Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So are set to do battle in the final of the $100,000 Skilling Open, the opening leg of the new season of the $1.5m Champions Chess Tour, hosted on Chess24, as both overcame semifinal challenges from Ian Nepomniachtchi and Hikaru Nakamura respectively – but not without some scares, setbacks and plenty of craziness.
“Frankly I’m not playing that great!”, readily admitted Carlsen after eventually beating the Russian – and his indifferent play showed it. After narrowly winning the opening set, Carlsen had to endure a rollercoaster second set that came replete with a bizarre – though equally dramatic for the fans – opening game with mutual king walks, as Nepo struck back early to give the reigning tour champion a scare.
But after Carlsen hit back in the second game, it was back to business as usual as the world champion tied the match at 2-2 to reach the final. And Carlsen will now meet So in the final, after the reigning US champion survived a couple of minor setbacks to comfortably beat Hikaru Nakamura in the all-American clash, holding the second set to four draws, with his opening set win proving enough for victory.
It now sets up an intriguing battle. Carlsen famously holds the world classical, rapid and blitz titles, but the Norwegian was denied a clean sweep of world crowns he coveted after being comprehensively beaten by So last year in the first official Fischer Random/Chess 960 World Championship in Stavanger, Norway.
Play in the final starts on Sunday and Monday from 18:00 CET (12:00 EST | 09:00 PST), with live commentary in ten languages – to tap into a wider online audience – is being broadcast on Chess24.com; four in English, ranging from experienced players to one specifically designed for novices and newcomers to tap into the new chess market. There’s also live TV coverage in Norway and cable TV on Eurosport throughout.
The eventual winner in the Skilling Open will also take the early lead in the newly-branded Champions Chess Tour, launched by the Play Magnus Group, the successor to the hugely-popular pandemic lockdown-inspired Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour.
GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Magnus Carlsen
Skilling Open, S/final (2.1)
Ruy Lopez, Martinez Variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.d3 The modest but solid ‘Martinez Variation’ has the advantage of cutting off most of the opening theory associated with the big Lopez lines – so no need to worry about the theory-laden Marshall Attack, Chigorin, Zaitsev or the Breyer. 6…d6 7.c3 0-0 8.Nbd2 Re8 9.Re1 Bf8 10.d4 b5 Albeit via a slower method, effectively we now have a main-line Lopez. 11.Bc2 exd4 12.cxd4 Bg4 13.Nf1 g6 14.Ng3 Bg7 15.Be3 Nd7 16.Rc1 Bxf3 17.gxf3 Qf6 18.Bb3 Nxd4 19.Bxd4 Qxd4 20.Rxc7 Ra7 21.Rxa7?! Carlsen would have been only too happy to see this from Nepo, as the best and safest way forward for White was clearly 21.Qxd4! Bxd4 22.Rxa7 Bxa7 23.Rd1 Bc5 24.Bd5 Ne5 (If 24…Nf6 25.Bb7 a5 26.Bc6 Rb8 27.Kg2 White still has the better of it.) 25.Kg2 Re7 26.b3 and White has the more comfortable side of what looks like a game that’s will soon fizzle out to a draw. But by keeping the queens on the board, all Nepo achieves is to give Carlsen attacking prospects, as his pieces dramatically spring to life. 21…Qxa7 22.Qxd6 Bxb2 23.f4 If Nepo can quickly get in f5, then he would be more than OK – but Carlsen also gets some moves here, and he isn’t going to allow that to happen! 23…Nc5 24.Bd5?! Nepo still puts his faith in the f5 attack – but the Russian clearly missed something. He had to realise that Carlsen had an unexpected attack, and it was time to bail out with 24.Rd1! (the reason for this soon becomes clear in the game) 24…Nxb3 25.axb3 Qb7 and an equal position. 24…Bd4! And this is what Nepo missed, as suddenly it’s his king that’s in grave danger. 25.Re2 Arguably Nepo just had to accept he needed to suffer a little here by heading straight to an ending with 25.Bxf7+!? Qxf7 26.Qxd4 Ne6 27.Qe3 Qxf4! (If 27…Nxf4 28.Ne2! Nd5 29.Qd4 Nc7 30.Rc1 the game is petering out to a draw.) 28.e5 Rc8 and Black has the more comfortable endgame prospects – though with safe play White should be able to hold. 25…Nd3 Carlsen’s pieces are now piling in on f2 – and it is all self-inflicted by Nepo, who now faces a monster attack. 26.Kg2? And not unsurprisingly, Nepo cracks under the strain. Attack is always the best form of defence, and he had to stay brave and counter-attack with 26.f5! Qb6 27.Qxb6 Bxb6 28.Rd2! Ne5 (If 28…Nxf2 29.Rxf2 Rc8 30.Kf1 Bxf2 31.Kxf2 Kg7 the minor pieces will easily hold.) 29.Rc2 Nf3+ 30.Kf1 Nd4 31.fxg6 hxg6 32.Rc1 and the game should end in a draw, with neither side able to exploit the others weaknesses on f7 and f2. 26…Kg7 Safety-first, as Carlsen just side-steps any potential worries with f5xg6 and Qxg6+. 27.Rd2 Bc5 28.Qc6 Nxf4+ 29.Kf3 It looks like a walk on the wild side, but no better is 29.Kf1 when 29…Rd8! is strong, as 30.Ne2 Bb4 31.Rd4 Nxe2 32.Rxb4 Nf4 and Black will next play …Qb8 with a winning advantage. 29…Rd8? Both players are getting caught up with the dramatic change of circumstances on the board: one believing he’s just winning, the other he’s in grave danger – but the reality is, as the engine gleefully points out, is that Carlsen had to play 29…Bb4! 30.Qxe8 Bxd2 31.Qe5+ f6 32.Qb2 Nxd5 33.exd5 Ba5 34.Ne4 Bd8! with realistic winning chances, being a pawn up and White’s king somewhat exposed to the elements. 30.Kxf4 Rd6 31.Qe8? The wrong square! The saving move was 31.Qc8 and now 31…Bxf2 32.Kg4 Qe3 33.Re2 h5+ 34.Kh3 Qf3 35.Rc2! h4 36.Rc3 this resource saves White, as 36…Qf6 37.Nf5+! gxf5 38.Rf3 Qg5 39.Qxf5 Qxf5+ 40.Rxf5 Rf6 41.Kg4 and with the opposite colour bishops on the board, the game is heading for a draw. 31…Bxf2?? [see diagram] The rollercoaster craziness continues – and oh, to be an engine amidst the chaos now on the board! The silent killer that Carlsen missed was 31…Qc7!! and the discovered check comes with a fatal blow, as 32.Qe5+ (White can’t run with this king to safety, as his queen drops after 32.Kf3 Rd8 etc. 33.Qxd8) 32…f6 33.Qc3 Rxd5+ 34.Kf3 b4 35.Qb2 Rxd2 36.Qxd2 h5 and Black’s winning. 32.Kg4 Rf6 Remarkably, the White king is surviving its ordeal. 33.e5 h5+ 34.Kh3 Rf4 35.e6 And with that, Carlsen is dead. 35…fxe6 36.Bxe6 Bd4 37.Nxh5+! Now it is Carlsen’s king caught in the razor wire of no-man’s land! 37…gxh5 38.Rg2+ Kf6 39.Rg6+ Ke5 40.Bb3+ 1-0