A super serious Teimour Radjabov turned in a standout performance that defied the pre-tournament odds and the predictions of the pundits, with the former Azerbaijan No 1 overpowering his neighbouring rival, Armenia’s Levon Aronian, to clinch the Airthings Masters title, along the way picking up a big $60,000 pay-day and a guaranteed qualifying spot into the tour final in September.
Radjabov was in full control of the match throughout, going on to win both sets to capture the first tour major of the new – and now renamed! – tour season. After three tense and evenly matched draws in the opening set, the match dramatically swung Radjabov’s way following his masterly handling of the Berlin Wall endgame to win the fourth and final game of the day.
It was a major setback for Aronian, and despite trying to battle his way back in the second set, Radjabov was always the one in control of the match, and after winning game 2, the result was always going to be a foregone conclusion, and he sealed the deal by easily drawing game 3 to take the title. Aronian took home $45,000 for being the runner-up, plus double tour points in the season-long race for the top-placed non-tour-winner into the Grand Final.
An emotional and drained Radjabov – who now joins Skilling Open winner Wesley So in the Grand Final – said in victory: “Today it was really tough. Trying to keep the focus and concentration to the very end and takes a lot of emotions as well to keep this way of calmness that I am trying to produce and not to show if I am happy or unhappy about my position.
“But it just took so much energy I am completely exhausted.”
The 33-year-old also added that he had taken the tournament “super serious” and he will celebrate “until the morning, I think”.
And Radjabov’s victory is yet another Indian summer, coming just a couple of years after he returned from a short hiatus from the game to surprise everyone by winning the 2019 World Cup. But before Magnus Carlsen came on the scene, Baku-born Radjabov was seen as the coming boy, the teenager most-likely to challenge the “original” Baku boy, Garry Kasparov; and indeed, aged 15, he sensationally beat the world champion on his 2003 Linares debut.
It was also announced at the weekend that Meltwater, a leading global provider of media intelligence and social analytics solutions, will be the title partner for Play Magnus Group’s $1.5 million Champions Chess Tour, now renamed the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour – and along with it, the world champion will also become a brand ambassador for Meltwater.
Meltwater was founded in Oslo, Norway, in 2001 and is headquartered in San Francisco, California, with 50 offices across six continents. And the plan now is, Covid restrictions notwithstanding, if travel is permitted later in the year, then the Grand Final of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour will be staged in their San Francisco HQ in September.
GM Levon Aronian – GM Teimour Radjabov
Airthings Masters | Final, (1.4)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 The notorious “Berlin Wall” Endgame made famous by Vladimir Kramnik, after the Russian title challenger sensationally rehabilitated the Berlin after a lengthy hiatus of over a century, as he flummoxed Garry Kasparov with it during their 2000 World Championship Match in London. Although Kasparov never lost playing against it, it proved to be his psychological downfall, becoming frustrated in the match because he just couldn’t break it down. 9.h3 Bd7 10.Rd1 Kc8 11.g4 Ne7 12.Ng5 Be8 Radjabov’s pieces may well be retreating for now, but the idea is to consolidate and then counter White’s space advantage to reposition those pieces. 13.f4 c5 14.Nc3 b6 A common theme in the Berlin – Black intends …Kc8-b7 looking to connect his rooks to contest the d-file. 15.f5 The problem for White in the Berlin is the temptation to press his space advantage – the only problem with this, though, is – just like in this game – there’s a grave danger those pawns will be over-extended and Black can measure his counter-attack by undermining them. 15…Nc6 16.Bf4 Nd4! Taking full advantage of the glorious central outpost, and the fact that the knight is safe there, as White can’t play Be3xd4 and Rxd4 with …Bc5 skewering the rook. 17.Kf2? It all goes downhill from here for Aronian – the critical and correct move was 17.e6! f6 (Not 17…fxe6? 18.Nxe6 Nxe6 19.fxe6 and White is doing well, with threats of Nd5 and e7 – and if 19…c6? 20.Bg5! White is close to winning.) 18.Nf7 Bxf7 19.exf7 White is fine, and Black has to continue careful to maintain the status quo, the best solution may well be 19…Bd6! 20.Bxd6 cxd6 21.Ne4 d5 22.Ng3 Rf8 23.c3 Nf3+ 24.Kg2 Ne5 25.Rxd5 Rxf7 and equality. 17…h6! It looks as though Aronian missed this, apparently “seduced” down this line, believing he would see 17…Nxc2 18.Rac1 Nd4 19.Nd5 h6 20.Nxf7 Bxf7 and the nice tactical blow of 21.Rxd4! c6 22.e6 Be8 23.Nc7 cxd4 24.Nxa8 c5 25.b4 and White is on top. But now Black emerges with a solid position, and White now has to worry about his over-extended pawns becoming vulnerable. 18.Nf3 Nxc2 19.Rac1 Nb4 20.a3 Nc6 21.Nd5 Ne7! A timely retreat, as not only would the exchange of knights favour Black, but now c6 is an ideal square for his bishop. 22.Ne3 Nc6 23.f6?! This further pawn weakness just compounds Aronian’s problems going into the endgame – the correct call was surely 23.Nd5! forcing Black to either repeat moves or go for 23…Kb7!? 24.Bg3 Ne7 25.Nf4 which more or less is even, and equally a damn sight better than what comes now in the game! 23…Bd7 24.b4?! Aronian is clearly beginning to panic. The better plan was 24.fxg7 Bxg7 and now 25.b4!? Bf8 26.Nd5 looking to make a target of c7, and if 26…Be6 27.Be3 White has genuine chances with his own attack brewing on the queenside. 24…g5 25.Bg3 Be6! A common theme in the Berlin endgame – once Black’s light-squared bishop comes into the game, White has trouble containing it. 26.Rd3 Kb7! Defending c6 and now genuinely threatening to capture on b4 – and Black is one step nearer to connecting his rooks to contest the d-file. And with it, you have to envision the endgame scenario on the board sans the rooks, and you see that White has big pawn weaknesses that aren’t going to be easy to defend, while Black’s pawns are solid, and he has a queenside majority. And all this means that Radjabov is simply winning. 27.Rdc3 Rd8 28.Nf5 a5! Forcing Aronian to make a committal move on the queenside, none of which make for an easy endgame to have to defend. 29.b5 Na7 30.a4 c6 Stronger may well have been 30…c4! threatening …Bb4 and Black is well on top with his rooks connected and the active bishop-pair – but there is also a clear logic to Radjabov’s plan, as he quickly brings his knight back into the game. 31.bxc6+ Nxc6 32.Ke2 Nb4 33.Rd1? Aronian is in a bad way, and this doesn’t help matters any, as trading rooks only helps Radjabov convert his endgame advantage. It was better to play 33.Rb1 to keep the rooks on the board, and hope for finding some tricks to save the game. 33…Rxd1 Radjabov didn’t even think twice about trading! 34.Kxd1 Nd5 35.Ra3 c4 Even better was 35…Bxf5! 36.gxf5 as now 36…c4 37.Ra1 Bc5 and Black has …Rc8 and …Nf4 coming. But then again, you can understand Radjabov’s concern here, as that clump of White pawns on e5, f5 & f6 could prove tricky. 36.Nd6+ Bxd6 37.exd6 Rd8 38.Be5 Nb4 The coming …Nd3 is going to be awkward to meet. 39.Bg3 Nd3 40.Nd4 Bd7 Also good and strong was 40…Nf4 and White is also in trouble with d6 set to fall – but Radjabov takes the more cautious route to victory, and you can’t blame him when you see that White’s pawns on d6, f6 and h3 are all vulnerable. 41.Kd2 Re8 42.Nc2 Nc5! [see diagram] Now Radjabov makes a4 an added weakness – so something now has to give in White’s position. 43.Re3 Ne4+ Also easily winning was 43…Rxe3 44.Kxe3 Bxa4 with the plan of …Bc6 followed by …b5 to push those queenside pawns up the board. 44.Kc1 Nxg3 45.Rxg3 The end is nigh, as the street placard-waving naysayers would say, with d6, f6 and a4 set to fall. 45…Re6 46.Rc3 Rxf6 47.Rxc4 Rxd6 48.Kb2 Rd3 0-1