AI Cup (Day 4): MVL Beats Nepo To Set Up Carlsen Rematch

AI Cup (Day 4): MVL Beats Nepo To Set Up Carlsen Rematch


GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was again in sparkling form as he defeated GM Ian Nepomniachtchi 2-0 to earn another shot at GM Magnus Carlsen in Friday’s 2023 AI Cup Grand Final. Nepomniachtchi had earlier knocked out GM Anish Giri 1.5-0.5.

GM Vladimir Fedoseev kept his dream of reaching the Toronto Finals alive as he beat GM Vladislav Artemiev in the Division II Winners Final, but he’ll now face the same opponent again in the Grand Final.

GM Sam Sevian has a chance to win Division III for a remarkable third time this season when he takes on GM Rauf Mamedov

The tournament ends on Friday, September 29, starting at 11 a.m. ET / 17:00 CEST / 20:30 IST.

See what happened

Division I

After a marathon day three, day four of the AI Cup was over in the minimum possible number of games. Nepomniachtchi and then Vachier-Lagrave wrapped up their matches in two games, without the need for armageddon.

Nepomniachtchi 1.5-0.5 Giri

First up was the clash between Nepomniachtchi and Giri, with the winner challenging Vachier-Lagrave in the Losers Final. Giri admitted afterward, however, that his thoughts had already strayed to a potential Grand Final against Carlsen, who had expressed a preference for playing his Dutch rival:

“I had some sort of a deja vu, because once I remember Magnus wanted to meet me in the final, and it was a few years ago, the Chessable Masters, and in that tournament I delivered, so I felt maybe I was destined to get there.”

Back in 2020, Carlsen had commented, “See you in the final!” when both players still had to win two matches to get there.

It happened, with Giri beating Nepomniachtchi in the Semifinals, but in 2023 the two-time world championship challenger would be his nemesis. Nepomniachtchi knocked him out of the Winners bracket on day one of the AI Cup, then ended his tournament on day four. Giri commented:

“It was better than my previous match with Ian, but I’m very slowly learning from my mistakes. I need to lose a couple of more times to him to get better!”

The first game showed that Nepomniachtchi meant business. He played the Petroff Defense, his world championship weapon of choice, and unveiled a novelty on move 11, sacrificing a pawn.

There was ample compensation for the pawn, but no more, and a well-played game ended in a 48-move draw.

Game two featured that other famously solid option for Black, the Berlin Defense, but Nepomniachtchi went for the Anti-Berlin with 4.d3, later pushed 14.f4!?, and then did something rarely seen in the Berlin, castled queenside. It was unconventional, but it worked, and after 22.Qf2 the commentators felt there might be no defense for Giri against the coming attack on his king.  

Giri dug deep, however, and found 22…Qe8! 23.Qg3 Qg6!, ending the immediate danger by swapping off queens. It looked like he was saving the game and we would get an armageddon, but suddenly an innocuous-looking rook endgame swung in Nepomniachtchi’s favor, and just like that Giri was out of the tournament.  

That meant the end of Giri’s hopes of qualifying for the eight-player Tour Finals in Toronto this December, but not of his hopes of visiting the Canadian city in the near future.

For Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, Toronto was tantalizingly close. If he won the next match against Vachier-Lagrave he would clinch the eighth spot, regardless of what happened in the Grand Final against Carlsen. As it turned out, however, his French opponent was once again in inspired form.

Vachier-Lagrave 2-0 Nepomniachtchi 

The first game of the Loser’s Final promised little out of the opening. Nepomniachtchi again played the Petroff, queens were exchanged on move seven, and it was hard to imagine a quieter position. That made it all the more remarkable, therefore, that by the end Vachier-Lagrave had crashed through, won a piece, and his opponent had no choice but to resign. 

In our Game of the Day, GM Rafael Leitao looks at how it happened.

That meant that Nepomniachtchi had to win on demand, which made it perhaps surprising that he met the Sicilian with the solid 3.Bb5 instead of sharper lines.

It soon looked like a decent choice, since a complicated middlegame arose where, despite Vachier-Lagrave feeling like he’d solved most of his problems, there were still tough choices to be made. In fact, after 33…Rf7?, the win White needed was up for grabs, but it was tricky enough that even as great a tactician as Nepomniachtchi went astray.  

The journey of the black king made for a dramatic end to the match.

That was another fine result for Vachier-Lagrave, who recently won the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid and showed signs of his best chess despite his defeat to Carlsen. He commented:

I feel good, because it’s been a very long time since I played at that level. Obviously this is a very good feeling, especially with the Grand Swiss for the last two Candidates spots not too far away. It gives me motivation to work even more. When you play well, it’s easier to enjoy chess and push forward.

When you play well, it’s easier to enjoy chess and push forward.

—Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

The French star explained that he’d been working very hard for the last few years with little obvious result but feels his efforts to transform his previously narrow opening repertoire are finally paying off. The next test ahead is that rematch with Carlsen, when Vachier-Lagrave needs to beat the world number-one not once but twice to clinch the AI Cup title and a spot in the Finals in Toronto. What does he think about that task?

I’m just hoping he won’t play as well tomorrow as he did yesterday! If I can show up at what feels like my best level in the past two games, I have a good chance, but of course, if he plays as well as he played yesterday, it will be still be an uphill task, no matter how well I play.

Carlsen vs. Vachier-Lagrave is the one remaining match in Division I.

Division I Bracket

Division II

If Vachier-Lagrave doesn’t beat Carlsen twice, that would be a huge chance for Fedoseev, who can qualify for Toronto if he wins Division II—while if neither Vachier-Lagrave nor Fedoseev wins, Nepomniachtchi will be going to Toronto after all.

The winner in Toronto will take home $200,000.

That means the stakes are high, but so far Fedoseev has done his part. On day four he beat Artemiev in the Winners Final after a bumpy ride. He took the lead but then fell for a sucker punch.

25.Rxd5! won the game and led to armageddon, but it was Fedoseev who got to strike the final blow after 42.Re2??.

That wasn’t the end of the road for Artemiev, however, since he fought back to win a tight match against GM Yuriy Kuzubov and set up a Grand Final rematch. Kuzubov had himself been on an incredible run, knocking star GMs Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Leinier Dominguez, Alexey Sarana, and Fabiano Caruana out of the tournament. 

Division II Bracket

Division III

The stakes are lower in Division III, but Sevian has a chance to accomplish the unlikely feat of winning Division III three times in a six-event season. He overcame his fellow US GM Ray Robson in armageddon and then got revenge over GM Evgeny Alekseev, who had knocked him out of the Winners Bracket. Up next? The Grand Final against Mamedov, where Sevian needs to win twice to take the title.

Division III Bracket

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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