Aronian wins Tata Steel Indian Blitz in Armageddon

Levon Aronian joked that his victory in the Tata Steel Chess India Blitz was down to Rapid winner Arjun Erigaisi deciding he wasn’t physically strong enough to carry both cups. It was as good an explanation as any for a crazy final day, when both players struggled and an on fire Nihal Sarin went into the final round with a half-point lead. Nihal lost, however, while Levon and Arjun both found a way to win despite flirting with disaster. The playoff that followed saw Erigaisi miss two open goals in blitz before Levon clinched the title in Armageddon.

Here are the final standings of the Tata Steel Chess India Blitz — click a result to open that game with computer analysis, or hover over a player’s name to see all his or her results. 

And here’s the commentary on the final day’s play from Tania Sachdev and Sagar Shah, with Vishy Anand joining for the final rounds and the playoff.

Arjun Erigaisi was only supposed to play the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid, but the winner of that tournament was then given the chance to play the Blitz when Adhiban pulled out due to poor health. The runner-up in the recent Lindores Abbey Blitz in Riga is no longer an unknown quantity in fast chess, with Vishy Anand commenting:

Arjun has had a chance to shine. He’s been an inside secret for a while, but now everyone sees it.

He carried on right where he’d left off in the Rapid to take the sole lead after 8 rounds and finish the first day with an unbeaten 6.5/9.

There was more deja vu, as Levon Aronian, who had only needed to win a winning position against Arjun to force a playoff in the Rapid, was in second place after the first day, just half a point behind.

On Day 2, however, that narrative got muddied, at least until the dramatic conclusion. 17-year-old Nihal Sarin defeated Erigaisi convincingly in the first game of the day, and Arjun would also lose to Parham Maghsoodloo and Gukesh. All three of those players joined the battle for 1st place, with Nihal suddenly on fire.

Although he stumbled against Liem Quang Le in the next game, he bounced back to beat Raunak Sadhwani and Sam Shankland, with Sam falling on his sword in the following position.

White is only slightly worse if he moves the rook, but Sam went for the tactical solution 18.Bxh7+? Kxh7 19.Qe4+ Kg8 20.Qxc4, winning back the piece, with pawns now level. The only problem? 20…Qf6! 

The rook on a1 is attacked, but it can’t move to the b1-square, covered by the b8-rook, while any piece placed on b2 will simply be captured. Shankland resigned.

That meant that Nihal went into the final round with a half-point lead over Arjun Erigaisi and Levon Aronian, with Levon also having had a tough day at the office, suffering losses to Shankland and Erigaisi. It was all in Nihal’s hands, but he faced the dangerous Iranian Grandmaster Parham Maghsoodloo. Nihal modestly summed up afterwards:

I think I’m pretty happy with how I played the blitz on the second day. The last round did not go as planned.

Parham, who said he’d vowed “to fight more” before the blitz, was winning by move 12 and, with some turbulence to follow, eventually converted in 41 moves.

That was an opportunity for Levon and Arjun, but at first it seemed as though we might have a situation where the three leaders all lost. 

Levon got into a desperate mess against Harika Dronavalli.

20.a3! was winning, and after 20…Na6 the cleanest follow-up was 21.a4!, since after 21…Bc4 White has 22.b3! Bxb3 23.Qb2+!, winning the piece. Harika’s 21.Nd4?! Qb6 22.Kh2?! (22.a4!) was far from the best continuation, but Black’s position was so bad that she still had chances, and again on move 29 there was a clear win for White.

This was massively tougher to find in a blitz game, but 30.Nf5+! gxf5 31.Qg5+, with Bxf5 to follow, wins almost on the spot. Black can only try sacrificing his queen to prolong the game. Instead after 30.Ne4?! Levon took over and eventually ground out a win, with a lot of missed tricks for both sides. 

Arjun was never so lost against Liem Quang Le, but he was in a tough position… and then after he’d taken over he went on to blow a mate-in-3!

29…Ng4! threatens mate on h2, so there’s nothing better than 30.hxg4 Qh4+ 31.Bh3 Qxh3#. That’s the kind of tactic these guys would spot in an instant if you posed it to them, but Arjun played 29…Qxf4? and after 30.Rf1! he had to win the game all over again. To his great credit, he did, which meant we got an Aronian-Erigaisi playoff that had looked unlikely, but was a fitting battle between the two players of the event. 

Arjun Erigaisi had won the battle in rapid chess (getting the draw he needed to win the title), and won their blitz mini-match 1.5/2, but Levon Aronian had experience of winning just such a playoff match featuring two 3+2 games followed, if needed, by Armageddon. That came in the quarterfinals of the Goldmoney Asian Rapid when Levon beat Arjun 1.5/2 in the blitz, so didn’t need Armageddon.

This time, however, the blitz games were dominated by Arjun, who took over with the black pieces and was called “a beast” by Vishy Anand when he found 29…Qh4+!. Five moves later it was time for Arjun to claim a full point. 

35…Qf2! leaves White helpless. You can’t take the queen due to back-rank mate, while after 36.Rg1 Black has the brilliant follow-up 36…Nd3! and the queen on a7 can’t take the queen on f2 due to Nxf2 and smothered checkmate. The white queen is lost, since if it moves Qxg1 and Re1 is also checkmate.

Instead after 35…h5 36.h3 Levon put up huge resistance to escape with a draw, with Vishy noting that the final stalemate was a mirror of the Grischuk-Firouzja game the day before. 

“He had nine lives today — I don’t even know which was worse, the 1st game or the 2nd!” said Vishy afterwards, and the 2nd blitz game once again saw Arjun completely taking over until he missed another wonderful chance.

31.b7! Rb8 and only then 32.Bxc4 and the b7-pawn should ensure an easy win for White. Vishy called that out live, but Arjun instead played 31.Bxc4?! Qxb6 and, although he still had a winning position, there was ample room for Levon to pull off another Houdini act.

That meant Armageddon, with Levon later summing up:

Throughout the day my games were very poor. I should have lost maybe both games, but definitely one in the tiebreak. Throughout the day I played one good game, and it was Armageddon… I was just very lucky!

Levon had White and an extra minute, but had to win. Vishy Anand noted that he found such a situation of having to whip up complications uncomfortable, but felt it was right up Levon’s alley. Or to translate that into technical chess jargon: “He’ll come up with some crap!”

In fact it was Arjun who ended up going for something wild.

Here he “unleashed” 23…Ngxe5?!? 24.dxe5 Qxf2 25.Qc2 (25.Nc1! is even stronger) 25…Nxe5 26.Nf3 Nxf3

Arjun had brilliantly calculated that 27.Qxc6+ is just a draw, which was all he needed to win the tournament, but unfortunately for the Indian after 27.gxf3! White was much better, despite the material balance being roughly equal. Soon Levon had crashed through with a mating attack.

So the tournament’s top seed Levon Aronian had taken one of the cups, though he joked afterwards:

The only reason I get this cup, I think, is that Arjun is a very strong player in chess, but he’s not physically so strong to carry two cups. So that’s why he thought about this and then said ok, one is enough for me!  

Arjun Erigaisi, meanwhile, felt he’d had “a slightly off day” but described the tournament as, “my best event of my career so far”. He was thrilled to have had Vishy Anand acting as a mentor and also gave a shout-out to one of his coaches, Srinath Narayanan.

Srinath has been a great support and saw the potential in me before anyone else did. I hope to reach greater heights!

Arjun Erigaisi has truly emerged this year as one of the top Indian talents, but there are huge reserves of strength in India and who makes it to the very top of the chess world remains to be seen. Over in Europe another 18-year-old, Alireza Firouzja, has made it clear that the bar everyone needs to reach is going to be phenomenally high! 

Vishy commented of Alireza during the live commentary:

Like everyone else, I’m slightly breathless from watching him. It’s insane! People at 2775 don’t gain 25 points in one tournament, or whatever he’s doing. Last year everyone already understood that he was a phenomenal talent. He won these four games in Wijk, and even though he ended up losing a lot of games later, everybody understood that he’s going to be there. But such a rapid rise? He must have been shocked with his own performance in the World Cup, but to win the Grand Swiss in such style and then go on to play the thing here. Now I think people are impatient already — can we have the next match, with him and Magnus! 

I’m very excited to see him in the Candidates. What can you say? He creates positions, he wins them, he scores points very heavily, and he’s able to win every kind of position. He’s everything you’d want in a chess player. It’s phenomenal to watch! 

He’s one of these players you watch just in admiration, he’s so overflowing with talent.

There are exciting times ahead for chess! 

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