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Levon Aronian beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with Black in just 25 moves in Round 6 to catch Wesley So in the Superbet Chess Classic lead with three rounds to go. A 5-player pack is a full point behind the leaders, including Leinier Dominguez, who became the first player to beat Bogdan-Daniel Deac in Bucharest. So-Rapport and Caruana-Nepo were relatively uneventful draws, while Alireza Firouzja held on a pawn down against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in a 96-move grind.
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And here’s the day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Peter Svidler, Alejandro Ramirez, Cristian Chirila and Anastasia Karlovich.
Wesley So went into Round 6 of the Superbet Chess Classic as the sole leader and was unsure what to expect against the maverick Richard Rapport, who he called “a very unpredictable player”. On this occasion, however, Richard went for mainstream theory in the Semi-Slav, and even got to demonstrate a novelty.
Garry Kasparov had once played 15…h6 here and beaten Loek van Wely, but Richard’s new move was 15…e5!. The 9-minute think made it an open question if it was home preparation, but Wesley had little doubt when the pawn sacrifice 16.exd4 e4! 17.Bxe4 Nxe4 18.Qxe4 appeared and was instantly followed up by 18…Qd7. He called that a “slightly computer move, so 95% sure it’s still preparation”.
Richard had the bishop pair for the pawn and went on to make a comfortable draw, which was also the outcome of the clash between the 2018 and 2021 challengers. Both Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi had played the Petroff in their World Championship matches and it was no great surprise that we got a theoretical battle there. More surprising was that Fabiano admitted to “freestyling” when he was caught off guard by an older line he said was now “a little bit under the radar”.
By this point, after 15…Bxc5, Fabiano was clearly worse with the white pieces. It helps if you can calculate your way out of trouble, however. He spent 8 minutes on his clock to calculate the next 10 moves, starting 16.Nb3, until the players had reached a harmless rook endgame.
The last draw of the day was a battle between two players who have performed below par so far in Bucharest, with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Alireza Firouzja both winless. Neither player has lost the will to win, however, and this time it was Shakh who rejected a possible draw by repetition and played on until move 96.
Alireza has at times looked vulnerable in such highly technical endgames, but not on this occasion, as he never put a foot wrong.
The fastest win of the day came for Levon Aronian, who was surprised on move 1 when Maxime Vachier-Lagrave went for 1.d4 instead of his usual 1.e4. Levon decided to try and exploit his opponent’s unfamiliarity, saying of his decision to play 8…Bxc3+:
He thought I’d play 8…Qa5, a move I employ quite a lot, but I thought I’d mix it up, since I’ve played this opening since I think I’m 18.
Soon we reached a crossroads.
By far the most common move (Levon called it “topical”) is 12.Kf1, as played, for instance, by Teimour Radjabov against Levon in the final of the 2020/1 Airthings Masters. Instead Maxime opted for 12.Ke2 and after 12…Qb2+ he didn’t play 13.Ke3, which Levon noted would likely be a quick draw by repetition, but 13.Qd2, heading for a tricky endgame.
Levon called 16.Rc7!? a “risky move”, and by the time he got to play the stylish 20…e5! it was clear he was taking over. In fact he described White’s position as “already a disaster”.
There was nothing better than 21.fxe5 f4+! 22.Kd2 (the king has to defend the d3-bishop). The position soon looked grim.
Levon felt he would have been completely winning after 25.Kd2 Nc4+ 26.Bxc4 Rxc4 27.Kd3 Ra4!, and it’s hard to argue, but in the game things were over much more suddenly. Maxime played 25.Kd4? and after 25…Na4! it was suddenly time to resign.
The white king suddenly has no squares, with Rd8# threatened. The only way to delay mate for more than a move would be to give up a full piece on c4.
That win saw Levon Aronian catch Wesley So, and they might have been joined by 20-year-old Bogdan Daniel-Deac. He reacted well to a novelty by Leinier Dominguez (15.a3) and for a while, as so often against the top players in this year's event, the Romanian star was significantly better. Another trend that continued, however, was that his game really exploded into life when he was in desperate time trouble.
The bishop sacrifice on a3 can’t possibly be accepted, due to 29.Nc3+, forking the king and queen, but 29.Bb3! was the correct response, with Leinier getting serious pressure for his 2-pawn investment.
Anything could happen, and although Leinier felt he’d consolidated and that the strange 36…Qd7!? only helped White, Bogdan was still able to spring a surprise.
The point is 38.fxe4!? Re5! (which Leinier said he almost missed), when White has to give up his queen, although it turns out that should still be a draw. With just two seconds on his clock and relying on instincts, Leinier found a good response, 38.Be3!, and after 38…exf3 39.Bd4+ f6 40.Qxf3 Bogdan didn’t quite do what Rapport had done against him — blunder the house on the final move before the time control — but 40…Rf8!? (instead of 40…Qf5!) was loose, and allowed 41.Qd5!
Black was under heavy pressure, though after 41…Qe7 Leinier admitted that he nearly played 42.Qxb5?, which loses on the spot to 42…Qe4+!, and only when he saw that did he quickly play the strong 42.Qe6! instead.
After playing a fine game, Bogdan then collapsed with 42…Qd8? (42…Bxg3! and Black gets a playable endgame), played after just over a minute.
The speed the move was played made Leinier doubt himself, but he correctly went for 43.Rxc8! Qxc8 44.Qxd6 and, with two bishops for a rook, he had an overwhelming position (Bogdan perhaps missed in advance that 44…Qf5+ can be met by 45.Kc1! — other moves lose).
There were in fact chances for Black to hold in the play that followed, but it involved finding some study-like resources that were too much for the inevitable time trouble.
That result brought both players back to 50% and meant Levon Aronian and Wesley So are firmly in the driving seat with three rounds to go in Bucharest.
In Round 7 Aronian has White against Caruana while So is Black against Deac, with Nepo-Mamedyarov, Rapport-MVL and Firouzja-Dominguez the other match-ups.
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