It takes two to tango, so the passionate and equally dramatic South American dance-themed idiom goes. And when it comes to the chess world, there’s no greater partnership over the 64 squares of the chessboard than the paring of Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, as these two longtime foes and now chess influencers revelled in their rivalry in what turned out to be an enthralling FTX Crypto Cup quarterfinal match-up.
Like two bareknuckle street-fighters, Carlsen and Nakamura traded blows in a veritable slugfest, with six straight decisive games and three wins apiece and the match tied at 3-3 as the second set concluded 4-4 with a brace of draws. It was only when the match went into a tense blitz tiebreaker did Carlsen finally manage to break Nakamura, as the World Champion bested the US speed maven 2-0 to move into the semifinals.
The Tour leader said in his presser that he was “very satisfied” with his victory, though was magnanimous enough to praise the fighting spirit of his rival for his contribution that kept the pundits and fans entertained from start to finish. “Thanks to Hikaru as well for making it a great match – it’s always a pleasure to play these matches against him and they are never boring!”
Carlsen now faces Teimour Radjabov in the final four of the FTX Crypto Cup, the sixth leg of the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour from the Play Magnus Group, after the Azeri somewhat surprisingly beat the in-form Dutchman Anish Giri. In the big battle between the ex-world championship challenger and the new world championship challenger, Fabiano Caruana was knocked out of by Ian Nepomniachtchi.
But despite top US stars Caruana and Nakamura exiting the super-strong first crypto chess contest – with its record prize pool of $320,00 (and $100,00 set aside in bitcoin) – reigning US champion Wesley So is keeping the stars and stripes flying by steamrolling Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and he now faces Nepomniachtchi in the semis.
The two-day FTX Crypto Cup semifinals starts Friday 28 May at 17:00 CEST (11:00 EST | 08:00 PST). All games are played in tournament host Chess24.com‘s new online chess playzone with the regular Tour live commentary team of Kaja Snare, GM David Howell and IM Jovanka Houska. There’s also live coverage on Twitch, YouTube, and on the Eurosport cable channel.
Screenshot: A rejuvenated Carlsen beats off Nakamura’s challenge | © Meltwater Champions Chess Tour
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
FTX Crypto Cup KO q/finals, (1.2)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The Giuoco Piano – meaning ‘quiet game’ in Italian – is one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, recognised in early chess manuscripts from the 16th century. And like its name, it is initially very quiet with a slow build-up, as both sides position their pieces for the ensuing middlegame battle. 3…Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 0-0 A little divergence from 5…d6 6.c3 h6 that proved to be a battleground between Carlsen and Nakamura in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals last August. 6.h3 h6 7.c3 d6 8.Re1 a5 9.d4 In the aforementioned MCT finals last year, Carlsen opted instead for the sort of Ruy Lopez knight hop with Nbd2-f1-g3. 9…Bb6 10.Be3 exd4 11.cxd4 d5 12.exd5 Ne7 13.Nc3 Nexd5 14.Qd2 c6 Solidifying everything in the Black camp, bringing easy equality, and with it forcing Carlsen into a radical call. 15.Bxh6!? The bishop sacrifice looks like a bolt out of the blue, but with careful play, Black should be in no danger. 15…gxh6 16.Qxh6 Bf5? Admittedly, it is the “human instinct” move to make, as it develops the last piece to cover the kingside assault. But the problem with it is that it “gifts” a vital tempi with the rook lift to keep the momentum for White’s attack. The correct continuation was the strategic retreat with 16…Nh7! the big idea being to cover the vital g5 square, so now no checks from the rook or queen, and to follow-up with …f5/…Qf6 to fend off the attack – best now is 17.Nxd5 cxd5 18.Bd3 f5! 19.Re2 Qf6 20.Qf4 Be6 21.Rae1 Rae8 with an intriguing and dynamic struggle ahead for both sides: White has two good pawns, active pieces and a weak king to attack, though Black has an extra piece and plenty of coverage for his exposed king. 17.Re5! The added tempi just allows Carlsen to build-up the momentum for his attack. 17…Bg6 18.Rg5? Another natural “human instinct” move, but the engine finds the clinical killer blow in a nanosecond with 18.Nh4! to which there is no defence to the mating threats, ie, 18…Bxd4 19.Nxg6 fxg6 20.Nxd5! cxd5 21.Rg5! Kf7 22.Bxd5+!! Nxd5 23.Qxg6+ Ke7 24.Qe4+ Kd7 (No better is 24…Kf7 25.Rxd5 easily winning.) 25.Rxd5+ and Black can resign. 18…Nh7 Better late than never, I suppose! And with it, I can only deduce that both players failed to notice the killer concept quickly picked up with the engine, namely the usual knight on the rim with 18.Nh4! 19.Rg4 Re8 20.Nxd5 Again I can’t fault Carlsen opting for this natural looking capture, but the engine thinks “out of the box” with the alternative capture 20.Bxd5! cxd5 21.h4! and Black is in trouble, as 21…Nf6 22.Rg5 Nh7 23.Rg3! (If 23.Rxd5 Qf6 and Black has nothing to fear with his pieces all working in unison now.) 23…Bc7 (The reason why the engine preferred capturing on d5 with the bishop, is that now Black no longer has the 23…Qf6 resource noted above, as 24.Nxd5! wins.) 24.h5! Bxg3 25.hxg6 Bxf2+ 26.Kxf2 And as as the dust settles, the tactics favour White with his troublesome knights….26…fxg6 27.Qxg6+ Kh8 28.Rh1 Re7 29.Ne5 Qf8+ 30.Kg1 Ra6 31.Nxd5! Rg7 32.Qc2 and Black faces monumental problems trying to hang on here. 20…cxd5 21.Bd3 Nf8 22.Ne5 Carlsen still has some skin in the game with his attack – but it takes another slip from Nakamura that ultimately seals his fate. 22…Re6 23.Bf5 Rd6 24.Nxg6 fxg6 25.Bxg6 Rxg6 26.Rxg6+ Nxg6 27.Qxg6+ Kh8? Tragedy, as the brothers Gibb were known to shriek in a high-pitch voice! The only defence for Nakamura was 27…Kf8! 28.Rd1 (There’s no time for 28.Re1 as 28…Bxd4! with …Ra6 also coming, defends everything and wins with the material advantage.) 28…Ra6! The rook has to get into the game somehow, and a6 is ideal as it helps cover the disruptive checks from the White queen. 29.Qh6+ Kg8 30.Qh5 Qe7! Despite dropping another pawn, Black can only unravel with this move. 31.Qxd5+ Kf8 32.Qf5+ Kg8 33.Rd3 Bc7! and now we face what surely would made for an enthralling continuation for these two long-time rivals, with White having four good pawns for the piece, but all Black’s pieces working together in unison, and the game likely continuing 34.Qg4+ Kf8 35.Rf3+ Rf6 36.g3! with White having the upper-hand and holding the advantage, but with accurate play, arguably not enough to win. 28.Qh5+ Kg8 29.Qg4+! [see diagram] With Nakamura’s slip-up, Carlsen now defends d4 and covers the way for his powerful big rook lift with tempi and deadly force, via Ra1-e1-e6. 29…Kh7 30.Re1 Rc8 31.Re6 1-0 Nakamura resigns, as now 31…Rc1+ 32.Kh2 Bc7+ 33.g3 Rc6 34.Qg6+ Kh8 35.Re8+ is fatal.