Chess: Humiliated Magnus Carlsen eliminated from his own tournament

By Leonard Barden

Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, has been having a hard time in the $1.5m online Meltwater Champions Tour, supported by his own company Play Magnus Group. There are 10 qualifying tournaments leading to a final in the autumn and Carlsen, 30, who won the 2020 Tour, has so far this year been knocked out four times.

The first three Tour events were won by the US champion Wesley So (twice) and the Azerbaijan grandmaster Teimour Radjabov, while on Saturday and tomorrow in the fourth event Carlsen will only compete for third place. The tournament’s name is the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, which makes it still more humiliating for the world champion.

Instead of the expected showdown between the world and US champions, the Russian champion and world No4 Ian Nepomniachtchi takes on the Netherlands world No 7 Anish Giri for first prize in the $200,000 event and a place in the final.

Nepomniachtchi won Thursday’s first set 2.5-1.5, and Carlsen’s cause looked hopeless when the Russian led 1.5-0.5 in the second set, needing just one draw for the match. Somehow Carlsen fought back to win the second set 2.5-1.5, forcing a two-game blitz tie-break.

Magnus Carlsen competing in January 2021.
Magnus Carlsen competing in January 2021. Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The first blitz game was a marathon of 142 moves, where for a long time Carlsen was trying to win with king, rook and knight against king and rook. Then he blundered away his rook by a mouse slip! Rook against knight was still a draw. The decisive game was an anti-climax as Carlsen, with a tiny queen endgame edge, overpressed, allowed his opponent’s passed pawn to get too far up the board, and resigned when his last desperate throw of the dice, attacking the queen with his own unguarded queen, failed.

Carlsen’s semi-final conqueror, “Nepo” as he is universally called, has yet to capture the interest of Western chess fans to the same extent as the urbane eight-time Russian champion Peter Svidler, the 2016 world title challenger Sergey Karjakin, or the creative and imaginative Daniil Dubov. This could be about to change. In addition to being on the verge of his greatest success to date, Nepomniachtchi has a lifetime plus score against the Norwegian in their one-to-one classical games, and is the halfway co-leader of the candidates tournament which was halted by the pandemic a year ago and will resume at the same venue, Ekaterinburg in the Urals, on 19 April. The weekend games are live and free to watch, with grandmaster and computer commentaries, starting 4pm.

Earlier, So won two brilliant games. The climax of his sacrificial attack against Aronian, playing for the first time under the US flag, included the rare possibility at the end of a queen sacrifice followed by a pawn promotion to knight, and would have made this week’s puzzle if a different, more banal finale had not been possible.

As part of his preparation, Carlsen played two one-minute bullet matches against Alireza Firouzja, who had beaten him in similar matches a year ago but now lost decisively.

The most interesting game was Carlsen’s use of the Grand Prix Attack, a feared weapon on the English weekend circuit in the 1970s. It was a good choice, since the heyday of the Grand Prix Attack was decades before Firouzja, 17, was born and he probably knew little about it.

Dave Rumens, one of the GPA’s leading practitioners, used to leave White’s f1 bishop on c4 or b3 while launching a king’s side attack with f4-f5 and Qe1-f4. Mark Hebden, another weekend specialist, used to play Bb5xc6 before switching to the other flank.

Carlsen did it quite differently, playing a3 and Bc4-a2 to avoid the exchange of his key bishop and only then proceeding on the other flank. There are very few previous examples of this approach. Will we now see a Grand Prix Attack revival based on the world champion’s strategy?

Magnus Carlsen v Alireza Firouzja, Lichess bullet 2021, Sicilian Grand Prix Attack

1 e4 c5 2 Nc3 d6 3 f4 g6 4 Nf3 Bg7 5 Bc4 Nc6 6 a3!? e6 7 0-0 Nge7 8 d3 0-0 9 Ba2 Rb8 10 Qe1 b5 ?! 11 f5! exf5 12 Qh4 Ne5?? 13 Bg5! Rb7 14 Nd5 Re8 15 exf5 Bxf5 16 Rae1 h6 17 Nf6+ Kf8?18 Bxh6 Ng8 19 Nh7 mate.

3715: 1 Rxf8+! Resigns. If Kxf8 2 Bxe7+ Kxe7 3 Rxg7+ Kf8 4 Rf7+ Kg8 5 Nf6+ Kh8 6 Nxh5 and White will soon mate by Nf6 and Rh7.