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Reports Oct 5, 2021 | 11:45 AMby Colin McGourty

MCCT Finals: Carlsen 1st, Radjabov 2nd, Aronian 3rd

“To finish off the tour with a win against him is special” said World Champion Magnus Carlsen as he beat his great rival Wesley So twice with 1.b3 to end the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour on a high. Teimour Radjabov was the star of the Finals and took down Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to clinch the deserved $60,000 2nd prize, while Levon Aronian also sneaked ahead of Wesley at the finish to take the $40,000 3rd prize with victory over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. The Tour will be back in February 2022.

After 11 months, 10 tournaments and 90 days of intense online chess action, the 2020-1 Meltwater Champions Chess Tour is over. For the first time in the Finals, Round 9 saw none of the five matches go to blitz playoffs, with Magnus Carlsen, Teimour Radjabov, Levon Aronian, Hikaru Nakamura and Vladislav Artemiev all picking up a maximum 3 points.

You can replay all the games from the event here on the chess24 broadcast page. And here’s the final day’s live commentary from David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.

And from Peter Leko, Simon Williams and guest star Adhiban.

Magnus Carlsen had already won the tournament with two rounds to spare, but all the other places were finally determined in Round 9, with the final standings as follows.

Let’s take a look at how the players did in order of where they finished.

1. Magnus Carlsen: 31.5 (16.5+15 in the Finals), $315,370 (215,370+100,000), 9 events

In the early rounds of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals it looked as though World Champion Magnus Carlsen was going to win the final event as well just to emphasise his dominance, but losses to Artemiev, Radjabov and Aronian ultimately saw Magnus finish 4th in the event taken alone. That didn’t stop him winning the overall tour with two rounds to spare, since he’d come into the Finals with 16.5 bonus points. Magnus was making no apologies.

If Magnus had needed to win the Finals you suspect he would have found a way, but the points he started with had been hard-earned over the preceding 11 months. It had taken six months and five events until Magnus won his first event on the Tour, with Wesley So proving a very worthy adversary. As Magnus commented at the Closing Ceremony.

It means a lot. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, especially at the start. I was struggling so much, not winning any of the first four tournaments, and frankly at the start I was losing to Wesley in the finals — it was deserved — so to finish off the Tour with a win against him is special. I feel like I ran a little bit out of steam the last few days, but right now I don’t care, I’m just happy to win!

Even when Magnus wasn’t winning events he was coming close, and his consistency made him the undisputed player of the Tour. Nevertheless, the way he’d clinched overall victory while losing to Radjabov, and then lost the next day’s match to Aronian as well, left a somewhat bitter taste, so it must have been sweet to finish the tournament the way he did.

In Round 9 Magnus didn’t switch back to playing mainline openings, as our commentators expected, but turned to 1.b3.

He said afterwards:

I’ve been trying 3.b3 in the Sicilian a few times with not that much success, so I thought I’d play it as soon as possible, and the funny part is the last game really looked like a Fischer Random game. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten Wesley in Fischer Random before, so I’ll count that!

The opening choice went like a dream, with Magnus ready to push g4 and f4-f5 to squeeze the bishop on h5 out of the game. That provoked Wesley into lashing out with 15…f5?!, but it only brought pain and suffering.

16.Rad1 may have been even stronger than Magnus’ 16.exf5, but the move in the game put Black under immense pressure. A pawn fell, and then the World Champion went on to demonstrate his technique in a queen ending before Wesley resigned with the g-pawn about to fall with check.

Magnus didn’t choose solidity with Black either, repeating his 1.e4 Nc6 experiment that had gone so badly against Aronian, though this time he met 2.d4 with 2…e5 and not 2…d5. The position that ensued still did nothing to suggest we’ll ever see Magnus play this in a World Championship match, but before the game ended in a draw both Magnus and Wesley had missed tricky sacrificial ideas that would have let them seize the initiative.

The match was then decided by another 1.b3, this time with 1.b3 cowboy Adhiban himself in attendance.

Adhiban wasn’t too convinced by some of Magnus’ moves early on, but Wesley seemed to have decided to choose the most whacky moves himself in response to his opponent’s offbeat opening. It was almost Fischer Random, as the World Champion remarked, but with overwhelming dominance by the white pieces. By the time 22.Qh7+ appeared on the board Black was completely busted.

After a long think, Wesley stumbled on with 22…Ne7 23.dxe5 Qg8 24.Qh6 Qg6 25.Qd2 and resigned.

The Tour had ended with Magnus scoring an emphatic win against his greatest rival in the series. His thoughts were already turning to another rival.

I feel like my energy has been kind of down the last few days, so I’m really happy to finish the tournament now with success, and then I can have a rest and prepare for the World Championship and enjoy this victory.

2.Teimour Radjabov: 27 (6+21 in the Finals), $163,968 (103,968+60,000), 7 events

Teimour Radjabov was the star performer of the Finals and took an absolutely deserved 2nd place despite starting as 4th seed, 6.5 points behind Wesley So. The stats are phenomenal, with Teimour winning the last six matches in rapid chess, defeating Duda, Aronian, So, Carlsen, Mamedyarov and then finally MVL. It was perhaps even more impressive since Teimour said that for the first three rounds, when he’d drawn in rapid chess and lost in blitz, he was feeling unwell.

On the eve of the last round Teimour had claimed that 2nd or 5th made no difference and he wasn’t too bothered, but we’ve learned in the past, from the Airthings Masters or, for instance, the 2019 FIDE World Cup, that you can never trust Teimour’s claims not to care about events! His reaction to clinching the final match was euphoric, and you can see a clip of it in the interview below.

Teimour comments:

I’m extremely happy actually. If you don’t count the other points probably I would be first here, but what is good is that Magnus should go with a good mood for the World Championship match and that’s fine with me! 

I’m very happy to be second. It was a very hard year for me, personally, and I think that once I had these victories and everything it really brought me a lot of pleasant moments and I have great memories about the Tour. I didn’t play consistently well, but I played generally well in this Tour, and even though I didn’t manage to play well against Magnus and Wesley I managed to play well against Magnus and Wesley in the last few days, even though you can say that for Magnus he was already winning the tournament, but you know that he’s always unhappy to lose the match or something, so he’s always fighting, and it’s a great motivation for me that I’ve managed to beat him in this match of four games. And it will be a great motivation for me for the Candidates.

Teimour’s high points on the Tour were winning the 1st Major, the Airthings Masters, and reaching the semi-finals of the last, the FTX Crypto Cup, while he also finished 3rd in the Opera Euro Rapid.  If Teimour had played and done well in the last three regular events he might have been able to push Magnus even harder, but it was a job well done.

3. Levon Aronian: 24 (8+16 in the Finals), $158,323 (118,323+40,000), 10 events

Levon Aronian played all 10 events on the Tour, winning the Goldmoney Asian Rapid, finishing runner-up in the Airthings Masters and reaching four more semi-finals. The Armenian star, who’s now living in Saint Louis, started the Finals as the 3rd seed and ultimately finished 3rd, but it was anything but easy. Levon lost four of the first six matches and was trailing So by 6.5 points, but then he stormed back to beat Wesley, Carlsen and finally Shakhriyar Mamedyarov to clinch third place.

The final match was emphatic, with Levon playing a hyper-sharp opening with Black in the first game and managing to pin and win a piece. He then took a 2:0 lead after getting the better of his opponent in a drawish rook endgame before clinching the match with a draw in a game where he also missed a win. 3rd place was a fitting finish for Levon’s play over the whole season.

4. Wesley So: 23.5 (12.5+11 in the Finals), $214,580 ($184,580+$30,000), 10 events

The shock of the Finals, however, was Wesley So sinking to 4th place at the finish. Wesley, as the prize money reflects, was clearly in the Top 2 over the course of the whole Tour, and early on had all the bragging rights after defeating Magnus in the final of two of the first three events, the Skilling Open and the Opera Euro Rapid. He came close to making it an incredible hat trick over Magnus in the final of the FTX Crypto Cup, while victory in the Chessable Masters meant he matched the World Champion’s three Tour titles.

Perhaps the pressure of being the one person who came into the Finals with a good chance of catching Magnus ultimately told, but after a decent start things began to go wrong for Wesley. The controversial match with four quick draws and then a loss in blitz against Hikaru Nakamura seemed to unsettle Wesley, while the real damage was done in the last four rounds, with rapid losses to Radjabov, Aronian and finally Magnus.

Wesley summed up the Tour:

I won three regular tournaments, also I think I played very well in the Crypto Cup and almost won that as well, so I’ve been working very hard, playing every single tournament. I played 90 days for the entire tour and I think it paid off in the end with a 4th place finish. I don’t think I could have done better than 4th considering what went wrong.

Wesley’s rationalisation was perfectly understandable in the circumstances, though the truth was he was just fractions away from finishing at least 3rd and it was entirely within his power to finish 2nd until the very last rounds. 

So it was a tough event for the world no. 6, who will be hoping to bounce straight back as he tries to become the first player since Gata Kamsky in 2014 to defend the US Championship title. That kicks off tomorrow, Wednesday October 6th, in Saint Louis, at 13:00 local time (20:00 CEST). You can watch all the action here on chess24.

5. Hikaru Nakamura: 21 (4+17 in the Finals), $83,645 (63,645+20,000), 8 events

Hikaru Nakamura was perhaps the great disappointment of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. After pushing Magnus all the way in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour the expectation was for that rivalry to continue, and for the first event, the Skilling Open, there was still no reason to expect that wouldn’t be the case. Hikaru tied for 1st with Magnus in the Prelims and then only narrowly lost to Wesley So in the semi-finals.

The extraordinary final match in 2020 saw Carlsen and Nakamura trade blows for 7 days before Magnus only won the last match in Armageddon

After that, however, despite playing in 7 of the 9 qualifying events, Hikaru amazingly only once more reached the semi-finals, when he went on to play Magnus in the final of the New in Chess Classic, a throwback to the first Tour in 2020.

That gaping gap in performance over the Tour meant Hikaru went into the final 12.5 points behind Magnus and with no chance of 1st place, but in the end we got a glimpse of what we were missing. After losing the first match in blitz to Anish Giri, Hikaru went on to win all of his remaining matches except for a heavy loss to Magnus. The US star’s blitz skills and fighting spirit were in evidence, as he scored two wins in Armageddon.

By the final round it was already almost certain Hikaru would finish 5th, so he got to have some fun against Jan-Krzysztof Duda. In the first game the young Pole’s unsound attack was calmly refuted. Taking a pawn with 24.Rxg5? just didn’t work.

After 24…fxg5 25.Be5+ Kg8 26.Qf5 Bd5! 27.Bxd5 exd5 28.Bf6 Qe4! 29.Qxg5+ Kf7 it turned out White had nothing and was just a rook down.

Hikaru also got to play one of his old favourites on the way to winning the 4th game to clinch the match.

6. Vladislav Artemiev: 17.5 (3.5+14 in the Finals), $53,500 (38,500+15,000), 4 events

While Hikaru scored 90 points in seven qualifying events, Vladislav Artemiev scored an amazing 87 in just three, reaching the final of the Goldmoney Asian Rapid and the Aimchess US Rapid and finishing 3rd in the Chessable Masters. Of the 41 players who took part in the Tour he was the one of whom you could really say that if he’d been granted a chance earlier he could have finished much higher.

Still, the 23-year-old qualified to the Finals without the need for a wild card and was again a tough opponent for everyone. He defeated both Carlsen and Radjabov, as well as Mamedyarov, MVL and Giri, while losing to Aronian, So, Duda and Nakamura for the 5th best score of the Finals (behind Radjabov, Nakamura, Aronian and Carlsen).

The final match saw Artemiev finish one place above where he began, since he overcame his direct rival Anish Giri. After three draws the last rapid game suddenly got picturesque.

In fact this last move was inaccurate (but who could resist the chance to attack so many pieces!?), and Vladislav seized the initiative with 17…Na5! 18.Nd2 Rxc7 19.Nxc4 Nab3!

The last critical moment came after 20.axb3 Nxb3 20.Rcb1 Nxa1 22.Ne3 Rfc8

23.Bf1! was a move it helped to be a computer to spot, but the idea is very logical. Since 23…Rc1 would no longer be a check White can respond by taking on b7 with the rook, or in some cases after taking on a1 White can take on a7. Instead in the game after the most obvious move 23.Rxa1? Rc1+ 24.Rxc1 Rxc1+ 25.Nf1 the pinned knight left White unable to stop the black pawns that began their advance with 25…b5! Vladislav is your man for any technical task, and went on to wrap up victory without any issues.

The young Russian will be a player to watch out for in future tours.

7. Anish Giri: 14.5 (5.5+9 in the Finals), $108,645 (96,145+12,500), 8 events

As you could see there, the margins were often small, but Anish had a disappointing event as he entertained chess fans from the Oslo studio but finished joint lowest scorer in the Finals. That saw the Dutchman drop two places from his pre-tournament seeding of 5th, which was largely down to a fine victory in the 2nd Major of the Tour, the Magnus Carlsen Invitational (winning the event named after Magnus… priceless!).

Anish defeated Ian Nepomniachtchi in the final of that event, and would go on to be the player who pushed Nepo hardest when the Candidates Tournament resumed shortly afterwards. Giri didn’t reach another semi-final on the Tour, but he showed admirable fighting spirit and reminded us that on his day he could match anyone in speed chess.

Perhaps he was a little distracted during the Finals!

8. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: 13.5 (2.5+11), $72,645 (62,645+10,000), 7 events

Maxime’s Tour highlights came early on, as he reached the semi-finals in two of the first three events, but by the end he needed a wild card to make the Finals and started with just a 2.5 point bonus. When he started with wins over Aronian and So it was possible to dream of storming up the table, but losses to Carlsen in Round 3 and Mamedyarov in Round 4 made any heroics unlikely. By the end Maxime didn’t appear too focused, and he chose not to prolong the final match.

If Maxime had forced a draw by continuing 33.Nb7+ Ke8 34.Nd6+ he would have needed to win with Black on demand in the final game against Teimour Radjabov to reach a playoff. Instead he played for a win with 33.g5+?, but after 33…e4+! 34.Kxe4 Bg3! there was no longer a drawing mechanism and Maxime was just a rook down. That enabled Teimour to clinch 2nd place, though no harm was done to the tournament intrigue since Wesley also lost his own match in three games.

9. Jan-Krzysztof Duda: 12 (0+12 in the Finals), $27,500 (20,000+7,500), 7 events

World Cup winner Jan-Krzysztof Duda made the quarterfinals three times in his five appearances in the earlier stages of the Tour, and was playing the Finals as the lowest scoring wild card, meaning he began with zero points, an eye-watering 16.5 points behind Magnus. “I was kind of suffering in all my games,” he said at the closing ceremony, but in the circumstances he did well, climbing one place and outscoring So, Giri, MVL and Mamedyarov in the Finals.

He left perhaps his most remarkable achievement to last, when he won the second game against Nakamura in the final round. He’d missed something in an already wild attacking game, and was left with a position where Nakamura looked on course to win with the white pieces.

35.e4! followed, but gradually Duda managed to coordinate his pieces until he was no worse, and then a little later both sides had brought new queens onto the board.

By the end it became a relatively rare top-level case of the side with more queens going on to lose!

Here 70.Kxe7 would have been met by 70…Nd5+, forking the king and queen. That win didn’t prevent Duda losing the match, but it showed once again that he’s a player who’s never afraid to trade blows with the best. His mission now will be to try and add some more solidity to his game before next year’s Candidates Tournament.

10. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov: 9.5 (0.5+9), $35,323 (30,323+5,000), 6 events

That leaves Shakh, who missed the first three events on the Tour and then top scored with a 3rd place finish in the New in Chess Classic. He came into the Finals as a wild card without too many hopes of making an impact on the standings, but he nevertheless lit up some of the early rounds especially. It’s enough to recall his match against Magnus Carlsen, where all seven games were won by the player with the white pieces!

So that’s all for the 2020-1 Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, the first online chess tour ever held over a full season. We hope you’ve enjoyed it! Rest assured that all the feedback, including about the format for the final event, is being taken on board and considered. What’s certain is that the Tour is returning in 2022, with the dates already set!

Before that, there’s the small matter of a match in Dubai, while more immediately the US Championships are about to start. Then from 14-17 October we have the Finals of the “mini-tour”, the $100,000 Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour. Vincent Keymer, Praggnanandhaa and co. will be competing in an 8-player knockout live here on chess24.

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