Maxime Vachier-Lagrave booked his quarterfinal spot in the 2023 Speed Chess Championship after dispatching Gukesh 21.5-8.5 in the Round of 16 on Tuesday. The Frenchman will face Nihal Sarin to determine who plays Hikaru Nakamura or Fabiano Caruana in the semifinals. Magnus Carlsen progressed on the other half of the draw following a 17.5-8.5 win over Vidit where the world no. 1 was in control all the way. Vidit put up stiff resistance and procured a 4-4 score in the 3+1 segment, but Carlsen was all class in the 5+1 and 1+1 portions.
Both matches were commentated on by Grandmasters Daniel Naroditsky and Robert Hess.
While Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was the pre-match favorite in all time controls according to SmarterChess' predictions, the brawl between the two chess heavyweights was expected to go down to the wire. Few could have predicted the early success of the French no. 1.
Up by a bishop in the first game, Gukesh was struck down by a catastrophic mouse slip that hung his queen and "set the tone for the match," according to Naroditsky. Clearly shaken, Gukesh struggled to regather himself, and the experienced Vachier-Lagrave dominated the next hour of play, bouncing out to a five-point lead.
As early as the second game it was clear that Vachier-Lagrave was winning the strategic battle, courtesy of an incisive king walk that left Gukesh with no counter. In the fourth and fifth games, the world no. 20 was able to win from both sides of the Caro-Kann Defense, another sign for Gukesh that the match was starting to slip away.
Heading into the break and facing a 5-0 deficit, Gukesh needed to "right the ship," a task that Naroditsky suggested was only possible if the 17-year-old avoided "spinning the narrative that this is going to be a blowout" and started to take things "one game at a time." A comfortable draw from the white side of the Sicilian Defense: Chekhover Variation was exactly what Gukesh needed and two games later, he scored his first win of the match.
Vachier-Lagrave countered with two more wins to close out the segment—one with the rarely-seen Westerinen Attack and the other displaying brilliant defense with the black pieces.
The Westerinen Attack is a seldom-seen Anti-Sicilian
The final game, which was littered with flashes of brilliance and included a timely queen sacrifice, is our Game of the Day and has been analyzed by GM Rafael Leitao below.
The 3+1 segment was by far the closest of the day, and alternating wins dotted the scoreboard. The only consecutive victories were achieved by MVL. Playing against Gukesh's London System, the first of these wins for Maxime came after deftly sacrificing a pawn to create a passer in an opposite-colored bishop ending which was chosen by commentators Hess and Naroditsky as the move of the match.
At the back end of the 3+1 games, Vachier-Lagrave also secured the shortest win of the match, a 20-move barnstormer that culminated in yet another queen sacrifice.
For the world no. 20, his 3+1 games are a testament to the work he has done in the last few years to diversify his opening repertoire, and Vachier-Lagrave confidently swapped between e4 and d4 setups in order to keep Gukesh guessing.
Staring down a nine-point deficit heading into the final stage of the match, Gukesh was well aware of the fact that he would need a miracle to turn things around, but it simply wasn't to be. Vachier-Lagrave's speed and tactical form shone through, and he was able to repeat a similar score to what he had achieved earlier in the 5+1 section.
A scintillating king hunt is one of the highlights for Vachier-Lagrave in the 1+1 games.
With the pressure off his shoulders, Gukesh also joined in the fun and scored some of his best wins in the shortest time control. In one game, he produced a trio of brilliant moves—dual knight sacrifices and a rook sacrifice—none of which could be accepted without fatal consequences.
Following the match, Naroditsky gushed over Vachier-Lagrave's performance, stating:
We watched a masterful display from wire to wire. That mouse slip set the tone for the match, but MVL did not stop there. He showed so many different skills throughout his match—from speed, to tactical acumen, to great decision-making in critical moments, to fantastic preparation, as well as a versatile opening repertoire.
The path ahead for Vachier-Lagrave is a difficult one, with Nihal Sarin his next opponent, followed by either the 5-time winner Nakamura or Caruana, should he prevail in his quarterfinal clash. The Frenchman is certainly no stranger to high-pressure situations in past editions of the Speed Chess Championship and famously knocked out Carlsen in the 2020 event. Check out the throwback below when Vachier-Lagrave was racking up the points against the top seed.
This time Magnus began his campaign against Vidit.
Back with a vengeance after falling one point short of a grand final victory in the 2022 Speed Chess Championship Final, Carlsen made a strong start to the 2023 event with a resounding win over the tournament's 15th seed, Vidit.
The SmarterChess prediction for the match showed a 92 percent chance of a Carlsen victory and notably predicted a blowout result. Naroditsky was quick to highlight that Vidit's best chance was to put up a fight in the 5+1 section, stating: "The first 30 minutes of this match are crucial if Vidit wants to defy the expectations."
The opening game of the match was business as usual for Carlsen and out of a Berlin Defense the Norwegian poked and prodded at his opponent's weaknesses until Vidit blundered with 27...c5?.
In the second game, the Indian GM built a solid edge but was unable to convert, only adding to the pressure that Carlsen is so famous for building. Collecting himself, Vidit scored a critical win in Game 3 to tie the score, but three consecutive wins for Carlsen followed and suddenly SmarterChess' prediction was manifesting itself.
Carlsen's wins were not necessarily flashy or Tal-esque and were much more Karpovian in style, that is, constructing a minute advantage in a seemingly balanced position and slowly grinding down his opponent.
The commentators cited Carlsen's "wizardry in any strategic situation" as being the reason for his success, and at the end of the 5+1 segment, a revealing statistic came to light... the world no. 1's average accuracy rating of 92.3 percent is the highest of the event so far (equal with Dmitry Andreikin).
In the 3+1 games, it was Vidit's turn to eclipse a 2023 SCC record, and his average accuracy in this section was 93.4 percent! Despite that impressive feat, Carlsen was right there with him all the way, and 4-4 was all that Vidit could manage, demonstrating the ridiculous level required to contest Carlsen in such a match.
From the get-go, Vidit showed that he is a serious threat in the 3+1 time control, and a comfortable win from the black side of the Slav Defense gave a glimmer of hope that the Indian GM could mount a comeback.
During the 3+1 section, Carlsen opted to play different openings in every game, sidestepping any preparation that Vidit had done, though his opponent was up to the task. Carlsen would later state:
I was just moving around. I wasn't trying to play anything too crazy or unsound.
With the 3-point margin continuing into the 1+1 games, Carlsen was in a commanding position, though it must be said that Vidit was likely happy to be within reach of the former world champion's score.
While a comeback was still in the cards, Carlsen had other ideas. As Naroditsky picturesquely described, Carlsen used "the board as his canvas to produce beautiful paintings" in the 1+1 section.
Aside from amassing the most dominant bullet score (7.5-1.5) in the 2023 SCC so far, it was Carlsen's average accuracy of 92.5 percent that made this period so remarkable.
To put this in perspective, Carlsen was able to eclipse his own accuracy in the 5+1 portion in bullet chess... leaving Vidit with no chance to turn the tables. Even Naroditsky, who is renowned for his intuition and speed, was baffled by one of Carlsen's games and at one point stated: "If Magnus plays that move, I leave." Of course, the winning knight sacrifice was quickly chosen by Carlsen, and both commentators were left gobsmacked.
Following Carlsen's convincing win, he will play against the winner of the clash between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Arjun Erigaisi in the quarterfinals. Interestingly, if the world champion Ding Liren had not withdrawn from the tournament and been replaced by Nepomniachtchi, this could have been the first match between the current and former world champions.
The quarterfinal bracket is almost complete.
The next Speed Chess match is the Quarterfinal between Wesley So and Alireza Firouzja, which will be live here on chess24 from Wednesday September 13 at 9am ET/15:00 CEST/6.30pm IST.