Levon Aronian cruises to Goldmoney Asian Rapid victory

Levon Aronian needed just two games and under an hour and a half of play to clinch victory over Vladislav Artemiev and take the $30,000 top prize in the Goldmoney Asian Rapid. Levon’s spectacular final win was a fitting end to an event where he’d also won the Preliminary stage, to take home the maximum number of tour points. The fight for 3rd place was also one-sided, but with a twist. Ding Liren hit back to win the second day’s rapid chess 3:0 before Magnus Carlsen took over in blitz to clinch the match.

You can replay all the games from the knockout stages of the Goldmoney Asian Rapid, the 7th event on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, using the selector below.

And here’s the final day’s live commentary from Danny King and Tania Sachdev.

And from David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.

Levon Aronian wins his first tour title

Levon Aronian is set to switch to the United States Chess Federation after the FIDE World Cup, so it was appropriate that he won his first event on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour on US Independence Day. Magnus Carlsen would later joke when asked if he was happy for his friend.

I used to like Levon as an Armenian, and even briefly as a German, but as an American I’m not so sure!

Levon had won Day 1 of his match against Vladislav Artemiev and described his tactics going into Day:

Before today in the morning when I was preparing I made this strategy that I had to press, I had to continue doing the same that I was doing, because when you’re trailing in a match and then you lose one game it’s already almost finished, so I wanted to keep this fighting spirit that I had against Magnus, and also yesterday, I wanted to keep it going, and I think it worked out pretty well!

Levon’s strategy for pressing was to play very fast, despite also going for fiendishly complicated positions. We’d seen that lead to blunders in earlier rounds, but this time Levon made no real mistakes, so that the pressure on Vladislav was relentless. A case in point is the move 43…g4!, that Levon made with eight and a half minutes on the clock, while his opponent was under 30 seconds.

Suddenly Black has generated all kinds of threats. If White did nothing Be4+, Rd1+ and Bf3# would deliver mate-in-3. The other threat, however, is to the h5-bishop, which after 44.Kf1! Rd1+ 45.Ke2 Rh1! 46.Bc3 Rxh2 was suddenly out of squares. 

Vladislav was able to avoid losing material with 47.Bb4+! Ke6 48.e4! (48.Be8 was also an option) 48…Rxh5 49.exf5+ Kxf5 but the relentless series of tasks to solve finally led Artemiev to go astray with 50.f3?

The desire to exchange off a pair of pawns was understandable, but after 50…Rh2+! the white king can’t both safeguard the queenside and control Black’s kingside pawn. After 51.Ke3 gxf3 52.Kxf3 Rc2! it was game over. 

Levon finished in style, finally trapping the bishop, while the rook cut off the white king.

There was nothing to stop the b-pawn marching down the board to become a queen, so Artemiev resigned.

That left him with a mountain to climb, and he decided to take some risks in the opening with the black pieces. Afterwards the players identified 15…f5!? as a mistake, but it may only have been meeting 16.exf5 with 16…gxf5?! instead of 16…Nxf5 that led to disaster. In any case, 17.Bg5! was a powerful move and 17…e4 didn’t have the desired effect.

18.Ng3! was the start of a perfectly played attack. After 18…exf3 Levon unleashed 19.Nxf5!, which he said he hadn’t seen immediately. It was also the move Vladislav had overlooked: “I missed one idea with Nf5 and after this it’s an absolutely losing position for Black”.

After either 19…Nf6 or 19…Ne5 as played in the game, the tactical point was the same: 20.Nxg7! (an only move) 20…Kxg7.

Here again, there’s strictly one move, but it’s a killer: 21.Rxe5! dxe5 22.d6! Qd7 23.Qxf3! Ng6 24.Qxa8! Bb7 25.Qxa7 Qc6 26.f3! Ra8 and you might think White was forced to play 27.Qxb7+ Qxb7 28.Be4 with the advantage gone, but in fact Levon had foreseen the last beautiful touch 27.d7!

Black can’t take the queen without allowing the d-pawn to queen, while after 27…Qxd7 28.Qxb6 the queen had escaped and White was three pawns up, with the bishop pair and an enduring attack. There was no hope, and Vladislav finally resigned on move 36, to a very restrained double fist pump from Levon.

It was a brilliant tournament victory for Levon, who had also won the Preliminary stage to ensure he took home the maximum number of 50 tour points as well as the $30,000 top prize.

That puts him well on course to qualify for the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Final in San Francisco this September. This is the current Top 10.

Levon was typically modest about his performance, however, feeling he’d only played well for the last two games on Saturday and his final two wins on Sunday. Looking back, you might argue that 17-year-old Arjun Erigaisi had pushed Levon hardest, though there were also huge blunders that went unpunished against someone who usually punishes mistakes — Magnus Carlsen.

Levon commented:

Well, I have to say I was of course lucky against Magnus. If I hadn’t been lucky in that match, where I was blundering everything, we wouldn’t be sitting here and saying how smart and intelligent my tactics were!

Magnus himself would later note:

I gave away a lead after the first day three times that can’t happen, but certainly the match against Levon was unfortunate. Not that I had bad luck, it was just unfortunate that I didn’t win it. Obviously what happened there on the second day shouldn’t happen. It’s one thing if he wins when he plays like he did in the final, when he was very convincing, but I really don’t think he played that well against me and so that’s the annoying part for me, but I guess overall I played poorly in the Preliminaries as well, so he was certainly a much more deserving winner than I would have been… but it’s still obviously annoying.

Levon had definitely earned the right to celebrate.

For 23-year-old Vladislav Artemiev, meanwhile, it was a bitter end to what had otherwise been a great debut on the tour.

He’d finished 2nd in the Prelims, crushed Anish Giri in the quarterfinals and come back to beat Ding Liren in the semi-finals. He’d exceeded his own expectations:

Of course before the tournament I think it [would have been] a little surprise if some people [had told me] I will play in the final. Of course I wanted to go to the knockout stage and maybe beat one guy, one top guy, and look what will be after this, but it’s a little surprise that I go to the final, so it’s very good for me and I will try to improve my chess style and chess level.

Magnus gets there in the end

As Magnus pointed out, he’d managed to win the first day of all three of his knockout matches (against So, Aronian and Ding) only to lose the rapid section on the second day. Against Ding Liren in the 3rd place match it was a 3:0 collapse, with Magnus pointing to the shock tactic 35.Ne8+! in the first game as the moment it all went wrong.

“Falling for” the tactic with 35…Rxe8 36.d7 Rcd8 37.dxe8=Q Rxe8 may have been the best option, while in the game Magnus went for 35…Kf8?! 36.d7 Rb8 and decided to try and exploit his 8-minute advantage on the clock when Ding traded down into a better queen endgame. With precise play Magnus might have been able to hold, but it felt as though it was a day on which he wasn’t in the mood to grind.

The second game continued where the first left off, with Ding getting a grip with the black pieces early on and then going on to win one of those trademark games where he just improves his position step by step until there’s nothing left for his opponent to do but resign. Magnus’ choice of 1.b3 hadn’t been vindicated!

That meant Magnus would need to win the next two games on demand to avoid a playoff, but instead he found himself much worse again, and although he fought his way back it was only to a position where he was faced with defending an endgame a pawn down. He decided enough was enough and, perhaps since draw offers aren’t allowed before move 40, simply resigned instead of offering a draw.

That meant a playoff, and a chance for redemption. As Magnus commented:

It was just a bad day in the rapid, but fortunately I knew that, 1) the stakes weren’t that high, and 2) I always had a chance in the blitz.

In fact the first blitz game went so well for Magnus that it perhaps justified all the misery he’d put himself through in rapid chess. He slowly dismantled Ding’s position in a Ruy Lopez, with 28.Rd6! signifying that the positional battle had been won by White. 28…f5?! only accelerated the end.

After 29.Bxf4! exf4?! (29…fxe4! is a better try) 30.Nd4! Ne5 (to hold c6) Magnus began to manoeuvre the queen for the kill with 31.Qb1! The game would later end when the final white piece, the f1-bishop, joined the party with 38.Bd3!

Ding therefore needed to win on demand to force Armageddon, but it was Magnus who had all the fun in the final blitz game with the black pieces. By the end we reached a position where for White to try and play on would be suicidal — for one brief moment Ding did try, but his suicide was rejected — before the Chinese no. 1 admitted it was over and took a draw.

That meant the Goldmoney Asian Rapid was over.

“The blitz was ok!” summed up Magnus when asked about his day.

Magnus wasn’t planning on celebrating his 3rd place, but at least considered his second 3rd place on the tour better than finishing 4th. His thoughts are now turning to the FIDE World Cup, which he starts on July 15th, if he can make it to Russia. What are his hopes?

First of all I hope to get there! That’s my first plan! I hope to submit a negative COVID test tomorrow and get my first shot of the vaccine and then be on my way. In terms of goals, I don’t know, I think we’ll see how it goes. I think in such a big knockout if you get there with the mindset that anything but a victory is a disappointment you’re sort of setting yourself up to fail, so I won’t be thinking in those terms, more of getting good training and trying to advance as far as possible.

Hopefully the first couple of rounds I’ll at least have some on paper slightly weaker opponents, so I might get some chance to play myself into form, but yeah, for sure, I think playing rapid is very good practice even for classical, but you don’t really know.

In fact Magnus will also be playing some blitz as part of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain before the FIDE World Cup, with one of the last events to qualify players to that tournament, the Banter Blitz Cup Final, starting on Monday July 5th. Evgeny Miroshnichenko, better known for his commentary, was the final player to make it through after knocking out 15-year-old prodigy Praggnanandhaa.

We’ll also have the Croatia Grand Chess Tour starting on Wednesday July 7th in Zagreb, with a certain Garry Kasparov joining for the final two days of blitz at the weekend.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the Goldmoney Asian Rapid and will stick around for all the other chess action coming up!

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