Missing out on vital tour points and a potential big pay-day by failing to make the cut is just part and parcel of the pro golf scene. But in chess, this is the new normal in the $1.5m Champions Chess Tour; a further occupational hazard for elite-level grandmasters, who on the whole are unaccustomed to having to make an early tournament exit.
And in the $100,000 Skilling Open, the first leg of the new tour season, there was a final “crazy day” as Hikaru Nakamura described it, as several top players surprisingly failed to make the cut and were dumped from the tournament. Out went world #3 Ding Liren and rising teenage star Alireza Firouzja – and also nearly making a surprise early exit was Anish Giri, who after leading for two days, suffered a disastrous brace of losses.
In the penultimate round, Firouzja looked on the cusp of going forward to the ‘business end’ of the Skilling Open – but he suffered a cruel reversal of fortunes against Nakamura, and then at the conclusion of the final round, he also discovered he’d been pipped by Giri in a tight race for the final spot into the quarterfinals by the narrowest of tiebreak margins.
Meanwhile, at the top, Magnus Carlsen and his long-time rival Nakamura took all the preliminary bragging rights by finishing joint-top of the leaderboard on 9/15, and they will be joined by six others in the quarterfinals who also made the cut: Wesley So, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Levon Aronian, Teimour Radjabov, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Giri.
Carlsen said: “Being the winner of the round-robin, doesn’t really matter that much. I certainly don’t feel like a winner, because I don’t think I played particularly well. But it was enough, so that’s what matters.”
Nakamura added: “Overall I thought I played well today. I did what I had to do even though it was very nervous.”
So now after three days of intense play, the 16-player starting field has now been whittled down to eight. The quarter-finals – head-to-head ties played in match format over four games – start today at 18:00 CET (12:00 EST | 09:00 PST).
Preliminary final standings:
1-2. M. Carlsen, H. Nakamura, 9/15; 3-5. W. So, I. Nepomniachtchi, L. Aronian, 8½; 6-8. T. Radjabov, M. Vachier-Lagrave, A. Giri 8*(all going forward to the q/finals); 9-10. A. Firouzja, Le Quang Liem, 8; 11. Ding Liren, 7½; 12-13. S. Vidit, D. Anton, 6½; 14. P. Svidler, 6; 15. S. Karjakin, 5½; 16. JK. Duda, 4½.
Carlsen vs Giri; Nepomniachtchi vs Aronian; So vs Radjabov; Nakamura vs MVL
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Alireza Firouzja
Skilling Open Prelim, (14)
Caro-Kann Defence, Classical Spassky Variation
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 The Caro-Kann has an unfair image of being perceived to be “boring”, but it is a solid and logical defence – and at club-level, learned right, it will increase your positional understanding of chess. 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 The Classical is a good, methodical approach with simple development that – at club-level at least – will make the White player have to take risks to try to break down. 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.Nf3 Nd7 8.h5 The Spassky variation, named after the 10th World Champion, an aggressive plan that involves making space for a rook lift to h4. However, it comes with long-term risks, because in the endgame, the pawn can become a liability. 8…Bh7 9.Bd3 Bxd3 10.Qxd3 e6 Time has moved on – such as the text – but in the early days of this line, Spassky and others scored well with opponents opting for the natural-looking 10…Qc7, only to discover what Spassky’s ‘big idea’ was, namely the imaginative rook lift 11.Rh4! e6 12.Bf4 Bd6 13.Bxd6 Qxd6 14.0-0-0 and White has more space and more options for his active rooks to operate behind. 11.Bf4 Qa5+ A nuanced move, as Black wants to entice White into playing c3. 12.Bd2 The retreat is the logical way to play. If 12.c3, Black will simply ‘get on’ with it, completing his development with 12…Ngf6 and the coming …Nd5 becomes a problem. 12…Bb4 13.c3 Be7 14.c4 Qb6 15.Bc3 Ngf6 16.Ne5 This is Nakamura’s trump card, with the e5 outpost offering good play – but Black has a solid position with no weaknesses. 16…Rd8 Threatening …Nxe5, and forcing Nakamura into wasting a move by retreating his queen. 17.Qe2 Bb4! With the bishops set to be traded, Firouzja has achieved easy equality with his patient cat and mouse game with Nakamura. 18.0-0 Bxc3 19.bxc3 0-0 20.Rab1 Qc7 21.f4 Nakamura has a very minimal of minimal edges with his space advantage and the Ne5 outpost – but he’ll have to take care with the endgame in mind, as many of White’s pawns are vulnerable and liable to be picked off. 21…c5 22.Qf3 Nb6 Wrong would be the natural-looking 22…b6?! as White has the riposte 23.Nc6! that makes life awkward for Black, forcing 23…Rde8 24.Rbc1 Nb8 25.Ne5 Nbd7 26.Rfd1 and White’s pieces are beginning to take up key central posts. Firouzja’s …Nb6 avoids this, and also brings to the mix the possibility of exploiting Nakamura’s doubled c-pawns. 23.Rfd1 The correct way was 23.Qf2 with the idea of playing Rfc1 covering the clump of queenside pawns. 23…Nfd7! If anything, Firouzja is now beginning to take the upper-hand, and Nakamura’s pawns are beginning to look a big liability. 24.Ne4 cxd4 25.cxd4 f5 It’s the critical moment of the game, with Nakamura more or less pot-committed now to attacking due to his pawn weaknesses – but Firouzja blinks. After 25…Nxe5! 26.fxe5 Qxc4 simply wins a pawn – and maybe more, with d4 and a2 now sitting targets. The teenage hotshot was probably over-worrying about Nakamura throwing in an Nd6 or possibly even Nf6+, so attempts to avoid this with ….f5 – but it offers Nakamura a glimmer of hope. 26.Nc5 Nxc5 27.dxc5 Qxc5+ 28.Kh2 Qc7 29.a4! It could well be that Firouzja simply overlooked this shot – and now he suffers as there’s trouble brewing down the b-file for Black. 29…Rxd1 30.Rxd1 Rd8?? Firouzja is totally oblivious to Nakamura’s big swindle. He had to play 30…a5 but after 31.Qb3, despite the extra pawn, it is hard to see how Black can achieve anything other than a draw here due to his own inherent weaknesses. 31.Qxb7! [see diagram] The ‘ouch!’ moment – an unexpected queen sacrifice from Nakamura that sensationally turns the tables, and must surely have come like a bolt from the blue for Firouzja. 31…Qxb7 32.Rxd8+ Kh7 33.Ng6 Qc8 The only way to stop Rh8 mate – but the knight ending offers no comfort for Firouzja, as Nakamura’s king easily waltzes over to the queenside for a won ending. 34.Rxc8 Nxc8 35.c5! It never rains but it pours for poor Firouzja, as this added finesse from Nakamura leaves his knight somewhat bereft of squares. 35…Kg8 36.Kg3 Kf7 37.Kf3 Ke8 38.Ke3 Kd7 39.Kd4 a6 40.Ke5 Kc6 There’s no hope whatsoever here for Firouzja. If 40…Na7 41.Nf8+ Ke7 42.Nxe6 and f5 falls next. 41.Kxe6 It’s academic, but also winning was 41.Nf8 Kxc5 42.Nxe6+ Kb4 43.Nxg7 and White will pick-off the f5- and h6-pawns. 41…Kxc5 42.Kf7 Kb4 43.Kxg7 1-0 Firouzja resigns, with no way to stop Kxh6-Kg7 and simply pushing the h-pawn home.