Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura, Daniil Dubov, Levon Aronian and Teimour Radjabov lead the Airthings Masters on 2.5/4 after a first day on which no player managed to win more than a single game. World Champion Magnus Carlsen won none after missing an open goal in the first game after Levon Aronian blundered a rook in one move. Anish Giri and David Anton are currently in most danger of missing out on the knockout stages after starting with two defeats and no wins.
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There was just one decisive result in Round 1 of the Airthings Masters, but that was little reflection on the action we witnessed. Harikrishna-MVL and Dubov-Radjabov were relatively quiet draws, but everywhere else blood could, and perhaps should, have been spilt. The most glaring miss was in the marquee game of the round, Carlsen-Aronian.
Something had gone badly wrong for Levon Aronian when he allowed his king to get stranded in the middle of a board full of pieces…
…but the worst had seemed to be over before Levon played 42…Rd4?
43.f4+!, offering Black three ways to recapture, would simply have won the rook on h3, and Levon later commented, “I saw f4 immediately I played it”. Magnus Carlsen spent 6 seconds on 43.Rxd4??, however, and the moment had passed, with a relieved Levon later calling it an example of “Christmas cheer and love for each other”.
David Anton gained a big advantage against Wesley So’s Berlin Defence, only to see the edge fizzle out into nothing. Ian Nepomniachtchi nearly got off to a disastrous start against Anish Giri.
The Russian no. 1 explained that here he meant to play 11…Na5 and 12…Bg4 a move later, but instead he accidentally played 11…Bg4? first, and after 12.Qxb7 had to fight the instinct to resign on the spot. Instead he found 12…Bxf3 13.Bxf3 e5!, at least complicating matters, and, with a lot of help from Anish, he managed to make a draw.
The one winner was Hikaru Nakamura, who started at 6am in the morning but still took full advantage of Alexander Grischuk’s Achilles’ heel.
20.e6!? fxe6 21.Ne5 was a fine concept, but it cost Alexander almost 10 minutes on the clock, and after 21…Qe8 22.g4 Bg6 23.Nxg6!? Nxg6 24.g5 it was a murky position in which White was soon fighting for a draw. Grischuk came close, but with seconds on his clock he stumbled just when a half point was within touching distance.
Magnus Carlsen may have been out for revenge for the Skilling Open final when he played the aggressive King’s Indian Defence against Wesley So in Round 2, but Wesley was in no mood for drama and picked the most solid reply. That was one of three solid draws, while Teimour Radjabov outplayed David Anton in an ending and Alexander Grischuk hit back against Ian Nepomniachtchi.
“Sasha played just great, I believe,” admitted Nepo. The most dramatic game of the round, however, was Aronian-Giri, which saw Anish playing the opening he’d just released a 23-hour series about on Chessable.
It was Levon who sprung the surprises in the opening, however, later explaining:
I’ve played with Anish many times. He’s a great theoretician, and when you play against a great theoretician you need to surprise them early on, and I think I managed to surprise him with this rare line.
I was just doubting too much. It was too interesting the position, so I was thinking about all kinds of options, and at the end of the day I couldn’t make a choice. When you play rapid chess you’ve got to be more practical, you’ve got to make these calls, you’ve just got to take the decision, one or the other, but do it faster. I was a little bit rusty there at the start.
Levon had well over a 10-minute lead on the clock when he met 26…Bxe4 with 27.Nc2!, and it turned out Black had to tread a very narrow path to keep his position together.
Anish didn’t manage in time trouble, with Levon later referring to his dog Ponchik to describe the game.
The border between human and canine was blurred still further when Levon revealed he’d prepared for the day by going for a run in some snowy mountains where the temperature was minus 5!
The goal of the players on the first three days of the Airthings Masters is to finish in the Top 8 and qualify for the knockout stages, and Skilling Open winner Wesley So is well on the way to doing that after beating Anish Giri in Round 3. It was an opening disaster for Anish that made the Najdorf against Aronian look like a dream, with the Dutch no. 1 throwing in the towel on move 25.
With the knight coming to e2 and the queen to h3, only heavy material losses would delay mate. Giri, who drew his remaining game of the day against Teimour Radjabov, claimed not to be too stressed by how things had gone.On the other hand, it wasn’t true that his air quality was so great! His carbon dioxide levels were “red” in the live monitoring by equipment from the tournament sponsors Airthings. Anish was facing a dilemma.
I figured out this room – it’s pretty simple. If I don’t open the window for a while the air quality drops because there’s too much CO2, so there are two solutions: one is I stop breathing, which isn’t very good. The other is that I open the window again, but if I do it again I’ll freeze, so at some point I just made a choice to go on with the bad air but at least not freeze and keep breathing. It doesn’t really work out well, so maybe I should change my strategy!
Hopefully tomorrow I’ll prove that it’s not just about the air quality but about the quality of your moves.
Both sides were winning at some point in Dubov-MVL and Nepo admitted he’d been on tilt in his game against Nakamura, but the remaining five games in the round were nevertheless drawn.
There were fine margins on the first day of the Airthings Masters. MVL-Nepo looked set to leave Maxime among the leaders on +1 while Ian would share last place on -2, but the French no. 1 somehow let the black king escape a mating net, before it was the black pawns that went on to win the game.
62.Re7 or 62.Rg1 would have been enough to stop Nepo, but after 62.Kb5? Kg3! it was suddenly too late for White.
The highlight of the round, however, was yet another mind-blowing game from Daniil Dubov, who was just fresh from winning perhaps the game of the year in the Russian Championship.
The Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge winner set the scene:
The first two or three games, well first of all I had to play chess, and secondly I was just trying to fix some technical things with my laptop for a better connection and a better camera sync and everything, so I was actually happy with two boring draws and one not that boring, but still quite a short draw against Maxime, and then you probably expect me to say that I finally managed then I could play normally, but then I finally just gave up! I realised I cannot fix it at all, I’ll probably do it after the games are over, and then I just decided to play one more interesting game. I don’t know if I played well, but in general it was great fun. Maybe I was losing, maybe the stuff I was doing was actually ok, but in general it felt like a tremendous joy to play such a game.
It was Mikhail Tal's famous “Let it drown!” approach to chess, with Daniil elaborating:
Boris Gelfand is my good friend… He likes to repeat that basically if you sacrifice more pieces then you blunder less! … But in general I just try to play some decent opening with White and then I try not to retreat at any moment, so basically if they attack your pieces you just have to attack back, you don’t move your pieces, you do something else!
Even in this game I liked this d4-d5 move, I think it’s very stylish. It’s probably just bad, but in general this d5, I have three pieces under attack or something, his pieces are also hanging, and then I just go d5, like nothing is going on. It was a cool game to play. I actually haven’t checked it yet, so maybe it was like -5 or something.
In fact 18.d5!! is a very good move, even if the computer gives its famous 0.00 evaluation.
In the game after 18…fxe4!? 19.dxe6 Bf6? White was winning, but there were many twists ahead, with 29.Ra5? giving David Anton a chance to save the game.
29…Nc5! carries the unstoppable threat of putting the knight on e4 next move (29.Rxa6!, eliminating the knight, was the silicon recommendation), from where it controls the board. Instead Anton tried to force a draw with the sacrificial 29…d4? 30.Qxb7 Qe3+ but it turned out White had everything under control, with mate-in-4 in the final position.
That left Dubov among the five leaders, while MVL and Giri are in the drop zone and Magnus Carlsen would only scrape into the knockout stages if the tournament ended now.
It doesn’t, however, and there are still two days and 7 rounds for the players to stake their claims. Day 2 starts with a bang with Nakamura-So and Carlsen-Dubov. Daniil was asked how he feels about playing Magnus:
It’s one of the reasons why I actually like this Magnus Tour thing, because it doesn’t even matter – normally you need to do very well to play him, and then even when you play well sometimes you manage to avoid this game, and here it’s exactly the opposite. You can play like an idiot but then you still get this gift of playing Magnus. I just like to play him very much. It’s always a very tense game, I just like it - it’s always exciting to play him!
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