Magnus Carlsen and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave advanced to the Semifinals of the 2023 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship presented by Coinbase. Carlsen won his World Championship rematch against Ian Nepomniachtchi by an 11-point margin, while in a display of extraordinary speed and resourcefulness MVL defeated Nihal Sarin 19.5-11.5.
Robert Hess and Benjamin Bok commentated on this match.
Considering the years of rivalry between these two players, it was a surprise that they had never faced off on Chess.com. In terms of who had the better chances, Carlsen's over 200-point edge in blitz rating spoke loudly.
However, Nepomniachtchi has a peak of over 3200 himself. In addition, he recently returned to Titled Tuesday just this week to win it for the first time in 17 months.
Though the clash looked like it would be contentious in the blitz segment, Carlsen's nearly 3400 peak bullet rating highlighted a vast edge in that arena. Also, the 16th world champion has an unparalleled 56% win rate in Speed Chess Championship games in particular.
In the first segment, Carlsen seemed to be warming up as he pushed through to reach his regular form. After an inaccuracy by Nepomniachtchi, Carlsen discovered a tactical shot to open his opponent’s kingside but didn’t find a decisive continuation. With a crafty reply of his own, Nepomniachtchi escaped into an even endgame with a better pawn structure.
Carlsen went about trying to press anyway in his usual style and made some headway, winning a pawn, only to end up blundering in time trouble. With this surprise, Nepomniachtchi took the first match lead.
Carlsen continued to struggle to generate winning chances in the next two games, but in Game 4, the Carlsen we know emerged. Nepomniachtchi entered the endgame with an extra pawn, which he soon turned into a passed pawn. Carlsen paralyzed his opponent’s seemingly dangerous d-pawn, however, while building up his own play on the kingside. Despite his material deficit, Carlsen took over the offensive.
This loss seemed to have a major effect on Nepomniachtchi, who blundered the next game.
Following this, Nepomniachtchi aimed to switch up the endgame-heavy tone of the match by diving into the wild waters of the King’s Gambit. The commentators pondered his psychological state after two losses in a row to his nemesis.
Bok: Is he on tilt?
Hess: Playing the King’s Gambit was already to me a sign that he was. Does he really believe in the King’s Gambit?
Nepomniachtchi's opening choice succeeded in creating a fierce attacking position―for Carlsen, whose pieces sunk into the many holes on White’s kingside. After losing his ability to castle and struggling to develop, the Russian grandmaster resigned after 17 moves.
In Game 8, Nepomniachtchi finally achieved the kind of attacking position he thrives in. His queen and knight weaved their way into the enemy kingside to create unstoppable threats. This halted Carlsen's winning streak and narrowed his lead to two points heading into the three-minute blitz.
The 3+1 portion was peppered with uncharacteristic slips by each player. In Game 2, Nepomniachtchi weakened his own kingside with an inaccurate recapture.
In the next, Carlsen mouse slipped, failing to recapture a critical queenside pawn.
Even more shockingly, in Game 5, Carlsen lost a drawn ending on time.
Despite these mishaps, Carlsen maintained his two-point lead from the previous segment.
As the players crossed into the second half of the 3+1, Carlsen started to find his stride again. In Game 6, he turned another very even ending into a win in just a handful of moves. He won a pawn early in the next game and converted that seamlessly as well. Just like that, Carlsen began to run away with what was previously a close match.
Carlsen closed out the blitz with yet another win by combining tactical play and technique in the endgame.
With this victory, he reached a five-point lead, his highest lead of the match so far.
As the 2023 Bullet Championship runner-up with a peak rating of 3390, Carlsen was estimated to be more favored in the 1+1 segment―making it an especially daunting space for Nepomniachtchi to attempt a comeback. Carlsen didn't need any warm-up games this time. He leapt out of the gate with tactical insights flying onto the board at warp speed, winning one game after another.
When Nepomniachtchi tried to grab a free center pawn in Game 3, Carlsen countered with a spectacular tactical find.
In a matter of minutes, Carlsen was ahead by eight. By the halfway point with a nine-point lead, Carlsen had mathematically already won the match. Now, it was just a question of by how much he would win.
With the pressure off, the players finished the match with several fun moments. Nepomniachtchi swindled Carlsen with a dubious opening in Game 9.
In the next duel, Carlsen countered by playing like it was a game of king of the hill, venturing his monarch straight into the center on move 23. Despite his king's perilous journey, the world no. 1 went on to win.
Carlsen finished with an 11-point lead and served Nepomniachtchi his first SCC match where he was prevented from reaching a double-digit score.
In his interview, Carlsen shared his thoughts on his performance:
I was a slug really from the first moment. I didn’t actually know I was going to play today. I was in the middle of a 21-course meal yesterday in the evening, and then I found out I’m going to play the match. To be honest, I was still feeling so so sluggish.
I think against Vidit I played okay. Today I played quite a bit worse. It’s not only about the moves. I did miss a lot of tactics. But you wouldn’t have believed the amount of things I missed that didn’t show up on the board.
Carlsen earns $12,625 and Nepomniachtchi makes $2375 by win percentage.
Carlsen will face Wesley So in the Semifinals. When asked who he'd like to face if he reaches the final, Carlsen replied: "It doesn’t matter who I wish to play because it’s most probably going to be Hikaru."
Daniel Naroditsky and Benjamin Bok commentated on this match.
For these competitors, SmarterChess predicted a rare completely evenly-matched duel, heading into overtime by design.
Looking at their competitive stats, you can see why. Nihal has higher peak ratings and is especially known as a bullet specialist. Contrastingly, Vachier-Lagrave is the 2021 world blitz champion and has been one of the best in the world over the board for a decade.
However, when it came to their head-to-head Chess.com games, Vachier-Lagrave led in blitz, bullet, and match play.
The 5+1 segment confirmed how closely matched these competitors can be. They traded victories, displaying the exceptional strength and style of each.
The match kicked off with Nihal showing his deadly combination of speed and accuracy. Down a full minute on the clock, he balanced offense with resourceful defense. He advanced his queenside passer while running his king from the slew of attacking attempts by his opponent's queen and knight pair. Nihal displayed such clarity in his understanding and awareness despite having no time on his clock to think.
Vachier-Lagrave stuck back by accenting one of his own strengths, displaying his elegant technique by turning an even knight vs. bishop ending into a win.
Game 3 was a positional masterpiece by Nihal where he took a small advantage and seamlessly turned it into an overwhelming grip throughout the board.
Again, Vachier-Lagrave replied with a victory by generating chances from a drawish opposite-color bishop ending. At the halfway point, the match remained tied.
In Game 5, Nihal spotted a hidden tactic to win a pawn and then pressed his positional edge, but Vachier-Lagrave strived to create counterplay against his young opposition's kingside. In the end, the French grandmaster's crafty queen and rook won out, weaving a web of threats against the enemy king.
Nihal's peak performance was in Game 7, when he combined strategic understanding with tactical timing to gain a crushing position by move 29. This instructive game is our Game of the Day, annotated by GM Rafael Leitao below.
At several points, Nihal came close to re-tying the match, but Vachier-Lagrave kept his lead due to his stellar time management and his ability to create counterplay in nearly any circumstance. By the end of the five-minute blitz, Vachier-Lagrave had stretched his edge to three points.
The 3+1 segment started in the same vein: As Nihal worked to press a positional advantage and extra pawn, Vachier-Lagrave counterattacked and flipped the game around with a tactical thunderbolt.
In Game 2, Vachier-Lagrave faltered in a winning position, first letting it slip into equality and then flagging―was this a sign that Nihal's chances would grow in the bullet portion?
Vachier-Lagrave's fierce fighting spirit, capitalizing on better positions and complicating difficult ones, allowed him to stretch his lead to four points.
Game 4 was one of the most unclear of the match. MVL sacrificed the exchange to rip apart White's queenside, but Nihal overlooked a key counterstrike.
In Game 8, Maxime created a dynamic masterpiece, navigating out of Nihal's tactical ideas and then forcing a trade into a winning ending.
A key tool in Vachier-Lagrave's arsenal was his exemplary clock management, pacing himself so that he had the time to find quality moves in the critical positions. As Naroditsky observed: "That always seems to happen! No matter how complicated the position, Maxime has kept his lead on the clock."
In an equal position in the last game of the 3+1, Nihal's internet disconnected as his clock ticked under 10 seconds, so that he dropped the game.
Vachier-Lagrave emerged from the blitz six points ahead. Could Nihal make a comeback and overturn his experienced opponent's lead?
Early in the bullet, it became clear that Vachier-Lagrave was not going to let his opponent back into the match, no matter the time control. He won the first two games in a row, including transforming a worse rook ending into a victory in the second.
The French grandmaster's lead reached eight points by the halfway mark, essentially sealing the match victory. This matchup was so full of fight that the competitors played 27 decisive games before they had their first draw in Game 10 of the bullet portion.
When asked if Hikaru Nakamura would repeat the outrageous opening choices he essayed against Fabiano Caruana in their upcoming semifinal match, Vachier-Lagrave responded:
I'll let him do whatever he thinks is correct. I'll be prepared for any shenanigans... Maybe he'll do it. Maybe he won't. I won't lose sleep over that.
Vachier-Lagrave takes home $12,217.74 for winning the match and Nihal receives $2782.26 by win percentage.
Fascinatingly, the four players left in the knockout: Magnus Carlsen, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, are the only four players to have ever made the finals in the entire seven years of the Speed Chess Championship.
Will Nakamura claim his sixth championship in a row? Will Carlsen win his third? Or could we have a fresh winner in Vachier-Lagrave or So?
The Semifinals are set to begin on Tuesday, September 19th.