Skilling Open QF1: Naka, Giri, Nepo & So in danger

Hikaru Nakamura, Anish Giri, Ian Nepomniachtchi & Wesley
So must all win on Thursday or they’re out of the Skilling Open after they lost on
Day 1 of the quarterfinals. Magnus Carlsen described his victory over Giri as a
case of “winning ugly” after he’d struggled for the first three games. MVL
toppled Nakamura’s Berlin Wall in the first game of the day, while Teimour
Radjabov twice struck with the black pieces to blow Wesley So away in three
games. Levon Aronian’s victory over Nepo was an enjoyable slugfest.

You can replay all the games from the first day of the
quarterfinals using the selector below.

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

And from Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev, who were joined
midway through by Harikrishna.

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The major difference in the knockouts in the Champions Chess
Tour compared to the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour is that each encounter is held
over two days, rather than three. One consequence is that this time a day’s
chess can end in a 2:2 draw, since a playoff is only held after the mini-match
on the 2nd day if the score is level. That will give us some days with less drama, but not this time, since all four mini-matches were

Let’s take them one by one:

Carlsen 2.5:1.5 Giri

This match was the most anticipated of the day, with Anish
Giri having quipped the day before:

Magnus knows: if he wins, he wins. If he loses, some tweets
will come his way! A lot at stake.

There was some gentle banter before the day began.

But when the actual chess began it was Giri going straight
for the jugular with a hyper-sharp opening with the black pieces. For a few
moves, when both players seemed to be out of preparation, Magnus might have taken
over, but instead it was soon Anish who was on the offensive. He was in fact
totally winning, until move 27.

Magnus, with the white pieces, is threatening to take on c7,
but that threat is essentially just one check. Many moves are good for Black,
with the best seeming to be 27…Be2!, with the hard-to-meet threat of taking the
f3-knight and gobbling up the rook on g1. Instead Anish played 27…Qxe3+?, and after the exchange of queens the game
fizzled out into a draw.

Kaja Snare questioned Magnus about that moment afterwards.

Were you surprised
when he offered to trade queens there?

No! I know how he plays!

Going for the draws,
is that what you mean?

No, I’m just saying that it’s a sort of position where it
feels like there should be something very, very strong for Black, but maybe it’s
not so easy to find, and when you’re running short of time yourself it’s easy
to go for the kind of simple solution, thinking that you exchange queens and
you can at least claim to have some advantage later on, so as long as I didn’t
see an obvious win I thought he would probably do that… and lucky for me!

After that scare Game 2 was a much quieter draw, while in
Game 3 Magnus’ decision to go for an unambitious opening with the white pieces
shocked Peter Leko.

Magnus admitted it hadn’t been great, but still felt he had a psychological edge over his opponent.

Truth be told in the first three games he generally just
played a bit better than I did, so I wouldn’t say there was so much, but you
can still have a feeling that he hasn’t quite gotten over the hump yet in these
matches against me, and you can certainly sense it in some of the decisions,
and also in the last game I could sense that he was getting really, really
uncomfortable with the situation as it was going on.

In that game Magnus had the black pieces and the first hint
that he might have chances of anything more than a draw came on move 19.

Magnus has just captured a knight on e3, and after 19.Rxe3
we might well have had a very quick draw. Instead Anish thought two minutes and
went for 19.fxe3!?, leaving himself doubled e-pawns that would later be put out
of their misery by the black king. Magnus summed up the course of the game:

It was just a classical case of being worse, then slightly
worse, then equal, then slightly better, then much better, then finally
winning! The whole transformation was very, very pleasing.

When Magnus was asked about the Twitter rivalry with Anish,
he responded:

I stopped replying and started playing better, so that would
be the general idea of what I’m doing there now.

Anish still has the chance to fight another day.

Magnus also talked in his post-game interview about Diego
Maradona, the great Argentinian footballer whose death Magnus heard about
between games.

Garry Kasparov also joined in the reminiscences.

Aronian 2.5:1.5 Nepomniachtchi

The winner of Carlsen-Giri will play Aronian-Nepomniachtchi,
and for now it’s Levon Aronian who’s out in front. He admitted, however, that
it had been anything but easy.

I think yesterday I played very well. Today I didn’t play
very well, but I kept some composure. At least I understood that I’m losing,
but I didn’t give up.

Levon mentioned he’d been very proud of his
game the day before against Sergey Karjakin
, and especially 17…Nd5!!, with
the idea of 18.Ne4 Nc3+!! – “to see it in rapid made me very happy”. His
quarterfinal against Ian Nepomniachtchi got off to a much quieter start, but
the quick draw in the first game would be the only one of the mini-match.

It was Nepo who struck first, with Levon feeling he’d been “too
emotional” after getting to play a new opening idea. Harikrishna showed some
Nepo-speed calculation and instincts.

Levon managed to hit straight back in the next game, just a
couple of moves after Ian missed the chance to force a draw (41…Rxf2+!). He
found a tricky move to give his queen access to the g4-square.

43…Kg7! still seems to be fine for Black, as Levon pointed
out, but after 43…hxg4? 44.Qf5+! White was winning – Levon’s suspicion was that
after 44…Kg7 45.Qxg4+ Kf6 45.e5+ Rxe5 47.Qf4+ his opponent might have missed an
important detail.

He felt Nepo may have intended 47…Rf5, which would be a
winning move if not for the unfortunate 48.Qxh6#, ending the game on the spot! After
47…Kg6 Levon gradually ground out a win.

The final game saw Levon spend an extraordinary 8 minutes
and 44 seconds on his 13th move. He summed up his thought process as, “I was
thinking, contemplating, wishing I was on the side of my opponent – all those
things!” He decided to direct his pieces in the general direction of White’s
king, but wasn’t thrilled with his position or clock situation. Was he worried?

I wasn’t worried anymore. I knew that I’m losing! And I was
very relaxed at that point. I was worried before when I got this position, and
then I just relaxed… You worry when you at least have some hope!

He was much happier by the time 21…Rae8 appeared on the

And then I’ve got a Marshall! Peter knows how I feel about
this stuff – we share a common passion about being down a pawn and trying to
beg for a draw!

This was a game where Black wouldn’t be begging for a draw,
however, since after 22.bxc6 bxc6 23.Bc3 h5 24.Rab1 Bc7 25.Rb7? Levon was able
to pounce with the winning sacrifice 25…Nxh3+!

After 26.gxh3 Bxg3! Nepo tried the trick 27.d5, hoping in a
dream scenario for 27…Rg6? 28.Qxg6! fxg6? 29.Rxg7+ Kf8 30.fxg3+, but after 27…Qxh3
28.fxg3 Re2!
it was time to resign.

Levon was asked about his dog Ponchik, with whom he’d
celebrated the day before, and joked, “my purpose is to play well in order
to give him treats – so it’s motivation!”

Radjabov 2.5:0.5 So

When Teimour Radjabov first burst onto the chess scene he
was one of the most exciting players around with the black pieces, and in this
match-up he showed why, though it required a little help. The normally rock
solid Wesley So went for a murky piece sacrifice in the first game and later
rejected a draw by repetition, with Teimour simply compelled to go on the

33…Ng5!, threatening Nf3+, was a winning move, and although
neither player was flawless in the play that followed, Black’s momentum was
enough to take the lead in the match.

After a safe draw in Game 2, Wesley seemed to have good
chances again with White in Game 3, but 22…Nd5! turned the tables.

23.cxd5? Rac8+! suddenly leaves the white king defenceless,
but after 23.Kb2 Ba5! it was still White who had to show precision. Wesley
could have drawn, but the forward march with 30.Kc5? was a step too far.
30…Re6! threatened mate-in-2 with b6.

Wesley “stopped” that by playing 31.b6 himself, when 31…Nxc1??
would have been a draw, but 31…Ra5# was mate and the end of the mini-match!

MVL 2.5:1.5 Nakamura

One of the most refreshing aspects of the Skilling Open has
been Maxime Vachier-Lagrave returning to the openings that have seen him ranked
as high as world no. 2, but which earlier this year he’d avoided in big online
events. With Black, that’s meant returning to the Najdorf and the Grünfeld,
while with White Maxime is known for being one of the few remaining top players
who’s willing to take on the main lines of the Berlin Defence. 

His first game
against Hikaru in their Skilling Open quarterfinal followed MVL-Grischuk from
the Candidates Tournament for an astonishing 26 moves, and that game had
already been astonishing

Alexander Grischuk infamously spent 53 minutes on his 18th
move, only to be surprised by Maxime’s next move and spend another 21 minutes
on that as well! He commented:

Again, like with Alekseenko, I made a very stupid thing,
thinking for 1 hour almost about Ne7. I was just 100%, not 99, 100% sure Maxime
was going to play g4. Then when he played h4 I was just minus 1 hour, but at
the end maybe it didn’t matter too much because anyway I would spend this 1
hour somehow!

Hikaru limited the contemplation of his new 26th move to a
mere 8 minutes, though it seems it was a mistake. Maxime didn’t punish it
immediately, but this time, unlike in the game against Grischuk, he did seize
his opportunity when the chance arose.

32.g4! was the only winning move, distracting the bishop
from covering the queening square of the e-pawn. 32…Bg6 runs into 33.Rf6!,
while in the game after 32…Bxg4 33.e7 there was nothing better than 33…Nd7,
allowing 34.exd8=Q+. Hikaru fought hard after that, but Maxime converted his

The French no. 1 saw Game 2 as the turning point of the
match, since he got into deep trouble in the opening but somehow managed to
survive. Game 3 was a quieter draw, while in Game 4 Hikaru’s attempt to mix things
up in the opening seemed to have backfired.

To his great credit, the 5-time US Champion actually gave
Maxime a scare by the end, but the French no. 1 held on to win the mini-match.

One reason for how hard Hikaru fought was revealed only
afterwards – it seems he was completely unaware that the format is to have a
second 4-game mini-match on Day 2. Any tiebreaks would only take place after
that. Hikaru thought the 2nd day was only for tiebreaks, and that therefore he
was already out!

Maxime was well-aware he was going to face another
mini-match against Hikaru, and explained his strategy would be to try and play
normal chess, since “to play for four draws is the best way to make accidents

Nakamura, Giri, So and Nepomniachtchi must all now win on
demand on Thursday, so you really don’t want to miss the games. Tune in to all the action from 18:00 CET!

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