World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen returns to action on Friday when he’ll take on French grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave for the right to face Hikaru Nakamura in the Speed Chess Championship final.

Speed Chess Championship Carlsen MVL odds
Magnus Carlsen (left) will take on Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (right) in the second Speed Chess Championship semifinal this Friday. (Image: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour)

Nakamura booked his place in the final with a tight 13.5-12.5 win over fellow American Wesley So on Wednesday.

Nakamura Builds Bullet Lead, Holds on Late

So gave Nakamura everything he could handle during the blitz portion of the match. While Nakamura jumped out to a 5-4 lead after the five-minute games, So fought back to win the three-minute portion 4.5-3.5, tying the match at 8.5 points apiece heading into the one-minute bullet portion.

But, So missed chances to build an advantage in the earlier phases of the match, and Nakamura played slowly to limit the number of games that would take place in the hour of three-minute play. Those lost opportunities came back to cost So later in the match.

Nakamura built a 13.5-10.5 lead with just over four minutes to play. And while So battled back to win the final two games, time ran out before he could find a chance to send the match to overtime.

“I was practicing a lot of bullet, but against Hikaru I don’t think it would matter much because his rating is 3500,” So said after the match. “I have to wait for Hikaru to get a bit older.”

Still, So made Nakamura sweat throughout the match. The two-time Speed Chess Championship winner acknowledged that it wasn’t his best day, even if he did enough to get through.

“In many ways, he was the better player in the match,” Nakamura said. “Hats off to Wesley.”

Carlsen Favored Over MVL in Semifinal Clash

That win sends Nakamura to the Speed Chess Championship final for the fourth straight year. But, there’s still the open question of who he’ll face in Saturday’s title match.

As usual, Carlsen will come into his semifinal as the favorite. Unibet sees Carlsen as a -500 pick over Vachier-Lagrave (+300), who most see as a live dog, even if it will take a special effort to unseat the World Champion.

Speed Chess Championship Odds (via Unibet)
Magnus Carlsen: -500 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: +300

Carlsen defeated Vladislav Artemiev in the quarterfinals, but only by a 13.5-9.5 margin. Carlsen won the first two portions of the match, but Artemiev got the best of the Norwegian in the one-minute segment, winning 4.5-3.5. Artemiev also had superior positions in several games he ended up losing, a situation Carlsen might not get away with against Vachier-Lagrave.

“I have to say that the match overall was tough,” Carlsen said after his win. “I think over the course of the match, there was one game which I won without any hiccups … It felt like I was outplayed in almost every game and it was just a massive struggle.”

Meanwhile, Vachier-Lagrave squeaked by Levon Aronian 14.5-12.5 in their quarterfinal match. The French grandmaster offers a stylistic matchup that may pose challenges for the World Champion.

“I think he’s a very different player than Vladislav in this format,” Carlsen said of Vachier-Lagrave. “Maxime is much more reliant on tactics and speed, so it’s certainly going to be a very different experience.”