Levon Aronian admitted “I’m toast!” about his position against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the penultimate round of the Superbet Chess Classic, but, as against Alireza Firouzja, he went on to pull off a miraculous escape. That kept him level with co-leader Wesley So going into the final round, after Wesley refused to let Alireza have any fun in the King’s Indian Defence. Leinier Dominguez grabbed the day’s only win, outplaying Shakhriyar Mamedyarov from what seemed a dry position.
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And here’s the day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Peter Svidler, Alejandro Ramirez, Cristian Chirila and Anastasia Karlovich.
Alireza Firouzja went into the penultimate round of the Superbet Chess Classic a point behind co-leader Wesley So, and although he had the black pieces it was clear he was out for blood. He played the King’s Indian Defence, of which Wesley commented:
He definitely wanted to get a big fight. He’s one point behind. The King’s Indian is not the best opening, it’s very risky for Black, but White is also risking.
Wesley wasn’t in the mood for a big fight, however.
Here Wesley played 7.dxe5, exchanging queens and ending all the fun before it began. Wesley noted:
I wanted to play an endgame. I could see in his face that he was very frustrated.
Alireza had lost the same position with Black to Sergey Karjakin in the most recent World Rapid Championship after picking a risky line, but this time he settled for steering the game to a draw.
It means Alireza’s hopes of winning the tournament have all but gone (he still has a theoretical chance if Levon and Wesley both lose in the last round), but his performance has still been decent — if he wins in the last round against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave he’ll return to the 2800 club.
There was also a quiet draw in MVL-Deac, with Maxime avoiding the loss he suffered to Bogdan-Daniel in the 2021 event, but also getting no real chances to beat the Petroff and pick up the win he needed to join the leaders.
Fabiano Caruana could have joined Maxime in 3rd place with a win, but he was unable to topple Richard Rapport in a sharp and intriguing game. Richard apologised afterwards, when summing up his event.
This was actually maybe my only difficult game. I feel a little bit sorry for Fabi, because I didn’t hang anything in one in this game!
Richard noted the unusual structure after queens were exchanged.
This position is very awkward! First, it’s really awkward that he has c5 and e5, and I found this out, but then it even makes it weirder that I take cxb5, so, for instance, probably it’s very hard to find anything similar to this in opening theory, or any classical games for this structure.
A tense battle ensued, in which Richard managed to hold a fortress and then even felt he had some chances at the end when Fabiano went for a double-edged race. Everything was precisely calculated, however, and Fabi even got to gratuitously promote to a knight before all the material had been swept off the board for a draw.
The final draw of the day was extraordinary. With Wesley clearly on course for a draw, Levon Aronian knew that he’d remain co-leader if he drew with Black against Ian Nepomniachtchi. Everything seemed to be heading that way, until his 33…c6? allowed 34.b5!
Levon lamented afterwards:
I get a good position and then I relax, and then I think I can do anything, and then I completely forgot this b5-b6. When I saw b5, and then b6 coming I started panicking — terrible emotions, of course.
He later added:
This is completely insane. I have a totally fine position and I just should play carefully, some accuracy, and then b5 came and then I felt, ok, I’m toast!
There were many more twists ahead, however, with Nepomniachtchi not renowned for always playing carefully in winning positions. On move 39, when both players had over 50 minutes on their clock, he spent under a minute on 39.Bf4?!, which seemed to let most of his advantage slip, but the next big turning point came on move 54.
“I felt that there has to be something”, said Levon. However, he rejected the defence 54…Kf5! because he feared 55.Kc5, though in that case e.g. 55…Kxg5! 56.Nxc6 Ra8! appears to hold. “I’ve been too passive here, of course,” he said, and 54…Kd6?! soon led to what he understood to be a completely lost position.
Levon had been there before in Bucharest, however, against Alireza Firouzja in Round 3, and kept on looking for practical choices. Ian missed some easier options, until the last turning point of the game in fact came on move 75.
Levon correctly spotted that 75.Nh4+!, driving the king away from where it wants to be (75…Kxg5?? 76.Nf3+), was the way to go.
I thought it’s finishing it, because with the knight on g2 my rook has to let his king enter. The king goes to e6.
From e6 the white king can get all the way to the pawn on b7, the b6-pawn will cost Black his rook, and then it’s only a question of giving checkmate with a knight and bishop.
Instead Ian went for 75.Ne5, and Levon was suddenly seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
When he played Ne5, I thought, oh my god, if I’m losing like this then it will be some kind of a puzzle, because it’s so close, it’s so risky!
What followed was a remarkable dance where Ian got to take the b7-pawn with his knight, but Levon found the only defence 82…Rc1! (Levon: “If this is the only way then I’m pretty lucky!”)
White is threatening to play Rxc7 and Kd7, and there’s nothing good that Black can do about it. Ian thought for almost 8 minutes, but it was one of those thinks that probably involved more self-flagellation than thought.
He then ended the game with 83.Kxb4 Rxc7 84.Nc5+ Kd6! 85.bxc7 Kxc7.
That was an incredible save and vital for the tournament standings, and in fact the only win of the day came for Leinier Dominguez. His game against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov was another encounter that looked destined to end in a quiet draw, before Shakh, perhaps buoyed up by his win the day before, began to take some risks.
It might have paid off, since Leinier admitted, “I had to fight for my life”, but it was ultimately Shakh who failed to display the necessary precision and fell to a 3rd loss of the tournament.
Shakh, with the white pieces, could still have held with 43.Qg3!, when Leinier’s planned 43…Qe5 could be met by the only move 44.Be6! It looks terrifying for White, since the black queen and knight can attack the white king, but Black has to be careful not to get mated either, and it turns out to be equal.
Instead 43.Qg8? ran into 43…Qe5!
The f5-pawn is about to fall and there’s nothing White can do about it. Checks only drive the black king to a perfect home on h4, while 44.Be6 Qe1+/Qe4+ is not quite a mating attack, but let’s Black force off queens to reach a trivially won endgame.
So the standings going into the final round look as follows.
Since there will be a playoff if players are tied for first, there’s a mathematical chance for any of the top 7 players still to win the event, with only the pre-Candidates clash Rapport-Nepomniachtchi having no potential to affect the battle for 1st place. The key clashes are Aronian-Mamedyarov, Dominguez-So, Firouzja-MVL and Deac-Caruana.
The final round starts 1 hour earlier than usual!
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