AI Cup (Day 3): Carlsen Beats MVL In Armageddon After Sicilian Duel

AI Cup (Day 3): Carlsen Beats MVL In Armageddon After Sicilian Duel


“This is the sort of thing that happens when you play Sicilians in every game,” said GM Magnus Carlsen after four fighting Sicilians left his 2023 AI Cup Winners Final against GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave level at 2-2. The world number-one clinched the match in armageddon to reach Friday’s Grand Final. 

That will either be a rematch, or Carlsen will face one of the two other players still alive in the Losers Bracket: GM Anish Giri, who followed a 2-0 sweep of GM Hikaru Nakamura by doing the same to GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, or GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, who needed luck and brilliance to come back and defeat GM Alireza Firouzja in armageddon.    

GM Vladimir Fedoseev will face GM Vladislav Artemiev in the Division II Winners Final as he retains outside chances of qualifying for the Champions Chess Tour Finals in Toronto, while in Division III GM Rauf Mamedov reached the Grand Final by overcoming GM Evgeny Alekseev

The tournament continues on Thursday, September 28, starting at 11 a.m. ET / 17:00 CEST / 20:30 IST.

See what happened

Division I

Six players remained in Division I of the AI Cup, and it was a rare occasion when all of them were playing from the same Central European time zone.

A day of intense action followed, with the Winners Final and the Losers Quarterfinals.

Carlsen 3-2 Vachier-Lagrave

This match got off to a delayed start, with Carlsen confessing: “I sort of missed the start of the match because I was just falling asleep on the couch—I was really tired!”

When he did wake up, however, he chose violence, and found a very willing accomplice in Vachier-Lagrave, who set the pattern by playing the Sicilian in game one. 

The world number-one opted for a quiet approach with 3.Bb5, but couldn’t prevent mayhem. By move 16, Vachier-Lagrave offered a pawn on d5, which Carlsen rejected with the positionally risky 17.Bf6!?.

The Norwegian ultimately gave up two pawns, but he had enough compensation to hold on, and in fact you couldn’t seriously fault a single move by either player.

“It was nothing special, just a generally well-played game,” said Carlsen. 

For the second game he was the one who chose the Sicilian, going for his opponent’s beloved Najdorf. He admitted that had an element of mind games: “I feel I can play such positions as well. In this case I just decided to play something that looks interesting over the board, and frankly it wasn’t very good, but I just wanted to have some big fights, so that was fun!”

The position out of the opening wasn’t, perhaps, a lot of fun for Black, as Carlsen found himself having to give up a pawn. If roles were reversed, it felt as though he would have been a big favorite to take home the full point. 

Howell, asked by co-commentator Tania whether Carlsen was only trying to hold on, uttered some words that almost proved prophetic: “It is Magnus. You never know. First he starts with a worse endgame, then an equal endgame, then he wins. That’s how he rolls!”

That scenario began to unfold, as Vachier-Lagrave lashed out with the impatient 27.a4!?, soon lost all control, and ultimately had to scurry to save a draw with some knight acrobatics at the end.

Somehow no blood had been spilt, but that changed in game three, when we got the wildest Sicilian yet.

To no-one’s great surprise, it turned out the world number-one was aware of that game, though not all the details.

I was just excited to play an exciting position, so I didn’t totally expect the line that he played, and frankly my knowledge of the line he played ends around 2005-6, when Topalov introduced it at the highest level, and I remember there was a queen sac line… I didn’t remember the evaluation or anything, I just remembered that it was a line, and following chess back then it was a lot of fun to see, so I thought let’s go for that. Hopefully he doesn’t know it so well.

Back then GM Viswanathan Anand in fact went for a dubious queen sacrifice (Carlsen correctly gave the moves, and suggested the computer’s top line as an alternative), while the Norwegian went for one that was entirely sound, and swiftly met by Vachier-Lagrave giving up his own queen.

Carlsen handled the ensuing endgame better, though he admitted that his opponent’s passed pawns were “scary” until Vachier-Lagrave fell into a tactical trap that ended the game on the spot. That spectacular encounter is our Game of the Day, analyzed by GM Rafael Leitao below.

Carlsen now only needed a draw, but he couldn’t resist a fourth Sicilian in a row. Once again, all hell broke loose, but despite seeming to have navigated all the most difficult challenges, the reigning Champions Chess Tour champion fell at the final hurdle, stumbling into a dead lost position.

After some time spent reflecting on his life choices, he fell on his sword with 48…Rb6, after which Vachier-Lagrave had only one winning move, but a fairly convincing one: checkmate with 49.Qxa2#

That meant armageddon, and this time Carlsen’s read of his opponent was wide of the mark, since as he pointed out, he could have bid an extra two minutes and still got the black pieces.

Why was he willing to have six and a half minutes less than his opponent? “It was more of a mindset thing for me, because I didn’t want to have to try and win. It’s better if I just react, it’s also better if I don’t think, so getting Black would be good!”

Carlsen also changed things by playing the Caro-Kann instead of the Sicilian (“I’d sort of had enough of this stupid line that I played in the last game!”), and it worked to perfection, since he felt his opponent’s novelty 8.Qb3?! was “practically a decisive mistake, in terms of him having hopes of winning. I think after that there’s no coming back—my position is too solid”.

Vachier-Lagrave was worse in a game he needed to win, so that his only realistic chance was to win on the clock. He never came close, however, with a draw agreed on move 54. It was a quiet end to a fantastic match, with the former world champion summing up:

Sometimes I’m really harsh on myself, or a lot of the time I am, but today I made mistakes, he made mistakes, we both found resources. […] But overall it was just a great day of chess, really good fights. I think I can play even better, but I’m fairly happy considering the complexity of the positions.  

Carlsen now gets a rest day on Thursday, before playing the Grand Final on Friday against either Giri or Nepomniachtchi. He was clear who he would pick.

The Losers Bracket also saw dramatic action.

Giri 2-0 Mamedyarov

On Tuesday, Giri beat Nakamura 2-0, and just to prove that was no fluke he won again by the same scoreline against Mamedyarov, whose offbeat opening in the first game only led to trouble. Giri explained: “The first game, the opening was good, then I messed up, he was already back, and then again it turned and I don’t know, I think at some point the decisive factor was probably that he was low on time and it was just hard to defend that position.”

Mamedyarov’s last mistake was to swap off minor pieces into what turned out to be a lost pawn endgame.

The Azerbaijani star then came out all-guns-blazing in the second must-win game, but his Scandinavian Defense (1.e4 d5) left him close to lost by move 10. In a hopeless position, he brought an end to matters with a rook sacrifice that wasn’t entirely crazy. If Giri captured with the king 24…Be4+! would have turned the tables, but when the queen took the rook it was game over.

Did Giri want to face Firouzja or Nepomniachtchi, who beat him on day one, in the Losers Semifinal? “Variety is the spice of life, so you prefer to lose to more people than to just Ian alone!”

You can’t always get what you want.

Nepomniachtchi 2-1 Firouzja

This was a battle between two explosive players, and it didn’t disappoint. Firouzja went all-out in the first game with the black pieces.

At first it seemed Nepomniachtchi had weathered the early storm and had any winning chances, but Firouzja took over until the main obstacle standing in his way was the low time on his clock. The two-time world championship challenger tried to exploit the time situation with his usual rapid play, but it only led to mistakes, and though Firouzja missed one or two chances he didn’t miss the last. 

79.Rf3! draws, while after 79.Kg3?? Rb2 Nepomniachtchi was lost. This was not a case of players being unfairly criticised for missing a computer move, since the main criticism came from the man himself.

The first game was just completely disgusting! First of all, I found myself defending this worse endgame, and secondly, in a very, very well-known position, I just forgot to play Rf3, a very topical side attack of the passed pawn. When it’s a rook pawn, it never promotes because of this little trick, but I sort of blitzed out Kg3, and then I thought, ok, wow, just what did I do! This was painful.

That appeared to be match over, since in the next game Firouzja got off to a perfect start and found himself in a position of which Giri asked, “how is it possible that he lost that position?”. Again, it was all about the clock, as this time the Iranian-born French GM failed to keep things together on seconds and blundered his queen.

That was a tough blow for the youngster, but he seemed to shrug it off in the armageddon, as he found some sparkling tactics and looked favorite to hold a draw and win the match. Instead it was Nepomniachtchi who got to shine, playing what Tania labeled “the move of the tour”.

Nepomniachtchi played the move down, calling it, “quite a topical breakthrough” and “more or less my only trick in the whole position”, but it was enough to knock out Firouzja. 

That means we’ll now have a Nepomniachtchi-Giri rematch, with the winner then playing Vachier-Lagrave for a spot in the Grand Final against Carlsen. It’s not just the fate of the AI Cup that hangs in the balance, but the last spot in the 8-player Finals slated to take place in Toronto, Canada in December. All three challengers to Carlsen can still win it, with Nepomniachtchi having a chance to secure the spot on Thursday if he wins both matches.

Division I Standings

There’s still one other player who can win the spot, and he’s in action in Division II. 

Division II

Fedoseev kept his Toronto hopes alive in the Winners Semifinals by winning the first two games against GM Alexey Sarana before wrapping up a 2.5:0.5 victory, with a game to spare. Fedoseev will now take on Artemiev, who got off to a flying start against GM Dmitry Andreikin.

Andreikin hit back, but was unable to win the 145-move armageddon game that clinched the match for Artemiev.

Andreikin now plays GM Fabiano Caruana, who like Giri has scored 4-0 after losing in the Winners Bracket.  

Division II Standings

Division III

Azerbaijan’s Mamedov is already through to the Grand Final of Division III after defeating Alekseev 1.5-0.5 with a 24-move win in game two. He’ll face either a rematch against Alekseev, or one of the American duo of GMs Sam Sevian and Ray Robson.

Division III Standings

The Champions Chess Tour 2023 (CCT) is the biggest online tournament of the year. It is composed of six events that span the entire year and culminate in live in-person finals. With the best players in the world and a prize fund of $2,000,000, the CCT is’s most important event.

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