Airthings Masters QF1: Nakamura and So beaten

Hikaru Nakamura lost to Levon Aronian and Wesley So was
beaten by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave as the favourites all struggled on the first
day of the Airthings Masters quarterfinals. World Champion Magnus Carlsen got
off to a perfect start against Daniil Dubov as he ground out a win in the first
game, but Dubov hit back to level the scores in a match he called “a gift for
me”. Teimour Radjabov also came close to upsetting Ian Nepomniachtchi before
all four games ended drawn. Wesley and Hikaru now need to win on demand on
Wednesday.

You can replay all the games from the Airthings Masters
knockout stage 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 Peter Leko.

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Magnus Carlsen, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Hikaru Nakamura and
Wesley So were the semi-finalists in the first event of the Champions Chess
Tour, the Skilling Open, but they all got into difficulty on Day 1 of the
Airthings Masters quarterfinals. 

Let’s take a look at the matches one-by-one:

Carlsen 2:2 Dubov

Norwegian World Champion Magnus Carlsen felt he was getting
back into the groove on Day 3 of the Airthings Masters, which included beating
Hikaru Nakamura to take top spot in the preliminary stage. He seemed to bring
that form into the knockout as well, winning a pawn on move 19 and then slowly
torturing his opponent Daniil Dubov in the first game of their match.

Dubov defended well, up to a point, but commented:

I think I defended reasonably, at least by my standards I
think I played sort of ok, and then it was very close and then I missed a draw
being down to 10 seconds, but once again he’s a very special player and he
manages to create 10 times more problems for you than anybody else. I felt like
I was holding decently and then it was one of his last tricks that finally
worked for me.

This is the position after 61.gxf5.

The one move to draw (we know this for a fact as all chess
positions with 7 pieces or less on the board have been calculated to the end by
brute force) is 61…Kd3!, and Black will ultimately be in time to support his
h-pawn even when the white f-pawn costs a rook. After 61…Ra2? 62.Kd5! Magnus
was winning all the races and didn’t slip as he went on to take the lead.

By that point another player might not be feeling so thrilled
to be facing Magnus, but Daniil’s enthusiasm is infectious.

I feel like this match is sort of a gift for me. It doesn’t
even matter if I win or lose, it will be the most interesting match for me in
the whole Magnus Tour for sure, so it’s sort of a Christmas gift. I just enjoy
every single game. My only wish for tomorrow is for the match to last for as
long as possible. If we have to play blitz it’s fine. It’s not even about the
result, I just like to play the guy!

That was the kind of spirit Magnus was hoping he might
extinguish in the next game.

The 2nd game was really stupid. I had a comfortable position
from the opening, everything was going normal, and then he was offering me this
move repetition, and I thought at that point my position should be fine, and
although a draw would be a decent result for me in the match, I thought being
1-0 up and having a comfortable position with Black I might have a chance to
decide the match there and then. Unfortunately I immediately made the worst
move in the position!

28…Nf5 would likely have seen the game end almost
immediately in a draw by 3-fold repetition, but instead Magnus played 28…c6?,
confessing that he’d missed that after 29.R5c4 Rfd8 Daniil had the move 30.Bg5!
when suddenly Black was in deep trouble. 

Both players agreed that objectively
White was winning, and the computer evaluation here on chess24 climbed as high as a 6-pawn
advantage in Dubov’s favour, but there was no simple knockout blow. It looked
as though Daniil might beat Magnus in Magnus style, but it wasn’t to be!

Magnus had survived a scare, both at the virtual board and
in the room he was playing from…

…but it seemed he hadn’t learned his lesson. He admitted of
Game 3:

I kind of fell asleep at some point. I understood that he
might have some tricks, but I didn’t consider them dangerous, and then for
whatever reason I just stopped calculating and I just blundered.

Dubov’s 30…Qe4! was the trickiest move in the position.

The queen of course can’t be taken as the f3-pawn is pinned,
and it looks as though Black is getting ready to grab the d4-pawn. Magnus was
fine with that, and grabbed a pawn himself with 31.Qxa5?, but it turned out
Daniil had bigger goals. 31…f5! suddenly left the white king defenceless
against the combined forces of the black queen, rook and pawns.

Soon it was over.

Black’s winning plan is simply to exchange all the pieces on
d2, when the h3-pawn will advance to h1 and become a queen.

Norwegian IM Sebastian Mihajlov has analysed that game for
us.

“I think he just played his worst game of the year or
something”, said Daniil, and the Russian was already dreaming of winning the
first day of the quarterfinal when he got a slight edge in the 4th game, but
this time Magnus steadied the ship to get a draw that leaves everything to play
for on Day 2.

MVL 3:1 So

Wesley So had been imperious in the qualifying stage, unbeaten
and only flexing his muscles when required, while Maxime Vachier-Lagrave needed
the planets to align to qualify despite what he admitted had been some awful
play on his part. As so often, however, the player who only just scrapes
through at the last moment was inspired, and Maxime would go on to dominate the
first day of this quarterfinal.

The first game was a complicated Berlin endgame where both
players had chances, while in the second Maxime took Anish Giri’s advice from
the day before and played the Najdorf Sicilian. Fantastic complications
followed until Wesley blundered with 16 seconds left on his clock by playing
44.Rb1?

Maxime had just over 30 seconds himself, but quickly spotted
44…Rxg2+! 45.Kxg2 Rxg3+! and Wesley resigned, since 46.Kxg3 is met by 46…Qg6+,
picking up the rook on b1 to leave Black with four extra pawns.

Wesley needed a win, but it was Maxime who had the chances
with White in another Berlin to end the match early. That game was drawn,
leaving Wesley in a must-win situation. In the circumstances another Najdorf
was just what he needed, but by move 16 things were looking dire for White.

A curiosity is that this position had occurred in
Sutovsky-Oparin from the 2014 European Championship, when current FIDE Director
General Emil Sutovsky needed to win in the last round to have a chance of qualifying for the
World Cup. The outcome was a win for Black in both cases, though it was notable
that Wesley at least did manage to evacuate his king all the way to its “correct”
square on b1 before losing the game and mini-match.

Aronian 2.5:1.5 Nakamura

Hikaru Nakamura needed to come back in the Skilling Open after
losing Day 1 of his quarterfinal match against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and he’s
in the same situation in the 2nd event on the Champions Chess Tour, the
Airthings Masters. Levon, wearing a sweater featuring his dog Ponchik, “merchandise
that one day is going to cost millions,” felt he played much better than he did
in the preliminary stage:

I thought my play was better today, because the last two
days were horrendous, so I got angry at myself! I decided that I needed to play
some solid chess and things worked out today.

The first game really was a solid draw, while in the second
Levon sprung a near novelty on move 5 and seemed to be enjoying the overwhelming
position he built up so much that he missed a couple of chances to break
through before finally seizing the opportunity.

31.Rxg6! Qxg6 (31…Rxg6? 32.Qxh5+! will soon be mate) 32.Rxg6
Kxg6
left something approaching material equality on the board, but Levon had a
huge advantage with his bishop on e5 controlling the dark squares and his queen
able to manoeuvre before going in for the kill. Resistance only lasted six more moves.

The third game, where Hikaru had White, was the US star’s
best chance to make a comeback, but although his knight infiltrated the black
position on g6…

…it was only enough to force a draw by perpetual check with
29.Qh5 Bxb4 30.Qh8+ Kf7 31.Qh5 Nxb1 32.Nge5+! Kg8 and the queen oscillating
between f7 and h5.

That meant Hikaru now had to win the final game with Black,
and he went about it by playing the Norwegian Rat, a Banter Blitz favourite of
the Norwegian World Champion: 1.d4 g6 2.e4 Nf6, though here Levon decided not
to go for 3.e5 Nh5 but instead played the modest 3.Nc3. That witnessed a
hilarious discussion with Peter Leko about what he’d do if someone played the Bong
Cloud (1.e4 e5 2.Ke2!?) against him.

Levon did well out of the opening and then saw his pragmatic
decision to exchange queens more than justified when he again built up an
absolutely winning position. Levon was fine with just winning the mini-match,
however, and took a draw which clinched 2.5:1.5 victory and left Hikaru needing
to hit back on Wednesday.

Nepomniachtchi 2:2 Radjabov

All four Skilling Open semi-finalists struggled, including in this match, where Ian Nepomniachtchi was on the ropes both in
the 73-move first game and the 104-move final game.

The Russian Champion held on, however, to mean the first day
of the match ended with four draws. There’s everything to play for on Day 2, when we’ll see two blitz games and potentially Armageddon if any of the ties end 1:1. 

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the action live here on chess24
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