Reports Jan 4, 2021 | 1:36 AMby Colin McGourty

Radjabov beats Aronian to win Airthings Masters

Teimour Radjabov shed tears of joy as he defeated Levon Aronian with a game to spare to win the $60,000 top prize in the Airthings Masters and book a place in the San Francisco final of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. Levon needed to win and got his chance in a first game that reminded him of a famous game featured in a James Bond movie, but he spoilt the win and overpressed in the next game before Teimour got the draw he needed in the last. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave took third place after another totally crazy day of action against Daniil Dubov.

You can replay all the knockout games from the Airthings Masters using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Tania Sachdev and Peter Leko.

And from Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.

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The Airthings Masters came to a close with another incredibly tense day of online chess action.

Radjabov 2:1 Aronian

Teimour Radjabov’s win in the last game of the first day of the final meant that Levon Aronian had to win the 4-game rapid match on Day 2 to force a playoff, and he almost got off to a dream start. In a Giuoco Piano that was anything but quiet he first damaged the pawn structure around his opponent’s king and then spotted the opportunity to go for the beautiful 21.e5!!?

The move did have a refutation, which we’ll come back to, but in the game Teimour went along with Levon’s brilliant concept with 21…dxe3 22.Qg6+ Kh8 23.Qxh6+ Nh7 24.Bd3!!

Levon invited 24…exf2+ 25.Kf1 fxe1=Q+ 26.Rxe1, and later commented:

I think I got very excited in Game 1 when I got to sacrifice the rook with check – it reminded me of the game that Spassky won against Bronstein in the King’s Gambit. It’s basically kind of similar, you also give your rook with check, and then there is no defence.

This is the famous 1960 USSR Championship between Boris Spassky and David Bronstein after 14…e2:

There followed 15.Nd6!!? Nf8? 16.Nxf7!! and here Bronstein took the rook on f1 but was already doomed. The game was made even more famous since a somewhat altered version featured in the 1963 James Bond film From Russia With Love.

Back in Aronian-Radjabov we got the following position after the white rook captured the new black queen:

This is where the refutation of the whole line comes in, as if Teimour had played 21…d3!! 22.Qxd3 fxe3! we could have got exactly the same position as in the game with one crucial difference.

Levon explained:

At some point in that game of course you could have played d3, which is absolutely brilliant - he has to get the same position without the pawn on f4.

In that case 27…f5! would win, with the difference that after 28.exf6 Qf7 White can’t win with 29.Ng5 since, with no f-pawn, 29…Qxf6+ is check!

In the game Teimour had nothing better than to try and defend as Bronstein did with the sacrifice 26…Bf5 27.Bxf5, but after 27…f6 28.exf6 Qf7 White should still have been winning.

The problem here is that Levon had just 17 seconds on his clock and got down to 2 seconds before he spoilt a beautiful game with 29.Re6?, when after 29…Rxe6 30.Ng5 Rxf6 31.Nxf7+ Rxf7 32.Bxh7 Rxh7 Black had two rooks and a bishop against White’s queen.

Instead Levon had the amazing computer-suggested win 29.Rxe8+ Rxe8 30.b3!!

Peter Leko had seen that move – the point is to prevent Qc4+ - but you need not just to spot the idea but believe in it as well, and there’s also the issue of the follow-up. If White replies 30…Rg8 the computer suggests the winning line is just to calmly play 31.h4!!

It should be noted, however, that there was also 29.Rd1!, getting out of the firing line of the black rook and preparing to meet Qc4+ with Bd3, which looks like the sane way to win. With the position stabilised Levon could then have brought his knight in for the kill.

Instead in the game it seems Radjabov was winning, but down to under a minute himself he couldn’t spot a way to escape from checks and decided it was in his interests to take a draw.

He later revealed he was happy just to survive:

Today the first game was really bad, seriously bad, and I don’t know if I’d lost it if I’d be able to come back somehow, but I was really happy that I saved it.

It had been an extraordinary game, with Teimour’s compatriot Rauf Mamedov commenting:

The rest of the match couldn’t live up to that sheer chess excitement, but you could cut the tension with a knife.

In Game 2 Levon Aronian sprung a surprise by playing a childhood favourite of his, the Grünfeld Defence, but he went wrong on move 21.

Here he felt 21…Ra7 would run into 22.Bb8 and moves would be repeated for a draw, so instead he went for 21…c5?!, but after 22.dxc5 Rac8 23.Bf2 White was essentially just a pawn up. Levon later lamented:

I knew that I had to take risks, but probably I was taking a bit strange decisions. I have to say in the second game c5 was uncalled for. I just refused to repeat the moves…

It was downhill all the way from there for Levon as Teimour took full advantage to grind out a 62-move win that left Levon needing to win both the next two games to take the match to a playoff.

Levon got the kind of position he needed in the third game, keeping most pieces on the board as the tension grew, and he came up with a nice queen manoeuvre.

28.Qc6 Rb8 29.Qd7 Red8 30.Qg4 was an unexpected turn of events, and although 30…Qe6 forced an exchange of queens, Levon was able to keep an edge by playing 31.Bxf4 first. We got a rook endgame where Teimour admitted he was worried:

I don’t know what was happening in the last game, but certainly it was about the nerves. I was really afraid to lose this rook endgame, but then I found this nice way of trapping his king on f4, which just made me happy, because otherwise you have to calculate all the time.

50…Rg5!, together with the black king on d4, boxed in the white king, not to mention threatening mate-in-1.

Levon played on to bare kings, but the outcome was no longer in doubt, with Teimour finally able to let his emotions out when the game was over.

Teimour had talked earlier in the event about how he wasn’t one for celebrating like that, but here he explained:

Trying to keep the focus and concentration till the very end takes a lot of emotions as well, to keep this way of calmness that I’m trying to produce, not to show if I’m happy or unhappy about my position, but yeah, I don’t know, it just took me so much energy I’m completely exhausted… Sometimes I can get emotional as well!

The win earned Teimour $60,000, 80 Tour Points to go with the 8 he’d won for 5th place in the preliminary stage and a direct entry into the Grand Finals of the Tour, which are now set to take place (virus permitting) in San Francisco this September in the offices of new Tour sponsor Meltwater.

Teimour was thrilled, confessing that before the final began he was only hoping to take Aronian to a blitz playoff, given how well Levon had been playing. In fact it was Teimour who was imperious in both the semi-finals (against Dubov) and final, and he put his success down to coming back from losing the first blitz game of his quarterfinal playoff to Ian Nepomniachtchi:

I was just hoping that I will not play against Magnus at some point, that was my real hope, and when Dubov won I thought that maybe this is the chance. Then when Nepomniachtchi played a game against me and he won in the blitz part I said, ok, Carlsen is not here, but I’m losing still, what is it like, and just decided to play this 1…b6. It took me some time to decide for this b6, and I think that was a crucial moment for my confidence throughout the event. Later on I just felt I was given a second chance or something like that. Before the second blitz game against Nepomniachtchi I thought I’m out… I don’t know if you believe in signs or energy or so on, but this was kind of a sign that I have to fight to the very end!

Confidence seems to make all the difference for Teimour, whose victory at the 2019 World Cup was a return to the top for a player who fell out of the elite after suffering 7 losses in the 2013 Candidates Tournament, an event he’d started as the world no. 4. Teimour spoke about that:

There was a problem, I played this 2013 Candidates Tournament and I just started to lose all of the games against the top players, so I said should I just stop it, like brutally? I just stopped playing, that was the only way to proceed, because I was playing the supertournaments, I was lacking confidence after the Candidates, so I just tried to take a kind of break and work on my chess. I completely changed my repertoire, started to play the Berlin and so on. Before I was only playing the King’s Indian and Sicilians and stuff, and from time to time the King’s Gambit, so [his coach Vladimir] Chuchelov said this is not the way, you have to be a trendy professional chess player, and I just changed my style and tried to play in some official events.

Only recently has Teimour recovered his mojo, and he also explained that while doing things on YouTube with Anish Giri and others recently he’s also been working hard on his chess. Anish was of course on hand to congratulate him!

Teimour was asked how he’d celebrate and commented, “Until the morning, I guess!” He later tweeted:

Aronian, meanwhile, summed up that, “it’s a mixed feeling, because I’m upset with the way I played in the finals, but generally I played well in the tournament”. When asked about highlights he talked about the amazing combination we’ve already looked at above, before adding, “of course beating Vachier-Lagrave and Nakamura was very nice, very pleasant, because I lose to them quite often!”

There was always Ponchik to console Levon for the final (or vice versa)!

MVL 2.5:1.5 Dubov

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had seemed to need a miracle to get out of the preliminaries when he had only a -2 score going into the final round, and once again he looked dead and buried on Saturday on Day 1 of the 3rd place match after falling 2:0 behind Daniil Dubov. He clawed his way back to 2:2, however, and then won a turbulent mini-match on Sunday to clinch 3rd place. Teimour commented:

There is one other super-exciting match, Dubov against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, as well. They’re playing for the 3rd place, but can you tell that they’re playing for the 3rd place? They’re like playing for the world crown, more or less! And it’s so exciting, I was unable yesterday to focus myself on my games. I was just following their games, they were so exciting.

From the inside it felt a little different, with Maxime summarising:

I think there were a lot of unnecessary blunders on my side, which made the games at least entertaining, I’m not sure about interesting, but definitely entertaining, and I just got off to such a wrong start and I managed to recollect myself at the end of the day, but I really didn’t feel like it was a good day of chess.

The start saw Dubov vary from a Sicilian line Harikrishna had played against Maxime in the prelims and gain a winning position in 12 moves!

13.Qb3! was the most powerful move, threatening Nxd6+, with moves like d3, Bf4, Ra1, Ra8 and Nc7+ likely to overwhelm Black’s defences before he can develop. Instead Dubov’s 13.c4?! gave Maxime some time, and further inaccuracies eventually allowed the French no. 1 to take over and win convincingly.

Maxime was in trouble in Game 2 but managed to draw, before Dubov levelled the scores with a fine win in Game 3. What turned out to be the final game was essentially decided on move 27:

It was another case of the beginner’s logic of “a piece is attacked, move the piece” being the way to go, since 27…Ra8! looks to be roughly equal. Daniil is a much more ambitious and sophisticated player than that, but his 27…Nxf5?! ran into 28.Rxe5! dxe5 29.Nxb8 Rxb8 30.Rc6! and it turned out that after capturing on a6 the white a-pawn would decide the game – or at least provide a diversion until Maxime could launch a mating attack on the kingside!

It had all been downhill for Daniil after he won the match he wanted against Magnus Carlsen, while Maxime had pulled off a great success given how he began the event.

It’s time to take stock of the Tour standings, which are important in three ways. 

  1. The top 8 players are automatically invited to the next event, in this case the 16-player Regular event starting on February 6th. 
  2. The participants in the Grand Final who didn’t qualify by winning a Major will be based on Tour standings. 
  3. The players in the Final will start with an advantage based on how well they’ve done over the course of the Tour. 

In short, it matters, and these are the 9 players to have picked up any Tour points so far (you needed to at least finish in the top 8 in the prelims):

As you can see, winning the first Major of the Tour has seen Teimour richly rewarded, while last Tour’s star players Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura have some work to do after getting knocked out in the quarterfinals of the Airthings Masters. The next Tour event is coming up in February.

Before that, however, we hope to have the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, with Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and co. in action – if the pandemic situation doesn’t worsen too much in the next couple of weeks. We’ll be covering it all live here on chess24.

For now, however, we hope you found the show a good way to spend Christmas and New Year!

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