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John Henderson
By John Henderson

As the new century now officially comes of age with the dawning of 2021, we’re left dealing with the Christmas leftovers in the $200,000 Airthings Masters following an incredible series of last eight match-ups that witnessed top seeds Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi, plus the top US duo of Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura, all sensationally crashing out of the second leg of the Champions Chess Tour organised by the Play Magnus Group.

In a day of high-drama, out went a quartet of top favourites with a big fanbase, and we’re left with the underdogs now in the limelight and the chance to seize a big pay-day with no Carlsen & Co to worry about. And the shocks didn’t end there, as the semifinals turned in another big upset for the fans as the new crowd-pleaser, Russia’s Daniil Dubov, suddenly found all his fire and brimstone at the board being expertly extinguished by Teimour Radjabov.

The Azeri held his nerve to win the match, admitting afterwards that he tried to play as “boring chess as possible” to counter the explosive young Russian star Dubov, who knocked out World Champion and defending tour champion Carlsen in the biggest shock of the quarterfinals.

And in the Airthings Masters final, Radjabov will now meet his neighbouring rival and old foe Levon Aronian, after the Armenian #1 literally power-housed his way to victory in his semifinal match-up with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, as he dominated the Frenchman from start to finish. The final between Aronian and Radjabov will be an intriguing match-up in more ways than one.

Aronian and Radjabov are clearly back in-form, and both are known to be extremely creative, imaginative players. But for the frenzied and very patriotically minded Armenian and Azerbaijani fans, the showpiece final also comes with a geopolitical sub-plot twist to it between the warring neighbouring states in the painful, longstanding no man’s land mess in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a dispute dating back to when Stalin reordered the region in the 1920s, that intensified following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and only a few months ago flared up once again following a bloodbath with over 4,000 deaths.

The Airthings Masters final between Levon Aronian and Teimour Radjabov starts on Saturday, 2 January, 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.

GM Daniil Dubov – GM Teimour Radjabov
Airthings Masters KO | S/final (2.4)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 d6 6.N1c3 a6 7.Na3 b5 8.Nd5 Nf6 By a slightly roundabout move-order from Black, we’ve transposed from the possibility of the Kalashnikov to its offshoot – so to speak – blood brother of the Sicilian Sveshnikov. 9.Bg5 Be7 10.Bxf6 Bxf6 11.c3 Bg5 12.Nc2 Rb8 13.h4 Bh6 14.Be2 0-0 15.Bg4 Be6 Radjabov is more than happy to exchange the light-squared bishops on e6, as not only will …fxe6 kick the Nd5, but Black’s central pawn mass and open lines will give him a big positional advantage. 16.Kf1N A novelty from the always-inventive Dubov. Previously seen before was 16.Ncb4 Nxb4 17.Nxb4 Qb6 18.0-0 a5 where Black stands well in Sokolov-Calistri, Montpellier 2006. 16…Qd7 17.Bf5!? Dubov, as ever, continues to find novel ways to keep attacking – this one being via a crafty knight fork. 17…Kh8 The pawn sacrifice is hot, very hot. If 17…Bxf5 18.exf5 Qxf5?? 19.Ncb4! wins at least a piece with multiple Ne7+ forks in the air. 18.Qh5 Bxf5 19.exf5 Black seems to have faired well out of the exchanges, as White’s king looks the more vulnerable. 19…f6 20.Rd1 a5 A little bit of a waste of time – Radjabov should have just cut to the chase by immediately playing …Rbe8 and …e4 followed by swinging the knight or rook into e5. 21.Rh3! Yet another ingenious rook lift from Dubov – and one that very nearly turns the game the Muscovite’s way. 21…Rbe8 22.Rhd3 It’s getting complicated, very complicated – but the engine knows no nerves and always finds the best practical move, and here it was 22.Na3!? forcing the rook back with 22…Rb8 (It’s a bit risky to play 22…Qb7 as after the simple 23.Kg1! suddenly Black is vulnerable to a nasty attack as the threat of Nxf6! has to be defended against.) 23.Qg4 and with the queen coming to e4, and threats of Rhd3, White has a very pleasant game. 22…e4! Better late than never! 23.Nxf6?!? Another of those typical “Dubovious moves” we talked about in the previous column – needing to win to get back in the match, Dubov would rather go all-in with his bluff than meekly play 23.Rh3 Re5 and Black does seem to be having the better of it. 23…Rxf6 24.Rxd6 Rxf5? Time, pure and simple. After 24…Rxd6! 25.Rxd6 Qc8 defends everything and keeps the extra piece. 25.Rxc6! Dubov is doing his best to drag Radjabov into that Mikhail Tal mythical dark deep forest! 25…Rxf2+! Two can play at that game! And amazingly, the only way to proceed, as after 25…Qxc6? 26.Qxf5 Qc4+ White has the remarkable 27.Ke1! (If 27.Kg1? Qe2! is winning.) 27…e3 28.fxe3 Bxe3 29.Nxe3 Rxe3+ 30.Kd2 and it is all very messy and unclear, but White certainly isn’t flat out lost. 26.Kxf2 Qxc6 27.Kg1 b4 Dubov needs to win this game to stay in the match, and that best explains the randomness that now follows. 28.cxb4 axb4 29.Nxb4 Qb6+ 30.Kh1 Rf8 31.a3 Objectively the game is lost for Dubov, and Nc2 – as suggested by the engine – was the way to continue, but the Muscovite wants to try and keep the position as complicated as he can, even if it means he’s pushing the envelope too far. 31…e3 Pushing that big e-pawn looked the right and natural thing to do – but due to the few seconds remaining on the clock, and with the players practically now living on the fumes of the time increment, Radjabov missed the very strong 31…Qf2! and there looks to be no defence to …Bf4 combined with pushing the e-pawn. But by pushing the e-pawn, Dubov is just still in the game and still swinging. 32.Qe5 Qg6 33.Nd5 Qc2 34.Rg1?! A desperado attempt from Dubov to keep the game complicated to somehow snatch a win, knowing full well that the move he simply had to play was 34.Rd4! but after 34…Qxb2 35.Re4 Qxa3 36.Nxe3 Bxe3 37.Rxe3 the game will just fizzle out to a draw that will wrap up the match for Radjabov. 34…Qf2 35.Qe7 e2 36.Nc3 Bg5! [see diagram] With just a handful of seconds left on his clock, and considering the time pressure, Radjabov holds his nerve to uncork this beautifully study-like stunner – aiming for the clever deflection winner of …Qxh4 mate if Dubov’s overworked queen captures the e-pawn – but the engine will tell you that the clinical kill was the even better deflection with 36…g5!! 37.Qe4 Qxg1+! 38.Kxg1 Rf1+ 39.Kh2 e1Q and White can resign. 37.Qxg5 e1Q 38.Rxe1 Qxe1+ 39.Kh2 h6 40.Qg3 Qc1 There must have been a great temptation on Radjabov’s part to make life simple with 40…Qxg3+! 41.Kxg3 Rd8 and the rook coming to d2 harassing the queenside pawns, but the match-scenario was that the Azeri only needed to draw, so he goes for the very practical shot of …Rf1 not worrying about Qd8+, as he’ll happily take the repetition with …Kh7 and …Kh8 etc. 41.Qd6 Rf1 42.Qd8+ Kh7 43.Qd3+ Kh8 44.Ne4? And Dubov opts to press the gamble button once too often, knowing full-well that the likely draw with 44.Qd8+! Kh7 45.Qd3+ is no use to him. 44…Rh1+ 45.Kg3 Qxb2 46.Qd8+ Kh7 47.Qd3 Qe5+ The rest now is just a formality. 48.Kg4 Qe6+ 49.Kf4 Rxh4+ 50.Ke3 Rg4 51.Kf3 Qf5+ 52.Ke3 Qf4+ 53.Kd4 Qd6+ 0-1

 

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