Levon Aronian lived dangerously as he beat Liem Quang Le, Eric Hansen and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to take the sole lead with 4/5 after Day 1 of the Aimchess US Rapid, the penultimate event on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. Magnus Carlsen got off to a dream start by beating Wesley So, but ended half a point behind Levon after getting mated by Alireza Firouzja. MVL has work to do to qualify, as does World Cup winner Jan-Krzysztof Duda, who lost his first two games and remains winless at the bottom of the table.
You can replay all the Aimchess US Rapid Prelims games and check out the pairings using the selector below.
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.
And from Tania Sachdev and Surya Ganguly.
Levon Aronian makes his own luck
Levon Aronian was unable to play the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz or the Sinquefield Cup for bureaucratic reasons, but he seized his chance to return to action in the Aimchess US Rapid. Despite being lost at some point in three of his games, he went on to top score on Day 1 with 4/5.
There was luck involved, but it was the kind of luck you get when you take risks and play fast to put immense pressure on your opponents. It began against Liem Quang Le, who had beaten Levon in the semifinals of the previous event on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, the Chessable Masters. Liem emerged with what the computer assessed as an almost 3-pawn advantage from a hyper-sharp opening, but it was very tricky, and soon Levon got to play some brilliant moves to turn the tables.
If Levon had to move his rook he’d be dead lost, with 27.Re5?, for instance, running into 27…Qg6+! when the rook has to return to g5 to stop checkmate. Instead he found the powerful sequence 27.Nxf3! hxg5 (27…exf3 now allows 28.Re5, but was still the better option) 28.Bb3+! Kh7 29.hxg5 Qf5 30.Qh4+ Kg6 31.Bc2!
The e4-pawn is pinned, with the bishop targetting not just the black queen but the king. White is just in time, and it turns out Black is almost paralysed, since e.g. 31…Rh8 fails to 32.Bxf4! and Black can’t take on h4, since Nxh4+ will then win the black queen.
Liem’s 31…Re6? was born of desperation and threatens nothing — Rxc6 would run into the Ne5+ fork. It only hastened the end, since after 32.c4! the white pawns were unstoppable.
Levon’s draw that followed against Alireza Firouzja was his one relatively calm game of the day, before he found himself dead lost out of the opening with the white pieces against Daniel Naroditsky. 20…Rxc3! and Levon could resign, but instead Daniel played 20…f6?
After 21.Rh6! there was suddenly nothing more than a draw, since 21…fxg5 is met by 22.Rh8+ Kf7 23.Rh7+! (not 23.Rxd8? Rxd8 when Daniel’s extra exchange should be enough to win). After 4 minutes Daniel opted for 21…Kg7 22.Rh7+ Kg8 23.Rh6 and a draw by repetition. He commented afterwards:
I got too excited, I played too quickly and I completely blundered this drawing idea.
There was a repeat of that game, with colours reversed, in the next round, when another newcomer, Eric Hansen, was winning after 25 moves.
The problem for Eric was that he was exactly 10 minutes down on the clock at this point, and rather than playing the winning 26.Rxc4! or 26.Bc5! he blundered like Daniel by pushing his f-pawn with 26.f3? Once again that brought some brilliant resourcefulness from Levon, who found 26…Ne3!, forcing 27.Qxf7+ Kxf7 and now it should have been a draw after 28.Rxe4, but instead Eric blundered with 28.Nxe3?? and had to resign after 28…Rxa4, which left him an exchange and a pawn down.
Levon wrapped up the day with his most impressive win, a smooth victory over Sinquefield Cup winner Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
Magnus Carlsen’s checkmating adventures
If Magnus Carlsen reaches the Last 4 of the Aimchess US Rapid he’ll have just one day’s rest before Norway Chess begins, but Magnus isn’t know for allowing such considerations to influence his will to win.
The World Chess Champion got off to the perfect start by beating the one man who could still potentially finish above him before the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Final — Wesley So. The immense depths of chess were shown when Magnus managed to engineer a completely new position by move 5…
…while 14 moves later Wesley’s desperate 19…b5, inviting 20.Bxb5, was in fact the computer’s no. 1 choice in the position.
Converting an extra pawn against a player such as Wesley So is anything but easy, but Magnus showed fine technique as he reeled home the point.
Magnus got into some trouble when he played the Dutch Defence against Vidit, but escaped with a draw, and then won a controlled positional masterclass against Liem Quang Le. For his next trick Magnus then played the Scandinavian against Alireza Firouzja, and got an excellent middlegame position, but it collapsed in the space of a few moves, until Alireza was suddenly able to score a crushing win.
33.Bd7+! Kxd7 34.Rc7+ Ke6 (it’s tempting to call this “blundering into mate”, but 34…Ke8 35.Rxe7+ is also dead lost, so at least this cut short the suffering) 35.Qe5#
“Not again,” Magnus might have thought, since he also lost a good position with the black pieces to Firouzja in Round 1 of the Goldmoney Asian Rapid Prelims. Back then Magnus hit back to score 3.5/4 in the remaining games of Day 1, while Firouzja ultimately missed out on qualification for the knockout. Alireza drew all his other games on Day 1 of the Aimchess US Rapid, while Magnus once again reached 3.5 points, this time by a spectacular win over Daniel Naroditsky.
Daniel already knew he was in deep trouble after 13.Nd4!.
He described it memorably:
Magnus played a phenomenal attacking game. I haven’t played this line much, so I guess I figured I was doing fine and then Nd4 surprised me. I think Nd4 is just a crushing move, because without the knight on f5, Black’s position is like running on a treadmill that keeps getting faster and faster, so of course castling was really bad, I should have played g6, but my position was terrible. I completely overlooked Rg4, I was only focused on the fact that he couldn’t play Rh4.
After 19…g6 Magnus could have won by brute force with 20.Rxg6+! fxg6 21.Qxg6+ Kh8 22.Bxc5 and, with the bishop gone, Black’s queenside can’t be defended. Instead Magnus seemed to miss something when he played 20.Bh6 and after 20…Be8 he was forced to come up with a brilliancy!
21.Nd5!! Daniel commented: “I figured Nd5 was amazing, so I thought that it’s only fair to let him checkmate me!” He did, with 21…exd5 22.Bxd5 Kh7 23.Qh3 Rh8 24.Bf8+ Kg8 25.Rxg6+ Kxf8 26.Qxh8#, and a round of applause from Daniel, following.
Magnus is right back on track to qualify, just half a point behind Levon, where he’s joined by Vladislav Artemiev, who was highly impressive as he beat Eric Hansen and MVL and drew his remaining games. There are more usual suspects on +1: Wesley So (who shrugged off the loss to Magnus to win the next two games), Alireza Firouzja, Leinier Dominguez and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.
Lively start for debutants Naroditsky, Hansen and Liang
All the new players on the tour picked up a win on Day 1, even if it involved beating each other. Awonder Liang defeated Daniel Naroditsky in a wild double-edged tactical game, while Eric Hansen beat Awonder Liang. Eric could have made it more — as we’ve seen, he had a winning position against Aronian, and he could also have beaten Jorden van Foreest in the last round of the day.
After 42…Qxg3+! 43.fxg3 Rxe2+ 44.Rxe2 b5! Jorden would have an extra exchange, but Black’s queenside pawns are unstoppable.
Daniel Naroditsky, meanwhile, did beat Jorden, and had plenty of reason to be pleased with his day’s performance, noting he’d been better or winning in each of his first four games, despite (or because of) some bold openings.
I prepared with copious amounts of Netflix and Amazon Prime! I basically decided on a couple of openings that I’m going to play. It’s quite impractical to try to predict what these guys are going to play — they play everything. They’re preparing for me, I’m not really preparing for them, so my goal is just I’m playing the King’s Indian, trying to prove that it can survive at the top level.
Daniel did that on Day 1, and is treating the tournament as preparation for next month’s US Championship, and as a chance to have some fun!
This is my first such tournament, so it’s very nerve-wracking, and I’m just trying to play every game for a win. I think it always sucks when the lowest-rated is just trying to squeeze draws out of people. It kills the fun, so I’m just trying to give everybody an interesting game, and it’s been topsy-turvy, but I’ll continue doing that into tomorrow.
He added, “if I can bite a couple more times and ruin some people’s tournaments, I’ll be happy!”
Tough starts for the in-form players
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave came into the Aimchess US Rapid on the back of winning the Sinquefield Cup, but losses to Artemiev and Aronian left the French star outside the qualification spots. It was worse again for arguably the man of the moment, Jan-Krzysztof Duda. The Polish no. 1 had won the phenomenally tough FIDE World Cup without losing a game in three weeks, but in a good position he overlooked the clever win of a piece by Leinier Dominguez in Round 1.
That was compounded by a loss to Wesley So in Round 2, and things almost went from bad to worse in Round 3, where Shakhriyar Mamedyarov was on the brink of victory.
Instead of a quick mate, after 27.Qh6 f6 28.Rxe6? (28.Rh5! was the only way still to win) Duda soon had winning chances of his own, but his technique let him down in the ending.
That game had been a big miss for Mamedyarov, but the Azerbaijan no. 1’s win in the previous round had been sweet. Dominguez’s 28.Kh5? was a losing blunder.
28…Rxe5! 29.fxe5 Kg7! and suddenly there’s no good defence against the threat of Bf7 and checkmate. The game ended 30.e6 Be4! and Bg6 would be mate next move, if White hadn’t resigned.
Meanwhile Duda went on to draw his next two games, ending the day bottom of the table and winless. The only other player not to win a game was Anish Giri, but the Dutch star’s five draws were enough to leave him in a qualifying spot. He later explained:
I had a little bit of a tough day. I think I had some chances, but my intuition let me down. I felt there was a win so I was looking for it in two different games, and it was identical — I was much better and I had a lot of time, and I felt like I had a win so I spent all my time looking for one, I did’t find it, then later when I checked with the computer in both cases I didn’t have any win. It’s very important in chess to feel when you have the win and to look for it, but sometimes you feel it’s there but it’s not.
There was a win later against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, but with under a minute on the clock Anish couldn’t figure it out.
30.Bd1!, threatening to bring the bishop to a4 and potentially c6, looks to be enough to overwhelm the black defences. Instead Anish played 30.Rd1 and only spotted the bishop transfer later when Shakh was able to defend.
In his interview Giri went into detail on his recently busier household.
One player who deserves credit is Vidit, who finished the day on a decent 2/5, which could have been better, since he was close to winning against Magnus and didn’t need to lose the last game to Le. All that despite playing with a fever, which had made him seriously consider pulling out of the tournament.
At least a tough day got off to a flying start, since Jorden van Foreest gave Vidit a gift in Round 1.
After the obvious 21.Bg2 the position is balanced. Instead Jorden went for 21.Rd1?? which was met by 21.Qxa8, picking up the bishop and threatening mate on g2. The only explanation our commentators could come up with was that Jorden had missed the fact that 22.Rd7+ is met by 22…Bxd7 — such long backwards moves are the kind chess players often overlook.
Jorden stumbled on a couple of moves before resigning.
There are still two days and ten rounds to go before the eight qualifiers for the knockout are determined, so everything remains up for grabs. Follow all the action here on chess24 each day from 11:00 ET/17:00 CEST/20:30 IST.