American phenom GM Awonder Liang shone with a perfect start in the Gelfand Challenge, racing out to a 5-0 score and leading the pack of 20 of the world’s best young chess talents. The second event of the $100,000 Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour kicked off with high-paced action right out of its gates, seeing only 12 total draws across 50 games in a fighting first day of the tournament.
Uzbek GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov took advantage of a few opponents in time trouble to swindle some points, but finished Day 1 in clear second at 4/5, while the top female IM Gunay Mammadzada finished her day with a surprise checkmate out of a completely lost position, and is tied with German GM Vincent Keymer in third place with 3.5/5.
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Between the Rapid 10+5 time control of the games and the fighting spirit trademarked in junior events, many games on the first day were won by stubborn defense and lost in time scrambles. Indian fans were met with disappointment at the onset as Praggnanandhaa and Nihal Sarin, looking to build as winner and second place of the first tour event in April, enjoyed winning positions in their first-round endgames of the Gelfand Challenge — only to collapse under time pressure.
The 20 young prodigies have been split up into two teams captained by the 14th World Champion, Vladimir Kramnik and the greatest female player of all time, Judit Polgar. In between the four summer Tour events, the players receive training from several world-class coaches picked by their captains. Nobody showcased the effects of that elite training better than Liang, who started slow in April’s Polgar Challenge, but delivered five solid victories on Day 1 of the Gelfand Challenge, including three with the black pieces.
There was no more impressive win on the day than Liang’s fourth-round game against freshly minted GM Zhansaya Abdumalik from Kazakhstan. Against a symmetrical English, Abdumalik moved her g8 knight 8 times in the game’s first 12 moves, until it settled on h5.
In response, Liang developed his h-rook in an equally crazy manner, with it finding its way to g5 and then ultimately sacrificing itself for the knight with 15.Rxh5.
The idea brought instant complications for a woefully underdeveloped Abdumalik, and soon all of White’s pieces were in on a group attack. Even Liang’s retreating 18.Nf3 delivered an aggressive bite, and 21.e5 simultaneously secured footholds for White while clogging everything for Black.
Abdumalik’s queen faced heavy harassment throughout and was overloaded defensively when Liang was able to snap off a knight without fear of recapture.
32.Rxa5! White followed with a decisive attack, where all his pieces rained down on the black king.
Despite a few swindles in time trouble, 16-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov from Uzbekistan should be thrilled with his 4/5 score against five of the tougher opponents in the Challengers Tour. Himself the highest-rated player in the field at 2634, Abdusattorov came back from several losing positions and scored two points off of the only other players rated 2600, Praggnanandhaa in the fourth round, and Sarin to begin the day.
In that first-round game, Sarin began with an interesting 4.g4 idea against the Caro-Kann that he employed twice on Thursday. The result shredded Black’s pawn structure and ensured slow development, and the Indian Grandmaster was soon enjoying a solid middlegame position with a rook perched on f5 – attacked three times yet not fearing the exchange.
After some indecision from Abdusattorov, Black finally captured the rook with 27…Bxf5 and pushed through a series of captures in a complicated, sacrifice-filled sequence.
Black’s queen sac 31…Qxe5 helped ensure his passed e-pawn first captured a rook at 32…exf2 then reached its queening square, but when the dust settled White’s endgame advantage was clear, up two extra pawns with an outside h-pawn running downhill.
Sarin, however, who World Champion Magnus Carlsen referred to as “one of the better blitz players around,” uncharacteristically collapsed under the time pressure, first losing his advantage by sending his h-pawn to its doom with an impatient 57.h5. His follow-up 59.Qf4, appearing to fork the two black rooks, would lose the game for him.
He’d overlooked 59…Rb6+, picking up the c5-knight. Soon Abdusattorov’s king found shelter from the white queen, and his two rooks were connected and invading on the second rank. Sarin resigned before the 72nd move.
Abdusattorov’s win over Indian GM Leon Mendonca in Round 3 was even more of a gift. Another freshly minted GM, Mendonca was winning from the start against a Benoni and pushing Black’s pieces backward by the middlegame. Abdusattorov’s 20…f5 looked to free the closed position, but its lasting effect allowed all of White’s pieces to soon enjoy direct lanes toward the black king.
There was no balance on the clock, however, with Mendonca playing on increment and Abdusattorov holding over six minutes. Though the position was hopeless for Black long-term, Mendonca first misstepped with 45…Bc2, then overlooked that his 46…Ng3 left hanging a mate-in-one. Abdusattorov did not miss the 11th-hour opportunity.
One other surprise checkmate came by the hands of Mammadzada in the very last move of the day, when all other games had finished. At one point in a balanced endgame against Bulgarian IM Nurgyul Salimova, Mammadzada found herself instantly losing after offering a trade of queens with 35…Qc5, allowing Black a queen-and-knight attack on the exposed white king.
There was little Mammadzada could do about recovery in the hopelessly lost position, with the black queen cleaning the board and helping pave the way for another lady thanks to a c-pawn passer — though that was the end of the road.
Usually a welcome addition to any chess game, Black’s second queen after 80…c1=Q?? (80…Qa1+!) instead brought instant doom, giving up the initiative for just one moment and letting Mammadzada capitalize with a shocking attack: 81.Qxf7+! Kh8 82.Qg7#
That dramatic first day left the standings as follow, with Team Polgar two points ahead of Team Kramnik – the winning team at the end of the tour gets an all-expenses-paid trip to the Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi World Championship match in Dubai.
It’s very early days, however, with 15 rounds still to go before we learn which player will follow in Praggnanandhaa’s footsteps and qualify for the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. Don’t miss all the action live from 15:00 CEST each day here on chess24!