nepo crushing

Hikaru Nakamura, Alireza Firouzja, Levon Aronian and Maxime
Vachier-Lagrave are all out of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational after a brutal
2nd day of the quarterfinals. Three matches were over with a game to spare,
with Ian Nepomniachtchi crushing Nakamura with shocking ease, while Wesley So
played the move and arguably game of the tournament against Firouzja. Magnus
Carlsen had some trouble, but had left Levon a mountain to climb by winning
their first game. Anish Giri needed four games to beat MVL, but his victory was
seldom in doubt.

You can replay all the games from the knockout stages of the
Magnus Carlsen Invitational, the 4th 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 from David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.

Get 40% off any chess24 Premium membership using the voucher code CCT40!

In the Skilling Open three of the four quarterfinals went to
blitz tiebreaks, while in the Airthings Masters and Opera Euro Rapid it was
two. This time, however, all the ties were decided in rapid chess.

Magnus Carlsen 2:1 Levon Aronian

After winning Day 1 convincingly, Magnus was asked about the
challenge of Day 2, and responded:

I think preparation for the first black game will be very
important to set the tone for the rest of the day. That’s really been my
problem.

Whether it was preparation or not, his 8th move in the Ruy
Lopez seems to have been a novelty, and by the time he played 10…g5 the
situation had become critical.

After 11.Bxc6 Magnus thought for over 5 minutes (11…dxc3 was
a serious option) before going for 11…dxc6, which invited the piece sacrifice
12.Nxg5!. Levon returned the time by taking 8 minutes a few moves later before
playing 15.Nge4 rather than what looks the better option of capturing on f7.

It was a tense and balanced struggle, until suddenly 21.h3
Bb3!
made it clear that Magnus was in charge with the black pieces.

The double attack on the d1-rook and e4-knight can’t be
solved with 22.Re1? since after 22…Bd5 (or 22…Bc2) White can’t support the knight with 23.f3 due to
the pin from the a7-bishop. Levon found the one way to play on with 22.f7+!
Kxf7 23.Rd7+
but he was left with a deeply unpleasant position that Magnus
played to perfection. Soon the World Champion had swapped off all the pieces
for a winning pawn endgame.

That loss left Levon with a mountain to climb. After losing
on the first day he had to win the second 4-game match, which meant winning at
least two of the next three games. The task got tougher after Magnus
confidently held a draw in the second game, meaning Levon would need to win two
in a row.

This time, however, he came about as close as you can
without scoring. After the tricky first game in a classical Ruy Lopez, Magnus
switched to the Berlin, but he admitted he was surprised in the opening and
later blundered with 36…Nd4+? It didn’t matter, however, since Levon returned
the favour on move 56.

Magnus commented:

I guess I was outplayed at some point and I certainly was
lost, but somehow I managed to get out of it. I’d seen that 56.Nc4! won on the
spot, but what could I do?

Instead 56.Kg4? allowed Magnus to win the d-pawn after 56…Kd6,
and ultimately the game and match ended when Levon went for stalemate in a
position he couldn’t win since his bishop was the wrong colour to support the a-pawn queening.

Magnus summed up:

I just need to pull myself together tomorrow, because I need
to play a bit better than I did today, but obviously the worse moment for me
today was that I could have lost a game that would have meant that I had to
draw on demand with White in the last game, so in that sense it wasn’t bad at
all, but certainly not quite as good as the other days.

Magnus will now face Ian Nepomniachtchi in the semi-finals.
He commented:

It’s going to be a good match-up. I think he started out
really poorly in the preliminaries and then caught fire towards the end, and I
thought today he was very impressive, so that’s certainly going to be a great
match-up.

The Russian star had blown away none other than Hikaru
Nakamura.

Ian Nepomniachtchi 2.5:0.5 Hikaru Nakamura

Nepomniachtchi had been very close to winning the first
day of this match, and the conventional sporting wisdom is that if you don’t
take your chances you tend to get punished, especially when you face a speed
chess monster like Nakamura. On this occasion, however, it was more of
the same, except Hikaru failed to put up much resistance. A somewhat
shell-shocked Ian commented: “I’m not very excited partially because
the first two games were too simple, too easy actually”.

That sounds like an exaggeration, but Hikaru looked almost
unrecognisable, with his choice on move 15 perhaps the start of his trouble.

Of the 9 games in the chess24 database for this position,
Hikaru had been Black in 7 of them, against the likes of MVL, Grischuk, Ding
Liren and Magnus Carlsen. In all cases he played 15…Nxg3, but this time he
thought for a minute and a half before playing 15…Nf5!? instead. 7 moves later
Hikaru’s 22…g6?! defence seemed only to weaken his king at the cost of a pawn.

You didn’t need to be the world no. 4, Russian no. 1 and
Candidates Tournament co-leader to find Nepo’s finishing touches.

37.e6! fxe6 38.Bc3 e5 39.Rg7+ and Hikaru resigned. The audio
in the clip below may not be 100% authentic… but it fits!

Hikaru still had three games to rescue his situation, but Game 2
followed the same surprising pattern. In a Sicilian Nepo has just played 12…b4.

This time you couldn’t say this was a Nakamura pet line, but
it’s at least curious that back in 2003 he did have this position against
Yannick Pelletier and went on to win after what seems the best move 13.Na4.
This time he picked the retreat 13.Nd1!?, which turned out to be the start of trouble.

There’s no white king on the queenside, but a5-a4 evicted
the b3-knight and allowed the black knight to jump to d4. White’s position went
from bad to totally lost with shocking speed. 20…Bh4! was already inflicting
heavy material losses.

21.g3 would just see White get killed on the b7-h1
diagonal, though if Black was feeling particularly sadistic he could just
ignore the “threat” with a move like 21…a3. After 21.Bc1 Nepo took the rook on e1, so he was already
playing with a material advantage as well as an overwhelming attack. Hikaru threw in
the towel on move 28 – a curiosity is that both players still had 8 minutes 58
seconds on the clock.

That game was an example of Nepo’s strengths as described by
Magnus:

I think the most important thing is first of all to pose him
some problems in the openings, and then not to let him have easy play where he
can just play quickly with little tactical tricks all the time, something that
he does extremely well.

Hikaru now needed to win the next two games, starting with
the black pieces, and to his credit he got some chances, though ultimately it
was Ian who was closer to winning the 3rd game before the players drew in 80 moves.
A strange encounter.

Wesley So 2.5:0.5 Alireza Firouzja

You could barely criticise a move by Nepo, but perhaps the
most impressive performance of the day came from Wesley So, who faced the task
of taming the burgeoning talent of 17-year-old Alireza Firouzja. The first
game, where Alireza had White, was a hard-fought battle, but one that never
went beyond the bounds of rough equality.

The second game, however, was a masterpiece, featuring what
Peter Leko called the move of the tournament.

The spoilsport computer points it out instantly, but for a
human it takes guts and serious calculation – Wesley thought for over 6 minutes
– to go for the sacrificial 15.Bd3!!

We soon got to see the point: 15…Bxd3 16.Bxa5 Rxa5 17.Qd3
(hitting the g6-knight) 17…Kf7 18.Nxa5 Qxa5 (strangely enough 18…g4!! may be
Black’s best chance to survive) 19.Qf5.

19…Nxf6 fails to 20.Ne5+, while in the game we saw 19…Qd8
20.Rae1! Ngf8
. Here’s how it looked from the side of the Iranian prodigy:

Wesley’s delay here was probably because 21.Nxg5+ is also
strong, but he went for the even stronger 21.Re7+! and after the forced 21…Bxe7
22.fxe7+ Kxe7 23.Re1+! Kd6 24.Ne5
it’s possible Alireza still had hope. 24…Qa5
would be winning for Black, if not for the killer reply 25.Nc4+!

Without that resource, the threatened knight fork on f7 is
deadly. The one defence was 24…Rh7, but that ran into 25.Nxd7! and here rather
than resign Alireza allowed a fitting finish for the game: 25…Qxd7 26.Qe5#

That left Alireza needing to win the final two games on
demand to force a playoff, and he did everything right in the next, playing aggressively
in the opening and creating chaos around his opponent’s king. Wesley was
cold-blooded, however, and escaped the immediate danger before impressing in
the endgame. 43.d7 by Alireza looks like a powerful move.

After 43…Bxd7 the youngster might have had chances, but
Wesley found 43…Ra8! and it turned out White had nothing. In fact Wesley soon
went on to win the game when Firouzja placed his rook on a square where it had
no way to stop the black h-pawn.

Wesley So will now play Anish Giri in the semi-finals.

Anish Giri 3:1 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Anish Giri is in the semi-finals of a Meltwater Champions
Chess Tour event for the first time this season, and commented:

So the thing is the following. Today was a win-win situation,
because either I would start my [Candidates Tournament] training session,
resume it, basically, or continue the tournament, but now the situation is the
following, that no matter how I play I’m stuck for four more days, so I think
now I changed the plan and I’m going to try and win this tournament!

Anish was referring to the fact there’s a 3rd place playoff. Don’t miss a highly enjoyable interview.

The first game was a sharp draw, where both sides needed to
be tactically alert. Here Maxime, who earlier made a piece sacrifice that
couldn’t be accepted, has just played 35.Rxf8+

“Normal” recaptures on f8 run into
serious trouble, but Anish blitzed out 35…Rxf8! with the point that after
36.Bxe7 he had 36…Qa7+ 37.Kh1 Qxe7, regaining the piece with a good position.

Game 2 proved to be the key encounter. Maxime is always
willing to give up a pawn for activity, but after 23.Rh2 he went astray.

A move like 23…0-0 would allow Black to meet 24.Qxb4 with 24…d5!,
or you could even play that break immediately, but the French no. 1 instead
went for 23…f5?! 24.Bg5 fxe4 25.fxe4 0-0 26.Bxe7 Qxe7 27.Qxb4 when White was
just a healthy pawn up. The rest proved easy for Anish.

That meant Maxime needed to make a comeback, but he got
nothing in the next game with the white pieces. That left one game with Black
and, as so often, the attempt to play sharply backfired.

It was
the end of the road for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who can now turn all his focus
to the Candidates Tournament, which he leads at the halfway point.

For Anish, meanwhile, a semi-final with Wesley So awaits.
When it was put to him that Wesley has been beating Magnus in these events,
Anish replied:

I’m not Magnus Carlsen, not even close! So in that sense that
Wesley is a Magnus slayer is not my problem. I’ve had lots of games with
Wesley, I’ve known him for a very long time. The first time I played him we
were both kids, and it was a question, who was the bigger prodigy at the time –
we were 13-14 or something, he was a year older, a step ahead, and then I met
him later.

I’ve spoken to him way back when he was still in the
Philippines and he was telling me how he lives alone and later the story about
him has been told many times, and it’s sort of a sad part in his life, but at
the time the way he said it to me didn’t sound so bad. He was saying, I’m
living alone, I can watch movies whenever I want – I was a teenager listening
to that. Yeah, sure, sounds good, but obviously eventually he moved to the
States and all that happened, but I’ve known him for a very long time. I’ve
played with him since the beginning of time.

There is a very fun clip of mine also when I was 13 or
something, very embarrassing, you can find it, you’ll probably enjoy it, a good
clip to show, how I beat him in the Wijk aan Zee tournament, the B group I
think. It was very embarrassing, I was still a child at the time, but I know
him for a long time, so it’s not like – he’s great, but the history is too long
that it’s not relevant, we just start from scratch tomorrow.

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