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It’s Carlsen-Sarana, Firouzja-Erigaisi, So-Mamedov and Gukesh-Nakamura on Monday in the Airthings Masters, the 1st event on the 2023 Champions Chess Tour. Gukesh starred in the gruelling 8-hour 140-player Play-In to finish 1st by a full point and then beat Vladimir Kramnik 2:0 in a match. The greatest drama came as Rauf Mamedov took down Ian Nepomniachtchi, while Alexey Sarana came back to beat Fabiano Caruana in Armageddon.
Magnus Carlsen, the 2022 Champions Chess Tour winner, and Wesley So, the 2022 Global Chess.com Champion, were the only players invited to the $235,000 Airthings Masters — a double-elimination knockout split into three divisions that runs February 6-10.
Everyone else had to battle through a gruelling 8-hour Play-In day that began with a 146-player, 9-round Swiss where all grandmasters could play.
The top 76 players would play 2-game matches, with Armageddon if needed, to decide the places in the Airthings Masters, and there was huge strength in depth.
For instance, Peter Svidler, who finished 70th on 4.5/9, played and won a match against Levon Aronian, who finished 39th on 5.5/9. Svidler now plays his great friend and 3-time World Blitz Champion Alexander Grischuk… in Division III.
The big prize, however, was to finish in the Top 12 and get to play for one of the six spots alongside Carlsen and So.
Players ranked 1-6 played a match against players ranked 7-12, with the twist that they were able to choose their opponent, starting with the Swiss winner, Gukesh. Let’s take a look at the six matches that decided the Division 1 spots.
How they qualified:
16-year-old Gukesh had the toughest of starts recently in Wijk aan Zee, losing four of his first seven games, but he scored +2 in the remaining games and carried that good form into a stunning result in the Swiss qualifier, winning six games and losing none.
Arguably his first game was the most dramatic, as he landed a sudden blow against world no. 4 Alireza Firouzja, capturing a knight on d4.
The point, as we saw in the game, was 22.Rxd4 Nc6!, forking White’s queen and rook. After 23.Qd2 Bb4! Alireza sacrificed his queen with 24.Bxf6?!, but was initially in trouble. Near the end, however, Firouzja could have won, if he’d picked the right moment to push his h-pawn.
In the games that followed Gukesh kept finding tactics at the perfect moment, while also scoring smooth wins over Sam Sevian and 14th World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik.
That was the only loss in the Swiss for 47-year-old Kramnik, who retired from classical chess in January 2019 but remains a formidable speed chess player. He proved that in December that year when he took bronze behind Carlsen and Nakamura in the World Blitz Championship.
His appearance in the Airthings Masters Play-In was last-minute and helped by the tournament needing to be restarted midway through Round 1 after technical issues.
Kramnik showed his class as he raced to four wins before scraping into the battle for Division I as the player with the best tiebreaks among the 12 on 6/9.
Gukesh, as the winner of the Swiss, had a choice of six opponents, and while choosing the player in 12th position, and one he’d already beaten, was logical, it was also quite a statement to deliberately choose a former World Champion. The young man’s confidence proved absolutely justified, however, as he smoothly won both games for the only 2:0 result in the top matches — and three wins in one day against the great Vladimir Kramnik.
Gukesh now plays Hikaru Nakamura in the first knockout match in Division I, while Kramnik takes on Salem Saleh in the 16-player Division II.
How they qualified:
Ian Nepomniachtchi, who in just over two months will play Ding Liren for the World Championship title, could afford a 2-move last-round draw against Dmitry Andreikin as he won four games and drew the rest.
Rauf Mamedov, meanwhile, got checkmated by Mitrabha Guha in Round 1, and had to hit back with five wins, including a clutch win with Black against his countryman and reigning Azerbaijan Champion Vasif Durarbayli in the final round.
Ian had won the Prelims in the 2022 Airthings Masters and lost out only to Magnus Carlsen in a final overshadowed by Russia invading Ukraine. There was an echo of those events this time round, as Rauf was playing with the Ukrainian flag he uses on his Chess.com profile — he used to live with his wife IM Nataliya Buksa in Ukraine.
It was understandable that Nepomniachtchi picked Mamedov, but it backfired, as Rauf found a sharp tactic to take over with the black pieces in Game 1. Ian managed to hold on, but then in the second game Rauf won a pawn “and the compensation” and went on to convert smoothly to pull off an upset.
Mamedov now plays Wesley So in Division I, while Nepomniachtchi faces Alan Pichot in Division II.
How they qualified:
“Where is Firouzja?” has been a familiar lament from chess fans everywhere, as arguably the world’s most exciting young chess player has been absent since he won the Grand Chess Tour last year. He did turn up this time, however, and didn’t disappoint, especially in the early action.
We saw that wild draw against Gukesh in Round 1, while in Round 2 he turned things around to checkmate Tan Zhongyi. The Chinese star deserves huge credit for playing straight after a classical game in the Munich FIDE Grand Prix — she scored 5.5/9 and ended up as the only female player to reach the main event.
That was the first of four wins in a row for Firouzja, before he eased through with four draws.
17-year-old Indian Raunak Sadhwani recently played in a controversial rapid tournament in Moscow that included Sergey Karjakin. His talent was shown by winning that event, while in the Play-In he bounced back from a loss to Nodirbek Yakubboev to win five of the next six games.
The opening went badly wrong for Sadhwani in Game 1, with Firouzja winning in just 26 moves. Then in the 2nd game the Iranian-born French grandmaster gave his opponent no chance, as he made a draw and clinched match victory.
Firouzja now plays Arjun Erigaisi in Division I, while Sadhwani plays Yu Yangyi in Division II.
How they qualified:
Dmitry Andreikin won his first three games and later picked up one more win to ease into the Top 12. Arjun Erigaisi, who had a miserable time with five losses and no wins in Wijk aan Zee, suffered one bump along the way as he lost to Gadir Guseinov, but picked up five wins.
The first game of the match also looked smooth for Dmitry, who was pressing with the white pieces, before 25.b5? ran into a huge blow.
25…Rxe5! and you can’t play 26.fxe5 due to 26…Nxe5 27.Qe2 (the computer suggests just giving up the queen on d3, but of course that won’t save the game) 27…Nf3+! and checkmate on h2 next move.
Dmitry tried to play on with 26.b6, but, without the pawn on e5, his e3 and e4-squares were just too vulnerable and Arjun went on to win smoothly. Arjun was also better in the second game, but settled for forcing the draw he needed to win the match.
Arjun, one of the breakout stars of last year’s Champions Chess Tour, now plays Firouzja in Division I, while Andreikin faces Bogdan-Daniel Deac in Division II.
How they qualified:
Fabiano Caruana looked in sparkling form as he started with four convincing wins.
After easing off with four draws he could have finished 1st in the Swiss as he was briefly beating Gukesh in a tricky ending in the final game.
Alexey Sarana, meanwhile, made just one draw in the Swiss, losing two games but winning six, including outplaying Alexander Grischuk in an endgame.
Nothing foretold the drama ahead when Caruana gave checkmate in the first game with White and then seemed to have everything under control with Black in the second.
Sarana’s 32.Bd2 wasn’t attacking the e3-rook yet, so 32…Nd4! would have been powerful, essentially forcing White to take a draw with 33.Ra8+ Kg7 34.Raf8 and perpetual check. 32…Rh3 also spoils nothing, but 32…Rf3!? 33.Rxc6! bxc6 gave White a passed b-pawn and a glimmer of hope.
There were still plenty of chances to hold, but things had spiralled out of control and ultimately a fork by the c-pawn was decisive.
That meant Armageddon, where the players bid for how little time they're willing to have to play with the black pieces and only need a draw. Caruana won, as he bid 7 minutes 50 to Sarana’s 8:20, but in hindsight you wonder if he should have taken advantage of a strange quirk of the rules — he had the option to play White with 7 minutes 50 to Black’s 10 minutes.
Instead he followed the normal approach and played Black with a time advantage, but Alexey is a phenomenal player with the white pieces. He showed that on the last day of the 2022 World Blitz Championship when he beat Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen with White in consecutive rounds, and this time he took down Caruana with a powerful pawn chain. Fabi was able to split up the pawns, but only at the cost of allowing a mating attack.
Sarana is rewarded by playing Magnus Carlsen in Division I, while Caruana takes on Diptayan Ghosh in Division II.
How they qualified:
Getting to see Hikaru Nakamura take on Magnus Carlsen is set to be one of the highlights of this year’s Champions Chess Tour now that chess24 has merged with Chess.com, but Hikaru was a whisker away from not qualifying. He knew it was going to be a tough day when he lost to Xu Xiangyu in Round 2.
He went into the final round of the Swiss against the formidable Liem Le needing a win, and got it, spotting the nice tactical shot 22.Qxd2! (picking up a knight), based on the fork that happened in the game.
Daniil Dubov also left things late, winning on demand in the final round after he spotted a fork missed by the previously high-flying Sam Sevian.
Dubov memorably defeated Nakamura in the final of the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge back in 2020 after Hikaru had knocked out Carlsen in the semi-finals, but he had no choice about this rematch. Daniil was the last to pick and, unsurprisingly, Hikaru was the one player left among those who finished 7-12th.
Dubov was pressing in the first game with White, but had to settle for a draw. Then the second game was a 14-move draw, with Hikaru explaining it was less about match strategy than frustration about having to abort a rematch after being asked to wait by the arbiters.
The Armageddon saw a dramatic bidding war, with Daniil offering just 6 minutes and 30 seconds on his clock to play Black, a minute and a half less than Nakamura’s offer of 7:59. Ultimately that would prove critical, since despite Dubov equalising the position, Hikaru applied pressure on the clock and then managed to whip up just enough complications at the end to bamboozle his opponent.
Hikaru was relieved, and everyone will be glad to have a couple of days rest before the action resumes!
Nakamura now goes through to play Gukesh, with the full Division I bracket looking as follows.
They play 4-game matches on Monday, with the enticing prospect of a Carlsen-Firouzja semi-final to follow. Note that as it’s double-elimination if you lose one match you drop down to the “Losers” bracket but still have a path to the Final. If the player from the Losers bracket wins in the final there’s one more match to decide the title.
Dubov plays Martyn Kravtsiv in Division II which, as you can see, features the likes of Nepomniachtchi, Yu Yangyi, Caruana and Kramnik.
There’s plenty to play for there, since apart from money and tour points the winner books a spot in the next event on the Tour without having to go through another Play-In day!
Join us for all three divisions (Praggnanandhaa, Keymer, Grischuk, Svidler and Maghsoodloo are among the 32 players in Division III) on Monday from 8am PT, which is 11am ET, 17:00 CET and 21:30 IST.
We’ll have the debut of the Oslo commentary team for the 2023 Champions Chess Tour (David Howell, Tania Sachdev, Robert Hess, Kaja Snare and Jovanka Houska) as well as the return of Peter Leko and Jan Gustafsson.
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