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Magnus Carlsen wins 4th Norway Chess title

“I came away with absolutely everything I could have hoped for,” said Magnus Carlsen after winning Norway Chess for a 3rd year in a row and a 4th time in total. He did it with another Armageddon win over his World Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi, who called his own performance “completely disgusting”.

“I came away with absolutely everything I could have hoped for,” said Magnus Carlsen after winning Norway Chess for a 3rd year in a row and a 4th time in total. He did it with another Armageddon win over his World Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi, who called his own performance “completely disgusting”. Alireza Firouzja took 2nd place for a 2nd year in a row with a stunning win over Richard Rapport that completed a 4-game winning streak. It was a tough end for Richard, but left both in the World Top 10 for the 1st time in their careers.

You can replay all the games from the 2021 edition of Norway Chess using the selector below. 

And here’s the final day’s live commentary from Judit Polgar and David Howell. 

The final day saw Alireza Firouzja pick up the full three points for a win, while Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin picked up 1.5 points for winning in Armageddon.

Magnus Carlsen pulls off a double over Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi will still go into Game 1 of the 2021 World Championship match in Dubai on November 26th with a 4:1 lead in classical wins over Magnus Carlsen, but the reigning champion finished on top of every other battle in Norway Chess.

If Norway Chess was about sending a message before the World Championship match, it was Magnus who succeeded | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess 

If Norway Chess was about sending a message before the World Championship match, it was Magnus who succeeded | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess 

Going into their final day clash Magnus, who had won his last four classical games in a row, knew that a draw in the first game against Nepo and a win in Armageddon would guarantee him at least a playoff for 1st place. For Ian, meanwhile, there was nothing to hope for in terms of the tournament — his one win, two losses and seven draws left him out of the battle for the top places.

That didn’t stop it being a tense struggle in classical chess, with both players not hiding the fact that they wanted to be solid, though Ian, with the white pieces, could allow himself the more ambitious goal of applying some pressure at no risk to himself. After another little dance with the ceremonial opening move…

…Ian went for the Italian (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4) and a line which he noted, “was played dozens of times recently in online events”. It was a opening where Magnus had lost no less than three games, in three different Meltwater Champions Chess Tour events, to Wesley So, with the World Champion admitting:

I’ve suffered quite a bit in this line, to be honest, so in that sense it was a good choice, and I decided to go for something solid, but Black is always a little bit worse… I think he wanted to play it relatively safe and have some chances to win, so I think in that way he succeeded. It was certainly a try.

The players were only in entirely unchartered territory by around move 20, with Ian’s choice on move 23 raising some eyebrows.

Instead of slower moves such as 23.Bd3, he went for the radical 23.Bxc4!? (“it was surprising to me as well!” — Magnus), but after a series of precise moves Magnus seemed to completely equalise: 23…dxc4 24.Re1 Qf7 25.Qe2 Ba5 26.Qe3 h6 27.Ba3 Rd8 28.h4 Kh7.

Magnus had solved all his problems, though he confessed he wasn’t seeing everything:

I have to say it was a bit embarrassing that after 29.Qh3 my intention was to go 29…Bc7, which I thought was very clever, with the idea of 30.Re7 Re8!, and I do think this works, but as Ian pointed out after the game, 29…Rxd4! would be even better!

29.Qh3? Rxd4! would just win on the spot, since 30.cxd4 runs into 30…Bxe1. Instead Ian played 29.Re2!?, which was already somewhat inaccurate, allowing 29…Qf5! 30.Qc1 Rd5!

Ian said that after this move, with the threat of sometimes playing Rb5 and Rb1, “it was never a one-sided game, as I wanted it to be”. Magnus felt he missed a chance, however, when he was spooked by the reply 31.f3.

He said after the game that he missed this idea of Rd5-Rb5, but I’d also missed 31.f3, as a matter of fact, because I thought I was just doing very well, and then he had this idea of f3 and g4 and I sort of half-panicked a little bit. I really regretted that after I’m made the move. 

I should have done something like 31…h5 and then Bc7. I have such control of the central squares that my king is not really in danger and the rook can possibly go over to b5, or even a5, and I don’t think I’m in danger here at all. So I was regretting this slightly after I’d made my move, but 31…b5 at the very least was quite safe.

After 32.Re4 Bb6 33.Be7 Ian offered a draw and, after some thought, Magnus accepted. 

That meant that once again their clash would be decided in Armageddon, and although by this stage it was looking unlikely that Richard Rapport would win his game, Magnus still needed to win (i.e. at least hold a draw with the black pieces) to ensure a playoff in case Richard did beat Firouzja.

The opening once again had an online chess twist, with Magnus noting that up until 6…d5 it was something which Alireza Firouzja had played against him in their Banter Blitz Cup final.    

Here Alireza played 7.Nf3 and went on to beat Magnus, setting up the first “match point” of that epic encounter. Ian instead went for the pawn grab 7.exd5 Nxd5 8.Qh5, which didn’t get the World Champion’s stamp of approval:

Alireza played it against me in the Banter Blitz Cup actually, this 5.Bb3 thing, and I didn’t take it seriously at all then, but it’s actually a serious line. Usually White goes 7.Nf3 instead of taking on d5, and then 8.Qh5 I thought was a bit nonsensical, because you get typical Marshall compensation but with I think a bunch of extra tempi, and the fact that I was a little bit worse later in the game was not the position’s fault, it was rather my fault!

It was an Armageddon game, and we got a curious moment with 16.d4? by Nepo.

When this was pointed out to Ian by Anastasia Karlovich afterwards, he reacted somewhat angrily:

It’s good that you are so strong, when the interviewer is playing so much better than a player!

In this case, however, 16…Ba6 wasn’t a move you needed to be a great player or even use a computer to spot (which you could argue for Rapport’s missed win against Nepo in the previous day’s Armageddon). Magnus had an explanation for missing it completely:

I was not even seeing tactics at all in this game. I was tired, and I think he was kind of outplaying me at some point and I was a little worse, but I think with the bishops you always have chances.

Ultimately Magnus was able to completely take over with his bishops, as his king also entered the fray. The desperate 47.d6 illustrates the point.

The bishops completely control the pawn, so that Magnus could have ignored it and played 47…Ke4! here. 47…Bxd6 was fine, as was the 47…cxd6 he played, so that the only question that really remained was whether the game would end as the draw he needed to win Armageddon, or he’d actually win the game as well. 

It proved to be the latter, with mate-in-4 on the board in the final position when Nepo resigned. 

It would soon be confirmed that Magnus had won the tournament, so that after not winning the first three editions (1.Karjakin, 2. Karjakin, 3.Topalov), he’d now won four of the last six, including the last three in a row. Magnus felt the narrative pushed by the Norwegian media deserved to change.

On the other hand, when Magnus was tied for 4-5th place after making four classical draws and then losing to Karjakin in Round 5, it was far from obvious that he’d storm to the title on the back of four wins in a row.

Magnus himself couldn’t really explain it, and didn’t think he was out of form at the start.

I don’t think I was even rusty, I was just not getting anywhere. It has to be said that the pairings were a lot better for me also in the last circuit, that I had three Whites, and Black against Aryan, so that was quite favourable, but I don’t know what happened in the first half — I didn’t feel too differently. Frankly I was just seriously running out of steam in the last few games, but it was enough. I think everybody was running out of steam at the end.

He told Judit and David of the wins:

What I would say is I worked really, really hard at the board during these games, so that part I’m very happy with. Everything else, you know, there are a lot of things to improve, it wasn’t sparkling at all, but I think under the circumstances I came away with absolutely everything I could have hoped for. 

Magnus was asked by Anastasia how it felt to win for a 4th time:

I feel it’s even better this time. It was really, really tough this year, and frankly at the halfway point it didn’t seem likely at all, so yeah, it’s a really satisfying victory! 

“November will be fun!” was all Magnus had to say about the World Championship match, while he’s going to be busy first. On Sunday he travels with Aryan Tari to Ohrid in North Macedonia for the European Club Cup (his team Offerspill will be starting without him today) before he plays in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals from September 25th. 

Ian Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, was being more cagey about any plans before the match (“my main plan is to prepare”), and will want to forget most of what happened in Norway in a hurray. As he summed up:

The result is disgusting, completely disgusting, considering all the chances I spoiled, and especially these two games against Firouzja and Aryan, but at the same time, I believe it was quite useful. 

He scored -1 in classical chess (1 win, 7 draws and 2 losses), while he won 4 and lost 3 of the Armageddon games. At least his compatriot Sergey Karjakin saw some hope for the World Championship match:

[Magnus is] strong, but he makes mistakes, and if he will make the same mistakes in the match I think that Ian will be ready for this and to use his chances, but it will be a new tournament and we will see!

69 days and counting to Game 1

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