Chess matches can often prove to be tough affairs, but none came tougher and grittier so far during the pandemic lockdown-inspired $1m Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, with the final leg of the Legends of Chess producing an epic semifinal clash between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Anish Giri that almost went to the wire of a second successive Armageddon-decider, before the Russian finally edged out the Dutchman in a tense battle to reach his first tour final.
Remarkably, just like Magnus Carlsen’s crush over Peter Svidler, “Nepo” looked set for a similarly comfortable victory as he all but demolished Giri in the opening set of the match, and then jumped into the early lead in the second set – but Giri valiantly fought his way back into the contest, as he rolled up his sleeves to rally by winning a very tight contest in the Armageddon-decider to sensationally square the match.
The third and final deciding set proved to be an even more tense affair between these two rivals, with neither seemingly giving each other any genuine winning chances. And just when it looked like we were heading for a second Armageddon-decider, Giri faltered in the final blitz game to allow Nepo to strike for a match-winning victory.
Laughing off his day 2 meltdown, Nepo commented in his post-match interview (see video below): “My greatest achievement of yesterday is that I didn’t crash my house, because I was close to breaking a lot of things, but I went outside, I got some whisky and probably that helped me a lot!”
The loss will come as a bitter blow for Giri, as the Dutchman was not only looking to make a statement with a second successive tour final, but it was his last chance of a possible route into the 4-player Grand Final later this month. Carlsen (MCI and Chessable Masters) and Daniil Dubov (Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge) are already there as tour victors – but with Carlsen winning two tour titles (and quite possibly a third), one spot will automatically now go to Hikaru Nakamura, with the US champion being the highest-placed finisher as a twice defeated finalist.
The only question that now remains is who will get the fourth spot? If Nepomniachtchi can stop Carlsen’s match-winning tour streak, then the Russian world No 4 will get the final spot. But if odds-on favourite Carlsen prevails to win a third title in his own signature tour, then the fourth spot will go to Ding Liren, by virtue of the Chinese world No 3’s trio of semifinal appearances.
The winner will scoop a top prize of $45,000 and it will decide the last of the coveted spots in the tour’s Grand Final. All will be revealed when the Legends of Chess Final between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi gets underway on Monday on Chess24.
There will be full live coverage with commentary provided by the top-GM team of Jan Gustafsson, Judit Polgar, Rustam Kasimdzhanov, Erwin L’Ami, and WGM Tania Sachdev along with special guests appearing in the broadcast.
GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Anish Giri
Legends of Chess | SF, (1.2)
1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 The Bishop’s Opening was first studied by Greco in the 16th-century, and although a largely-forgotten system, it became fashionable once again during the ‘Swinging Sixties’ era by Bent Larsen, as the ‘great Dane’ all but single-handedly revived it n the 1960s and 1970s. 2…Nf6 3.d3 Nc6 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.Nf3 d6 6.0-0 Bxc3 7.bxc3 Na5 8.Bb3 h6 9.h3 Qe7 10.Nh2 Nepo’s intentions are crystal clear – he wants to bust the game wide open with f4. 10…Nxb3 11.axb3 g5 And Giri puts the big clamp on the f4-square. 12.Re1 Rg8 13.Nf1 g4 14.h4 g3?! This is dangerous, but then again, Giri probably doesn’t like the idea of getting caught up in 14…h5 15.Ng3 Nh7 If not this, then Bg5 will give White a big advantage 16.d4! and Black is going to have problems defending as the game bursts open. That said, better for Giri looked like the knight-on-the-rim option with 14…Nh5!? and allowing the speculative punt 15.d4 Be6 16.Qd3 a6 17.Qb5+!? axb5 18.Rxa8+ Kd7 19.Rxg8 f5!? and although we still have an unusual material balance, though the difference here is that the Black pieces are more active and threatening. 15.fxg3 Rg6 16.b4 Nh5?! Unlike the previous note, this just encourages Nepo to sacrifice his queen! Giri’s position is beginning to look shaky, but he should have gone for 16…Bg4 17.Qd2 Be6 18.c4 Kd7!? where …Nh5 and …Rag8 doubling rooks on the g-file does offer genuine counter-attacking chances. 17.Qxh5! It didn’t take Nepo long to figure out all the complications were going his way with the tactical queen sac. 17…Bg4 18.Qxg6! fxg6 19.Bxh6 The key to this position is the fact that Giri has to waste a lot of time securing his king, protecting his bishop, and then having to defend a7 – and this gives Nepo the chance to activate his pieces. 19…Kd7 20.Ne3 Be6 21.Rf1 Qh7 22.Bg5 Qg8 23.Rf6! a6 Giri would really like to trade rooks immediately with 23…Rf8 but the problem is that 24.Rxf8 Qxf8 25.Rxa7 b5 26.d4! Qb8 27.Ra1 c6 28.dxe5 dxe5 29.Rd1+ Kc7 30.Be7! and Black is in a world of hurt: if e5 falls, then Black is all but dead. 24.Raf1 And with Giri having to waste time with …a6, Nepo’s rooks now dominate the open f-file. 24…Re8 25.c4 b6?! Not that it’s a panacea for Black, but Giri should have tried 25…c6!? simply to deny White the valuable d5-square for his knight. White is still much better, but there’s a lot of work still needing to be done to convert any advantage through to a win. 26.Nd5 Kc6 Just stepping away from the coming knight fork. 27.R6f2 Qg7 28.Kh2 Kb7 29.Nc3 The engine will always find the most clinical way to win, and mine found the remarkable concept of 29.c5! dxc5 30.bxc5 bxc5 31.Rb1+ Ka7 (And why not 31…Ka8, you might well ask? The answer is that this is where the engine comes up with the bolt-out-of-the-blue stunner of 32.Bh6!! Qh7 (No better is 32…Qxh6 33.Nxc7+ Ka7 34.Nxe8 Qh8 35.Nd6 Qd8 36.Nb7 Qb8 37.Rf6 Bc8 38.Rxa6+!! and Black can resign.) 33.Nf6 Qxh6 34.Nxe8 Qh7 35.Rf6 Bc8 36.Rc6! Qd7 37.Nxc7+ Ka7 38.Rxc5 Bb7 39.Ne6! Bc6 40.Rxe5 winning.) 32.Be3! Bxd5 33.exd5 Qe7 34.Rbf1 Qd6 35.c4 Qb6 36.Rf6 Qa5 37.Rc6 and White should easily clear up now. 29…Ra8 30.Rf6 You really can’t blame Nepo for not spotting the immediate 29.c5!, as in his eyes, he sees what looks a more dominating way to do so. 30…Qg8 31.c5! [see diagram] Better late than never, as Nepo finally crashes home the win. 31…Qe8 If 31…b5 32.cxd6 cxd6 33.Nd1! the strategic knight retreat forces a win after Ne3 and Bh6 etc. 32.Nd5 dxc5 33.bxc5 bxc5 If 33…b5 White forces home the win with 34.Rxe6! Qxe6 35.Rf6 Qe8 36.c6+! Kb8 (Unfortunately, returning material with 36…Qxc6 37.Rxc6 Kxc6 allows 38.Ne7+ Kd6 39.Nxg6 Ke6 40.h5 and the h-pawn wins the day.) 37.Bh6 and game over. 34.Rb1+ Kc8 35.Bh6 Kd7 36.Rb7 Nepo’s pieces are coming in for the kill. 36…Bxd5 37.exd5 Kc8 38.Rb1 Kd7 39.Rbf1! Now Giri’s queen is lost…and with it, the game. 39…Rd8 40.Rf8 Qe7 1-0 Giri resigns, seeing the clean kill with 41.Rxd8+ Qxd8 42.Rf7+ Ke8 43.Rf8+ Ke7 44.Bg5+! Kxf8 45.Bxd8 a5 46.Bxc7 a4 47.Bxe5 etc.