Daniil Dubov sensationally knocked World Champion Magnus Carlsen out of the Airthings Masters to reach the semi-finals, but that was just the headline result on a day when all four of the players who reached the Skilling Open semi-finals were knocked out. Levon Aronian needed just two games to dispatch Hikaru Nakamura, while the remaining matches went to Armageddon. MVL beat tour leader Wesley So while Teimour Radjabov overcame Ian Nepomniachtchi.
You can replay all the games from the Airthings Masters knockout matches using the selector below.
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Tania Sachdev, Peter Leko and Vidit Gujrathi.
And from Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.
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Before the day began you wouldn’t have expected the matches involving the online chess kings Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura to be the first to finish, or at least not with the outcome we got, but that’s just what happened.
Let’s take the matches one at a time.
24-year-old Russian star Daniil Dubov has made absolutely no secret of how much playing Magnus Carlsen means to him, and after he’d taken down the World Chess Champion he commented:
I was much more interested in this match than in winning the whole thing. I think I tend to overestimate these things, but I think indeed if you remember after winning this Lindores Abbey I told you that the one who beats Magnus [in Lindores it was Nakamura] gets all the respect, so I still think so, actually. This means much more for me than winning the whole Lindores Abbey thing.
Dubov has become the most uncompromising player near the top of world chess, and by move 16 he was offering a piece sacrifice.
White seems to be doing at least fine after 16…g5!?, and Carlsen’s 16…c5! was the best move in the position, but what makes Dubov such a terrifying opponent is the sheer quantity of chess life or death decisions he forces his opponent to make. After 17.Nf5 cxd4 18.Nc6 Qd7 19.Bh3! it was again critical.
The computer points out the queen sacrifice 19…Bxc6!!? 20.Nxh6+ may be Black’s strongest option, while there was rough equality after 19…Qxc6, which seems the sane choice. Instead Magnus got his king away from the Nxh6+ idea with 19…Kh8?, but after 20.Ne5! he was forced to give up the exchange with 20…Rxe5 (20...Qe6 21.Nxh6! Qxh3 22.Nexf7# would have been a funny mate!).
That should have been game over, but as we saw in the 2nd game of the first day, Magnus is hugely tenacious in defence and conversion of winning positions is not necessarily Daniil’s strong point. Magnus fought all the way back to equality and could even dream of winning, but with 30 seconds on his clock he misplayed a very tricky defence and allowed a beautiful finish.
Daniil has to move his queen? No! He calmly played 41.Rxb7!, removing the pin on the f3-pawn, so 41…Bxf2 runs into 42.f4+ Kf6 43.Rbf7# Magnus tried to stop the f-pawn with the desperate 41…Rf8 but after 42.Qxe3+ he resigned with mate next move. A stunning finale that left Magnus playing catch-up.
Magnus didn’t crumble, however, and came very close to levelling the score in the next game, which was almost a carbon copy of the win he ground out in the first game of their match the day before. This time, however, Daniil escaped from an ending a pawn down.
“If I win or lose I’m not going to miss my chance to play a very interesting game against Magnus,” said Dubov afterwards, and no-one was surprised to see him come out all guns blazing again in the third game, even though in terms of the match situation a draw would have been very good for him.
Dubov pushed his h-pawn to h5, developed his rook to h4, manually “castled” with 15.Kf1 and 16.Kg1… and still managed to build up a dangerous advantage. Even as Magnus began to stabilise you could feel the pressure he was under.
Dubov didn’t find the subtle 22.Qb1!, and after 22.Qc2 c3! Magnus seized the initiative, before his day was suddenly looking up after 27.Nc5?
If anyone else played this you’d assume it was just a
blunder, and after 27…Rxc5 28.dxc5 Nxg4 Black was indeed winning, but after 29.c6 Qxc6 (29…Qb6! is a significant
improvement, according to the computer, if you dare to leave the pawn alive) 30.Rxc3 it was clear that the king on
e8 was in genuine danger.
The whole game and match turned on move 34.
“Maybe I’m lost after Rd6, but I felt like it’s very dangerous for him,” said Dubov. The way for Black to win was to boldly play a move like 34…Qa5!, when the threat of Qe1+, Qxf2+ and mate on h2 proves sufficient to deny White the time for a mating attack.
Magnus burned up 1 minute and 39 seconds, letting his clock tick down to 38 seconds, and perhaps in that time he was haunted by the memory of Game 3 the day before, when he’d taken his queen away from the main action only to see his king come under an irresistible attack. In any case, he eventually played 34…Qe7?, keeping his queen next to his king, but after 35.Qd4+! he was suddenly lost. After the only move 35…Kg5 the quiet 36.f3! was the killer (36.f4+? would allow 36…Kxh5 and Black wins, but after 36.f3 mate is threatened with Qg4).
With the queen on a5, Qe1+ would save the day, but now there was nothing better than 36…f5 (unless you count 36…Qxd6 and a desperate attempt to set up a fortress) 37.fxg4 Rc8 38.Qf4+ Kf6…
…and here Magnus allowed the beautiful mate 39.Qxf5# (the e6-pawn is pinned by the rook) to end the game!
Dubov explained afterwards:
I just know that Magnus is human, so basically if a human blunders something being down to 30 seconds under some random attack, it happens! People will probably say, it’s unbelievable luck and so on, and blablabla, but basically facing such an attack sometimes you will blunder. It happens. He was just unlucky to blunder at the most important point, but once again it happens… I’m not exactly shocked by this. It’s obviously luck, but it’s not a miracle!
In his 30s, Magnus has lost to Wesley So in the Skilling Open final, then Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the Speed Chess semi-final and now Daniil Dubov in the Airthings Masters quarterfinals, which by his exalted standards is well below par. He didn’t hold back with the self-criticism…
…but he also had no problem with his friend and second Dubov celebrating!
That loss by the World Champion potentially opened up the tournament to the other favourites, if only they hadn’t all lost as well!
Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour finalist Hikaru Nakamura came into the second day of his match against Levon Aronian needing to win in the first four games to force a playoff, just as he’d managed in the Skilling Open quarterfinals against MVL. This time, however, it went wrong early on, as in an offbeat opening – the players were in uncharted territory by move 7 – Levon managed to exchange off queens into a position where he had total domination:
20…e5 was Hikaru’s only reasonable attempt at defending his pawns, and 21.Nxc6? Rec8! would be a mistake, but after 21.Nf5! there was no stopping the knight coming to d6, while the f4 and c4 pawn breaks simply emphasised the weakness of Black’s position. There was no way back.
Hikaru would now need to win two of the next three games, but Levon felt his opponent was already broken:
I think after the 1st game, where I managed to get a good position early on and convert it, it was difficult for Hikaru, more or less mentally. He kind of collapsed in the second game.
The collapse came when Hikaru spent 18 seconds on 25.a5? only to get hit by 25…Ng4+!, after which White was lost.
Levon went on to win the second game and, since even two wins for Hikaru would now mean only a draw in the second mini-match, he was out. It was a shocking way for the world blitz no. 1 to leave the tournament, though the day hadn’t been all bad.
Levon marches on, and put his success down to a relaxed attitude:
I’m trying to take it easier. I’m understanding this is the last tournament of the year, so I just want to enjoy it, so I’m enjoying it a lot.
What are his New Year’s Resolutions? He says he tells his friends, “I wish them all to have a boring, uneventful year!”
The remaining two matches went all the way to Armageddon and were so jam-packed with incident that we can only scratch the surface.
Hikaru’s US colleague Wesley So did a much better job of mounting a comeback, winning a pawn early on against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s Grünfeld Defence and then going on to convert, though not without some adventures.
Wesley then only needed to draw the next three games, which he did, though taking a 9-move draw with White in Game 3 almost backfired in bizarre circumstances in Game 4.
With White’s attack stymied, Wesley was simply two pawns up with an overwhelming advantage, but he almost went on to lose this game! It started with 39…Re6? 40.Rxe6 Qxe6 41.Qxg5! and suddenly Black’s advantage had gone. Winning the ending and the match still looked a mission impossible for Maxime, but at one point objectively he did have a win before it ended in a 104-move draw. He might have lived to regret that if the playoff hadn’t gone his way.
There was a stumble or two along the way in the first blitz game, but Maxime managed to topple Wesley’s Berlin Wall and regain the lead in the match.
It’s been observed before that while Wesley is usually happy to make draws, when he needs to win he tends to manage that as well, and he hit back with a flowing attack in the next game to level the scores. Here’s one nice moment:
Taking the exchange immediately with 24.Nxf5 isn’t so clear, but Wesley went for the zwischenzug or inbetween move 24.Qh3!, threatening mate on h7 (the f5-rook can’t move as it’s pinned to the queen on d7), and after 24…f6 25.Nxf5 Wesley finished off in style.
After winning that game with the white pieces, Wesley chose White in the Armageddon (it was his choice after finishing higher in the preliminary stage), but Maxime switched to a more solid defence and, despite coming under serious pressure, managed to hold on to get the draw he needed to reach the semi-finals.
The Skilling Open winner and Tour leader was out, while Maxime marches on. The French no. 1 was asked about 2020 having been a great year for him, considering he’s currently leading the Candidates Tournament:
In a way, yes, but I don’t think it’s been a great year overall. Chesswise I would have hoped to be able to play more over-the-board, and clearly this couldn’t happen, but I’m looking forward to next year and resuming over-the-board events immensely!
This match capped a crazy day of action in the Airthings Masters.
It started with a bang, as Ian Nepomniachtchi played 18…Qb7??, putting his queen on almost the worst possible square, since after 19.Qe4! it was now impossible to play 19…Nf6 since the queen on b7 would be lost.
Nepo missed great chances to come back straightaway in the next game, then was held to a quiet draw in Game 3, meaning that all Radjabov needed was a draw in the final rapid game to clinch the match. What did he do? He played his old love, the hyper-aggressive King’s Indian Defence, much to the delight of chess fans who included Egyptian GM Bassem Amin.
The position that arose was the dream of any KID player, but also visually striking. Both of our main English commentary teams thought of children, or children’s TV!
This was in fact a critical position, since Teimour could have crowned a fine game with 30…Nxg4! After almost two minutes’ thought, however, he decided not to force matters and play 30…Bg7, but Nepo now seized the chance to play 31.Bxf4! The wonderful clamp Black had on the position crumbled and Ian, with some help from his opponent, found a way to win the game and take the match to a playoff.
This time it was Nepo who struck first, though Teimour could have drawn first blood.
27.Bxh7+! is a very familiar sacrifice, but has the unusual point that it’s really just clearing the e4-square to meet 27…Kxh7 with 28.Re4!, gaining a decisive material advantage. Teimour had a couple of chances to spot that idea, but in the end Black took over until Ian finished with a mating attack.
The Russian no. 1 and world no. 4 therefore only needed a
draw with White to reach the semi-finals, but Teimour met 1.e4 with 1…b6!? and got
the perfect fighting position before unleashing the stunning 21…Be3!!
Black’s main threat is Rxg2+, winning the queen on h5, and although Ian tried to complicate matters with 22.d7+ Nxd7 23.Ng4 Teimour went on to win an impressive game after 23…Bxf2+!.
After two blitz wins for Black in a row it was perhaps a surprising decision for Nepo to pick White for the Armageddon, and in fact Teimour was on top for most of a wild game. He could have won with a real brilliancy.
It turns out that after 32…Qh8!! here White is defenceless against the threat of Rh7 and giving mate on h1 or thereabouts, but after 32…Bf7 Teimour got the draw he needed, with the game and match ending on move 68. Nepo wasn't hiding his frustration.
It had been stunning entertainment, though Ian almost quoted the Gladiator.
He elaborated later...
Everyone working on the tour events sympathises with Ian’s desire for at least one rest day, though the current schedule was partly designed to meet TV requirements.
For the semi-finalists there’s no break, as the matches now begin on New Year’s Eve and will be finished on New Year’s Day.
MVL-Aronian is a classic match-up. Levon beat Maxime in Armageddon in the semi-final of the 2017 World Cup, while Maxime got revenge by winning their 2019 World Cup quarterfinal. Most recently Maxime beat Levon in the Speed Chess quarterfinals, and he commented:
I know all these guys, Levon especially well, we’ve played a lot of very important matches together, and that will be one more episode in our story. I appreciate Levon very much as a person, but we’re used to these brotherly fights and this is going to be one of them!
Teimour Radjabov beat Maxime on the way to winning that 2019 World Cup and is a knockout specialist, but Daniil Dubov, for all his talk of not caring too much about what happens next, is likely to come prepared with some more bombs to explode.
Happy New Year, and don't forget to follow all the semi-final action live here on chess24!
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