Skilling Open: Comebacks

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
11/27/2020 – Three out of the four players that qualified to the semifinals of the Skilling Open did it by coming back from behind in their quarterfinal matchups. The only player to move on without needing tiebreaks was Magnus Carlsen, while Ian Nepomniachtchi, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura reached the semis despite having lost on Wednesday. Carlsen v Nepomniachtchi and So v Nakamura are the semifinal pairings. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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Two-day matches

Unlike the previous tour organized by the Magnus Carlsen Group, in this new set of tournaments all matches will be decided in two days. Thus, if there is a 1:1 tie after two 4-game mini-matches, a blitz tiebreaker will be played immediately afterwards — much like the third-set tiebreakers often seen in tennis doubles. Three of the four quarterfinal matches at the Skilling Open were decided in blitz.

Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Ian Nepomniachtchi bounced back from their defeats on day one and went on to defeat their opponents in the tiebreakers, with So and Nakamura getting the better of Teimour Radjabov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in Armageddon. The momentum gained by winning the four-game mini-match earlier in the day played a key role this time around.

The one confrontation that did not go to tiebreaks was Magnus Carlsen v Anish Giri. Although the world champion confessed that his first mini-match victory was “a case of winning ugly” as Giri had better positions in the first three games, he was able to draw his way to victory on Thursday. The Norwegian got winning chances both times he had the white pieces, but also survived not-so-pleasant positions when he had black.

Carlsen will face Nepomniachtchi while So will play Nakamura in the semis. Will we see yet another Carlsen v Nakamura final?

Skilling Open 2020

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Carlsen 2 : 2 Giri

In the end, Carlsen’s win in game 4 of day 1 was the only decisive game of this matchup, with the players drawing their four encounters on Thursday, giving the world champion a pass to the semifinals. Giri could have kicked off day 2 with a win though:


White transferred his bishop to e5 via 25.Bf4 Re8+ 26.Be5. A forcing sequence followed — 26...Re7 27.Qb3 Bxd4 (taking advantage of the pin) 28.Qxd5+ Qe6:


The players now simplified into a rook endgame with 29.Qxd4 Qxe5+ 30.Qxe5 Rxe5+, when Black has enough activity to hold the draw.

In the first diagrammed position, 25.Qb5 was the way to go, keeping the tension and threatening to create weaknesses on the queenside via the advancement of the a-pawn.

Giri also missed some chances in game 3, while Carlsen had the upper hand both times he played with the white pieces. The Dutchman was never able to break the deadlock, however. As he finished among the top 8 in this event, Giri will automatically be invited to the next tournament of the tour.


Select an entry from the list to switch between games

Nepomniachtchi* 3 : 1 Aronian  

*Won the tiebreaker

Two of the most daring players in the circuit played enterprising chess throughout in their second mini-match. Nepomniachtchi ended up winning four out of the six games they played on Thursday, showing great calculation abilities in complicated positions. Perhaps the deciding win was the one achieved by the Russian in game 4. Every time Aronian had white, a Symmetrical English appeared on the board, and a sharp struggle ensued in their last rapid encounter of the day:


Nepomniachtchi’s strategy against Aronian’s cautious piece development was to energetically take the initiative — 17...g4 18.e4 (18.fxg4 was better) Nd4 19.f4 Nf3 20.Be3 h4:


White’s passive approach has left his pieces struggling to defend against the onslaught. Aronian could not find the most trying defensive alternatives and ended up losing the game in 31 moves. The final position:


Going all-in is the best approach at times!

With this victory, Nepomniachtchi had secured a 3:1 win in the second mini-match, taking the confrontation to a blitz tiebreaker. The Russian continued to play confidently to score back-to-back wins in the 5-minute encounters.


So* 2½ : 1½ Radjabov  

*Won the tiebreaker in Armageddon

In a tense second mini-match, So got to equalize the overall score by beating Radjabov with white in game 2. This ended up being the only decisive encounter of the day:


Out of a Giuoco Piano, White had the initiative thanks to his pair of bishops — 28.Qd3 (threatening mate on h7) g6 29.Bb3 Ne5:


The knight manoeuvre saves Black for the time being — 30.Qc3 (30.Qc2 was stronger, as it would not have allowed Black to capture on b4) axb4 31.axb4 Nc4:


However, White still has his pieces pointing at the opposite king plus a chance to gain a couple of tempi by pushing his central pawns — 32.e4 Qd6 33.Bxc4 bxc4 34.d5:


34...f6 followed, and So quickly exchanged down into a superior endgame with 35.Qxf6 Qxf6 36.Bxf6. The Filipino-born grandmaster — known for his technical prowess —  converted his advantage into a 59-move win.

All remaining games of the match finished drawn, with So getting his ticket to the semifinals after playing black in the Armageddon (let us not forget that Black gets draw odds in the final tie-breaking game).


Nakamura* 2½ : ½ Vachier-Lagrave 

*Won the tiebreaker in Armageddon

It was a highly contested matchup between two rapid and blitz specialists. Vachier-Lagrave had won the first mini-match, but could not prevent his opponent from winning twice with white in the second 4-game encounter to take the contest to a tiebreaker. 

During the preliminaries, we had mentioned how it takes courage to face Vachier-Lagrave’s Najdorf Sicilian, as the Frenchman won a very nice game against Le Quang Liem earlier in the week. However, Nakamura, a very pragmatic competitor, decided to challenge his colleague’s pet defence by using a line that led to a positional struggle — with 6.d3, 7.Nde2:


The strategy worked wonders, as the American won both times he had white in the second rapid mini-match. In game 3, this was the position after 22 moves:


White has all the trumps in the position — more space, the bishop pair and a better structure — so Black decided to open up some lines with 22...b5. However, after 23.cxb5 Qb8 24.Bd3 Nb6 25.Qb3 Nbxd5 26.Bh6 Rc8 27.Bc4 Black has not been able to solve his problems:


MVL found nothing better than 27...Rxc4, giving up the exchange. Nakamura, slowly but surely, converted his advantage into a 48-move win.

In the blitz tiebreaker, Vachier-Lagrave actually kicked off with a win. The ever-resilient Nakamura bounced right back though, and went on to draw the Armageddon decider with the black pieces to eliminate his colleague. ‘Naka’ will play So in the all-American clash of the semifinals.



Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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