MVL beats Carlsen to set up Speed Chess final against Nakamura

It’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave who’ll take on Hikaru Nakamura in today’s Speed Chess final after the French no. 1 beat Magnus Carlsen 13:11. The World Champion’s 2nd match loss of his 30s looked unlikely when he won the first two games and built up a winning position in the third, but he lost on time and struggled from there on, with MVL growing in confidence by the game. A thrilling comeback at the end saw Magnus gain a chance to force a playoff by winning the last game, but Maxime held on for a deserved victory.

You can replay all the Carlsen-MVL semi-final games, played on, using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev.

After winning his semi-final against Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura didn’t even contemplate the possibility that his opponent in the final might be anyone other than Magnus Carlsen.

Certainly playing Magnus again will be fun, looking forward to it, but I’ll have to play a lot better than I did today, because today was not very good!

For two and a half games that assumption seemed safe, since at least on the surface the World Champion got off to a fine start. His 6.Qa4+ in the Grünfeld caught Maxime off-guard, and when Maxime tried to defend actively it only led to a spectacular finish.

25.Qd5+ is winning, but 25.Qxc4+! Rxc4 26.Bxc4+ Rf7 27.Nxd6! was a much more satisfying way to take the lead. Magnus then dominated the next game with the black pieces, before finding another clinical finish.

In Game 3 Maxime varied in the opening but was losing in 10 moves. It was here, however, that we got the first hint that Magnus might not be on top of his game. Decisions he might usually take on intuition alone came only after prolonged thinks, until he found himself still in a winning position but perilously low on the clock.

Black’s rook on a5 is attacked and it can’t move as the b5-bishop is also under fire, so Magnus could simply have withdrawn his e5-knight to f3 or g4, with a winning position. Down to under 10 seconds while Maxime still had a minute and a half, however, he went for 24.Bxa5, when after 24…Qxe5 Black at least had some chances. The lion’s share of White’s advantage soon slipped away, but Magnus was still better when he lost on time.

Maxime then went on to win the next game as well, with Magnus later lamenting to Danny Rensch and Robert Hess:

I’ve got to say that from the start I felt that I was in really, really awful shape today, but then I managed to channel some energy for the first couple of games to win them. I lost the third and the fourth, and after that it was clearly going to be an uphill struggle, and it felt like Maxime was also just gaining more and more confidence after that. Then there were some really, really bad games that I lost, but overall I was nowhere near good enough today and Maxime deserved the win, so congrats.

Magnus missed wins in three of the next four games, and it was MVL who grabbed the only win to end the 5-minute section with a 4.5:3.5 lead. Like Hikaru Nakamura in the other semi-final, MVL had lost the first two decisive games only to hit back and win the next three. The French no. 1 would later sum up his approach:

I knew I was nowhere near a favourite, but my match plan was to play for tricks all along, and yeah, it worked!

Magnus had got off to a bad start, but he’d never lost a Speed Chess match before and had no reason to think he couldn’t recover. The start of the 3-minute section, however, made that look less likely. The world no. 1 spoilt a good position and Maxime had a brief chance to take a two-point lead.

That was missed, but there wasn’t long to wait for French chess fans.

After a difficult game Magnus made blundered a piece with 39…Bxg4? (39…Rd4!) and after 40.Rg5+ it was time to resign.

Carlsen wasn’t going to go down without a fight, and he walked a tightrope to win the next game, but just when he looked on course to level the scores a game later, disaster struck. First Magnus missed a win, and then when he had to settle for a draw he managed to mouse slip away his queen!

That would prove costly, but Maxime was unable to run away with the match. Seven 3-minute games were ultimately won by White in a row, with both sides grinding out unlikely wins. The key game, however, was the last of that session, when Magnus perhaps unwisely decided to take on the French no. 1 in one of his specialities, the Berlin Endgame. As Peter Leko commented, “If White wins with the Berlin, Maxime is involved in that game!”

The decisive moment came after 24.Rg4.

It turns out the only move here for Magnus was 24…Nh8!, while 24…Ne7? ran into 25.Nxc5! Rxc5 26.Ba3! and Black was losing a piece:

That meant that Magnus now trailed by 2 points going into the 1-minute section, and a rollercoaster first bullet game – the only draw of the final session – suggested little had changed. Magnus was doing well in the next game but allowed his queen to get trapped. That gave Maxime a 3-point lead for the first time, and the scenario was repeated in the next game. Magnus was again winning.

Here 23.Qg6!, forcing off queens, leaves White with wonderful squares for his pieces (the knight can go to b5 or e4-g5) and Black with a fatally weak pawn on e6. Conversion should have been a matter of time, but after 23.Be4? Rf8! Black suddenly had serious counterchances, and the game ended with a powerful attack.

Maxime had a 4-point lead and almost took a 5-point lead in the next game, with any recovery looking unlikely. Such matches have a tendency to go to the wire when great players are in action, however, and Magnus found a way back – with some help from his opponent!

In the 5th bullet game Magnus had spoilt a completely winning position, and one he needed to win quickly, when suddenly his 25.Nfxe7? allowed 25…Bxb2! and after 26.c3 Maxime might have wrapped up the match.

26…Qa5! leaves White completely defenceless against the threat of Black giving a discovered check with the bishop and then entering with the queen, while in the match situation forcing a draw with 26…Ba3+ would also have sufficed. Instead after 26…Bxc3+? 27.Kc2 Qa5 28.Nxc3 the danger had passed for White and Magnus went on to win.

Magnus almost missed a win in the next two games as well, but through sheer will-power he managed to pick up two more points so that he went into what was the final game of the session with a chance to level the scores and force a 4-game playoff. He followed the standard approach in a must-win game with Black of playing d6 and g6, but never really came close. The last chance was perhaps on move 26.

26…g4! poses some questions, since e.g. 27.fxg4? Bb7! is winning for Black, though of course White has better options. After 26…Kf7 27.Nd3 Kg8? 28.Ne5!, however, it was all over, with Maxime going on to win the match 13:11 and set up a final against Hikaru Nakamura.

Magnus said of the conclusion:

I was thrilled to get a final game, but I guess I never had too many chances in the last game. I think he was just better for most of it and I didn’t get much there, but it was exciting at least to get that chance, because it didn’t seem like I would.

Maxime might have been able to reduce the drama dramatically if he’d kept playing in some drawn or lost positions to try and run down the clock, but he explained:

First of all I thought that I maybe could have dragged out a few games a bit more, but that was not my match strategy. I felt if I’m not good enough to keep a three-point lead by myself I should be punished for that. It could have cost me, but I just managed to get my energy level good enough to play a decent game and not think about the score and just think about playing decent moves.

Up next for Maxime is Nakamura, who he said he will use the clock against if he gets the chance, “because he’s done it repeatedly”. Hikaru will be the favourite, but as we’ve seen, favourites don’t always win!

Tune in to all the action from 18:00 CET (12:00 CET) on Saturday, with Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev again commentating live here on chess24.

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