Reports Mar 22, 2023 | 1:07 PMby Colin McGourty

Levon Aronian beats Fabiano Caruana in Armageddon

Levon Aronian twice won on demand before clinching victory in Armageddon to knock defending champion Fabiano Caruana out of the 2023 American Cup. “I told Fabiano that we’re creating content!” said Levon, and that was the standout action on a day of two quiet classical draws in the Nakamura-So and Krush-Lee Champions finals.

Levon Aronian won an epic battle against Fabiano Caruana | photo: Lennart Ootes

Top billing on Day 5 of the American Cup was for the Champions Finals, but the first games of the two-game classical matches provided little to write home about. Wesley So played the Berlin, and although Hikaru Nakamura dodged the endgame with the 4.d3 Anti-Berlin, a 34-move draw was soon agreed.

Wesley So is aiming to be the first player to stop Hikaru Nakamura in classical chess | photo: Lennart Ootes

The first Irina Krush vs. Alice Lee game ended in two fewer moves, but was a much more intense clash, with Irina spoiling an opening advantage before the game ended in perpetual check on move 32.

Alice Lee has already improved on a year ago, when she twice lost to Irina Krush with the black pieces | photo: Lennart Ootes

That meant the focus was on the Elimination brackets where any player who lost would be out of the tournament. At first it also looked as though those matches would be over fast, since the players with the white pieces won all four of the first 25+10 minute games.

It was the end of the road for Sam Shankland | photo: Lennart Ootes

Leinier Dominguez knocked out Sam Shankland, who seemed to have missed something major when he castled and allowed 19.g3!

Nothing works now for Black, and after 19…Nxh3 20.Bb6! Sam’s h3-knight is doomed. He gave it up with 20…Nf4, but there was no way back either in that game or in the return game of the match.

Two more matches were over in two games. Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova defeated St. Louis debutant Atousa Pourkashiyan 2:0, while Nazi Paikidze knocked out Tatev Abrahamyan 1.5:0.5.

The one match that bucked the trend was the clash between 2022 American Cup Champion Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian, which went all the way to Armageddon.

It was clear early on that we might be in for something special, as Caruana went for 14.Nxd4! in the 1st game.

Mayhem ensued: 14…Bxg2! 15.Ne6! fxe6 16.Bh5+ Ke7 17.Qa3+! Kd7 18.Kxg2.

Levon could have held the balance with 18…Kc8! or 18…Qe7!, but after 18…Bxe5? 19.Bxe5 Nxe5 20.d4! Fabiano was on top and went on to win in style.

The opening of the 2nd 25-minute game suggested Fabiano had every chance of wrapping up the match in two games, but when he went for a rash f7-f5 break he was in trouble, and although Levon didn’t wrap things up smoothly the match did advance to 10-minute games.

An intense battle | photo: Lennart Ootes

In the first 10-minute game Fabiano again relied on an f5-break, and although this one was earlier and more successful he ultimately slumped to a second loss in a row. That meant he had to win on demand, which he did, in an incredibly tense heavy piece “endgame”.

Levon would later comment, “I think at some point I started shaking, and I’m still in a kind of a tilt!”

The time control was now 3+2 blitz, and for the first time we got a win for Black, with the writing on the wall the moment Fabiano Caruana’s knight reached g2.

The white kingside was just too weak, and Fabi went on to take the lead, meaning he only needed a draw with the white pieces to clinch match victory.

He came agonisingly close. A piece sacrifice on move 26 wasn’t strictly necessary, but Fabi had the perfect chance to wrap up victory on move 33.

33.Bc4+! was the move, with 33…bxc4? 34.Qxc4+, and the queen able to come to f7, suicidal. The only defence is 33…Kh8, when Black has two problems. One is that the computer says 34.Be6! is winning for White, while the other is that simply 34.Nf7+! forces a draw by repetition on the spot and would have ended the match.

Instead, Fabiano went for 33.e6? and suddenly it was Black who was winning, even if Levon did give Fabi a couple more chances before finishing off the game and forcing Armageddon. The players shared a joke before the start of the Armageddon, with Levon explaining what they’d talked about:

I told Fabiano that we’re creating content… Nowadays playing chess is not as lucrative as creating content!

Aronian had Black for Armageddon, so that although he had four minutes to Caruana’s five, he knew he only needed a draw. In fact we got the only game of the match not to last over 40 moves, as Levon suddenly took over in a sharp middlegame.

In the final position the white queen can run, but it can’t hide, since e.g. 29.Qg2 Bf3+! will hunt it down.

Levon celebrated his win.

He said afterwards:

I was very happy! At that moment when you achieve something, as my psychologist told me, you have to celebrate… I mean no disrespect to Fabiano.

That means defending champion Fabiano Caruana is out of the American Cup, while Levon Aronian will now get a chance for revenge against Leinier Dominguez, who knocked him out of the Champions bracket. The winner of that match will play the loser of the Champions final, with the winner of that match then reaching the Grand Final of the American Cup.

The American Cup continues each day from 19:30 CET (2:30pm ET, 0:00 IST). Watch all the American Cup games live here on chess24:

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