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John Henderson
By John Henderson

With yet another smooth and silky performance, a resurgent Magnus Carlsen looks to be getting back to his best in his own invitational, the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, as the world champion cruised to a comfortable victory over Armenian Levon Aronian to go through to the semifinals of the latest leg of the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Tour from the Play Magnus Group.

A below-par Carlsen has seen a dramatic dip in form since his 30th birthday late last November – but the Norwegian will surely be relieved he’s showing signs of being back to his best in his own signature tournament. Carlsen dominated the prelims with a tour record score to make it to the knockout stages. He’s also now won all four of the tour prelims, but it will certainly not sit well with the defending tour champion that’s he’s yet to win a tour title this season!

But Carlsen’s assured play in the prelims carried over to what was potentially an intriguing and problematic quarter-final tussle with old foe Aronian, whom he disposed with relative ease. And keeping in the space theme – with new tour partners the Breakthrough Initiatives and the Breakthrough Junior Challenge – in celebration of next month’s 60th anniversary of human space-flight, rather than Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, to paraphrase another ‘first man’, Neil Armstrong, it’s one small step for Carlsen…with the giant leap only coming if he now goes on to win the title of the $220,00 tournament.

And it was also a testament to the accuracy of the rating system as another three members of the Top 10 made it through to the semifinals with relative ease. Joining Carlsen in the semifinals in the opposite end of the brackets will be US champion and current tour leader Wesley So, who proved no match for teenage rising star Alireza Firouzja, as he comfortably beat the 17-year-old to set-up a possible Carlsen-So final.

But standing in the way is Ian Nepomniachtchi, who somewhat surprisingly demolished US speed maven and online influencer Hikaru Nakamura, and the Russian world #4 now goes forward to meet Carlsen in Thursday’s semi-finals. The second semi-final fixture will see So meeting Anish Giri, with the Dutch world #7 beating the out-of-form and faltering Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who recently nose-dived out of the Top 10.

Semifinal pairings:
Carlsen v Nepomniachtchi and So v Giri
Play gets underway on Thursday at 16:00 GMT (17:00 CET, 11:00 ET, 08:00 PT).

Every move of the MCI semi-finals 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– and many top multi-lingual grandmaster commentary teams on Chess24 – and now with the knockout stages, in 62 countries on the Eurosport TV network.

Photo: Is “the Boss” back to his best? | © Meltwater Champions Tour

 

GM Levon Aronian – GM Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen Inv. Q/finals, (2.1)
Ruy Lopez, Møller Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Bc5 Carlsen offers a tip of the hat to his Nordic roots by adopting the Møller Defence, named after Jørgen Møller, the early 20th century Danish master and Nordic champion. In the Møller Defence, Black gets a chance to acquire an active development and fight for the initiative early doors – and White has to take care, as he can go very wrong very quickly, especially if he goes into Ruy Lopez autopilot mode. 6.c3 The correct move, as it is so easy to play 6.Re1? only to discover that after 6…Ng4 7.Rf1 0-0 Black already has the upper-hand. 6…0-0 7.d4 Ba7 8.Bg5 exd4 9.e5 h6 10.Bh4 g5 11.Bxc6 dxc6 12.Nxg5 This takes all the sting out of the Møller, where as the dust settles, with accurate play from both sides, there’s nothing much left in the position. 12…dxc3 13.Qxd8 Rxd8 14.Nxc3 Nd5 15.Nge4 Also perfectly playable is 15.Nf3 Re8 16.Rfe1 Bg4 17.Rad1 Nxc3 18.bxc3 with a near equal position. 15…Nxc3 16.bxc3 Rd3 17.Rad1 Rxd1 18.Rxd1 Be6 It is indeed an intriguing little tussle, with Aronian having control of the d-file and the prospects of a tricky Nf6+ in the mix, but Carlsen having a good bishop-pair and long-term targets of White’s weak a- and c-pawns. Still, the consensus among the talking heads was that this game would soon fizzle out to a draw. 19.a3 f5! A very brave and brassy move from Carlsen, the sort of “boss move” a dominant and in-form Carlsen would dare to play; his idea being rather than penned in with a Nf6+, is to sacrifice the f-pawn to open the game up to activate his rook to combine forces with his bishop-pair. 20.exf6 Aronian has to accept the gauntlet thrown down with Carlsen’s enterprising pawn sacrifice. If 20.Nf6+ Black now has the freeing 20…Kf7! and suddenly his position is looking good. 20…Re8 21.h3? Carlsen’s gamble pays off early doors as Aronian errs badly at the critical moment. The engines quickly spot the dangers, and all want to play the unhuman-like move 21.Kh1!, the point is that White needs to play f3 to support the Ne4, and right now it can’t be played because of the bishop bossing the long a7-g1 diagonal. Now, after 21…Bd5 22.f3 Bxe4 23.fxe4 Bc5 (The safe option. Playable is 23…Rxe4 but is all gets a little awkward after 24.Rd8+ Kf7 25.g3 with the f-pawn is dangerous and Black also having to be wary of White playing Rd7+ etc.) 24.Re1 Bd6! stopping e5, and now the game should fizzle out after 25.g4 Kf7 26.Kg2 Re6 27.g5 hxg5 28.Bxg5 Be5! 29.Re3 Kg6 30.h4 Bxf6 31.Bxf6 Kxf6 and what should be a technically drawn R+P ending. 21…Bb3! The engines (and Carlsen!) soon spot the flaw in Aronian’s bad plan: the double attack on both the rook and knight spells disaster for White! 22.f7+ It was either this or 22.Rd8 Rxd8 23.f7+ Kxf7 24.Bxd8 Bc2 25.Nd2 and the prospects of a hopless endgame, 25…Bc5! but instead Aronian attempts to keep his hopes alive by leaving his rook on the board. 22…Kxf7 23.Rd7+ Kg6 24.Nd2 Re1+ 25.Kh2 Be6! [see diagram] Carlsen takes full advantage of the fact that his opponent can’t capture on c7 due to the bishop skewer on the long b8-h2 diagonal. 26.Rd8 Re2 27.Nf3 The least-worse try was 27.f3 but after 27…Bd5 Black forces an advantageous endgame with 28.c4 Rxd2 29.cxd5 Rxd5 30.Rg8+ Kf7 31.Rc8 Rd7! 32.Bg3 Ke6! and once again, White can’t capture on c7 due to the …Bb8 skewer. 27…Bxf2 28.Bxf2 Rxf2 29.Kg3 Rc2 30.Rd3 Bd5 With his bishop now taking up its dominant d5 outpost, and Aronian’s a- and c-pawns easy targets, Carlsen very efficiently finishes off the game. 31.Kf4 Kf6 32.g4 Rf2! A masterful touch from Carlsen, who is going to pick his moment by trading on f3 for an easily winning K+P ending. 33.h4 b5! A pawn ahead, the winning K+P ending looming, Carlsen is no hurry to rush things, so he plays a useful queenside pawn move to get ahead of the coming ending. 34.Kg3 Rxf3+ 35.Rxf3+ Bxf3 36.Kxf3 c5 With a 4:3 queenside majority, the plan is simple for Carlsen: push …a5-a4 and then the …b4 sacrifice to create a passed pawn. 37.Ke4 c6! Carlsen’s pawn mass keeps Aronian’s king from crossing over to the queenside. If The White king had access to d4 or d5, then there was a good chance the game could end in a draw. 38.Kf4 a5 39.Ke4 a4 40.Kd3 Ke5 41.Ke3 b4! “Fin”, as they say at the end of foreign movies! Aronian can’t capture twice on b4 as the a-pawn quickly queens. 42.Kd2 b3 0-1 Aronian resigns, as after 43.Kd1 Kf4 44.g5 hxg5 45.h5 Kf5 etc wins.

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