Chessable Masters 7: Le survives Aronian comeback

Liem Quang Le survived a dramatic comeback from Levon Aronian to reach the final of the 2021 Chessable Masters after two wins on demand from Levon took their semi-final all the way to Armageddon. Liem’s opponent in the final is US Champion Wesley So, who lost the first game of the day to Vladislav Artemiev but hit straight back and then confidently held the draws he needed to clinch the match. Aronian-Artemiev for 3rd place will be a repeat of the previous tour event’s final.

You can replay all the games from the knockout stages of the Chessable Masters, the 8th event on the $1.6 million Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare. 

And from Danny King and Tania Sachdev.  

Both semi-finals saw all four rapid games played on the second day, with Le-Aronian then going all the way to Armageddon.

Wesley So survives early Artemiev onslaught

Vladislav Artemiev came into Day 2 of the quarterfinal against Wesley So knowing he had to win on demand, and he got off to the perfect start. A double fianchetto opening seemed to have given him little, but Vladislav seldom expects an opening advantage. Wesley would later comment:

I must say congratulations also to Artemiev for playing very well today. I think he put a lot of pressure on me in simple endgames. I thought in the first game I was equalising comfortably in the opening and I probably am, but I relaxed too early.

Wesley pinpointed where things had started to go wrong as move 28.

What he should have played here was 28…Rb5!, and if 29.b4 he now was 29…a5!, with the point that after 30.bxa5 he has the zwischenzug (or zwischenschach as Jan Gustafsson would call it) 28…Rf5+, getting the rook out of the pin, and can then take on a5. 

Instead in the game he gave the check first with 28…Rf5+? and after 29.Kg2 Rb5 30.b4 it would be a losing move to play 30…a5? Nevertheless, after 30…a6 Wesley was losing a pawn, but the position was still close to drawn until a blunder on move 47.

After 47…fxe6 White still has a lot to do to win the game, but instead Wesley went for the radical 47…f5?, and after 48.Rd6 the passed pawn, that soon ended up on d7, was a big enough distraction that it allowed the white knight to pick up two of Black’s pawns and seal victory. 

The well-known Achilles’ heel of Artemiev is his opening preparation, and it came back to haunt him in the remainder of the match. Wesley explained: 

I think what helped me a lot was I caught him in the preparation in my white games, in the second and fourth games. I think the second game I caught him in preparation very well, and in fact I forgot my preparation somewhere, but this line is very dangerous for Black. And also in the 4th game I covered this in my old Chessable repertoire, so I knew this line very well as well.

The critical second game was a Sicilian where Artemiev was on the ropes early on and any hopes of bamboozling his opponent in complications vanished after the blunder 26…Nb6?

27.Ne2! was a simple double attack on the black queen and the knight on b6. Vladislav played on for another five moves, but it was hopeless. 

That meant Wesley was back in the situation of needing only draws to clinch the match, and this time he made no mistake. He carefully defended a slightly worse ending with Black in Game 3, before in Game 4 he got another winning position out of the opening before making a draw.

Wesley will now play a 4th final on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, and for the first time he won’t be facing Magnus Carlsen, who he beat twice, but his former Webster University colleague Liem Quang Le. 

Liem Quang Le clinches win after epic comeback by Levon Aronian

The other semi-final looked all but over after a quiet first game was followed by a powerful win for Liem Quang Le in the second, when Levon’s aggressive play with the white pieces completely backfired. 

Game 3 was tense, with some chances for Levon in the middlegame, but it seemed Liem had survived and emerged into an ending where he had any winning chances and should easily be able to force the draw he needed to reach the final. Few players are trickier than Levon, however, and he managed to keep the game alive until things swung on move 67.

Levon, playing Black, is threatening the winning Rf5+. The best way to deal with that would be to get the king out of checks with 67.Kb6 or 67.Kc6, since after Liem’s 67.Rh8? the black king was able to advance with 67…Kf5. 68.Kb5 would still have given Le chances, but after 68.Kd5? Kg4 Levon went on to wrap up victory. 

Le would later comment of the match:

I should have finished it much earlier, like in Game 3. Losing that rook endgame feels very embarrassing. Probably I’m a complete patzer, but after losing that game it was kind of difficult to play the 4th game, even though in the 4th game I was maybe winning at some point, but in those time scrambles it’s difficult to find the best move. 

In Game 4 it felt as though Liem’s instincts were as good as they’d been all tournament, but the pressure of the situation saw him fail to keep playing boldly when required. The game eventually turned on move 38.

Levon’s knight is threatening the e6-pawn, but in fact after moving the rook from a7 or playing 38…b6, Levon can’t take on e6 due to the winning 39…Nf2+, while 39…Rxf3 might be the safest way of playing for the draw Liem needed. Instead he took the knight with 38…Bxd4?, and while that was eliminating a defender of the f3-pawn the problem was that after 39.Qxd4 the white queen is attacking the a7-rook, so that 39…b6 left White with the tempo to defend f3 with 40.Bd1, also targeting the black queen on h5 (39…Rxf3! 40.Qxa7 Rxf1+ 41.Rxf1 Qe2! was in fact Black’s best option). 

The latent power of Levon’s bishop pair was soon unleashed, with the black king coming under attack. Le fought to the end, but Aronian completed his comeback by trading down into a rook endgame where he was two connected passed pawns up. 

That meant the match went to a blitz playoff, with Liem having deja vu.

This has happened to me before. I played Levon in the World Cup in 2019 in Khanty-Mansisyk [in Round 4 — replay the match], and we drew both classical games, we drew the first rapid game and then the second rapid game I was White and I was a piece up, totally winning, and then somehow I slowly let him back into the game and then he managed to draw the game. Eventually he managed to win some blitz game… Levon always seems to get away in the end, but this time I’m very happy!

Both players are former World Blitz Champions and an intense battle ensued, with one of the craziest pawn structures you’ll ever see in the first blitz game. 

The swings in evaluation that followed were wild, with Liem first missing the chance to pull the trigger…

…before Levon went on to reach a winning pawn endgame, at least until he played 49.g4+

It was incredibly tricky, however, since g4+ would have been winning if the kings were on e3 and e5, while if after 49.g4+ Kg6 the white king was already on e4 then 50.c5! is a winning pawn break. Something for endgame aficionados to study!

On paper Liem was now a slight favourite with White in the second blitz game, but in fact he had to survive a tricky position to draw in 63 moves and force Armageddon. 

Levon finished higher in the preliminary stage and therefore got to choose colour, picking Black, which meant he only needed a draw but had a minute less on the clock. That would go on to prove critical, as Levon also began slowly and by the time he speeded up it was too late. It might have boosted his chances if he’d picked up a free bishop on move 60, but in the end he lost on time in a drawn position. 

Liem commented:

Winning the Armageddon game like this is not ideal. I would much prefer to win on the board than on the clock, but I have to take it.

Liem richly deserves his place in the final for the way he’s played the event, qualifying confidently to the knockout and then defeating superstars Alireza Firouzja and Levon Aronian in what —  if not for the stumble in Game 3 against Levon — would have been a totally convincing manner. 

The final starts at 17:00 CEST on Saturday, with Wesley So looking to boost his chances of overhauling Magnus Carlsen in first place during the next event on the Tour, which will be the last before the Grand Final. 

For Artemiev, meanwhile, the 3rd place match will be a chance to get revenge for losing to Aronian in the final of the Goldmoney Asian Rapid. Don’t miss all the action live here on chess24 from 17:00 CEST.

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