Magnus Carlsen showed a hunger for success today as he made it into the last four of his own tournament while eating a salad.
The World Chess Champion weathered a fightback from Armenian opponent Levon Aronian to take the vital second set in their $220,000 Magnus Carlsen Invitational clash.
Carlsen will now face old foe Ian Nepomniachtchi in the semis after Russia’s top player caused a minor shock by demolishing popular US star Hikaru Nakamura 3-1.
Carlsen and “Nepo”, both aged 30, have been battling for supremacy since they were juniors. Carlsen is world number 1, but the formidable Russian is the only player who has a positive score against him in classical chess.
Tour leader Wesley So, who beat Carlsen in last month’s Opera Euro Rapid, sparkled yet again as he booked his place in the semis.
Having won the first set yesterday, the US Champion brushed aside teen prodigy Alireza Firouzja.
So’s second-round demolition of the 17-year-old was a classic – one of the best games seen in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour.
So then overpowered the highly-rated Firouzja again in the third to seal his place without losing a game in the tie. Firouzja, who is tipped to take Carlsen’s crown one day, will have to wait to challenge the big boys.
Round 2 proved eventful in difference ways for all the ties at the quarter-final stage.
It was the moment Nepomniachtchi signaled he was in full control of his quarter-final with Nakamura.
The pair had been level overnight but “Nepo” won the first game today and then crushed his American opponent with a brutal 28-move win in the second.
Nepo said afterward he will “hopefully sleep a little” before taking on Carlsen in the semi. Nakamura – who always wears his heart on his sleeve – was not happy and stormed off.
Round 2 was also the moment Dutch No.1 Anish Giri took the lead in his tie against the Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
Giri and MVL had also been level-pegging overnight but when Giri broke through there was no stopping him.
Giri, who is bang in form and must be considered a serious threat, went on to draw the third and win the fourth to go through at a canter.
And it was also in Round 2 when Carlsen brought out his snack. But while tucking into a pot of salad, the champion appeared to lose focus.
“Someone needs to have a word with him,” Grandmaster David Howell said. “Now is not the time to chill. You can eat after this game, Magnus!”
Carlsen and Aronian drew that game which meant the challenger needed to win both the two remaining games to stay in the match.
Aronian kicked back hard in the third suggesting Carlsen’s salad didn’t have the desired effect.
As Carlsen struggled, GM Howell added: “I know we were laughing about the food and the salad he was eating, but it does feel like somehow it has just slowed him down and it’s just that digestion. But he’s… lost his rhythm.”
Carlsen looked lost but Aronian missed a winning move and the draw took the champion through.
Despite the win, Carlsen was typically hard on himself afterward.
“It wasn’t very good,” he said. “Today in general I felt like I played a lot worse than I did the other days. But fortunately I got the job done […] I need to sort of pull myself together tomorrow because I need to play a bit better than I did today.”
Giri, meanwhile, took the moment to announce he intends to win the event.
He joked: “No matter how I play, I’m stuck for the next four days, so now I’ve changed the plan and I’m going to try and win the tournament!”
The semis will start tomorrow at the usual time of 17:00 CET.
The Magnus Carlsen Invitational is supported by Breakthrough Initiatives and the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. It is leg four of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour hosted by the Play Magnus Group.