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Reports Dec 30, 2020 | 9:38 AMby Colin McGourty

Airthings Masters QF1: Nakamura and So beaten

Hikaru Nakamura lost to Levon Aronian and Wesley So was beaten by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave as the favourites all struggled on the first day of the Airthings Masters quarterfinals. World Champion Magnus Carlsen got off to a perfect start against Daniil Dubov as he ground out a win in the first game, but Dubov hit back to level the scores in a match he called “a gift for me”. Teimour Radjabov also came close to upsetting Ian Nepomniachtchi before all four games ended drawn. Wesley and Hikaru now need to win on demand on Wednesday.

Levon Aronian proudly wore a sweater featuring his dog Ponchik as he took the lead against Hikaru Nakamura 

You can replay all the games from the Airthings Masters knockout stage using the selector below:

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.

And from Tania Sachdev and Peter Leko.

For the best possible experience, and to support the shows, why not Go Premium here on chess24 – you can get a 40% discount with the code CCT40.

Magnus Carlsen, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So were the semi-finalists in the first event of the Champions Chess Tour, the Skilling Open, but they all got into difficulty on Day 1 of the Airthings Masters quarterfinals. 

Let’s take a look at the matches one-by-one:

Carlsen 2:2 Dubov

Norwegian World Champion Magnus Carlsen felt he was getting back into the groove on Day 3 of the Airthings Masters, which included beating Hikaru Nakamura to take top spot in the preliminary stage. He seemed to bring that form into the knockout as well, winning a pawn on move 19 and then slowly torturing his opponent Daniil Dubov in the first game of their match.

Dubov defended well, up to a point, but commented:

I think I defended reasonably, at least by my standards I think I played sort of ok, and then it was very close and then I missed a draw being down to 10 seconds, but once again he’s a very special player and he manages to create 10 times more problems for you than anybody else. I felt like I was holding decently and then it was one of his last tricks that finally worked for me.

This is the position after 61.gxf5.

The one move to draw (we know this for a fact as all chess positions with 7 pieces or less on the board have been calculated to the end by brute force) is 61…Kd3!, and Black will ultimately be in time to support his h-pawn even when the white f-pawn costs a rook. After 61…Ra2? 62.Kd5! Magnus was winning all the races and didn’t slip as he went on to take the lead.

By that point another player might not be feeling so thrilled to be facing Magnus, but Daniil’s enthusiasm is infectious.

I feel like this match is sort of a gift for me. It doesn’t even matter if I win or lose, it will be the most interesting match for me in the whole Magnus Tour for sure, so it’s sort of a Christmas gift. I just enjoy every single game. My only wish for tomorrow is for the match to last for as long as possible. If we have to play blitz it’s fine. It’s not even about the result, I just like to play the guy!

That was the kind of spirit Magnus was hoping he might extinguish in the next game.

The 2nd game was really stupid. I had a comfortable position from the opening, everything was going normal, and then he was offering me this move repetition, and I thought at that point my position should be fine, and although a draw would be a decent result for me in the match, I thought being 1-0 up and having a comfortable position with Black I might have a chance to decide the match there and then. Unfortunately I immediately made the worst move in the position!

28…Nf5 would likely have seen the game end almost immediately in a draw by 3-fold repetition, but instead Magnus played 28…c6?, confessing that he’d missed that after 29.R5c4 Rfd8 Daniil had the move 30.Bg5! when suddenly Black was in deep trouble. 

Both players agreed that objectively White was winning, and the computer evaluation here on chess24 climbed as high as a 6-pawn advantage in Dubov’s favour, but there was no simple knockout blow. It looked as though Daniil might beat Magnus in Magnus style, but it wasn’t to be!

Magnus had survived a scare, both at the virtual board and in the room he was playing from…

…but it seemed he hadn’t learned his lesson. He admitted of Game 3:

I kind of fell asleep at some point. I understood that he might have some tricks, but I didn’t consider them dangerous, and then for whatever reason I just stopped calculating and I just blundered.

Dubov’s 30…Qe4! was the trickiest move in the position.

The queen of course can’t be taken as the f3-pawn is pinned, and it looks as though Black is getting ready to grab the d4-pawn. Magnus was fine with that, and grabbed a pawn himself with 31.Qxa5?, but it turned out Daniil had bigger goals. 31…f5! suddenly left the white king defenceless against the combined forces of the black queen, rook and pawns.

Soon it was over.

Black’s winning plan is simply to exchange all the pieces on d2, when the h3-pawn will advance to h1 and become a queen.

Norwegian IM Sebastian Mihajlov has analysed that game for us.

“I think he just played his worst game of the year or something”, said Daniil, and the Russian was already dreaming of winning the first day of the quarterfinal when he got a slight edge in the 4th game, but this time Magnus steadied the ship to get a draw that leaves everything to play for on Day 2.

MVL 3:1 So

Wesley So had been imperious in the qualifying stage, unbeaten and only flexing his muscles when required, while Maxime Vachier-Lagrave needed the planets to align to qualify despite what he admitted had been some awful play on his part. As so often, however, the player who only just scrapes through at the last moment was inspired, and Maxime would go on to dominate the first day of this quarterfinal.

The first game was a complicated Berlin endgame where both players had chances, while in the second Maxime took Anish Giri’s advice from the day before and played the Najdorf Sicilian. Fantastic complications followed until Wesley blundered with 16 seconds left on his clock by playing 44.Rb1?

Maxime had just over 30 seconds himself, but quickly spotted 44…Rxg2+! 45.Kxg2 Rxg3+! and Wesley resigned, since 46.Kxg3 is met by 46…Qg6+, picking up the rook on b1 to leave Black with four extra pawns.

Wesley needed a win, but it was Maxime who had the chances with White in another Berlin to end the match early. That game was drawn, leaving Wesley in a must-win situation. In the circumstances another Najdorf was just what he needed, but by move 16 things were looking dire for White.

A curiosity is that this position had occurred in Sutovsky-Oparin from the 2014 European Championship, when current FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky needed to win in the last round to have a chance of qualifying for the World Cup. The outcome was a win for Black in both cases, though it was notable that Wesley at least did manage to evacuate his king all the way to its “correct” square on b1 before losing the game and mini-match.

Aronian 2.5:1.5 Nakamura

Hikaru Nakamura needed to come back in the Skilling Open after losing Day 1 of his quarterfinal match against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and he’s in the same situation in the 2nd event on the Champions Chess Tour, the Airthings Masters. Levon, wearing a sweater featuring his dog Ponchik, “merchandise that one day is going to cost millions,” felt he played much better than he did in the preliminary stage:

I thought my play was better today, because the last two days were horrendous, so I got angry at myself! I decided that I needed to play some solid chess and things worked out today.

The first game really was a solid draw, while in the second Levon sprung a near novelty on move 5 and seemed to be enjoying the overwhelming position he built up so much that he missed a couple of chances to break through before finally seizing the opportunity.

31.Rxg6! Qxg6 (31…Rxg6? 32.Qxh5+! will soon be mate) 32.Rxg6 Kxg6 left something approaching material equality on the board, but Levon had a huge advantage with his bishop on e5 controlling the dark squares and his queen able to manoeuvre before going in for the kill. Resistance only lasted six more moves.

The third game, where Hikaru had White, was the US star’s best chance to make a comeback, but although his knight infiltrated the black position on g6…

…it was only enough to force a draw by perpetual check with 29.Qh5 Bxb4 30.Qh8+ Kf7 31.Qh5 Nxb1 32.Nge5+! Kg8 and the queen oscillating between f7 and h5.

That meant Hikaru now had to win the final game with Black, and he went about it by playing the Norwegian Rat, a Banter Blitz favourite of the Norwegian World Champion: 1.d4 g6 2.e4 Nf6, though here Levon decided not to go for 3.e5 Nh5 but instead played the modest 3.Nc3. That witnessed a hilarious discussion with Peter Leko about what he’d do if someone played the Bong Cloud (1.e4 e5 2.Ke2!?) against him.

Levon did well out of the opening and then saw his pragmatic decision to exchange queens more than justified when he again built up an absolutely winning position. Levon was fine with just winning the mini-match, however, and took a draw which clinched 2.5:1.5 victory and left Hikaru needing to hit back on Wednesday.

Nepomniachtchi 2:2 Radjabov

All four Skilling Open semi-finalists struggled, including in this match, where Ian Nepomniachtchi was on the ropes both in the 73-move first game and the 104-move final game.

The Russian Champion held on, however, to mean the first day of the match ended with four draws. There’s everything to play for on Day 2, when we'll see two blitz games and potentially Armageddon if any of the ties end 1:1. 

You can follow all the action live here on chess24!

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