MCCT Finals 5: Carlsen dominates Nakamura

Magnus Carlsen ended Hikaru Nakamura’s brief reign as the top scorer in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals with a commanding 2.5:0.5 victory over the US star in Round 5. The win saw Magnus extend his overall lead over Wesley So to 5 points, but it could easily have been 7, since Anish Giri was on the verge of beating Wesley before committing a huge blunder and going on to lose a playoff. Teimour Radjabov beat Levon Aronian to catch his rival in 3rd place, while there were also wins for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Vladislav Artemiev. 

You can replay all the games from the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals using the selector below. 

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

And from Peter Leko and Danny King. 

For a second day in a row four matches were decided in rapid chess, while only Wesley So’s clash, this time with Anish Giri, went to a blitz playoff. 

Carlsen 2.5:0.5 Nakamura

Carlsen-Nakamura clashes are always eagerly awaited, but this one had a little more spice than usual. Hikaru’s decision the day before not just to draw three rapid games in 30 seconds, but to then use the time to play another tournament, had been controversial. There was no karma, since Hikaru went on to beat Wesley So in blitz and take over from Magnus as the top scorer in the Finals. That left it to Magnus himself to restore order, and he did just that, with a surprisingly easy day at the office. 

Hikaru opened with the Berlin, while 4.d3 from Magnus signalled that there was going to be no quick draw. Instead he went for another queenside fianchetto with b3 and Bb2 and it seems Hikaru briefly had the chance to take over. It required precise moves, however, which didn’t come, before 19…h5? turned out to be a serious mistake, weakening g5 and inviting a powerful continuation (19…Bxc4! is ugly but strong). 

Magnus now went for 20.Nxd6! cxd6 and in fact could have continued 21.Qxd6 Bxh3 with a big advantage, but 21.Qe3, preventing Bxh3 and preparing to bring the queen to the hole on g5, was also good. It was simple chess, until Magnus was ready to push his f-pawn. 

30.f4! Nxf4 31.Rxf4! was a very temporary exchange sacrifice, since after 31…exf4 Magnus took it back with 32.Bxf6 and after 32…gxf6 33.Qxd6 he quickly emerged with all a positional chess player could wish for: an extra pawn, better pieces and a better pawn structure.

The way Magnus set about converting the advantage oozed chess culture, but also felt a little risky. He gave up the extra pawn and swapped off minor pieces to get a pure rook ending, where he was relying on his better king position to ensure victory. 

It did work, but things got a little dicey.

The position could very easily fizzle out into a draw, but Magnus here had 59.a5!, exploiting the pin on the b-file, and although Hikaru had counterplay with his c-pawn, it wasn’t quite enough. It recalled the way park hustlers let their opponent lose only by a single tempo to keep them coming back for more, though from Magnus’ relieved reaction at the end it was clear that he’d made things a little tougher for himself than he intended! 

The second game was the one that got away for Magnus, as despite having the black pieces he took over and was very close to having a winning advantage.

Here h5, h4 seems to be the winning plan, and if White plays h4 then sacrificing a pawn with g5 is strong. The queen can come to f6 when necessary to keep control of the f-file. 

Instead Magnus played 31…b6, though the b-pawn wasn’t really under attack e.g. 31…h5 32.Qxb7 Qxa3 is strong, with 33.Qxc7? losing to 33…Qa1! 34.Rf2 Qe1! After 32.Rf2 in the game Black could still maintain the advantage with 32…Qf6!, but Magnus instead decided to swap off all the rooks to enter a queen ending. 

It was a decent practical choice, since it meant Black was safe while one mistake by White could be fatal, but Hikaru managed to hold without too much difficulty. 

That meant Magnus had a chance to clinch match victory in the next game with the white pieces, which once again began as a Berlin Defence. Peter Leko felt that the first time Magnus had been caught a little off-guard and had gone for the positional 7.Nbd2, while this time, having had a chance to check his notes between games, he went for the more aggressive 7.Bg5.

At first glance it looked good for Hikaru, who castled queenside and it seemed ready to attack White’s king on the other side of the board, but as our commentators explained, for concrete tactical reasons Magnus was on top after 13.c4!

13…exd4? loses to the double attack 14.e5!, while the natural 13…g5!? arguably only drives the bishop to where it wants to go i.e. the g3-square, from which it also targets that weak point on e5. 

After three and a half minutes Hikaru went for a clever tactical sequence: 13…Bxf3 14.Nxf3 Qxc4 15.dxe5 Bxe5 16.Nxe5 Qb5, where Black is both attacking the knight on e5 and the queen on d1. The only problem was it had, if not a refutation, then at least an excellent option for White, 17.Nxc6!

17…Rxd1? loses to 18.Nxa7+, picking up the queen on b5, while after the forced 17…Qxc6 Magnus removed his attacked queen with 18.Qb3. Material was level, but he had enough pressure that Hikaru was all but forced to choose between unpleasant endgames. He opted for 18…Rd7 19.Rac1 Qe6!? 20.Qxe6 fxe6 21.Bg3! and the torture began.

It looked as though Magnus would cruise to victory, though for a while he noted himself that he’d had to tread water, as there was a flaw in his plan. 

I thought I played relatively well. I was sort of drifting at some point when I was moving my rook back and forth a little bit, because I realised my plan didn’t work, but I think in general it’s very hard for him to hold, and obviously having that one point cushion already makes it all a lot more comfortable. 

Once again, however, a better placed king triumphed in a rook ending with equal pawns, with the final stages again study-like.

Magnus almost seemed to put himself in a mating net with 46.Kg5! Kf7 47.Kh6! Rc3 48.g5!, but he’d correctly judged that he was in no danger, and his king would be perfectly placed to mop up at the end. He tied down Nakamura’s rook and then used his f-pawn as a battering ram to break down the black defences on the kingside. 

By the end it was just a question of waiting for resignation, with Hikaru finally throwing in the towel when it was mate-in-7.

That impressive day’s work saw Magnus regain the bragging rights as the top scorer in the finals as well as make it mathematically impossible for Hikaru to catch him in the overall standings in the remaining four rounds.

So 3.5:2.5 Giri

The 3 points for a win over Hikaru also did Magnus no harm in terms of the overall standings, but at one point it seemed as though he would jump to a huge 7 points lead, while in the end it was only 5. That was all down to the drama in Wesley So’s match against Anish Giri. 

The way Wesley began with the white pieces — 1.Nf3 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.b3 Bf5 4.Be2 — felt almost as if he was still on tilt following the previous day’s action, where he crumbled in blitz after making quick draws against Hikaru n rapid chess. He commented:

I definitely regret making those quick draws, because in the blitz he gave me no chances. I had good positions, but I was just way too nervous and I couldn’t play well. I thought when he went for an early draw in the first game ok, let’s go for the blitz. I want to test my blitz skills, actually, I want to see how I do in the blitz, but it turned out pretty bad, so it was a pretty terrible strategy yesterday, but next time I would definitely have to go on a different path… it turned out pretty awful. 

Although the opening worked out ok for Wesley, his attempt to play aggressively after closing the queenside backfired badly, and he’d soon given Anish a wonderful outpost on d5. Perhaps in an attempt to stop that outpost being used, Wesley went for some tactics based on a pin, but they simply didn’t work. 

Game 2 was also dominated by Anish, though the position with an extra pawn was one that even such a chess connoisseur as Peter Leko felt only Anish himself and his loved ones could enjoy. White could press forever, and in fact the game could easily have gone on for another 100 moves if not for the 50-move rule (a game can be claimed as a draw if no pawn has been pushed or piece captured in 50 moves).

“He should have won the match today, so big shout out to Anish!”, said Wesley, and it did look as though Giri was certain to win with a game to spare, until disaster struck! 24…Ne2+?? was a howler!

As Anish put it:

I had a few inexplicable things today, and also my blunder it was both a blunder and a bad decision, because even what I was aiming for was bad. I was aiming for a position which was winning, but less winning than the one that I could have gotten otherwise, and not to mention that I blundered a piece as well, so it was just horrible, but sometimes you just have bad days and bad decisions and it happens, I guess. 

Instead of the knight move he could just have moved his attacked queen, with a huge advantage, but what he was aiming for was presumably 25.Qxe2 Qxd4 26.Bxd4? Bxe2 and Black is at least still an exchange up. Instead after 26.Qxa6! Wesley had a powerful bishop pair for a rook, giving him an overwhelming advantage. Anish staggered on for another 10 moves before throwing in the towel.

That meant that after being on the verge of losing and scoring zero match points, Wesley was right back in the match with the scores level, and in fact Anish decided to take a quick draw with White in the next game.

Anish gave a fun faux explanation of that opening as preparation gone wrong by his second…

His serious explanation was that he needed to recover from the blunder.

I thought I’m totally tilted so I will take it to the tiebreak… Very often you want to compensate for your stupidity, but usually you should just accept it. 

In hindsight, however, it might have been worth getting straight back in the saddle and trying to press with the white pieces in the final rapid game, since the tiebreaks didn’t go Anish’s way. Wesley would later sum up:

I think in the rapid he pretty much wrapped things up, but in the blitz I think I played better. I was a bit more relaxed, I had an hour break. But yeah, obviously very lucky today!

The first blitz game saw the whole board blockaded, and while any chances were for Wesley, it’s not clear that he missed any clear-cut way to break through.

The second, meanwhile, featured an opening mishap that knocked Anish off balance.

Here instead of 15.b3! and e.g. 15…Rb4 16.Ne4!, as played by Rinat Jumabayev against So in the 2019 Grand Swiss, Anish mistakenly played 15.Ne4!? first, when 15…Qd5 was a strong response for Black. 

It’s a curiosity that Giri’s mistake is actually the most common move in the position, but it had clearly shaken him:

Sometimes in blitz your hand makes a move before your brain and I know the line very well, but I mixed up the move order in the opening, and of course immediately I did it I realised that. I think some strong player said once that when he plays blitz for every move he takes a moment and never makes a move without thought, but I do that, I make moves without thought, and that was very stupid!

That player is perhaps Boris Gelfand, but in any case 16.Qxd5!? instead of 16.Qc2 was perhaps already slightly inaccurate, and although the position that ensued should have been roughly equal it was Wesley who was pressing, until 31.Rxc7 turned out to be a losing move, allowing 31…Rh4!

f4+ is a huge threat, with g4 to follow, taking advantage of the fact that the e3-pawn is pinned. Giri tried to defend with 32.f3, but that needed to have been supported by 31.Re2! on the previous move, because now 32…Rxe3! was possible. The last tricky detail to spot was that after 33.Rf2 f4+ 34.Kg2 Black had 34…Bf5!, hitting h3, and there was no defending the position. 

Wesley went on to weave a mating net and score 2 match points, which meant he finds himself 5 points behind Magnus. 

Artemiev 2.5:1.5 Mamedyarov

One man on a roll is Vladislav Artemiev, who followed beating Magnus Carlsen by overcoming Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Vladislav impressively counterattacked with Black in the first game to take the lead, held an ending a pawn down in the 89-move 2nd game, and then was also on the verge of wrapping up a match win with a game to spare in the 3rd. Putting either rook on c8, or playing 24…Nf4, should have won, but Artemiev instead went for 24…Ra4?

That walked into 25.Qxf8+! and, given the only alternative was just to play on a rook down, Vladislav allowed mate on the board with 25…Kxf8 26.Rc8#

He talked about it afterwards:

Unfortunately I missed his idea with Qxf8+. It was a crazy mistake, I was very disappointed in this moment, but still, I start to think that it’s possible, because we have really many games in this tournament and one game can be like this.

He explained how he was able to shrug it off:

I was happy when I go Ra4, I wanted to take his pawn and play on two results, but when my move was on the board I started to see his idea immediately, and of course I was unhappy, but also it was different emotions and I smile a little bit, and of course disappointed. Ok, I have a normal nervous system, so ok, it’s possible!

In contrast to Giri’s approach, Artemiev went for a fight in the final rapid game, and it worked out perfectly. 

Already the opening had gone well, with Peter Leko admiring the way Vladislav realised here that the knight had done it’s job on e5 — discouraging Nc6 — and that now the black knight had gone to d7 it was more powerful to bring the knight back to f3 and put pressure on d4.

Artemiev said the final game was very comfortable and that he was sure he was winning after 27…Bxh3.

Here he played the “very important move” 28.Rf1! which pushed the queen to the e-file and meant that after 28…Qe6 29.Rxe5! Black had to capture back with the queen, leading to an easily won endgame where, even short on time, Vladislav was running no risks himself. 

MVL 2.5:0.5 Duda

This match got off to the kind of high octane start you’d expect given the players…

Maxime soon looked in trouble, but then, after giving up two rooks for a queen, might have played on for a win in the final position instead of taking a draw.

No harm was done, as he managed to grind out an endgame win from a drawish position in the 2nd game, before it felt as though Jan-Krzysztof then treated the third game as must-win. In a 6.Be3 Najdorf he at one point seemed to reject what could easily have been a draw by repetition. There was no objective reason for White to want to play on and soon, without doing anything too dramatic, Maxime had wrapped up victory.

Radjabov 2.5:1.5 Aronian

That leaves arguably the most hard-fought match of the day, and a significant one for the standings. Teimour Radjabov started 3 points behind 3rd place Levon Aronian and managed to make up that gap and catch his opponent. It clearly mattered to the players, even if not as much as winning the Airthings Masters. 

The first two games featured one dubious piece sacrifice by each player. First it was Levon’s turn with 23.Nd5!?

The point is that after 23…cxd5 24.cxd5 the bishop couldn’t retreat as White would then crash through on f7 with 25.Rxf7+!, but after 24…Bxd5! 25.exd5 f5! Radjabov was on top. He missed some tricks in the play that followed, however, and Levon was able to force a draw by perpetual check.

Then in Game 2 it was Teimour’s turn. 

25.Nxg7?! worked, but only because after 25…Kxg7 26.dxe5 both players had missed something critical. 

26…Nd7! saves the knight and defends the queen on b6. Instead Levon blitzed out 26…Qxe3? and after the zwischenzug 27.exf6+ and 27…Kxf6 28.Rxe3 White was a pawn up and had shattered Black’s pawn structure. Teimour went on to win smoothly.

Once again it looked as though the match would be over in three games, since Teimour reached a completely winning position with only heavy pieces and pawns remaining in Game 3, but Levon used every trick he could think of to finally escape in 91 moves.

Radjabov was still leading, however, and now with the white pieces he didn’t put a foot wrong. It was a great achievement by Levon to keep the game going for 81 moves, but he never got a real chance to grab the win he needed to take the match to a playoff.

So here are the standings after Round 5, going into the one rest day.

Friday’s Round 6 features the always entertaining Giri-Carlsen, while Radjabov-So has less of a reputation for entertainment. Nevertheless, if Teimour won in rapid chess he’d have a chance to catch Wesley in 2nd place in the coming rounds, while a win for Wesley will keep chances of 1st place alive. 

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

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