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Reports Feb 26, 2023 | 10:23 AMby Colin McGourty

Aronian beats Nepo and Gukesh to win WR Chess Masters

Levon Aronian has won the inaugural WR Chess Masters after dominating a playoff against Ian Nepomniachtchi and Gukesh. Levon had earlier made a quick draw against Gukesh in their classical game and then watched as Nepomniachtchi ground out an 82-move win on demand against Vincent Keymer to join them in the playoff. Aronian wins €40,000, while Gukesh and Nepo shared €20,000 each.

Levon Aronian with the WR Chess Masters trophy | photo: Lennart Ootes

The final day of the WR Chess Masters in Dusseldorf became a 9-hour marathon.

Nepomniachtchi wins on demand to reach playoff

Going into the final round of classical games all eyes were on the clash of the co-leaders, Aronian-Gukesh, where a winner would take home the €40,000 top prize.

Levon Aronian decided to head straight for a playoff | photo: Lennart Ootes

Levon Aronian had said after his Round 7 debacle against Ian Nepomniachtchi that the problem had been he came into the game without a clear game plan and had failed either to push hard for a win or to force a draw.

This time he knew exactly what he wanted to do, and headed straight for a well-known draw, taking no more than 25 seconds on any of his 18 moves. Gukesh did take one long think, but decided against playing inferior moves to try and keep the game alive.

That left Ian Nepomniachtchi with the clear goal of needing to beat Vincent Keymer on demand with the black pieces to join Aronian and Gukesh in a playoff for 1st place. That’s just what he did, while the other games, which had no significance for the fight for first, all fizzled out into unremarkable draws.

In hindsight, Vincent would no doubt have done things differently, for instance on move 25.

The 18-year-old German star could here have gone for mass exchanges, swapping off rooks on e8 and his bishop for the black knight on d5, and the remaining position looks very drawish.

Ian Nepomniachtchi ensured he'll go into the World Championship match on a high | photo: Lennart Ootes

Vincent was in the mood to play chess, however, and with 25.Nh2!? began to manoeuvre his knight towards e3. Objectively, there was little wrong with the move, and for the next 34 moves the position stayed roughly equal, but Ian got the chance to keep the game alive and up the pressure, particularly on the clock. Vincent finally stumbled with 59.a5?, which essentially cost him the game.

The a-pawn is White’s trump, and the h4-pawn is in any case doomed, but 59.Qb4! (59.Nd8! is the other trickier option) would have kept an eye on the critical d4-pawn and e1-square, as well as preparing Qe7+ in case the knight moves.

After the move in the game Nepo quickly played 59…Qxh4+ 60.Kg1 Qe1+ 61.Kh2 g5! and White was doomed.

The threat of the g-pawn advancing is clear, but in fact the move is more about preparing Nh6 while giving the king an escape square on g6 from Qc7+. After e.g. 62.a6 Nh6! 63.Qc7+ (the only way to delay checkmate) 63…Kg6 White is forced to give up his queen for the knight that comes to g4, for instance with 64.Qc8 Ng4+ 65.Qxg4.

Vincent played 62.Qc7 to pin the knight, but 62…Qh4+ was now winning the undefended d4-pawn, and the rest, with Nepo advancing his g-pawn, was agony for Keymer. At one point Ian “missed” mate-in-6, but his final move was as beautiful as it was brutal. Vincent finally resigned.

That meant Ian Nepomniachtchi’s World Championship warmup, that got off to a very slow start, had been a success, as he scored an unbeaten +2 to tie with Aronian and Gukesh for 1st place. (You can click any result in the table below to open that game, or hover over a player's name to see all their results.)

As you can see, we ended up with a remarkable final score table. Wesley So stands alone in 4th place on 50% (earning €10,000), while for the remaining six players there’s a choice between describing them as in joint 5th, or joint last, place. The former is perhaps fairer, since no-one collapsed, with all six players losing just one more game than they won. They each earned €6,666.67.

Aronian triumphs in playoff

A 3-way tie for first place meant that we would get a double round-robin, where each player faced each opponent twice. The time control was rapid, with 10 minutes and a 2-second increment per move, which meant that six rounds of action could go on long into the night. Levon Aronian, who was exactly where he’d intended to be at the start of the day, ensured things were wrapped up sooner.

Levon Aronian would ultimately score 2.5/3 against Gukesh on the final day | photo: Lennart Ootes

Levon faced Gukesh in the first game and, in what seemed like a quiet opening, he spotted 23.Qa3!, a double attack on the pawn on a5 and an undefended knight on e7. He didn’t hesitate to grab the pawn.

24…h5! 25.Qd2 h4! was a healthy response from Gukesh, but no attack on the white king materialised, while Levon used all his mastery to convert his advantage.

Things would only get better for Aronian in the next game, where, with the black pieces, he overcame a no doubt exhausted Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Aronian's win over Nepomniachtchi made him a huge favourite to take the 1st prize | photo: Lennart Ootes

It was a sharp game with opposite-side castling, but Levon found a way to make it that his opponent was risking much more, by evacuating his king from the danger zone.

He then went on the attack with the visually appealing 28…e4!?

What followed was at times murky, but when Nepomniachtchi got too ambitious Aronian was again able to take over, with his queen’s arrival on b3 convincing Ian that it was time to throw in the towel.

With Levon on 2/2 the next game between Gukesh and Nepomniachtchi was close to a must-win clash to decide who would still be able to compete for victory in the playoff. Instead the logical outcome would have been a draw, until Nepo pushed too hard.

55…Nf6? (55…Nc5+, 55…b5 or 55…Rh3+ all work) 56.Nxc6! and White was suddenly winning, though after 56…b5 57.Rg6? (57.Nb8+! first) Nepo had one more chance to play 57…Rh3+! Instead after 57…Nxh7? 58.Nd8+ Ka7 59.axb5 the new white passed pawn was just too strong, with 62.Ra6+! a crisp final move.

The pawn can’t be stopped from queening, so Ian resigned and with 0/2 was out of the race.

Ian Nepomniachtchi and Levon Aronian both had a lot to be happy about | photo: Lennart Ootes

That meant Levon Aronian could wrap things up if he won the next game with the black pieces against Gukesh. He was clearly gunning for that outcome when he went for a risky, pawn-grabbing opening.

Initially it went perfectly for Levon, but then Gukesh took over and had a 2-pawn advantage. It was never easy, however, and Levon gradually fought back, won an exchange, and had a position where he was running almost no risk of losing. In fact, Levon ultimately managed to win an epic final game in 92 moves.

Levon said afterwards:

I want to say that I’m very, very happy that today I played well in the rapid section, in tiebreaks.

That was uncharacteristically modest from Aronian, since he’d dominated the tournament almost from start to finish, winning three of his first six games and only complicating his task with the unfortunate loss to Ian Nepomniachtchi after a mistaken claim for a draw by 3-fold repetition.

After a solid Tata Steel Masters we saw glimpses of the real Aronian in Dusseldorf | photo: Lennart Ootes

16-year-old Gukesh fully completed the recovery he’d already begun after a poor start in Wijk aan Zee, and ends the tournament as world no. 20 on the live rating list, just a couple of points behind 18-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov, who couldn’t quite continue the momentum from the Tata Steel Masters.

For Ian Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, the full focus will be on his upcoming World Championship match in Astana, Kazakhstan against Ding Liren. There are just 42 days to go before that begins on April 9th. 

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