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John Henderson
By John Henderson

As the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour from the Play Magnus Group now approaches its midpoint, the tour is now beginning to take shape with the race officially underway to see who will go forward to the season-ending Finals that will be held in San Francisco in September. The only two guaranteed a place in the finals so far are Teimour Radjabov (Airthings Masters) and Anish Giri (Magnus Carlsen Invitational), winners of two of the three majors on the tour that comes with an automatic qualifying spot – and the rest of the spots will mainly be determined by the tour standings

Finishing in that top eight is vital for players who want to make it through to the tour finals. Along with the three major winners, the top five remaining players in the tour standings will automatically qualify. The remaining two spots will be offered to the best-performing Ambassadors in the tour standings not qualified by other means.

Wesley So currently leads the tour standings with 140 points, just five ahead of World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who jumps into second place by virtue of beating the US champion in the third-place play-off match in his own recently concluded signature tournament. Radjabov currently sits in third place in the tour standings, while Giri is close behind, but both have already booked their ticket to the final. Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi jumped into fifth place after reaching the final of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational. Nepomniachtchi has 83 tour points. Levon Aronian (67), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (54), and Hikaru Nakamura (40) round out the top eight.

For players who have clinched a spot in the tour finals, earning more points is still critical – and we could be set for an intense battle in the remaining tour events, even for those already qualified. That’s because, much like in the PGA’s FedEx Cup Final, you can’t rest on your laurels as those who come in with more points will have an edge over the field. Every full 10 points in the standings will be worth 0.5 points in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour final, a 10-player round robin that will award three points for a match win, two points for a win on tiebreakers, and one point for a tiebreak loss.

And while Carlsen is ideally placed in the tour standings to go forward, what will irk the defending tour champion is that he’s yet to win a tour title this season. Certainly the recent MCI was the best Carlsen performance since his infamous ‘30th birthday hoodoo’ of late November last year that started his un-winning run of six successive tournaments, and despite his mishap after being knocked out by Nepomniachtchi, he did have much to be pleased about with his overall performance.

The highlight was his stunning opening game win (see below) against So using an offbeat opening idea that led to a very brutal takedown of his opponent’s king, that was subsequently dubbed “Murder on a Chessboard” on live Norwegian TV and clearly pleased a smiling Carlsen when he delivered the final blow. “It was okay,” he said afterward.

Tour standings & Prize money:
1. Wesley So ($85,000), 140 points; 2. Magnus Carlsen ($65,000), 135; 3. Teimour Radjabov ($78,500), 108; 4. Anish Giri ($75,000), 105; 5. Ian Nepomniachtchi ($60,00), 84; 6. Levon Aronian ($60,000), 67; 7. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave ($46,000), 54; 8. Hikaru Nakamura ($30,000), 40; 9. Daniil Dubov ($25,000), 23; 10. Alireza Firouzja ($12,500), 6.

Photo: Carlsen’s smile after beating So says it all! | © Meltwater Champions Chess Tour

 

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Wesley So
Magnus Carlsen Invitational | 3rd/4th Match, (1.1)
Four Knights’ Opening
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.a4!? Apart from being a bold attempt to grab space on the queenside, this move has a bit of Magnus history about it, as he reached this same position previously, only via the very bizarre starting point of 1.a4!?, going on to beat Teimour Radjabov in the 2012 World Blitz Championship. Also, as Carlsen explained himself, “The thing is, you’re trying to get a good version of some opening in reverse. After d5, you’re claiming that a4 is a useful move there, and also after moves like Bc5 or Bb4 or Be7, you’re trying again to claim that there is use for the move a4. Realistically, obviously, it’s not even close to being better, but he sort of jumped into the one line where White has serious ideas. Obviously pretty fortunate for me, but still very satisfying!” 4…Bb4 5.Bd3 Another move that looks just wrong for a beginner to chess, as it goes against all the harmonious development guidelines they have just learned – but there is a logic to this move, as Carlsen intends Nd5 followed by c3, Bc2 and d4 to claim the central initiative. 5…d6 6.0-0 0-0 7.Nd5 Bc5 8.c3 a5 Another reason for 4.a4!? proving more than useful, is that this move from So is forced, otherwise White has b4 and a5 either winning the bishop or (if Black instead plays 8…a6) a big queenside expansion. 9.Bc2 Nxd5 10.exd5 Ne7 11.Ng5 h6 Hindsight is always 20/20 in chess, but I think I’d be worried by now of a sudden kingside assault that I’d be looking to trade the light-squared bishops with 11…Bf5 12.Bxf5 Nxf5 13.Qh5 h6 14.Ne4 Qd7 and rather take this position on. 12.d4 Bb6 13.Nh7! It’s only now that you begin to see that early doors Black could be in trouble. 13…Re8 14.Nf6+!! [see diagram] Now comes the benefits of having a good coach, as Magnus magnanimously explains: “The thing is that this Nf6 is something that was in a file that Peter [Heine Nielsen] sent me earlier today, so obviously if it had been my idea that I found over the board I would be very proud.” 14…gxf6 15.Qh5 Magnus didn’t have anything concrete prepared after 14…gxf6, but your gut tells you that Black is walking into a minefield here. 15…e4 16.Re1 f5? Boom! In all honesty, it looks a natural move, but it quickly loses – So’s only chance of survival, according to the engines, was with 16…Bf5! 17.Re3 Bg6 18.Rg3 Qd7 19.Bxe4 f5 20.Bd3 Nxd5! 21.Bxh6 Qe6! 22.Bd2 f4 23.Rg4 Nf6 24.Rxg6+ fxg6 25.Qxg6+ Kf8 26.Qh6+ Kg8 27.Qg6+ and what would have been an honourable draw by repetition for both sides. 17.Bxh6! Nxd5 There’s no defence now, and So is lost. And no better was 17…Ng6 18.Bg5! Re7 (If 18…Qd7 19.Qh6! with Bf6 coming next, forcing 19…f6 20.Qxg6+ Qg7 21.Qxe8+ and Black can resign.) 19.Bf6 with the imaginative rook lift threat of Re3-h3 and Qh8 mating in the offing. 19…c5 20.g4! and Black can’t stop the attack from crashing through to win. 18.Bg5 Carlsen has all the time in the world to develop his mating attack, especially since most of So’s pieces are stuck on the queenside. 18…f6 After 18…Qd7 the simple 19.Bb3 is enough to win, as 19…c6 (The knight can’t retreat with 19…Ne7 due to the little matter of 20.Qxf7+ Kh8 21.Bf6#) 20.Bxd5 and Black can’t recapture the bishop due to Bf6 quickly mating. 19.Bb3 c6 No better was 19…fxg5 20.Qg6+ Kf8 21.Bxd5 Be6 22.Bxe6 Rxe6 and Black can resign. 23.Qxe6. 20.Re3! Taking full advantage of the knight being pinned – but the follow-up from Carlsen is priceless. 20…Kf8 21.Qg6! f4 If 21…fxg5 22.Bxd5 cxd5 23.Rh3 and mate can’t be avoided. 22.Bh6+ Ke7 23.Qh7+ 1-0 So throws the towel in. A pity really, as I think he should have at least left the fans entertained by allowing 23…Ke6 24.Rxe4# on the board/screen.

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