good to beat someone of Shakhriyar’s calibre. He’s just amazing, he’s incredible, of course sometimes he has bad days. I think today was simply not his day.

It was a tough start to the day for Wesley, who found himself two pawns down in the first game.

It was never quite as bad as that body count suggested, however, and Wesley managed to hold a draw with accurate play. Then, as Peter Leko put it, from holding a position two pawns down Wesley managed to win one where he was just “half a pawn” up. Mamedyarov was on the ropes, but could still have hoped to survive until 40.Rc1? allowed 40…Rb1!

If Shakh had left his rook on d1 and played 40.Bc6! then this trick wouldn’t work, since after exchanging rooks on b1 White could take the a-pawn. If 40…a3 then 41.Rd8+ and 42.Ra8 would have let White get behind it.

Wesley came close to matching Magnus by winning the match in three games, but he let a good advantage slip in Game 3, so that Shakh had a must-win chance in Game 4. Lawrence Trent underestimated the Azerbaijan star!

5.g4!? was a move Wesley had played twice himself, with one loss and one draw, in the 2018 St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, so he wasn’t surprised and reacted well. In fact he soon had an overwhelming position, and although he didn’t convert smoothly and called it “very far from a clean day” he also never let the advantage slip. He only needed a draw, but instead won the game for an overall 3:1 victory.

Does he think he can catch Magnus? 

I think Levon and I had the best chances, and someone’s got to catch Magnus! He’s in a comfortable lead and he’s the best player, but someone’s got to try.

The remaining match-ups all went to playoffs. 

Artemiev 3.5:2.5 Radjabov

It was perhaps predictable that this match between two fantastic technicians would be decided by the smallest of margins, but after three tight draws the forth rapid game suddenly exploded into life. It looked as though Vladislav Artemiev was going to win the game and the match, but 26…Ne4! was brilliantly resourceful.

It turns out White could still win here with 27.Qa2!!, when 27…cxd3 is met by 28.Ra7!, but Peter Leko explained that you really needed to know the computer’s evaluation to believe in some of the tactics. Instead after 27.Bxe4 the advantage had gone and the match went to playoffs.

Artemiev had white again in the first blitz game, and this time, after surviving a tricky middlegame, he suddenly took over. 

Peter praised the intuition of Vladislav in going for 30.g4!, when 30…hxg4 31.hxg4 has the main point that after the bishop moves Rh1 will threaten mate on h8.

Everything that followed after 30…Bc8 (other moves also fail) was forced: 31.Re3! Qd1 32.Rf3! e6

33.gxh5! gxh5 34.Qg5+ Kf8 35.Qf6 and Radjabov resigned, since 35…Re7 would run into 36.Qh8# Another impressive performance from Vladislav Artemiev, who may have too far to climb this year but will be one of the favourites for next year’s tour. 

Giri 3.5:2.5 Nakamura

The other player competing from Oslo is Anish Giri, who admitted that he had his excuses ready after how badly the match against Hikaru Nakamura started. 

The start was very tough. The first game, and the second also, I played really badly. I thought if I need an excuse I will use the one that it’s a very new environment, it’s really very different from what I’ve ever played. As my friend mentioned, it’s like an eSports thing. That’s why also I put the hoodie on now, so I look like this famous eSports guy!

The first game of the day saw Anish get outplayed and lose with White in what seemed like an innocuous ending. 

At some point in Game 2 it looked as though Hikaru would take an almost unassailable lead, with Leko explaining how much worse the position was than it looked at first glance.

The first signs that this might still be Anish’s day came when Hikaru misplayed the position and even had to scramble to hold a draw at the end.

Giri said afterwards that he didn’t think he’d beaten Hikaru in a rapid and blitz match before, so that he wasn’t surprised by his poor start. 

Magnus is supposed to be stronger than he is, but I was fortunate to have had the experience of beating him a few times, but somehow Hikaru’s been really hard for me, and that’s like a thing that because he’s been hard I play really much worse against him, so the first two games I played against him today that’s normal, how I play against him, and just there is some kind of thought in my head very deep that he’s very good, and that prevents me from doing my best, and that’s very deep, because I’m not a kid anymore!

Anish needed some help to kickstart the match for him, and he got it when Hikaru, in a somewhat tricky position, committed a one-move blunder, 21…Nb2?, which was met by 22.b5!

The problem is simply that if the knight moves from c6, Giri can take the now-undefended bishop on e7. Hikaru tried to complicate matters with 22…Bc5, but Anish was able to swat away the attempts.

Both players had perhaps had enough rapid drama for one day and we got a 15-move repetition in Game 4, taking the match to a blitz playoff. Blitz is of course Hikaru’s speciality, and midway through the first blitz game he had a gigantic advantage, with Peter pointing out all Black’s weaknesses.

Remarkably, however, Anish would go on to hold. As he explained:

In the blitz I was very lucky. In the first game I’m just, it looks like, dead lost, but he at some point rushed. I think he played it very well, but at some point he had a position where I’m completely tied up and he can just slowly improve it. Instead he won my queen, but then I managed to set up this fortress.

This is the moment where Hikaru decided to go for 38.Bd4!? Qxd4 39.Rxd4 Bxd4 40.Qc6 Bxf2+ 41.Kf1 (41.Kh2 was a better try) 41…Bg3+ 42.Ke2 Rf5! and suddenly we had the fortress.

43.Qxe4?? would lose the queen to 43…Re5!, so that everything is defended, and by the end of the game the fortress was even more rock solid. 

That gave Anish the initiative and after one rash move (25…Nd3?!) from Hikaru in the 2nd blitz game he took over and had a big advantage, but as he put it, “Hikaru is very tricky in blitz — it’s really better if he blunders rooks!” That’s what Hikaru did with 45…Bxa5??, allowing 46.Ne7+

It was a collectors’ item for Anish!

That leaves the longest match of the day.

MVL 4:3 Aronian

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Levon Aronian have had some epic matches over the years, including Levon beating MVL in a wild Armageddon game in the semi-final of the 2017 World Cup, a result that denied Maxime a place in the Candidates Tournament and saw Levon go on to win his second World Cup. Their Meltwater Champions Chess Tour clash couldn’t quite compete with that, but it was full of excitement and also went to Armageddon.

Levon got off to a great start when Maxime decided that the best way to save the a5-pawn and stop his queen being kicked around the board was to give up an exchange.

23…Rxc4!? wasn’t the world’s most convincing exchange sacrifice, but it seemed for a while Maxime might survive before Levon eventually ground out a win.

Maxime spent 65 moves in vain with the white pieces before Game 2 was drawn, and then didn’t object to a very quick draw in the third game.

Once again that tempting strategy from Levon’s point of view — getting one game closer to victory — backfired, as despite seeming to have everything under control in the final rapid game, Levon cracked by grabbing a pawn on e4 with 41…Ncxe4?

It would just have been a free pawn, and almost certain match victory, if not for 42.Qa2!, hitting f7, and Black was in real trouble. 42…Nd5?? would just lose the e4-knight, while 42…Rd5 runs into 43.c4!, though there were more chances there than after 42…Qf8 43.Bxe4 Nxe4 44.Qc4

44…Nc5 was the best chance to put up some resistance, while after 44…Nd6 45.Qxc6 Maxime cruised home.

The Frenchman then carried that momentum into the blitz, picking up a pawn early on in a Grünfeld Defence and then bamboozling Levon with some tactics that were spectacular, if not always the strongest options in the position. 

Levon wasn’t going to go down without a fight, however, and in the final blitz game he played MVL’s favourite weapon, the Najdorf, and managed to win on demand by whipping up a mating attack with limited material.

So the day finished with Armageddon and a typical Armageddon time scramble — though without the flying pieces and chaos you get over a wooden chessboard. Levon had no complaints:

Well, it’s part of the game, Armageddon! You need to take control, and I think I was in control, but I just got too relaxed at some point. 

After many twists the moment that Levon drew attention to was after 65…Rxc5+.

Yeah, I’m good! I can only blame myself for not playing 66.Kf6, of course… I don’t need much time just to mate, it’s basically mate-in-2.

After 66.Kf6 it’s true that 66…Kxd6? would run into 67.Qd8# If Maxime had played e.g. 66…Rc1 it would have forced Levon to give some checks and then win the rook, but in the game after 66.Ke4? Rd5! it was a position where there were almost no practical winning chances for White. Maxime at one point in the chaos that followed missed a chance to pick up the queen for free, but his victory in Armageddon was never in doubt.

Levon was surprised to learn afterwards that after losing the playoff he still got a point (Maxime got 2):

I didn’t know I actually got a point for losing — wow! At least some good news. I am just going to fight and see how it goes. Today I wasn’t playing my best. Tomorrow I’ll try to play better. It’s the first day, so there are eight more days — there are chances to catch up or to get somewhere. 

The loss of that match meant Levon slipped 2 points further behind Magnus and Wesley in 3rd place, while the Round 1 results saw Artemiev and Giri moving up a spot. 

In Round 2 we have the all-studio clash of Giri-Duda and another Aronian-Artemiev battle, after Levon defeated Vladislav in the Goldmoney Asian Rapid final but then lost to the same opponent in the Chessable Masters 3rd place match. 

Magnus admitted he recently “struggled heavily” against Shakh in the European Club Cup, in what was likely the World Champion’s last classical game before the match against Ian Nepomniachtchi in Dubai. They meet again in Round 2 of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals.  

Don’t miss the action each day from 11:00 ET/17:00 CEST/20:30 IST!

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