Comebacks Galore As Nepomniachtchi, So, Nakamura, Carlsen Advance To Semifinals
Today the Skilling Open advanced to the second day of its quarterfinals knockout phase. GMs Magnus Carlsen, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Teimour Radjabov, Wesley So, and Anish Giri battled for a spot in the semifinals that start November 27.
Carlsen, Vachier-Lagrave, Aronian, and Radjabov started the day with a significant advantage after having won the first match of the quarterfinals and needed only a 2-2 draw to advance. If any of those players lost their match, a tiebreaker consisting of two blitz games and an armageddon round would decide who would take the spot in the semifinals.
Carlsen vs. Giri
It seemed like Giri came to the match prepared to make Carlsen’s life harder after he got an advantage over the world champion in their first game. In the complicated game that followed, Giri was on top until Carlsen successfully forced an exchange of the bishops and queens, entering a drawish endgame.
Carlsen did not need to win the match to advance to the semifinals. The Norwegian took advantage of his safety net and was happy to draw the remaining games. In an uneventful match, Carlsen secured his place in the semifinals.
Nakamura vs. Vachier-Lagrave
Perhaps the most exciting match of the day, the encounter between Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave was an emotional rollercoaster for those who were watching. Higher-seed Nakamura lost his first match against the French super grandmaster and had to win to take the decision to the tiebreaks.
The American player did not shy away from the Najdorf, an opening that Vachier-Lagrave knows very well. Nakamura’s bold decision paid off as he won both games of the match playing the white pieces.
Their first game, in particular, was filled with interesting developments. Nakamura seemed to be well-prepared for the opening and had a better position from the start. Curiously, Vachier-Lagrave played the suspicious 16…Bxa2. His move looked a lot like the infamous 29…Bxh2 played by GM Bobby Fischer against GM Boris Spassky in their first game of the world championship match.
However, Nakamura didn’t choose 17.b3 to trap the bishop. Later he explained that he thought that giving up his queenside pawns would make the position too complicated. Instead, he decided to keep building on the advantage he already had. Nakamura finished the game with the incredible 27.Bd3, killing the coordination of the black army.
In the tiebreaks, prospects seemed bleak for Nakamura. He lost his first game of the blitz segment after blundering a rook. On top of that, Vachier-Lagrave got a considerable advantage after winning the exchange on move 23 of their second game.
Despite his desperate situation, Nakamura did not give up and continued playing on. Showing his resilience, he managed to equalize the position and build up a positional advantage, taking pawns and placing his pieces on very active squares. The rest of the game was a real demonstration of the power of grit in chess. Nakamura won after forking Vachier-Lagrave’s king and rook.
After winning the second blitz game and tying the score, Nakamura chose to play as Black in the armageddon. In a tense battle, Nakamura exchanged as many pieces as he could while Vachier-Lagrave tried to use his extra minute to cause trouble for his opponent.
Faced with a tricky endgame and nearly running out of time, Nakamura played the sneaky and hard to spot 59…Be2!. This odd move allowed Vachier-Lagrave to win Nakamura’s bishop but tied his knight to the black b-pawn. The French grandmaster tried to keep playing to press his time advantage, but a (most likely accidental) threefold repetition drew the game.
With this draw, Nakamura sealed the first comeback of the evening and advanced to the semifinals.
So vs. Radjabov
Another incredible match unfolded as the higher-seed So had to defeat Radjabov to enter the tiebreak.
After drawing the first game, So bet on the Giuoco Piano to beat his solid adversary. After slowly building a better position, So took advantage of Radjabov’s slip after 32…Qd6 (instead of the recommended 32…Qe6). With his queen and bishop battery, So could win a pawn and enter an endgame with extra material. He later converted his advantage and took the lead of the match.
The players drew the following games, including both blitz games of the tiebreaks. So admitted he was happy to tie those games and use the armageddon game to decide the outcome. “I noticed that [Radjabov] is always behind on the clock, so I figured I’d take him to a game where we both had very little time and see what happens.”
So chose to play for a draw with the black pieces. Radjabov quickly developed his pieces to try to put his opponent under time pressure. Unfortunately for the Azerbaijani grandmaster, he made a terrible mistake early in the game and gave up one of his rooks for free. After that, it was easy for So to take the draw and move on to the semifinals.
So will face Nakamura in the upcoming semifinals.
Nepomniachtchi vs. Aronian
Spectators stood on the edge of their seats as they watched yet another thrilling match. The higher-seed Nepomniachtchi needed to win to get a chance at the tiebreaks.
In their first game, Aronian had to give up his queen for a rook and a knight after blundering with 19…Bf5. Nepo had no trouble converting the game to take the lead of the match—an advantage that proved to be decisive.
Aronian was close to tying the match in game two after Nepomniachtchi went for an exciting exchange sacrifice with 9…b6. Aronian successfully stabilized the position and seemed to have everything under control.
Aronian then played the inaccurate 33.Ra2, which forced him to give some material back after 33…a4. However, Nepo shocked everyone by not capturing the bishop and played 34…a3 instead—a move that looked more threatening than it really was, according to Stockfish.
Aronian had a significant advantage once more. Unfortunately for him, Nepo’s passed pawns on the queenside threw the Armenian off his game, and Aronian could not convert. The game ended in a draw.
Their fourth game of the day also proved to be decisive. Aronian played for a win, as this was the only result that would guarantee him a spot in the semifinals. However, Nepomniachtchi played aggressively and, going for his opponent’s throat, won a fantastic game. Here is the full game analysis by GM Dejan Bojkov:
A well-versed player in blitz games, Nepomniachtchi demonstrated his dominance in fast time controls. He won both of the following blitz games, ending the match on top.
With this astounding comeback, the Russian moves on to the semifinals to face Carlsen.
The Skilling Open continues tomorrow with the first day of the semifinals.
The chess24 Champions Chess Tour Skilling Open runs November 22-30. The preliminary phase was a 16-player rapid round-robin (15 + 10). The top eight players have advanced to a six-day knockout that will consist of two days of four-game rapid matches, which may advance to blitz (5 + 3) and armageddon (White has five minutes, Black four with no increment) tiebreaks only if the knockout match is tied after the second day. The prize fund is $100,000 with $30,000 for first place.