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John Henderson
By John Henderson

The chess fans feverishly following the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, the fourth leg of the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour from the Play Magnus Group, were demanding nothing less than an ultimate showdown between perennial rivals Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So – and that’s exactly what they are set to get, but instead doing battle for 3rd/4th spot after both were sensationally knocked out of the $220,000 event and a place in the final.

Carlsen was unceremoniously dumped out of his own signature tournament in the semi-finals by Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi. The Russian world #4 took the early lead in the match, taking full advantage of Carlsen’s hesitant play in game 3 (see below) to win the first set. But Carlsen staged what can only be described as a quite remarkable Carlsen-like comeback in the second set, with ‘on-demand’ wins in games 3 and 4 to force the match into a deciding tiebreak.

The momentum looked to be firmly with Carlsen going into the blitz playoff, but the Norwegian, trying too hard to win, over-pressed in the second playoff game, only to look on in horror as his once promising position collapsed with a blunder at the crucial moment, and Nepomniachtchi – the only active player with a plus score against Carlsen in classical chess – claiming a place in the final.

“Clearly today was a lottery,” said a relieved Nepomniachtchi following his victory, before wryly adding “…and I was the one who got the winning ticket!” A downbeat Carlsen added: “Ultimately, what decided the match was that he managed to keep his head in the blitz, and I most certainly did not.”

The Dutch world #7, Anish Giri, has seen a big resurgence in his form of late – and the popular Dutchman’s good form has also shone through here in the MCI with a strong showing in the prelims and then going on to beat Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the quarter-finals.

But the big test was his semi-final clash with US champion and tour leader Wesley So, and once again Giri proved to be on top of his game with a super-solid performance to make it through to his first Meltwater Champions Tour final. “It’s really, really great. I am happy to be in the final!”, a jubilant Giri said in victory.

The under-card grand final between Nepomniachtchi and Giri does make things interesting on the tour, as whoever wins will not only boost their prize-money earnings but will also jump right up the tour standings to be in pole-position for a top 8 finish and making it through to the season-ending Grand Final.

For defending tour champion Carlsen, it means another set-back and continued talk of his ‘30th birthday hoodoo’ that’s haunted him since late last November, now not winning five tournaments since he turned 30. There are 10 qualifying tournaments leading to the grand final in the autumn and Carlsen, despite winning four prelims, is also yet to open his account this season having been knocked out four times.

Every move of the MCI final between Nepomniachtchi and Giri will be streamed live around the world on Twitch and YouTube with coverage from the tour’s broadcast studio in Oslo with the commentary team of Kaja Snare, GM David Howell and IM Jovanka Houska – plus many top multi-lingual grandmaster commentary teams on Chess24 – and now with the knockout stages, in 62 countries on the Eurosport TV network.

Play in both matches gets underway on Saturday and Sunday at 16:00 GMT (17:00 CET, 11:00 ET, 08:00 PT).

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
Magnus Carlsen Invitational | Semi-final, (1.3)
Queen’s Gambit Accepted
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.e4 A very sharp line of the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. 5…b5 6.e5 Nd5 7.Nxb5 Nb6 Nepo quickly returns the pawn, hoping his c4-pawn will be disruptive to White’s development, plus he will also have play against Carlsen’s d-pawn. 8.Be2 Nc6 9.0-0 Be7 10.Qd2 Bb7 11.Rd1 Qd7 12.Nc3 Nb4 13.a3 N4d5 14.Ne4 Qc6 Black’s influence down the long a8-h1 diagonal is his trump card – and in more ways than one than just potentially attacking the e4 knight, as Carlsen discovers to his horror later in the game. 15.Re1 0-0-0 16.Bf1 f5 This looks a high-risk strategy for Nepo, as it weakens several pawns – but ultimately those weaknesses have to be taken as Black’s only hope of staying competitive is to open the game up. 17.exf6 gxf6 18.Qe2 A missed moment for Carlsen with this somewhat hesitant move, as he looks to target the pawn weaknesses on c4 and e6 – but better was cutting to the chase with the decisive engine first option of 18.Nc5! which forces Black’s hand immediately, and 18…Bxc5 19.dxc5 Qxc5 20.Rxe6 where it looks as if Black will need to go ‘all-in’ with the speculative kingside attack with …h5 and a …Rg8, as the endgame prospects don’t look good at all with those weak and isolated pawns. 18…Kb8 A purely prophylaxis move, anticipating that e6 will surely fall, so best just to ignore it and get on with the attack, and no need to worry about the pawn being captured with check. 19.Bd2 Rhg8 20.Rac1 Bd6 And Nepo has decided that attacking is the best form of defence, as he signals he’s going for the attack rather than defending the pawns – a wise choice against Carlsen. 21.g3 f5 22.Nxd6 It was not too late to try 22.Nc5!? Bxc5 23.Ne5 Qb5 24.dxc5 Qxc5 25.Nxc4 Nxc4 26.Qxc4 Qb6 27.Bg2 where White at least has the better long-term chances with the bishop-pair, better rooks and more solid pawn structure. 22…cxd6 23.Bg2 White can grab the e6-pawn, but it looks dangerous: 23.Qxe6 f4 24.Bg2 Qb5 and Black has good compensation for the pawn. 23…Rde8 Carlsen’s strategy has backfired, he has no advantage and to compound matters for the world champion, he’s used up a lot of his time to get here – and this plays its part as overlooks a crucial tactic. 24.Nh4 Also 24.Ng5 will be answered by 24…Qb5 and Black has the upper-hand. 24…Qb5! Suddenly the tables are beginning to turn, with Nepo’s pieces and pawns better placed, and Carlsen now facing a very difficult position. 25.Rb1 Qb3 26.Bc3? “Danger, Magnus Carlsen!”, as perhaps Robot B9’s catchphrase from one of my favourite childhood cult mid-1960s TV sci-fi shows, Lost in Space would say, to warn someone that they were about to do something really stupid. And the danger signs were all there for Carlsen to do something really stupid with the big x-ray attack down the g-file. He had to play 26.Qf3! taking advantage of the fact that the …Nd5 can’t move for now due to Qxb7 mate, which forces Black into 26…Qc2 (Worse was 26…Qa2 27.Bb4! Rd8 28.Qh5! and suddenly White is targeting lots of vulnerable Black pawns. And exchanging queens with; 26…Qxf3 27.Bxf3 fairs no better as the danger has gone and White’s bishops are now on top.) 27.Bb4! Rd8 28.Qe2 Qxe2 29.Rxe2 Nc7 30.Bxb7 Kxb7 31.Nf3 Rg6 with a near-to-equal game, though one with chances for either side if someone makes a misstep. 26…Nf4! Oops, too late! 27.gxf4? Short of time, I can only imagine Carlsen had to be playing on tilt by now, as the only try to hang on is 27.Qd1!? Nxg2 28.Qxb3 cxb3 29.Nxg2 Be4! but even here we can clearly see that Black is in control of the position. But then again, better trying to grovel your way to a draw in a bad position than committing instant suicide. 27…Rg4! [see diagram] With one very accurate move from Nepo, suddenly we see that Carlsen’s position is set to dramatically collapse. 28.h3 The obvious try is 28.Bb4 but after 28…Reg8! 29.Bxd6+ Ka8 30.h3 Rxg2+! 31.Nxg2 Rxg2+ 32.Kf1 Qxh3! and suddenly the reason for keeping the bishop on c3 becomes abundantly clear, as Black forces mate. 28…Rxh4 29.Bxb7 Kxb7 30.Qf3+ Ka6! 31.d5? Carlsen is in a bad place, and he makes it even worse for himself with the added error. But that said, even after 31.Kh2 Rh6! 32.a4 d5! Black will follow-up with …Nb6-d7-f6-e4 (or possibly even g4+ in certain circumstances) and the knight metamorphosis into a monster octopus – and this is probably the reason for Carlsen playing what he played, not liking the idea of the death-by-knight prospect. 31…Nxd5 32.Rxe6 Rxe6 33.Qxd5 Rg6+ 34.Kf1 Qb5! After this accurate move, Nepo has all but won the game, as there’s no way for Carlsen to try to exploit his opponent’s slightly vulnerable king on a6. 35.Rd1 Qxd5 36.Rxd5 Rxf4 37.Bd4 Rf3 38.Be3 f4 39.Rf5 Re6 40.Bd4 Re4 41.Kg2 Rd3 42.Bc3 d5 43.Rf6+ Kb5 44.Rf7 d4 45.Bb4 Re2 0-1

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