It’s Keymer-Pragg & Liang-Yoo in the Semis!

Vincent Keymer will take on his key rival Praggnanandhaa in the Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour semi-finals after coming from behind to defeat Leon Mendonca 3.5:2.5 in a blitz playoff. The other semi-final on Saturday will be an all-American clash between Awonder Liang and Christopher Yoo, after Awonder emerged the 3:1 winner of a topsy-turvy battle against Nodirbek Abdusattorov. 

You can replay all the games from the Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour using the selector below. 

And here’s Judit Polgar and Vladimir Kramnik’s commentary on Day 2 of the quarterfinals. 

Awonder Liang 3:1 Nodirbek Abdusattorov

With a 2646 classical rating at the age of 16, Uzbekistan’s Nodirbek Abdusattorov, who knocked Anish Giri out of the 2021 World Cup, is the highest rated player in the Challengers Chess Tour, and on another day he might have dominated this match. He had a winning position at some stage of all four of the games, but our commentators felt he was let down by rash decision-making and a failure to make full use of the time at his disposal.

He took control with the black pieces in the first game of the match after Awonder went for a badly-timed queen trade, but then failed to find the best way to press his advantage before allowing Awonder to take over. Vladimir Kramnik considered it a teachable moment on prophylaxis that Nodirbek failed to clearly ask himself what Awonder wanted in the following position.  

Targeting d5 with Ne3 or Nf4 is the obvious plan for White, and one Nodirbek could have thwarted with 27…Bg5!. Instead after 27…Rh6?! Awonder managed to take over, though tactically speaking his 28.Ne3 (instead of 28.Nf4!) was a little inaccurate, since after 28…Bh4 29.Kg2 the game would have been roughly level after 29…Rhg6! instead of 29…Bxg3?! As it was, Awonder eased to a comfortable victory.

The second game followed a similar pattern, as Nodirbek gained total positional domination with the white pieces, but then misplayed the advantage, until on move 36 he had a last chance to win.

36.Bxe5! dxe5 (36…fxe5 37.f6! is immediately lethal) 37.fxg6! hxg4 (other moves allowed White gxh5 next) 38.Qf5! was the path to victory, while after 36.g5 Qe7! Awonder took over. The 18-year-old US star was then on the verge of all but sealing match victory by taking a 2:0 lead, when he also stumbled. 

50…Rd1+ or 50…Qg6 were among the winning moves, but 50…Rg6? suddenly allowed Nodirbek to escape with 51.Qxb7! Kf8 52.Qa8! and the white queen gives perpetual check from a8, b7 and f3. 

Awonder Liang was still leading 1.5:0.5, but in Game 3 it seemed as though he was the player in a must-win situation as he gave up two pawns against Nodirbek’s French Defence. The computer was sceptical, as usual in such situations, but our commentators felt Black would struggle to untangle, and were finding some beautiful variations. Judit caught Vladimir out with a stunning checkmate!

The game itself had plenty of excitement, with Nodirbek capturing with the wrong piece on d6 in a position where objectively he was winning. Soon he faced heavy pressure.

26…Qc5!? ran into 27.Qg4! Ne7 and Awonder could have taken over, but 28.Nxe7 instead of 28.Qxg7! let the advantage slip. Nodirbek then correctly gave up his queen but, despite Black’s numerous army, the game was again ended by a queen giving perpetual check.

Now it really was all or nothing for Nodirbek in the final rapid game, and again we got a wild game, and again a chance. Awonder’s 23…h5?! was a clever move — if the white queen is distracted from hitting the c8-rook then Black can take on d5 — but it also seriously weakens Black’s position.

After 24.Qf3! White is on top, with 24…e4 met by 25.Qxh5 and the d5-knight is still defended. Instead in the game after 24.Qf5 g6! it’s too late to play 25.Qf3? since after 25…e4 the h5-pawn can’t be captured as it’s now defended. 25.Qxg6 Rxd5! left White with various ways to draw the game, but no hope of the win he needed. Nodirbek didn’t give up, but his winning attempts only left him with a lost position. 

Nodirbek resigned on move 43 and we now know that we’ll have at least one American in Sunday’s final, as Awonder Liang will take on 14-year-old Christopher Yoo.

Keymer 3.5:2.5 Mendonca

Top seed Vincent Keymer’s match against Leon Mendonca, who qualified for the Finals in 8th place, was a very different encounter, with both players impressing our commentators with their level of play. That was no surprise in the case of Vincent, who won two of the four events on the Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour, but as Vladimir commented:

I’m quite impressed with Leon. I think he made a big progress and he was fighting with a main challenger for victory. He was fighting on at least equal terms. He was not any worse today, and I’m very happy for Leon, because he’s younger than his opponent and it was very good play.

Leon had White in Game 1, which was drawn in 28 moves, with Vincent later remarking:

I think Game 1 was really solid. As long as I played the Semi-Tarrasch with Black I didn’t have any problems in the openings. We basically just played theory lines till the draw, more or less. 

Game 2 was dramatic, however, with Keymer’s over-ambitious 20.b4? (20.h4!) backfiring. 

20…cxb4 21.c5 is what White is dreaming of, but after 20…Ng4! 21.Qxe4 Qxe4 22.Bxe4 Nxe3 23.fxe3 cxb4 material was level but Black was completely on top, with the position later after 35…R8e3 making a nice artistic impression!

The black king and bishop are far superior to their white counterparts, while Leon is ready to create a passed pawn on the queenside. There was one fleeting chance for Vincent in what followed (39.c5+!) but Leon went on to score a deserved victory.

Vincent summed up how he felt and what followed.

With White I lost the second game, which of course was a really uncomfortable situation. This was also I think pretty unnecessary after the opening. It should have been a good position, but I just failed to somehow find good moves there, and then my computer crashed during the 3rd game, so I just couldn’t move anything. I had to restart the computer and then get back to the game, where I guess both of us were a bit shaky. I was running through the house trying to get somehow back to the computer, but this was a crazy game. I also had a bad position there and then managed to survive, and then he blundered this rook and ok, it was a really eventful match!

Leon won a pawn and was threatening to win the match with a game to spare, while by the end a draw looked certain. Instead the unfortunate 40.Rc5?? dropped a rook for nothing and gifted Vincent a win. 

Vincent was pushing for a while in the 59-move 4th game, but it fizzled out to a draw, meaning the match went to blitz tiebreaks.

The first blitz game had our commentators wondering if the players had everything prepared (“too good for a blitz game!” – Kramnik), though when Vincent thought for a minute here there was some doubt.

It was clear that 22…Kh8 23.Ng5 Qd7 24.Nf7+ would just end in a draw, but Kramnik thought 22…Kf8 might be winning, until Judit pointed out 23.Ng5! Rxg5 24.Qd6+! is also just a draw by perpetual check. After 24…Kg8 25.Qe6+ Black has to play 25…Kf8, since 25…Kh8? 26.Rc8+ will be checkmate. 

Vincent later confirmed it was all preparation, but he’d paused to make sure.

This is why I spent some time. I remembered the line the way it was supposed to be, but of course I was trying to understand why, not to mix up something up and then resign the next move!

It was the kind of game we’re more used to seeing from seasoned grandmasters.

The final blitz game was a thriller, however, played in a line of the Slav Defence that Kramnik noted had featured a number of times in his 2006 World Championship match against Veselin Topalov. Soon Vincent had a big attack, and while his 20.Bxc3 may have been inaccurate, it provoked 20…c5.

After 21.exf6! Bxf6 it turns out 22.h6! would have been a killer, with e.g. 22…g6 running into 23.dxc5! and the combined forces of the white h-pawn and the bishop/queen on c3, hitting g7 and h8, are too much to handle.

Vincent noted afterwards, however, that he didn’t feel he had to win the game, since he’d get to choose the colour in Armageddon and felt confident of holding with Black. That may have been a factor in his choosing the ‘more solid’ 22.Qf5?, which would be a good move if not for 22…c4!

Vincent commented: 

I was shocked that I somehow forgot about this c4-move, and then I’m not sure, maybe I’m just worse there, could very well be, and then this endgame, it’s really tricky.

The computer confirms Leon was suddenly better, though it lasted just a single ply, since after 23.f4 Black should have continued e.g. 23…Na4!, while going for the endgame with 23…Qd7? 24.Qxd7 Nxd7 let all the advantage slip. The game finally got out of control for Leon on move 35.

35…Bd8! would have still have held things together, but after 35…Nc8 36.Bxd5 Rxg4 37.Bxc4 Rf4 38.Bxa6 the white passed pawns, supported by the bishop pair, were just too powerful and Vincent went on to win.

So that means that on Saturday we get a clash between the two players of the Tour, Keymer and Praggnanandhaa, with the winner meeting the winner of Awonder Liang vs. Christopher Yoo in Sunday’s final.

Vladimir Kramnik talked about how the players will feel going into the semi-finals.

Of course they will be tense — it’s a semi-final, it’s very serious, but still for me it was a little bit less tension than the first match. Losing the first match is really unpleasant, even if you lose against a very strong opponent and even if you play well. Already losing the semi-final it’s still unpleasant, but maybe if you’re not Magnus Carlsen or Garry Kasparov, for whom any other place than first is a drama… for me it was not the case. For me it was more acceptable than losing the 1st match!

Vladimir and Judit will be back to commentate on the semi-finals, so you don’t want to miss it, live here on chess24 from at 10:00 ET | 16:00 CEST | 19:30 IST!

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