Chess: Carlsen eases into World Cup semi, but Esipenko is emerging star


Magnus Carlsen has never won the $1.9m World Cup, and his early exit at his last attempt in 2017 still rankles. Despite a few early hiccups, it was soon clear that the 2021 version of the 206-player knockout was made for the No 1 as he sailed through the majority of his matches comfortably while most of his seeded rivals fell by the wayside.

In Saturday’s semi-finals Carlsen, who beat Étienne Bacrot (France) 2-0, meets Jan-Krysztof Duda (Poland), who won 1.5-0.5 against Vidit Gujrathi (India). Vladimir Fedoseev (Russia) defeated Amin Tabatabaei (Iran) 1.5-0.5 and will meet his compatriot Sergey Karjakin, who beat Sam Shankland (US) 4-2 after the American had led 1-0 and 2-1. Saturday is a rest day, and the semi-finals can be watched free and live at the official website starting 1pm on Sunday.

Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia) beat Anna Muzychuk (Ukraine), and Alexandra Kosteniuk (Russia) beat Tan Zhongyi (China) in the Women’s World Cup semi-finals, both by The all-Russian final starts on Sunday alongside the men’s semi-finals.

Carlsen’s round of 16 match against Andrey Esipenko was an epic. The 19-year-old from Novocherkassk in the Rostov region already made his mark at Wijk aan Zee in January when he took third prize in an elite field, finished ahead of the world champion, and defeated him in their individual game. At Sochi their meeting became a more searching test as Esipenko drew both classical slow games and both rapids, fought back to win on demand in impressive style in the second blitz game, and was eliminated only in the second pair of faster blitz games.

Afterwards Carlsen tweeted: “World Cup is as unforgiving as it is exciting! Great match against a most worthy opponent.” Esipenko is still rated only 27th in the world, 14 places beneath France’s Alireza Firouzja, who is a year younger but has had more opportunities at top level. In style Esipenko is a classical player while Firouzja relies on his tactical skills, like the contrast between Boris Spassky and Mikhail Tal half a century ago or between Vlad Kramnik and Vasyl Ivanchuk in the early 2000s.

Although Esipenko is behind Firouzja in the rankings, he is clearly Russia’s chess future and will surely be given maximum opportunities to compete at the highest level. If he had beaten Carlsen this week, he would have qualified for one of the 2022 Candidates or Fide Grand Prix places available to the Sochi quarter-finalists. Arguably the rule could be interpreted to give Esipenko a Grand Prix place anyway, since Carlsen is ineligible for that event. As it is, he may need one of the two wildcards.

The other standout World Cup performer has been Shankland. The 29-year-old from Berkeley, California, was US champion in 2018 but is ranked only No 5 nationally. Then Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura did not enter Sochi, the world No 2, Fabiano Caruana, was eliminated in round three, while Leinier Domínguez and the top US junior, Jeffrey Xiong, also exited, leaving Shankland as the lone American.

The Californian rose to the occasion in style, knocking out Peter Svidler with the hyper-aggressive 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 h4!? to upset the eight-time Russian champion’s favourite Grünfeld Defence.

Then in the quarter-final Shankland struck again, outwitting Karjakin, the 2016 world title challenger and No 10 seed, in a strategic battle which went down to a well-calculated pawn endgame.

Karjakin fought back in Thursday’s return game with a storming attack, chasing the American king across the board for checkmate. Shankland was better out of the opening, but 21…a4-a3! would have been stronger than his 21…Nc6-a5? Karjakin won the match 4-2 after Friday’s tie-breaks.

The online Meltwater Champions Tour resumes at 4pm on Saturday, with the $100,000 Chessable Masters. So and Nakamura are the favourites, and the event also includes the world woman champion, Ju Wenjun, and the youngest ever grandmaster, Abhimanyu Mishra, 12.

3774 Yes, but it was his own resignation that occurred after 1 Bxf6 gxf6. Only then did White realise that his planned 2 Qxf6 would run into 2…Qh2+! when 3 Kxh2 Ng4+ and 4…Nxf6 leaves Black a piece ahead, while 3 Kf1 Qh1+ 4 Ke2 Rxa2+ 5 Rxa2 Rxa2+ leads to 6 Kd3? Qd1+ and Qxd7 or to 6 Rd2 Rxd2+ 7 Kxd2 Qd5+ both winning easily for Black.