Reports Feb 28, 2019 | 12:44 PMby Colin McGourty

Kaido Külaots defies the odds to win Aeroflot Open

Vladimir Kramnik recently announced his retirement at the age of 43, but today Kaido Külaots celebrates his 43rd birthday after winning the 2019 Aeroflot Open and qualifying for his first ever classical supertournament – the Sparkassen Chess Meeting in Dortmund later this year. No-one could have predicted victory for the 2542-rated 62nd seed, but it was a richly deserved triumph after the 8-time Estonian Champion beat young stars Maghsoodloo, Firouzja, Dubov and Wei Yi with the black pieces. 18-year-old Haik Martirosyan took second on tiebreaks, with Krishnan Sasikiran third.

Kaido Külaots with the Aeroflot Open trophy | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

The top tournament of the Aeroflot Open is famously tough, and the 17th edition was no exception. It featured six 2700 players, 33 2600 players and a host of ferociously talented youngsters. Kaido Külaots’ current rating of 2542 is in fact slightly below the default 2550 cut-off point for participants, making his victory one of the great acts of chess giant-killing in recent years. It drew the attention of a certain Magnus Carlsen, who also knows a thing or two about exceeding expectations:

You can replay the games from the 2019 Aeroflot Open below:

In this case, however, that’s not quite all the games, since the tournament got off to an extraordinary start when the Cosmos Hotel venue was caught up in bomb threats against a number of Moscow buildings. The players were forced out onto the street, in the February snow, and it turned out there was no chance to finish the round. A decision was taken to play Round 1 from move 1 with the same pairings on the following day, speed up the time control slightly (to the standard FIDE classical control) and play Rounds 4 and 5 on the same day.

The players outside the massive Cosmos Hotel and statue of Charles de Gaulle | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation 

The players had different approaches to trying to keep warm | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

World Rapid Champion Daniil Dubov was among those who had burned some opening preparation | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation 

That may have been the sliver of luck Kaido needed to set him on course for a career-best performance, since as he told Eteri Kublashivili afterwards, his game against World Junior Champion Parham Maghsoodloo hadn’t been going so well:

That happened right on time, because my position wasn’t up to much at that point.

In the replayed game Kaido stayed true to the Najdorf Sicilian, Maghsoodloo was the first to deviate and the Estonian broke through in style:

21…e4!? 22.Bxe4 b4!? 23.a4 Bxa4 24.Nd4?! b3! 25.cxb3? (25.c3!) 25...Bxb3 and White’s position was already objectively beyond repair. The final move, when both players were down to a couple of minutes, was sweet:

36…Ra3+! and Black’s queen will deliver mate on a1 or b1 next move.

From there on there was no looking back:

Kaido commented on his tournament:

It’s a shock - for everyone, myself included! If before the tournament someone had told me that I’d win four games with Black I wouldn’t have believed it. I liked my games in the Sicilian Defence – the first game against the young Iranian Parham Maghsoodloo, the World Junior Champion, and the third, against another young Iranian, Alireza Firouzja. Of course the last game was very important and it didn’t go badly.

Külaots was winning against Firouzja by move 16 and got to take advantage of the ambition of Daniil Dubov and Wei Yi, who both overpressed after spoiling good positions. Wei Yi rejected a draw by repetition in their game, but at the time it was perfectly understandable – the Chinese star was the tournament’s top seed, had a seemingly risk-free position and was in sparkling form. In Round 2 against Alexandr Fier he’d calculated in advance that he could go for a queen sacrifice:

27.cxd5!! Although the computer still gives 0.00 Black suddenly faced huge practical difficulties, with the Brazilian spending 17 minutes on 27…Rxe5, then meeting 28.fxe5 with 28…Bxd5 after 12 minutes, and then finally stumbling with 29…c4?, played after what must have been an agonising 33 minutes (29…Rxa2!! seems to hold the balance, but good luck finding moves like 30.Bxd5 Rxd2+ 31.Bxd2 Nf6!!).

We got glimpses of Wei Yi back to his best | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

Wei Yi picked up a couple of wins in the Grünfeld before dazzling again in the final round against Daniil Yuffa. He’d seen one move further at the end, spotting that 28.Qh4+ Bf6 wasn’t the end of the variation:

29.Re1+! Kd6 30.c5+! Nxc5 31.Qf4+!! was blitzed out by Wei Yi, and even if he blitzed out one move too many after that (31…Kd7 32.Bf5+?! wasn’t the killer line that 32.Qf5+! would have been) his opponent was once again left bamboozled by the tactics, with the Chinese player getting to end with another queen sacrifice.

The one rollercoaster game for Kaido came against Maksim Chigaev in Round 6:

30.Rxg7+! Kh8 (of course 30…Kxg7 31.Nxf5+ is an easy win) 31.Nxf5 was the path to victory. Changing the move order with 30.Nxf5? was almost disastrous, as after 30...Nxf4+ 31.Kf3? Qh5+ 32.Rg4 Kaido would have been losing after 32…Ne2!, but he was back on top again after 32…Ne6? He could still have won the game, but a draw was a fair result.

Otherwise it was smooth sailing as Külaots entered the last round tied for the lead with Haik Martirosyan and Krishnan Sasikiran. As the first tiebreak was the most games played with Black, and he’d played 5 to their 4, the odds were in his favour, but…

Before the game I understood that I had to play for a win, because three players, myself included, had 6/8. In case of three draws I’d be the winner due to my better tiebreak, but I couldn’t be confident of such an outcome. It was immediately obvious that my opponent, Denis Khismatullin, was also playing strictly for a win, since a draw didn’t suit him. Therefore we got a battle right from the start.

Kaido was almost unstoppable with the black pieces | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

On move 28 Khismatullin went for a correct combination:

28…Rxe2! 29.Rxe2 Qa1+ 30.Kh2 f3+ though 31.d6! was a saving resource for White:

31…Bxd6? 32.Rxd6! wins on the spot for White, while after 31…fxe2 32.dxc7 Qe5+?! (32…fxe2! seems to force White to take a draw by perpetual check) 33.f4! Kaido was soon one and then two pawns up in a queen ending. That can be far from trivial…

…and Khismatullin missed a good drawing chance as late as move 71, but in the end Kaido broke through to claim the biggest win of his career.

The victory won him 18,000 euro, but also a coveted spot in the Dortmund supertournament that will take place from 13-21 July this year. What is he expecting there?

I’ve never played a classical supertournament, so it’s hard to talk about expectations. I hope I can play as I did here, and then everything will be good.

That final round victory was required, since 18-year-old Armenian Haik Martirosyan beat compatriot Tigran Petrosian, ending with a beautiful final move:

Black gives mate after 47…gxh3 Qf3+ 48.Kh2 Qxh3+ 49.Kg1 c1=Q+. That meant Haik matched Kaido’s 7/9, also winning in rounds 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9, but with the colours of each game reversed!

As Haik had played fewer games with Black he had to settle for the 10,000 euro second prize, while third place was taken by Krishnan Sasikiran. An extraordinary statistic from this year’s Aeroflot Open A Group is that there were more Indian players than Russians (25 to 23), and a few of them are potential World Champions:

They were led by Sasikiran, who took a one-point lead as early as Round 4 and continued to lead until the final round. 

As you can see, he was let down by a loss to Martirosyan, a repeat of the result that saw Armenia beat India in the 2018 Olympiad in Batumi.

Sasikiran and Wang Hao drew quickly on top board, switching the focus to Martirosyan and Külaots | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

The final standings at the top looked as follows:

Rk.SNoNameTypFEDRtgPts. TB1  TB2 
162GMKulaots Kaido25427,052647
228GMMartirosyan Haik M.26167,042563
311GMSasikiran Krishnan26786,542607
43GMWang Hao27146,052600
51GMWei Yi27336,042589
630GMChigaev Maksim26136,042586
77GMInarkiev Ernesto26926,042580
821GMSarana Alexey26306,042573
915GMAnton Guijarro David26426,042557
1043GMTabatabaei M.AminU1825905,552613
119GMKorobov Anton26875,552585
1247GMVaibhav Suri25755,552577
1313GMSjugirov Sanan26635,552558
1423GMParavyan David26275,552536
60GMHakobyan AramU1825455,552536
1625GMKhismatullin Denis26215,552526
1735GMDeac Bogdan-DanielU1826035,542647
1832GMLupulescu Constantin26105,542640
1961IMSychev Klementy25455,542609
2029GMZhou Jianchao26155,542601
2141GMPetrosian Tigran L.25955,542597
2312GMMaghsoodloo Parham26665,542562
2450IMYakubboev NodirbekU1825695,542558

The traditional Aeroflot Open blitz tournament is taking place on 28th February, with stars such as Sergey Karjakin, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Vladislav Artemiev making an appearance, but as usual the games aren’t being broadcast live – you can check out the results here, while Sergey Shipov is also commentating in Russian.

The next big chess event will be Rounds 9-11 of the Chess Bundesliga, taking place in one central location in Berlin this weekend, while there are more top events to come in March. Check out our 2019 Chess Calendar for more details.  

See also:

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