Magnus Carlsen has lived on the brink for much of the last week, as Norway’s world champion struggled in the qualification stage of the FTX Crypto Cup, part of the Meltwater Champions Tour. Carlsen was again in danger in his quarter-final match with his old rival Hikaru Nakamura before surging to an emphatic 2-0 win in their five-minute blitz tie-break.
Carlsen, 30, had convincingly won all five of the previous Tour qualifiers, which decide the quarter-finalists in the knockout stage. In contrast this time he was barely above the 50% mark, described his first five rounds as “awful” and needed other results to go his way to confirm his place in the top eight.
The No 1’s problems continued against Nakamura when, after a sharp and lively 2-2 first set where White won all four games, he lost the first game of the second and deciding set, then again had an inferior position in the third game, which began with the rare move 1 b2-b4.
Carlsen’s choice is known as the Polish, the Sokolsky (after a Russian player who wrote a 1963 monograph about it), and also as the orangutan. This last name originates from a visit by the players in the New York 1924 tournament to the Bronx Zoo, where Savielly Tartakover liked the orangutan, noted that the climbing movement of the pawn to b4 and b5 reminded him of the animal, so used 1 b2-b4 in his next round against Geza Maroczy.
Since Carlsen had already tried 1 b4 against Anish Giri in the preliminaries, Nakamura was well prepared and had a good position before Carlsen escaped with a draw. But at 2-2, one set all, and a two-game blitz tie-break, the momentum suddenly changed as the world champion blew the five-time US champion off the board with dominating play in both games.
The semi-finals on Friday and Saturday (4pm start, free to watch live online) are Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) v So and Carlsen v Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan). The final is on Sunday and on Monday.
In contrast to Carlsen’s struggles, the reigning US champion, So, qualified from the preliminaries with the minimum of fuss. After winning his first two rounds and later defeating an outclassed tailender, So drew all his other 12 games, eight of them repetitions of previous games.
There are three more Champions Tour tournaments before the Tour final at San Francisco in September. Meanwhile, the chess calendar is getting crowded, with a mix of online and over the board tournaments planned.
The Grand Tour, organised from St Louis and a regular event before the pandemic, will start its 2021 season with tournaments in Bucharest and Paris. The Fide women’s Grand Prix continues this week at the Caleta Hotel, Gibraltar, while online qualification rounds are in progress for the Fide World Cup knockout at Sochi, Russia, in July. Four of the five English entrants were eliminated in round one, while Ravi Haria, 22, had a good win over a German GM before losing to a former European champion in round two.
Michael Adams is seeded to the 206-player Sochi World Cup. The British champion has a fine record in Fide knockouts, most notably in 2004 when the event doubled as a world championship and Adams reached the final before losing to Rustam Kasimdzhanov.
England also has a second player, who will be decided between David Howell, Gawain Jones and Luke McShane. Because of the costs of a play-off and with the agreement of all three players, the nominee will be decided by drawing of lots, which is now a generally discarded method but 30-40 years ago was normal.
At Velden, Austria, in 1983, Vasily Smyslov and Robert Hübner were tied at 7-7 in their candidates quarter-final, and a casino roulette wheel decided it in favour of Smyslov, who at age 63 reached the final against Garry Kasparov.
At Blackpool 1990, there was a tie at an earlier stage world championship eliminator, and they decided to use a bingo machine, with the winner being the nearest number. Adams chose nine, and that was exactly right. “Why?” they asked him. “It was the number of pints I had last night.” From this lucky break, Adams went on only seven years later to a Fide final against Anatoly Karpov and Vishy Anand.
3725 1…Ne2! 2 Kb4 Nd4 3 Kc5 Nxf5 4 Kb6 Nd6 5 Kc5 (if 5 kc7 b5 and queens) Nc8! Black’s b7/Nc8 fortress shuts out the WK, the BK eats the f and h pawns, and the rest is simple.