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Reports Jan 2, 2021 | 11:59 PMby Colin McGourty

Radjabov takes lead in Airthings Masters final

Teimour Radjabov won the last game of Day 1 of the Airthings Masters final to clinch the first set and leave Levon Aronian needing to win Sunday’s rapid match to force a playoff for the $60,000 title. The day started with three tense draws before Levon lived to regret declining a draw by repetition in Game 4. In the third place match we saw Daniil Dubov in all his Jekyll and Hyde glory. First he won two fine games, but then, needing only a draw to clinch the set, he played like the player who needed to win on demand and allowed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to level the scores.

It was an incredibly tense encounter

You can replay all the 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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Teimour Radjabov 2.5:1.5 Levon Aronian

The first game set the tone for the day. There was a long, theoretical line – the first 20 or so moves had been played before – but instead of fizzling out as such games often do, that was followed by a tense stand-off. Levon was getting low on time when he forced the exchange of queens (he’s threatening to exchange queens and win a piece with Rc1+, or Qc1+ if the white queen moves) at the cost of a pawn.

Teimour Radjabov took up the gauntlet with 32.Bxa6, but a few moves later 35.g4!? saw Black equalise completely, with a draw agreed on move 45.

It was Levon’s turn to press in the next game, that began by following an Anand-Gelfand Sicilian game from last year’s chess24 Legends of Chess event.

It was only on move 16 that the players finally deviated when Teimour got out of check with 16…Kh7! instead of Gelfand’s blocking 16…f6 – but, feeling he was getting positionally outplayed, he soon pushed his f-pawn to f5 and f4 instead. He was very concerned after playing 25…Rc8.

He commented:

I think in one game I was just completely lost, or something really close to it at least, in the game in the Sicilian. I think I was really having problems there, this Nb3, also I think at some point when I played Rc8 he had this Na7, Nb5 stuff - it seemed really bad for me, because I’ve lost some pawns as well, and the position was really awful.

26.Na7! Ra8 27.Nb5! Rxa2 28.c3! does seem to give White a dream position, while in the game after 26.Nb4 d4! it was soon Black who took over. In fact Teimour might have played on in the final position, but given how close he felt he’d come to disaster it was understandable he decided not to push his luck.

Game 3 saw Levon blitz out the first 26 moves with the black pieces, so that he had almost 19 minutes after starting with 15. He put that time to good use to apply pressure to Teimour, who felt he’d misplayed his position, but the balance was never seriously disturbed before a draw was reached in 49 moves.

The last game of the day once again demonstrated that the Berlin Defence can be anything but dull, with the game following an old line that Peter Leko recalled from the days when he was an active player.

Levon would later lament:

Of course I’m sad. I remembered that this line is very dangerous for Black to play, but I didn’t remember why or how I’m supposed to continue, so it’s a mistake on my part in my preparation.  

What followed felt like self-inflicted punishment by Levon, however, since from move 20 Teimour’s knight moves hinted at a willingness to repeat moves for a draw that would have ended the first day of the final in a 2:2 tie. He confirmed that afterwards:

In the last one actually I played this Ne7-Nc6, but he didn’t want to repeat, and then he went for 23.f6, which was very surprising, because f6, there was no threat, I don’t know what he missed exactly there.

It was a move that seemed intended to sow chaos, and Peter Leko was certainly unsure what was happening…

…but Teimour had brilliantly handled such moves from Dubov in the previous round and stated that, “after that I didn’t see any chances for him at all”. 23…Bd7 24.b4 g5! 25.Bg3 Be6 simply left Black a pawn up with excellent squares for his pieces. Black was two pawns up when Levon resigned on move 48.

It was a perfect start for Teimour, but he was feeling cautious:

I’m not celebrating in advance, because I know what it is. I’ve played against Wesley as well, the other event, and I was quite happy about the first day [Radjabov scored two fine wins to clinch the first set 2.5:0.5 in the quarterfinals of the Skilling Open] and then the second everything was really different.

Levon, meanwhile, needs to win the 4-game mini-match on Sunday to take the final to a playoff. First he’ll have to recover from the blow of losing on Day 1.

I’ll try to play better, I guess, not to miss chances like I did today - so that’s the plan!

Dubov 2:2 MVL

In the wake of knocking out World Champion Magnus Carlsen, Daniil Dubov had gone on to score just two draws and suffer four losses in the semi-final against Radjabov. As the third place match began, however, we got to see Dubov back to his best, as he managed to find the perfect moment for an exchange sacrifice against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. It was such a natural sacrifice that you could argue whether it was a sacrifice at all.

Leko agreed and felt the game was essentially over, which turned out to be the case. Daniil went on to convert with aplomb.

He meant business, and went on to win a pawn in the next game and convert just as smoothly. A 2:0 lead in these 4-game matches is almost always decisive, since the leading player needs only a draw in the next two games… but it’s fair to say that making draws on demand in chess games isn’t Daniil’s superpower.

In Game 3, playing with the black pieces, he went for a sacrifice on move 9.

When Maxime had recovered from the shock he probably reasoned that this was far from the worst turn of events for a must-win game. Dubov did equalise at some point, but his position remained more difficult to play and in the end the French no. 1 went on to grind out a 51-move win.

That still left Daniil with one more game with the white pieces and only needing a draw, but this time we got mayhem in a 3.Bb5+ Sicilian. It was hard to fault Daniil’s opening too much, since by move 14 he had a totally won position. One decision transformed the game, however.

There are many tempting options for White here, but it turns out the most powerful move is simply to retreat the attacked knight back to e3, when White retains all his trumps and the black king remains in deep trouble. Retreating pieces isn’t how Dubov plays chess, however, and instead he came up with the brilliant if foolhardy 18.Qf3!?! dxc4 19.Bxf6 gxf6 (19…Rd7! would have spoilt the plan) 20.Ra8+ Kc7 21.Rxd8 Kxd8 22.Qxf6+, forking king and rook, only to find after 22…Kd7 23.Qxh8 Be7 that things weren’t so simple.

Objectively White is better, but material is roughly equal and Black’s bishop pair is a force to be reckoned with. Daniil was still favourite to get at least the draw he needed, but Maxime played what followed brilliantly, with 38…Bc1! sealing White’s fate.

White is an exchange up for a pawn, but the white rook is a helpless bystander. 10 moves later it was over, with Maxime's h-pawn impossible to stop.

So the 3rd place match is level, with both players having something to celebrate after the first day. Levon Aronian, meanwhile, must go all-out to beat Teimour Radjabov and take their final to blitz and potentially Armageddon. It’s sure to be enthralling to watch.

Tune in from 15:00 CET (9am ET) on Sunday live here on chess24!

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