It’s Carlsen-Dubov, MVL-So, Nakamura-Aronian and Radjabov-Nepomniachtchi in the Airthings Masters quarterfinals after a nail-biting finish to the preliminary stage saw heavyweights Alexander Grischuk and Anish Giri knocked out by the finest of margins. Grischuk missed a win then lost a drawish ending to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, while Anish Giri lived to regret going all-out to beat Hikaru Nakamura. In the end a draw would have been enough for him to clinch a quarterfinal spot.
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Relive the spectacular last day of the Prelims with commentary from Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell…
…or from Tania Sachdev and Peter Leko.
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For most of the Airthings Masters Preliminary stage it had looked more or less random who would finish top, with a 6-player leading pack going into the last day’s final three rounds. In the end, however, we got the same Top 4 as in the Skilling Open, with the only difference that this time Wesley So finished 2nd, level on points but just ahead of Hikaru Nakamura on tiebreaks (since Magnus beat Hikaru). In fact the Top 7 were all the same as in the 16-player Skilling Open Prelims.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen once again found a way to win the qualifier without having hit top form, though he was happy with his final day:
I think today was more a case of I played a lot more accurately, a lot better than I did the days before. It really boosted my confidence throughout the day not to be missing so many things and blundering.
It could have been better, as Magnus was winning at one point in a 114-move rook and pawn ending against Alexander Grischuk in the first round of the day. After that marathon you could have forgiven him for making a quick draw against Hikaru Nakamura in the next game, especially when it began in a drawish line of the Berlin. On move 12 Magnus tried something new, however, and he’d soon reached the perfect ending to play for two results.
Hikaru was close to drawing, but admitted he’d already been upset at miscalculating a tactical detail before he walked into a killer pin with 50…Bd5?
After 51.Rd7! Ke6 White had 52.Rd8! and Black was completely paralysed, with Magnus able to march the a-pawn up the board and win the pawn ending whenever pieces were exchanged on d5. The game ended 52…c4 53.a6 c3 54.Rxd5 Black resigns.
Magnus was able to blitz out a draw against Ian
Nepomniachtchi in the final round and still take first place.
Hikaru, meanwhile, could shrug off that blow, since he’d had the perfect start to the day. The games were beginning at 6am from where he was playing in California, but he didn’t find that as much of a problem as you might have imagined.
I think I would say as far as Wesley and myself are concerned, we’re probably the only two chess players I can think of who are morning people for the most part, so I think that also helps us a lot in terms of having these early rounds.
The other thing that helped was that on Day 1 he got a good position and beat Grischuk in the first game of the day, on Day 2 he made a 14-move draw with So, and on Day 3 he was winning on move 14 against David Anton. Hikaru said his opponent must only have looked at 14.Nxc6, while 14.Nd6 came as a surprise.
The only move for Black, but a good one, is 14…Rc7!, when after 15.Nxc6? Rxc6 16.Bxc6 Black is better after the only move 16…Nb8! If you don’t know that trick, however, you’re in trouble, and after almost 10 minutes David played 14…Nxe5? and had a terrible position after 15.dxe5 Nd7 16.Bxc6. He only made things worse by trying to force matters further.
Hikaru went into the final round against Anish Giri in mathematical danger of being knocked out if he lost again, but he expected his score to be sufficient even in that case. Things didn't get that out of hand, since Hikaru was never in danger and went on to win.
Skilling Open winner Wesley So was the one player who continued the quick draw theme in Round 9, ending his game against Teimour Radjabov peacefully in 19 moves. A solid draw in the next round meant Wesley had made 9 draws and scored one 25-move win with the black pieces over Anish Giri in Round 3. Anish was therefore speaking from experience when he commented:
Wesley’s play in these events is so incredibly good. It’s as though you either just make a draw with him from the get-go, or if you don’t you get punished severely. So he managed to play a very good event again, and such results are inspiring… Mostly if you play it safe in too many games then you start feeling bad about yourself and playing badly eventually, but some players, in particular Wesley, and also Hikaru, they don’t feel bad at all, and if they play for a draw they make it, if they play for a win they also win. So what can you do?
Anish was also speaking in the wake of Wesley’s final game, when Daniil Dubov made the “mistake” of not playing for an early draw. 30…Qd8 and the Russian star would have been in business, but 30…Qg7? gave Wesley a chance to shine!
31.Re8!! was a winning tactic it took 2014 World Championship Challenger Peter Leko some time to spot, with 31…fxg5 running into 32.Qa8!
The blows kept coming, as after 31…Ba7 Wesley unleashed 32.Qd7! h6 (32…Qxd7 gives White a choice of mate-in-2s with 33.Rxf8+ or 33.Bxf6+) 33.Qc8! Rxe8 34.Qxe8+ Kh7 and the final touch, 35.Bxf6!
Dubov also played his part in Ian Nepomniachtchi finishing in 4th place, just as in the Skilling Open. Daniil had said after Day 1 of the Airthings Masters:
It’s always unpleasant to play Ian. As Grischuk once pointed out, you can beat him, but you can never enjoy the game!
He was referring to Nepo always applying pressure both on the clock and on the board, but if anything it seemed as though Dubov was having too much fun. He looked set to play the King’s Indian but never played e5 and ended up with knights on f6 and h6.
Sure enough, he later invited White’s pawn to come to g5 and win a piece, but at the cost of a powerful black initiative in the centre. It was threatening to be another Dubov masterpiece, with some beautiful moves.
19…Re3!? was a nice example of moving a piece from one square where it's attacked to another, and after 20.Bxe3 Bxe3+ 21.Kg2 Bc6 Black was a rook down for a couple of pawns, but with full compensation, according to the computer. The game turned, however, on move 25.
25…Qe8! and Black is again doing well, with one serious threat being to play f6 and then h5, trapping the white queen. Instead 25…Qg7?! was a little too brilliant, and after 26.Rf2 Qh8?! 27.Qh5! (stopping h5) it turned out Nepo was simply material up. He went on to wrap up the game impressively.
That still left one off-the-board question unresolved…
It would have been something of a tragedy if Dubov, who was top of the standings after Day 2, had been knocked out due to his inability or unwillingness to play solidly, while Teimour Radjabov (9 draws to finish the prelims) or Levon Aronian (8 draws and a loss to David Anton) went through. That was avoided by the narrowest of margins, however, making Daniil the only new player to reach the quarterfinals compared to the Skilling Open.
“You can play like an idiot but then you still get this gift of playing Magnus!” said Daniil earlier in the preliminaries, and now his erratic approach to qualification has given him a quarterfinal against Magnus over two days! It gets better, as Daniil is also automatically qualified for the next Champions Chess Tour event in February. That invitation goes not to the Top 8 in the event, but to the Top 8 in the tour standings, but in this case that turns out to be the same, since Dubov’s 8th place in the Airthings Masters, a Major, earns him 2 points compared to Giri’s 1 point for 8th place in the Skilling Open.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has now qualified for two tour knockouts by the very finest of margins. In the Skilling Open he needed Liem Quang Le to beat Alireza Firouzja with Black in the final game, while this time it again and again seemed it was all over for the French no. 1.
In the critical first game of the day he faced Anish Giri, and didn’t play his beloved Najdorf.
A wonderful opposite-side castling slugfest followed that was only decided when Maxime blundered on move 45.
Maxime was down to -2 and it seemed nothing but two wins would give him a chance, but instead he found himself lost with Black against Radjabov until he found a spectacular save.
54.Bxg5!! fxg5 55.Rcd5! and Teimour had nothing better than to force a draw by perpetual check after 55…Qe1 56.Rxd7 Qe5+.
A fine finish, but it seemed the end of the road for Maxime as he could now only finish on -1 even if he won his last game, and the game wasn’t going his way either. Alexander Grischuk had a chance to put Maxime out of his misery with 20.g4!
20…Be6 21.Rxd7! Bxc3 (21…Bxd7 22.Rxe5) 22.Rxe6! Bxa5 23.Rexe7 is a crisp win, but it was understandable that Alexander, needing only a 9th draw in a row to qualify, didn’t want to risk miscalculating something and went for 20.Be4 instead. The position seemed almost impossible for White to lose, but that’s just what Grischuk did. He unnecessarily allowed Maxime to get an outside passed pawn and failed to hold what was still a theoretically drawn position.
Maxime showed fantastic tenacity to claw out that vital full point and even finished a “comfortable” 7th, but he was under no illusions, describing his level of play as “terrible”.
I’ll take the gift of qualifying, but I know that I cannot afford to play like this against Wesley!
Maxime was able to qualify with a -1 score due to the losses for Dubov and Grischuk, and it also made it a bitter end for Anish Giri. The Dutch no. 1 reasonably assumed he had to beat Hikaru Nakamura with the black pieces, but in fact a draw would have been enough for him to qualify alongside Dubov (knocking out Maxime), since he’d beaten MVL and Harikrishna among the players who would have tied for 5 points.
Anish didn’t get the help he wanted in the opening…
…and his attempts to unbalance play only led to a lost position, though he came tantalisingly close to setting up a fortress and saving the game anyway. It wasn’t to be, so Anish has some more time to prepare for Wijk aan Zee or, alternatively, to promote his Najdorf series on Chessable. He recommended some emergency repairs for Maxime.
Maxime actually played it all his life. Now that finally my course is out and he can finally learn to play the Najdorf the right way, he switched to this other opening called the Classical Sicilian, which is of course much worse… If you start now, in 24 hours you’re there!
The other player to come painfully close was Harikrishna, who lost just that one game to Giri, but lost out to Dubov on the tiebreak of most wins. Dubov had two, while Hari ended as the only player not to pick up a win.
David Anton had some bright moments, especially with the white pieces, where his six draws included some very near misses, including on the final day against Nepomniachtchi. Three losses with Black meant his hopes of qualification had gone before the final round, however, even if he did end in style by picking up a first win, over Levon Aronian.
We’re all set for the quarterfinals, which start on 15:00 on Tuesday 29th December with the first 4-game mini-matches. The players then return for another match on Wednesday and, if scores are level, they switch to a blitz and Armageddon playoff.
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