Black Thursdays - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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“War! What is it good for?” sings Edwin Starr in his 1970 Motown classic protest song, before giving an unambiguous answer: “absolutely nothing.” Chess is a game that was created to simulate war, but Starr’s sentiments may well have been in the thoughts of Magnus Carlsen and Russian number 1 Ian Nepomniactchi, as they set-up a redux of their recent Dubai world title battle by winning through to the Airthings Masters final, the opening leg of the 2022 $1.6m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour.

It was clear that there was a sombre mood among the three Russians and lone Norwegian combatants contesting the semifinals, as the realities and Realpolitik of Thursday’s match-ups came in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. After beating 19-year-old Andrey Esipenko, Nepo – who said he was unable to think clearly throughout the match in his interview – was in no mood to celebrate, and tweeted: “History has seen many Black Thursdays, but today is blacker than the others.” And then signing off with the hashtag #saynotowar.

Carlsen had a dream start with two comfortable opening wins against an out-of-sorts Vladislav Artemiev and then sealed the deal with a draw to cruise into the final – but even the world champion was in a reflective mood, commenting that he had been following world events and described himself as a “concerned bystander.”

War in Ukraine saw former World Champion and Hall of Famer Anatoly Karpov being named among the first high-profile Russians to be hit by sanctions and now unable to travel to any European Union state. As a Member of the State Duma, Karpov, world champion from 1975-1985, was one of 351 legislators who voted for – and all subsequently sanctioned by the EU – and supported the resolution to recognise the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, the pretext used by Russian president Vladimir Putin to justify his invasion.

At a time of unparalleled conflict, Uefa moved swiftly yesterday to switch the football Champions League final away from St Petersburg to Paris, and today Formula One cancelled the Russian Grand Prix, and now there’s calls from within the chess community for Fide, the game’s governing body, to likewise boycott or cancel the upcoming biennial 150-nation team Olympiad, due to be staged in Moscow in July-August this year, just as the formal invitations were sent out earlier this week. (Breaking news: Fide have now confirmed the Olympiad will not be held in Russia)

But for now, Chess continues rise above it all with old foes Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi clashing once again, only this time in the two-day Airthings Masters Finals, the first leg on the 2022 Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, that gets underway on Friday.

Airthings Masters semifinal results:
Nepomniachtchi 2½-½ Esipenko
Artemiev ½-2½ Carlsen

Friday and Saturday sees old foes Carlsen and Nepominiachtchi clashing in the the Airthings Masters Final. There’s live coverage on Chess24 with commentary from the regular Tour studio team of host Kaja Snare, GM David Howell and IM Jovanka Houska. Play starts at 18:00 CET (12:00 ET | 09:00 PT) with the official broadcast opening at 17:40 CET.

GM Andrey Esipenko – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
Airthings Masters | Knockout S/finals, (2)
Ruy Lopez, Martinez Variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.d3 The solid ‘Martinez Variation’ has been seen numerous times at the highest level of play, having been regularly employed by the likes of Magnus Carlsen, Vishy Anand, Fabiano Caruana, Alexander Grischuk, Sergey Karjakin, Peter Svidler and many other super-grandmasters who regularly play the Ruy Lopez as White, and perhaps looking to sidestep all the big theory mainlines, such as the Marshall Attack, Zaitsev, Chigorin and Breyer variations. 6…b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Bb7 10.Bc2 Re8 11.Re1 Bf8 A typical Black strategic retreat in the Lopez, where the bishop not only helps to defend the kingside, but also opens up a possible counterattack in the center, indirectly hitting e4 or perhaps playing …d5. 12.Nbd2 Ne7 And with the space made by the strategic bishop retreat, the knight is heading to the dangerous f4 outpost. 13.a4 Ng6 14.Nf1 d5 15.Ng3 c5! Nepo can be pleased with the outcome of the opening, as his positive play sees the Muscovite seize the advantage. 16.Bd2 h6 17.b4 c4 An alternative plan was also 17…cxb4 18.cxb4 Rc8 19.Nf5 dxe4 20.dxe4 Rc4! With the rook lift hitting both e4 and b4. And now if 21.Ne3 Rc7 22.Nf5 Nf4! Black pieces are very dangerously placed, not only ready to strike both at e4 and b4, but also supporting a possible kingside strike. 18.dxc4 bxc4 19.exd5 Qxd5 Nepo’s intentions are very clear – he wants to crash his way through to his opponent’s king. 20.Bxg6 Hindsight is always 20/20, but Esipenko would probably have faired better with 20.Ne4 Be7 (If 20…Nh5!? 21.Nh4! Nxh4 22.Qxh5 Nxg2 23.Red1 Qe6 24.Kxg2 f5 25.Be3 fxe4 26.Kh2 and with the g-file open and Black’s pawn structure a mess, White looks to be more than OK.) 21.Qe2 Nxe4 22.Bxe4 Qxe4 23.Qxe4 Bxe4 24.Rxe4 Rac8 25.Nxe5 Bf6! 26.f4 Nxe5 27.Rae1 Nf3+! 28.gxf3 Red8 and White’s extra pawn means nothing here with White’s kingside pawns all crippled. 20…fxg6 21.Be3 Qf7 22.Nd2 Nd5 More accurate was the immediate 22…Rad8 23.Qc2 Rd3! 24.a5 Red8 and Black dominates. 23.Nge4 Nf4! All the danger signs are already there for Esipenko, so he really had to be wary that there was the possibility of a “happening” happening. 24.f3 Rad8 25.Qc2 Rd3! Nepo continues to ratchet up the pressure with the rook lift. And clearly annoyed by the rook infiltration, Esipenko looks to remove it, but overlooks a crushing tactic. 26.Nf2? Rxd2! 27.Bxd2 Nxg2!! [see diagram] It’s the follow-up sac that’s the killer, as Nepo crashes through in all lines with f3 falling. 28.Re4 Qxf3 29.Rg4 There’s no defence. After 29.Rf1 Nf4! threatens …Qg2 mate, so White’s hand is forced into 30.Bxf4 exf4 31.Nh1 (If not this, then White is just waiting for death to come knocking on the door after 31.a5 Qg3+ 32.Kh1 Bd6 33.Rd1 Kh7!! Just removing the king from the checks with a bundle of sacrifices, sets up a a neat checkmate or the win of the White queen! 34.Rxd6 f3!! 35.Rxg6 The only way to fend off the mate – but at the cost of the queen. 35…Qxg6 36.Rxe8 Qxc2 and White can resign.) 31…Qxe4 32.Qxe4 Bxe4 and White can resign being a piece to the worse. 29…h5 30.Qxg6 Nf4 31.Rxf4 If 31.Qxe8 hxg4 White can’t avoid his king being mated. 31…exf4 32.Bxf4 Re2! 0-1 And Esipenko resigns with no defence as 33.Qg3 is met by 33…Rxf2! either winning a piece or mating the White king on h1.

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