Reports Aug 15, 2021 | 9:38 PMby Colin McGourty

Keymer wins Kramnik Challenge in last-day thriller

16-year-old German chess prodigy Vincent Keymer has qualified to play on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour after a nerve-wracking final day of the Kramnik Challenge, the 3rd event on the $100,000 Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour. He won a brilliant game in the penultimate round to overtake his main rival Awonder Liang, and then got the draw he needed in the final round only after twice coming back from the dead against Dinara Saduakassova. 

You can replay all the games from the Kramnik Challenge using the selector below. 

And here’s the final day’s live commentary from Jesse February and Surya Ganguly, including a long interview with winner Vincent Keymer at the end. 

Round 13: A two-horse race?

Going into the last day of the Kramnik Challenge there were four players in with a chance of the title, but when Nodirbek Abdusattorov and Christopher Yoo only managed to scrape draws in Round 13, against Dinara Saduakassova and Marc Maurizzi, it left them with a mountain to climb.

Vincent Keymer got off to the most confident start, smoothly outplaying Leon Mendonca, with Surya Ganguly waxing lyrical about the way Vincent calmly gave away two of his extra pawns to win easily with the third.

Smooth wasn’t how anyone would describe Awonder Liang’s victory over Volodar Murzin, but Awonder applied huge pressure on the clock until his opponent cracked.

29…Qe7!, ready to defend the king with Qf8, and 15-year-old Volodar would have every reason to hope for victory, but instead he played 29…Rad8? and after 30.Qh6! Black can suddenly only stop mate at the cost of a piece. That wasn’t Volodar’s plan, but after 30…Rxd4 31.cxd4 Nd3 32.f6 there was no defence. He gave one spite check and resigned.

Round 14: Keymer wins on demand

That set up a perfect showdown between the two stars of the tournament so far. Both had only lost a single game — Keymer later noted that he gave away lots of points by “unforced errors”, including in the game he lost against Volodar Murzin, though at the same time he conceded he should have lost to Polina Shuvalova, as Awonder did. 

Awonder went into the Round 14 clash with a half-point lead, but Vincent had the white pieces. 

Vincent chose a double fianchetto system, later explaining:

I saw that Liang starting playing the Semi-Tarrasch in this tournament, and this is not exactly what I wanted in a must-win situation. Of course there are also some lines, but the potential is not that big, and here we will just get to play a normal position, and I’ve also played many games in this position, which is also pretty helpful, I think. 

Vincent’s approach was perhaps summed up by his 23rd move, a modest pawn push to h3.

As he explained: 

I just didn’t see a move for him, so I was thinking, ok, I will just make some useful moves like h3, Qe2, Kh2, what I played in the game, and he also had no idea, and I think if I can just get all those moves in for free it should be pretty good for me.

It worked to perfection, with 26…Bxe5? feeling like desperation. 

White’s play flowed, with Vincent pointing out:

It’s really unpleasant to play with Black. I was really happy to have this position with low time, because there’s basically no way that I could do something really, really wrong, as long as I don’t blunder, and as long as I just play normal moves he is always the one who has to be really accurate, because I always have this pressure on b6, I have pressure on c4.

It’s never too late to spoil a good position, however, with an interesting moment arising on move 34.

Vincent pointed out he thought about playing 34.Rb5?! here — it’s a brilliant move, with the point that after 34…Bxb5 35.axb5 Rc8 36.f3 the black knight has no square!

36…Nc5 would allow the knockout blow 37.Bxc4, winning the black queen and the game.

Vincent’s instincts to avoid that were right, however, since it turns out 34…c3! let’s Black take control of the c4-square and it’s White who’s in trouble. Vincent instead played 34.Rd1!, commenting, “In such a crucial game I’m happy that I saw Rd1 and it’s just really hard to play for Black.”

Vincent was soon able to seize the d-file and gain an overwhelming position, which he finished off perfectly.

Round 15: Pressure!

Since Vincent had won that direct encounter it meant all he needed in the final round was a draw to be sure of the title, but what followed was mayhem — at one point it looked like Vincent and Awonder would both lose, while Abdusattorov and Yoo would get a draw which did neither of them any good. In fact it all recalled the final round of the 2013 London Candidates, when both Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik lost in an enormously high pressure situation.

The first key game to be decided was Abdusattorov beating Yoo from a position that was objectively drawn. That gave top-seed Nodirbek chances of tying for first with Keymer, but it turned out he would lose out to Vincent on the tiebreak of number of wins. In any case, that soon became academic, because Awonder Liang managed to beat Balaji Daggupati from a lost position.

Daggupati spotted a nice tactic to take over…

…but after that he missed a number of killer blows, before the game finally turned in the most mundane manner possible, when 44…h5? overlooked the threat of Awonder’s last move 44.Re3.

45.h4! was winning a piece, though keeping the bishop would have given Black great chances of still drawing after e.g. 45…Bg2 46.hxg5 h4! and the h-pawn is fast. Instead after 45…Nf7? 46.Rxf3 Awonder went on to convert his extra piece without too much difficulty. 

In passing, Daggupati had an eventful final day, with this position against Leon Mendonca.

It turns out the only move 29…Bc1!! actually secures a draw, since after 30.Qxc1 Qxb3 White’s weak back rank leaves no time to return to the attack. The immediate mating attack no longer works, since 30.Qxh7+?? Kxh7 31.Rh3 is met by 31…Bh6.

In any case, Awonder’s victory made things simple — if Vincent lost his game, Awonder would be the champion. That looked a very possible outcome, since Vincent called his game against Dinara Saduakassova “certainly one of the worst”. 

In theory he did everything right for a "must-draw" situation, commenting:

Normally you could play 9…b6 and play very solidly, but I was planning just to go for this 9…a5, because I planned to play this before, and playing for the draw just from the start usually is not the best idea, so I will just play the way I wanted to play anyway, no matter what happened before, and that’s what I did.

In itself that was no problem, but disaster struck with 17…Be7? which ran into 18.cxb6 Qd8 19.Nc5!

“Just blundering that there’s Nd7, this fork, absolutely shouldn’t happen, especially not in such a situation, of course,” said Keymer. The problem is that the b6-pawn can’t be eliminated, since 19…Qxb6 runs into 20.Nd7! — Vincent pointed out that maybe he’d overlooked it since normally, with a knight on f6 in the Catalan, that fork isn’t a problem.

It soon got worse for Vincent, since after 19…Ba6 Dinara came up with 20.b4!

Vincent was in deep trouble:

I was really unhappy to see b4, because I felt ok, if she doesn’t find b4 it’s not that horrible, maybe, but after b4 it should be just lost.

There was nothing better than allowing the fork with 20…Qxb6 21.Nd7 but it was a complicated position, and by the time Vincent managed to block the open files with his bishops he was even starting to dream, commenting, “if I didn’t only need a draw I could start playing for a win, practically”.

Perhaps he got carried away, however, since just when he seemed to have equalised he blundered again on move 35.

The correct move here was in fact to admit that the last move was a mistake and put the knight back on e4. Vincent was intending 35…Rc8?, but then correctly guessed that 36.Qd3 might be a problem (so is 36.Qe1), and instead played 35…Nxa4?, which after 36.Qb5! left Black in deep trouble again. There was nothing better than 36…Nc3 37.Rxc3 Bxc3 38.Rxc3 and Black was down a piece. 

Vincent was worried he’d simply get mated, but when Dinara chose to exchange queens he breathed a sigh of relief, as the drawing chances suddenly climbed. Dinara had drawn her last seven games, and this was to become an 8th in a row, with Vincent finally emerging with the draw he needed after a nail-biting 86 moves!

That meant that Vincent had won the $3,000 top prize and the coveted spot in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour.

He was looking forward to the challenge:

I hope it will be an amazing experience and I’m pretty sure it will be! Playing against those guys will be even much more difficult than this tournament, although here it’s already pretty tough.

The only question is whether Vincent will be able to play, since the final regular Champions Chess Tour event starts on August 28th and clashes with the European Championship, which Vincent was set to play. In any case, the victory is certain to give him chances now or in future! 

In terms of teams, Vincent’s Team Polgar again triumphed as they compete with Team Kramnik for the chance to travel to Dubai during the Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi World Chess Championship match.

Stay tuned to chess24 for all the chess action coming up, including the Sinquefield Cup, that starts on Tuesday.

See also: 

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