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John Henderson
By John Henderson

In a day full of upsets and underdogs in the $200,000 Airthings Masters, the second leg of the new Champions Chess Tour from the Play Magnus Group, the shockwaves reverberated around the chess world with the business end of the quarterfinals sensationally witnessing four of the top seeds crashing out of the tournament – the biggest shock of them all being World Champion and reigning tour champion Magnus Carlsen!

Carlsen was left visibly stunned as Daniil Dubov dragged the world champion into Mikhail Tal’s mythical deep dark forest to convert a lost game into a dramatic king hunt and mate after the Norwegian blundered badly. “Well, it just happens you know”, said a smiling Dubov in his post-match interview. “People like to use strong words when it happens but, in fact, he was just unlucky to blunder in this way at the most important moment. But, in general, we all, even Magnus despite being the best player in the world, blunder sometimes being under some random attack and being down to like 10 seconds.”

Dubov further added: “I was obviously very lucky in the end but I think it is luck, it is not some kind of miracle.” he also admitted: “I was much more interested in winning this match than in winning the whole thing!”

After dominating the pandemic-inspired online season, Carlsen’s remarkable winning run has come crashing to a grinding halt as he turned 30 at the end of November. Since reaching that milestone birthday, he’s failed to reach the final of the Chess.com Speed Championship, lost to Wesley So in the new Champions Chess Tour opener of the Skilling Open, and now dumped by Dubov in the second tour leg of the season.

Also joining the Norwegian for the door marked exit was his fellow chess influencer and rival, US speed maven Hikaru Nakamura, who went down heavily to Levon Aronian. And things didn’t get any better for the American chess fans, as US champion Wesley So was also toppled, losing in a closely-fought match to Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave that went to the wire of the Armageddon-tiebreaker.

And in the final last-eight match-up, Azerbaijan’s Teimour Radjabov won an epic tussle with newly-minted Russian champion Ian Nepomniachtchi that also went the distance, with the Azeri staging a remarkable late rally to win the second blitz games and then the Armageddon-tiebreaker to take the match. Radjabov will now join Dubov, Aronian and MVL in the last four.

On fire Dubov, along with Carlsen and So, is one of only three players so far to win tour titles, having beaten Hikaru Nakamura in the final of the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge back in early June – but now with the “big three” already eliminated, the swashbuckling and unpredictable young Muscovite has now been installed at least by fan-proclamation as the new favourite to win the Airthings Masters.

Earlier this month at the Russian Superfinal Championship in Moscow’s hallowed Central Chess Club, Dubov produced a brace of stunningly brilliant wins over eventual winner Nepomniachtchi and second seed Sergey Karjakin – the latter already being hailed as the “Game of the Year” – that only further endeared him to chess fans all over the world.

The question now being asked by many, is can Dubov now go on to win more hearts with a second tour title? If he does, it will also offer the likeable young Muscovite the perfect platform to finally muscle his long-overdue way into the elite-circle of the World’s Top 10 in the new year.

The Airthings Masters semifinal matches start on Thursday 31 December, starting at 15:00 CET (09:00 ET | 06:00 PT). There’s live coverage on Chess24 with a full multi-lingual line-up of top commentators to pick from.

Semifinals:
Dubov v Radjabov
Vachier-Lagrave v Aronian

It is Dubov’s ability to do the unexpected that gives headaches to so many of the world’s top players. More importantly, he possesses a keen eye for the type of position that will take his opponent outside of their comfort zone – a classic example being his match-deciding win over Carlsen, who was clearly winning, but due to the psychological barrage, blundered badly to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

GM Daniil Dubov – GM Magnus Carlsen
Airthings Masters | Knockout q/finals, (2.3)
Catalan/Bogo Indian Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Bb4+ It’s the Catalan/Bogo Indian. 5.Nbd2 dxc4 In the Catalan, White quite often sacrifices the c-pawn for speed development, not necessarily looking to quickly regain the pawn, but rather to undermine Black’s pawn structure trying to hang on the extra pawn. 6.Bg2 a5 7.a3 Bxd2+ 8.Bxd2 b5 9.a4 c6 If 9…b4 10.Ne5 Nd5 11.e4 Nb6 12.Qg4! and White has the more active pieces and already looking to threaten the Black king. 10.Qc2 Bb7 11.h4 Another typical Catalan move, looking to create space and possibly mayhem on the kingside. 11…Nbd7 12.h5 h6 Just stopping Dubov pushing on with h6 to weaken the dark squares. 13.Ne5 Nd5 When White inevitably slides in the Catalan Ne5, you have to be extra careful, as capturing the knight with 13…Nxe5 14.dxe5 Nd5 15.Rh4! leaves White with the bishop-pair, more space and excellent undermining and attacking chances. By keeping the knights on the board, for now, Carlsen hopes to consolidate his position first before shunting the Ne5. 14.Rh4! You have to be creative in the Catalan, and Dubov’s rook lift fits this bill, as he’s making the most of having not committed to castling as yet, which you might normally do in the Catalan. 14…N7f6 Possible was 14…Nxe5!? 15.dxe5 Qc7 but after 16.Bf3!? Qxe5 17.Rd1 despite the extra couple of pawns, Black has to worry that the game might bust open at any stage with White’s active rooks and bishops looking to strike. 15.Kf1 Just finishing the job of “castling by hand”, now that the rook is actively posted on h4, and more than ready to swing into the attack. 15…Qc7 16.Kg1 Nb4 17.Qc1 The downside for Carlsen with …Nb4, is that now getting his king to safety is problematic – especially castling kingside, which would be hit immediately with Bxh6! 17…Rd8 18.axb5 Another Catalan undermining move that was probably better here was 18.b3!? c5 19.Bxb7 Qxb7 20.axb5 cxb3 21.Rxa5 and the rooks are poised to enter the fray. 18…cxb5 19.Bxb4 axb4 20.Ra7 Nd5 Carlsen holds onto his pawn with a solid position – but he still has to figure out how he’s going to get his king out of the danger zone to connect his rooks. 21.Rg4 Rg8 22.Qc2?! Played with the obvious plan of Qh7 to pile more pressure on the Black position – but not the most accurate follow up, as Dubov missed the stronger option of 22.Qb1! which makes a big difference, as now 22…c3 23.bxc3! bxc3 there’s the sting in the tail of 24.Qxb5+! Kf8 25.Rxb7 and Black can resign. 22…c3 23.bxc3 bxc3 Missing 22.Qb1 has given Magnus a good position that he can work with – but it is still just a little awkward with his king stuck in the middle of the board. 24.Ra3?! What we might describe as being a “Dubovious move” – and one that so befuddles Magnus that he goes into the tank and falls very short of time, which partly explains his troubles at the most crucial stage of the game later. The best move was 24.Rf4! where it can all get double-edged again after 24…f5 as White has 25.Rf3! with Rxb7 and Rxc3 in the air, not to mention possibly blowing the game open further with an e4 – just the sort of minefield Dubov loves to join his opponents in a walk around! 24…Rc8 25.Nd3 It’s all starting to go pear-shaped for Dubov, and all Carlsen needs to do is consolidate his position and the passed b- and c-pawns will decide the game. However, easier said than done when you are facing deadly Dubov, and there’s also that little matter of falling way behind on time! 25…Nf6?! The obvious move that was being called out to be played was 25…b4!, I don’t see how White can survive for long – for sure a big missed moment for Carlsen. 26.Bxb7!?! Typical of crowd-pleaser Dubov, who just keeps on lobbing grenades to confuse Magnus! 26…Qxb7 27.Nc5? The sensible 27.Rh4! was just far too sensible for Dubov! A likely follow-up now is 27…Qc6 28.Rb3 Ke7 29.Nc5 Ra8 30.Qxc3 with a balanced, but mutually tricky position where one slip from either side and the game will be gone. 27…Rxc5 28.dxc5 Nxg4 29.c6 Qxc6 Even stronger was 29…Qb6! 30.e3 b4! as 31.Ra8+ Ke7 32.Rxg8 b3 and there’s no stopping the b-pawn, and I’m quite sure Magnus would have faired better with his extra queen! That said, there’s nothing wrong with what he played, as that also should have been winning with careful play. 30.Rxc3 Qb6 31.e3 Ke7 This was the mess Dubov was playing for when he went all-in with his bluff of 29.c6 – but nevertheless it’s just a little awkward for Magnus with his king wandering in No Man’s Land. 32.Rc6 Qd8 33.Qc5+ Kf6 34.Rd6 Qe7?? [see diagram] It’s an utter disaster from Carlsen, who blunders to snatch defeat from the very jaws of victory. Just about any other queen move apart from this would have been winning; the strongest candidate being 34…Qa5! 35.Qd4+ Kg5 36.Qf4+ Kxh5 37.Qxf7+ g6! and White can’t take the rook as …Qe1+ followed by …Qxf2+ is mating. 35.Qd4+ Kg5 36.f3! Unavailable in the above note, as …Qe1+ is a mate-in-three! 36…f5 Well, it’s scant conciliation when the engine tells you that you could have avoided the mate with the hopeless continuation of 36…Qxd6 37.Qxd6 Kxh5 38.fxg4+ Kg6 39.Qd3+ etc. 37.fxg4 Rc8 38.Qf4+ Kf6 39.Qxf5# 1-0

 

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