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John Henderson
By John Henderson

There’s a contrasting style to two big online tournaments right now – the Skilling Open and the annual Chess.com 2010 Speed Chess Championship – where one is steadily teasing chess fans with a top GM name each day in the run-up to its new season launch, while the other is seeing a top GM eliminated and having to leave the building every few days.

The Skilling Open is the opening leg of Magnus Carlsen’s new online $1.5m Champions Tour, with a star-studded 16-player field that will run 22-30 November. Over the past week, like a pre-Christmas Chess Advent calendar, each day a window is opened to reveal a new star name.

So far, the line-up is Ding Liren, Levon Aronian, Teimour Radjabov, David Antón Guijarro, Sergey Karjakin, Le Quang Liem, Wesley So, with the latest today being Anish Giri. This leaves another eight elite stars to come in the run-up to next week’s start, and I’d say there is a very good chance we’ll see a certain influential Norwegian being confirmed any day now.

Meanwhile, over at the Chess.com 2020 Speed Championship, the format takes a more episodic approach with a knockout match every few days or so through November 1 to December 13, as they battle it out for the $100,000 prize fund. These consist of 90 minutes of five-minute blitz with a one-second increment (“5+1”); 60 minutes of 3+1 and 30 minutes of bullet 1+1.

Through to the quarterfinals is: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (16.5-11.5, Nihal Sarin), Magnus Carlsen (24-5, Parham Maghsoodloo), Vladimir Fedoseev (15-14, Alireza Firouzja), Wesley So (18-10, Nodirbek Abdusattorov), Levon Aronian (14-11, Ian Nepomniachtchi) and today, Hikaru Nakamura (21-5, Haik Martirosyan).

The tournament reached its halfway point of the opening Round of 16 on Wednesday with an intriguing first clash between two top-10 elite-stars, as Aronian managed to edge out Nepomniachtchi in a close contest.

GM Levon Aronian – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
Chess.com 2020 Speed Chess Ch., (4)
Sicilian Defence
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.c3 Nf6 4.Be2!? A simple yet interesting offbeat line against the Sicilian that was championed in the early 1970s by the eccentric leading English player, IM Michael Basman – the idea is that the e4 pawn can’t be captured due to the omnipresent threat of Qa4+. And this is also a line I dabbled with as a teenager, thanks to one of Basman’s Audio Chess cassette tapes he produced on it – and heavily influenced by one of Basman’s most famous games with the system, Basman-Stean, Hastings 1973/74. 4…g6 5.0-0 Bg7 6.d3 Back in the day, Basman would have had no qualms about playing 6.Re1 0-0 7.Bf1 Nc6 8.d4 and central play – but Aronian takes a slower approach. 6…0-0 7.Be3 Nc6 8.Nbd2 b5 9.h3 b4 10.d4 Nd7 11.d5 Nce5 12.Nxe5 Nxe5 13.cxb4 cxb4 14.a3! bxa3 15.Rxa3 Aronian has emerged from the opening with queenside pressure, namely Black’s weak a-pawn – but can he capitalise on it? 15…a5 16.b4 Bb7 17.b5! The pressure is building, and if Nepo doesn’t act quickly, he’s going to be bulldozed on the queenside as eventually Black’s a-pawn will be picked off. 17…f5! The best try to generate some much-needed counter-play – Nepo has to risk the game breaking open to try and activate his bishop-pair. 18.exf5 gxf5 19.Nf3 Nxf3+?! It all starts to slip away from Nepo after this. A better try was 19…f4!? 20.Bc1 Qe8 and go all-in on the kingside attack. 20.Bxf3 Qd7 21.Bd4! This is the problem now for Nepo – once the dark-squared bishops are traded, Black has serious problems of how to get his other bishop into the game. 21…Qxb5 The pawn sacrifice is temporary, as Aronian will get it back soon enough – and with interest!. 22.Bxg7 Kxg7 23.Qa1+! Kg8 24.Rb1 Qd7 25.Rxa5 Rxa5 26.Qxa5 Aronian’s d5 pawn effectively acts as a big wedge in the heart of Black’s shaky position. 26…Rc8 27.Qd2! The sudden switch to the kingside highlights Black’s problem with his king. 27…Rf8 28.Qg5+ Kh8 29.Re1 Rf7 30.h4! Nepo is all but bust as Aronian has all the freedom to build up his attack. 30…Rg7 31.Qf4 Qc8 32.h5 Once h6 comes, Nepo will be on the morphine drip. 32…Qc3 33.Rb1! Just emphasising how impotent Nepo’s bishop is. 33…Qc8? Nepo was in dire straits anyway, but this should have just hastened his demise. The only way to try and hang on for a miracle was 33…Ba6 34.h6 Rg8 35.Qxf5 Bd3 but after 36.Be4! Bxe4 37.Qxe4 Qf6 38.Qe3 White will eventually convert his material plus in the endgame. 34.h6 Rg6 35.Bh5 e5 The only desperate try in a desperate position – but it all relies heavily on White falling into a trap. 36.dxe6 Rxg2+ 37.Kf1 Be4 38.e7 The vagaries of blitz means you can probably try and get away with anything, and Nepo played what he played probably not realising White had a win on the spot with 38.Qxd6!! Qc4+ 39.Be2 and Black can resign, with no stopping Rb8(+). But it is blitz after all, so the human eye doesn’t see the clinical kill the engine does. 38…Rg8 39.Qc1? [see diagram] The game has now officially gone “random” in the mad-dash of blitz, as the queen overshoots the runway! With his time drawing down rapidly now, Aronian was probably sensing the heat with Black’s pieces, so looks to trade queens – but that’s exactly what Black wants! The way to do it, as the no-nerves engine will gleefully point out, is stoping one square shorter with 39.Qd2! Bg2+ (Not 39…Bxb1?? 40.Qd4+ mating.) 40.Ke1 Qe6+ 41.Qe3 Qxe3+ 42.fxe3 Bc6 43.Rb6 Be8 44.Bf3 and eventually the e-pawn will win. 39…Bd3+ 40.Ke1? Tick-tock. Aronian had to play 40.Be2 Bxe2+ 41.Kxe2 Qe6+! 42.Qe3 Qa2+ 43.Qd2! Luckily, the rook is immune due to the mating threat of Qd4+. 43…Qc4+ 44.Qd3 Qe6+ with a perpetual check escape for Black. But Aronian has missed something that, luckily, Nepo also misses! 40…Rg1+?? That’s blitz for you: snatching defeat from the jaws of an unlikely save! Had Nepo played 40…Qe6+! the tables would be reversed, the only continuation being 41.Kd2 Bxb1 42.Qc3+ Qe5 43.e8Q Qxc3+ 44.Kxc3 Rxe8 45.Bxe8 Kg8 and White is on the back-foot in the ending, though with careful play it should end in a draw. 41.Kd2 Rxc1 42.Rxc1 Bc4 43.e8Q+ Qxe8 44.Bxe8 It’s all over bar the shouting now, with Nepo minus a rook – resignation is on the horizon. 44…Be6 45.Bh5 Kg8 46.Rc7 Kf8 47.Rg7 Bg8 48.Ke3 1-0

 

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