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Liem Le, Levon Aronian, Vladimir Fedoseev and Vladislav Artemiev will join Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana in Division I of next month’s Chessable Masters. Among the players who narrowly missed out and will play in Division II are Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Anish Giri, Arjun Erigaisi, Nodirbek Abdusattorov and Vladimir Kramnik.
The Play-In for the Chessable Masters, the 2nd event on the 2023 Champions Chess Tour, was scheduled to start just an hour after the beginning of the final round of the European Championship. For some of the players, that was another reason to make a quick draw, though the event is in any case notorious for such a conclusion.
Both David Paravyan and Andrey Esipenko would enter the Chessable Masters qualifier, as did David Anton, while shortly afterwards Alexey Sarana made a draw that meant he tied for first place with Kirill Shevchenko — and could also join the Play-In. In fact the draw proved enough to take 1st place, with only 17-year-old Daniel Dardha joining them after Anton Korobov over-pushed.
Despite the cheques the players are holding it seems they shared €15,000 each.
The Play-In is a brutally tough tournament, however, and the players who entered it straight from the European Championship playing hall in Serbia struggled. Alexey Sarana, who qualified for Division I of the Airthings Masters, this time had to win an Armageddon game to book a place in Division III.
Others fared worse, with Andrey Esipenko, unbeaten in 11 rounds in the European event, “rage quitting” after losing a fourth game in eight rounds of the Play-In. The final loss was particularly painful, as after escaping from a lost position Esipenko blundered with 59…Qg6? (59…Kf8!) against Sergei Lobanov.
60.Qc3+! and White picked up the rook on d2.
Esipenko wasn’t alone, however, with Alireza Firouzja, Peter Svidler, Jorden van Foreest and Parham Maghsoodloo among the other players to call it a day early as results went against them.
Only four players achieved the Play-In dream — qualification for Division I of the Chessable Masters. Let’s take them in turn.
The Play-In began with a 147-player, 9-round Swiss tournament open to all grandmasters, with only the top eight players getting to play a match for a place in Division I. The top scorer was 2013 World Blitz Champion Liem Le, who could afford to end with two draws after a blistering 6.5/7 start.
He picked up a big point against Alireza Firouzja in Round 4, at a time when both players were still on a perfect score. 43.Kb5 trapped the black rook.
After 43…Nxe5 it was still possible to blunder with 44.Nxe5? Ra5+!, but after simply 44.Kxa6! it was a trivial win for White.
The other big top of the table clash Liem won was against Vladimir Fedoseev, whose 46…Rc7? lost on the spot.
47.Rxf6! and Fedoseev resigned, since 47…Kxf6 48.Ne8+ leaves White a piece up.
As the top finisher in the Swiss, Liem Le got to pick one of four opponents for a match, and chose Maksim Chigaev, who was the top performing player to come from the European Championship into the Play-In… but he'd actually quit the European Championship two rounds early! He lost only to Firouzja in the Swiss, and won a remarkable time scramble against Gukesh.
34…Rc6! defends everything and prepares to capture on e6, when Black may get winning chances. Instead Gukesh played 34…Qxe6??, stumbling into mate-in-1 with 35.Qb5#
At first Liem's choice of opponent looked completely justified, since he scored a crushing win in the first game, offering a knight sacrifice on f5 before forcing resignation by again offering the knight, this time on e6.
Maksim hit back in the second game, however, to force Armageddon, and, playing with the white pieces, he had an advantage until 30.Kh1? ran into 30…Qh6!, with crude but unstoppable threats down the h-file.
Play continued 31.R1e2 Rxh3+! 32.Kg1 Rh8! and Liem didn’t put a foot wrong as he cruised to victory.
If anyone was in better form in the Swiss than Liem it was Levon Aronian who, apart from scraping a draw in the first round against 18-year-old IM Rudik Makarian, was almost flawless as he picked up five wins.
In fact even in the final position against Liem Le he was a piece up, but given his comfortable tournament situation he settled for a draw by repetition.
For the match he picked 17-year-old Denis Lazavik from Belarus, who had scraped into the Top 8 after draws in Rounds 5-8 before a last-round win against Jose Martinez. Denis was unbeaten, but that ended when he played 49…Ne5? against Levon.
50.Qd8+! Kh7 51.g5! and out of nowhere Black was in dire straits. You can’t take on g5 as Nxg5+ will fork the black king and queen, but then the threat is g6+. There was nothing better than 51…Qf5 52.g6+ Nxg6 and Levon went on to convert his extra piece.
He then held a relatively comfortable 64-move draw in the 2nd game to secure his Division I spot.
Vladimir Fedoseev raced to 5.5/6, and although he then committed the blunder we already saw against Liem Le, he bounced back to beat Sam Sevian in the next game.
That was a strange game, since when it finished Sevian still had more than the 10 minutes he started with! He’d clearly mixed something up in the opening, and failed to spot how soon the situation had become critical. By the end he was simply losing one of his bishops.
Fedoseev then had a tough choice between selecting 2021 World Rapid Champion Nodirbek Abdusattorov or 2021 World Blitz Champion Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
He picked Abdusattorov and it paid off, since 23…Nd5? was a very uncharacteristic blunder by the 18-year-old.
24.Nxg5 Qxg5 25.Bxd5 was simply a free piece. Nodirbek then had to win the second game on demand, but instead he overpushed and lost again.
Vladislav Artemiev made a 2-move draw in the final round, but while 6.5/9 wasn’t a safe score (five players on 6.5/9 missed out on the Top 8), given the strength of opposition he'd played he correctly assessed that he would be fine.
The game that put him over the line was against Wei Yi, when 46.Bb4? was losing on the spot for the Chinese star.
Artemiev pounced with 46…Qa7+! 47.Kh1 Qa1+ and you can only give up pieces to delay checkmate.
Artemiev had no choice and faced the unbeaten Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the match, with it seeming to be advantage MVL after Artemiev couldn’t convert an extra pawn and made a 72-move draw with the white pieces.
The second game, however, was brilliant from Vladislav, with 36…Nd3! suddenly winning.
Artemiev went on to play perfectly to wrap up victory.
That means that Division I of the Chessable Masters, from April 3-7, will feature Carlsen, Nakamura, So, Caruana, Le, Aronian, Fedoseev and Artemiev.
The players who lost the above matches qualified for Division II, with Nodirbek Abdusattorov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave joined in that 16-player event by such chess monsters as Anish Giri, Daniil Dubov, Yu Yangyi and Vladimir Kramnik.
Kramnik’s Division I chances were dealt a heavy blow when he lost a dramatic game to Vincent Keymer in the penultimate round.
Vincent was unlucky to miss out on a chance to play for Division I by the smallest of margins, since in the final round he was possibly even winning the pawn endgame in the final position against Nodirbek Abdusattorov.
Keymer won a match against Salem Saleh to secure a Division II spot, while Kramnik did the same while getting revenge for losing three games to Gukesh in the first Play-In. This time Vladimir won their mini-match 1.5:0.5, though it seems with help from a disconnect in Game 2.
Another player who stands out in Division II is 54-year-old Alexey Dreev, who managed to beat 22-year-old Sam Sevian in Armageddon. Sam had been winning a game he only needed to draw, until 31…h4? overlooked a crucial tactical detail.
Black would be winning if not for 32.Rh3!, which turns the tables. Black still had tricky ways to survive, but not 32…g3?, which ran into more blows: 33.Rgxg3! Qh6 34.Rxh4!
Now there was nothing better than 34…Qxh4 35.Rg7+! Kxg7 36.Bxh4, when Dreev went on to convert his material advantage, albeit far from smoothly.
Sam Sevian therefore plays in the 32-player Division III — which he won for the Airthings Masters — and is joined by Gukesh and other stars such as Alexey Sarana, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Wei Yi and Gata Kamsky.
Sadly no female players qualified for the Chessable Masters, though Alexandra Kosteniuk came very close.
The players now have three weeks to get ready for the main event, with the $235,000 Chessable Masters running April 3-7 — a warm-up for the Ding Liren vs. Ian Nepomniachtchi World Championship match which starts two days later.
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