Magnus Carlsen is on a 15-match winning streak against his major rivals this weekend. Norway’s world champion, whose target is to become the Goat (Greatest of All Time), starts his $150,000 Legends of Chess semi-final on Friday afternoon.
At the 29-year-old’s other passion of Fantasy Premier League, though, it was a near-miss. Carlsen twice led the field of seven million earlier in the season and was fourth going into last Sunday’s matches before dropping back to 11th.
Asked to explain why he is doing so well, he replied: “I don’t have obvious weaknesses in my play that they can try and exploit.” That answer sounds a homespun variant on what used to be said about Boris Spassky and later Garry Kasparov, that they had a universal style which could adapt to endgames or complex tactics, to hot opening theory or strategic grinds. Carlsen showed his range of skills this week when he won a filigree rook ending against Peter Svidler then twice crushed the ex-champion Vlad Kramnik in the middle game.
On two occasions when Carlsen was under pressure in his mini-matches, tied at 2-2 and into an Armageddon decider, he showed something special which has no equivalent among previous great champions. In Armageddon, White has five minutes on the clock for all moves, Black four minutes, and a draw on the board counts as a win for Black in the score table.
There is no per-move increment, so that when the clock ticks down to the final seconds the game becomes a physical and mental test of instant reactions and mouse speed. Carlsen is a fan of one-minute bullet, where only the blitz specialist Hikaru Nakamura and the prodigy Alireza Firouzja can match him, and he knows the dark arts of pre-move, anticipating the opponent’s reply.
Early in his mini-match with Vasyl Ivanchuk, Carlsen blundered horribly into a forced mate (74 Qb3?? when 74 Qe6 or Qe8 wins instantly) and at 2-2, Armageddon and 30 seconds each the game was in the balance when Carlsen launched a barrage which ended with Ivanchuk losing both on time and on the board while his opponent still had 14 seconds left.
Carlsen struggled with his form against Russia’s No 1, Ian Nepomniachtchi, who kept pace with the champion for most of the group stage. Always a harsh critic of his own play, Carlsen said later: “ I am getting Lewandowski level chances, but I am converting them at a Firmino level. For those who don’t watch football, that’s pretty bad.”
On move 52 in the Armageddon game, Nepomniachtchi with a time advantage rejected a move repetition and went for an endgame where Carlsen had only 25 seconds left on the clock. In the final position, 29 moves later, Carlsen still had 13 seconds left. He was completely winning on the board, and for extra insurance could wipe out the Russian army so that his opponent would not have mating material. Generously, he agreed a draw.
Carlsen’s match against China’s world No 3, Ding Liren, last Sunday started four hours early so that Carlsen could manage his Fantasy Premier League team. Back in December, he became No 1 at FPL for a few days and repeated that for a single day in late June. He dropped back again, then made another surge to No 4 in the final week. He would have been No 1 for a third time had he selected Raheem Sterling as his captain instead of Marcus Rashford.
The final day was an anti-climax even though Carlsen outclassed Ding on the chessboard, as he dropped to 11th in FPL. He had even enlisted his chess coach, Peter Heine Nielsen, to try to create a model team designed to pass the three ahead of him. A clue to what went wrong was his tweet: “Hoping (Michail) Antonio gets 3 bonus.” But the West Ham striker, who had scored all four against Norwich, went goalless.
Carlsen’s competitive instincts and his near-miss this season will surely mean that in his wish list for 2021 winning the FPL will rank close behind retaining his over-the-board world title.
The Legends of Chess semi-finals, Magnus Carlsen v Peter Svidler and Ian Nepomniachtchi v Anish Giri, start at 3pm on Friday free and live on chess24.com with grandmaster and computer commentaries.
While over-the-board chess in Britain remains stymied, tournaments are happening in Central Europe. The first major international event, the traditional Biel grandmaster tournament, proceeded normally. Players were separated by a plexiglass screen for their classical games, and wore face masks for the blitz section. Boards in the amateur tournament had extra spacing.
The England No 1, Michael Adams, had a good result in the GM tournament and was in contention for a shock victory until well into the final round before ending a close third behind Poland’s top seeded Radoslaw Wojtaszek. Adams began badly with two classical losses, then hit a purple patch in the blitz section where he began with seven straight wins and reached 9.5/1o before being caught by the Pole at the finish. The 48-year-old Cornishman’s most visual game was a sacrificial splurge , though marred by a simple missed win at move 21.
3682: 1 Rh8+! Kxh8 2 g6 and White will mate by Rc8.