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John Henderson
By John Henderson

The latest player to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the Norwegian’s crown is Russian champion Ian Nepomniachtchi, as the 30-year-old Muscovite turned in the performance of his career to win the pandemic-hit, and over a year delayed FIDE Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg, Russia earlier this week, and he now goes forward to challenge the World Champion for his title.

Nepo – as he’s affectionately know as – almost immediately received a typically cryptic Carlsen tweet on officially becoming his challenger: “Time to say Dubai”, referencing their upcoming 14-game, €2m ($2.43m) title match that will be held during the Expo Dubai, and will run November 24 through to December 16 2021.

This week Carlsen’s sponsor, Unibet, also opened a book on the outcome of the match, quoting Carlsen -335 Nepo +230 in “American Odds”. In real punter-styled fractional odds, that’s 3/10 and 23/10, or in percentage terms, if you will, Carlsen 72% and Nepo 28% – but don’t go betting the house on the outcome.

Anything can happen during a world championship match (If you don’t believe me, just ask Alexander Alekhine circa 1935 in The Netherlands!), and Nepo could be a rather awkward prospect for Carlsen to play in a match, as he’s the only GM left in the game today with a classical plus score against the world champion, though in fairness to the Norwegian, a lot of his loses do date back to their rivalry in junior events 20 years ago.

On an intriguing political side-note, it could well be that Nepomniachtchi, a player who plays with a lot of nationalist pride, won’t be able to have the Russian flag next to his board in Dubai due to the ban imposed by the World Anti-Doping agency – this was something that was reinforced earlier this week during the World Checkers Championship in Warsaw, when a Polish official embarrassingly had to hastily intervene during a game to remove the Russian flag after being called out by a WADA official!

Carlsen also started to show signs of getting back in the groove this week as he dominated the opening stages of the $100,000 New in Chess Classic, the latest leg of the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour from the Play Magnus Group. Carlsen comfortably dominated the prelims, and joining him in the “business end” of the knockout final eight was Hikaru Nakamura, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Wesley So, Levon Aronian, Alireza Firouzja, Le Quang Liem and Teimour Radjabov.

But despite winning five straight Tour prelims, Carlsen is yet to notch up a Tour title this season! He got off to the best possible start to remedy that situation as he almost effortlessly cruised to victory over Radjabov in their quarter-final match-up to book his semifinal spot – and we could now be heading for high-drama of yet another Carlsen-Nakamura showdown final! At the opposite end of the brackets, Nakamura turned on the style during a no-holds barred street-fight with Vietnamese star Le Quang Liem, with the US speed maven winning the bruising encounter.

Not so fortunate though was current Tour leader Wesley So, as the US championed was outgunned by Aronian, the latest recruit to the ranks of the Stars and Stripes. In the final match-up, age and guile proved proved more than a match for Firouzja, with the exiled Iranian rising star being easily beaten by the wily Mamedyarov.

The New in Chess Classic semifinals gets underway on Thursday on Chess24 and will see Carlsen face Aronian and Nakamura take on Mamedyarov.

Play begins at 19:00 CEST (14:00 EST | 11:00 PST) with live coverage throughout with the regular Tour commentary team of Kaja Snare (host), GM David Howell and IM Jovanka Houska.

 

 

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Teimour Radjabov
New In Chess Classic | Knockout q/finals, (2.2)
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Classical variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 The Classical or Capablanca variation was popular in the early days of the Nimzo-Indian, made famous by being adopted by the great Jose Raul Capablanca – and now a big favourite of the Cuban’s successor, Magnus Carlsen! The idea is for White to try and gain the bishop pair without compromising the pawn structure after …Bxc3, and at the same time possibly planning on domineering the center with e4. 4…d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.Qxc3 c5 At the cost of a pawn, Radjabov aims to take control of the center. 7.dxc5 d4 8.Qc2 e5 9.e3 Nc6 10.b4 0-0 11.Nf3 Re8 12.e4 The immediate 12.b5?! runs right into 12…dxe3! 13.bxc6 e4! and early doors White is in trouble. 12…a5 13.b5 Ne7 14.a4 White holds on to the extra pawn for now, but Black has reasonable compensation with his powerful central pawns – but in order to make his game more dynamic, Magnus has to find a way to open the position to make use of his bishop-pair. 14…Qc7 Alternatively, another plan was 14…Ng6 and following up with …Be6, …Nd7 and …Rc8. 15.Ba3 Nd7 16.c6! By returning the pawn this way, Magnus opens the game up and creates havoc with his own queenside pawns turning into potential monsters. 16…bxc6 17.c5 Nf6 I thought the better plan, endorsed by the Chess24 “talking heads”, was 17…Ng6 18.b6 Qd8 19.Bc4 Ndf8 following up with …Be6, …Bxc4, …Ne6 and …Qf6 to try to exploit the f4 outpost for the knight and the makings of a ready-made kingside attack. What Radjabov opts for instead, just seems to give Magnus what he wants from the position. 18.b6 Qb7 19.Bc4 The e-pawn is taboo, as 19.Nxe5? Nf5! and White is in trouble as 20.0-0-0 Rxe5 21.exf5 Bxf5 22.Bd3 Qd7 23.Bxf5 (There’s no time for nicities, as 23.b7? Rb8!) 23…Rxf5 leaves Black on top. 19…Ng6 20.0-0 Qd7 Also to be considered was 20…Nh5 followed by …Nhf4 and …Qe7 coming to f6 and at least promising play with the kingside attack. 21.Ne1 Ba6 22.Bxa6 Rxa6 23.f3 Everything has worked out to Magnus’ advantage: his b-pawn is more dangerous than Black’s d-pawn, he has the ideal blockading square on d3 for his knight, and his bishop can track back to c1 to thwart the danger of Radjabov’s knight coming to f4. 23…Nf4 24.Rd1 Raa8 25.Bc1! A nice strategic retreat and redeployment of the bishop that leaves Radjabov in a dilemma, as long-term, that passed b-pawn in the ending is going to be a big headache to have to deal with. 25…N6h5 26.g3 Ng6 27.Nd3 The knight is well-placed on d3: it blockades the d-pawn, covers the f4 square, and protects the c5-pawn. 27…Nf6 28.Bg5 h5? Under pressure, Radjabov cracks with a big blunder – but it is not so obvious he realised it was a blunder. Instead, after first 28…Qe6! he’s still in the game with good chances of a kingside attack to confuse things with …Nd7 and …f5!? But now Magnus shows no mercy, as he easily converts his big advantage. 29.Bxf6 gxf6 30.f4! I wonder if it is as simple as Radjabov just overlooking Magnus’ 33rd move that stops his attack dead in its tracks? 30…exf4 You simply can’t allow White to play f5 and Qe2 with a looming kingside crush a-coming. 31.Nxf4 Qg4 32.Rxd4! When it rains, it pours for poor Radjabov, as Magnus follows up with a very accurate series of moves that removes all the potenial saving dangers. 32…h4 33.Qd1! Qg5 34.Qh5! [see diagram] It could just be as simple as Radjabov thinking that the knight fork with …Nh3+ was winning for him, failing to realise the little matter that after 34…Nxf4 35.Qxg5+! it’s a check and there’s now no …Nh3 fork! 34…Qe5 35.Rd7! It’s full Magnus force now, as the world champion relentlessly piles the pressure on Radjabov’s rapidly crumbling position by maximising all his pieces, and suddenly the Black king is vulnerable. 35…hxg3 The point of 35.Rd7 is that 35…Nxf4?? 36.Qxf7+ Kh8 37.Qg7#! 36.hxg3 Qxe4 37.Nxg6! No need for heroics here – this is the simple win now, as when more pieces get exchanged, the more Black’s position implodes. 37…Qe3+ 38.Kh2 Qe2+ 39.Qxe2 Rxe2+ 40.Kh3 fxg6 41.Rxf6 1-0 Radjabov throws the towel in with his pawns on c6 and g6 set to fall.

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