If – as Plato famously observed – necessity is the mother of invention, then chess has the unlikely combination of Covid-19 and Magnus Carlsen to be thankful for. It was the pandemic lockdown two years ago that inspired Carlsen to create the online Champions Chess Tour, with his brainchild subsequently raising the game’s profile to now become a leading eSport attracting more big-name sponsors to chess, with the latest being sports company PUMA.
The new season of the $1.6 million Meltwater Champions Chess Tour got underway this week with two-time defending champion Carlsen topping the field in the opening 16-player Airthings Masters. And this seasons promises to be bigger, better and with more exciting chess, with an emphasis on encouraging more ‘fighting chess’.
Fighting chess will be rewarded in 2022, both with cash for wins and a Season Bonus Fund of up to $200,000. It’s inspired by Australian GM and leading Economist David Smerdon, and his ‘Fighting Chess Index’ will be used to award prizes, while there are also additional prizes for performing above expectations or playing brilliant games. New Tour ratings are being introduced to chart how players perform online.
The added twist this year is that there are 3 points for a win, but also $750 for the winner of each game, so every game matters, whether a player qualifies for the ‘business end’ of the knockout or not. In total, there will be an added $200,00 season bonus prize fund on offer, with the money paid out to the players at the end of the season.
But Carlsen was hit by Covid in the early rounds of the Airthings Masters Preliminaries, as a mild dose clearly affected an out-of-sorts world champion’s play with a series of uncharacteristic and bizarre misplays. Carlsen put it down to having ‘hallucinations’ at times, claiming ‘Every time I tried to think, I blundered!’ And just when the Norwegian was staging a comeback on day two, his three-game winning run came to a crashing halt when he was dramatically beaten by the 16-year-old Indian prodigy Praggnanandhaa – who in the process becomes the youngest player to have beaten Carlsen in a competitive game since he became World Champion.
Carlsen rallied once again on the final day four of the preliminaries to finish just behind his most recent title challenger, Ian Nepomniactchi, in the standings. The two title combatants easily made it through to the knockout stage, as does Vladimir Artemiev, Andrey Esipenko, Eric Hansen, Ding Liren, Liam Quang Le and last but not least the German 17-year-old prodigy Vincent Keymer, who edged out two more established stars and favourites, Levon Aronian and Anish Giri, for the final spot.
Preliminaries Final Standings:
1. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 29/45; 2. M. Carlsen (Norway) 25; 3-4. V. Artemiev (Russia), A. Esipenko (Russia) 24; 5. E. Hansen (Canada) 23; 6-8. Ding Liren (China), Liem Quang Le (Vietnam), Vincent Keymer (Germany) 22; 9-10. L. Aronian (USA), A. Giri (Netherlands) 21; 11-12. R. Pragganandhaa (India), N. Abdusattorov (Uzbekistan) 19; 13-14. JK. Duda (Poland), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan); 15. H. Niemann (USA) 14; 16. A. Kosteniuk (Russia) 3.
Airthings Masters quarterfinal pairings:
Nepomniachtchi v Keymer; Carlsen v Le; Ding Liren v Artemiev; Esipenko v Hansen
Wednesday sees the Airthings Masters Knockout gets underway, and there’s live coverage on Chess24 with commentary from the regular tour 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 Magnus Carlsen – GM R. Praggnanandhaa
Airthings Masters | Prelims, (8)
Tarrasch Defence/Caro-Kann Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c5 The Tarrasch Defence often leads to wildly complex and dynamic play, with the battleground normally concentrating around Black’s Isolated Queen’s Pawn – will it be a strength or a weakness? 5.e3 An old-fashioned method of sidestepping the big mainline of the Tarrasch, after 5.cxd5 exd5 6.g3 Nc6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Bg5 that was seen in two World Championship matches, Petrosian-Spassky 1966 and Karpov-Kasparov 1984, and often or not just transposes into a Caro-Kann Defence Panov Attack. 5…Nc6 6.cxd5 exd5 7.Bb5 cxd4 8.exd4 Once again, Carlsen bucks the convention by sidestepping from the norm with a less dangerous reply, with the more conventional recapture being 8.Nxd4 Bd7 9.0-0 Bd6 and a more typical IQP fight. 8…Bd6 Both sides have free and easy development, and both sides also have IQPs to defend – so an intriguing battle ensues. 9.0-0 0-0 10.h3 Stopping the awkward pin with …Bg4. 10…h6 Ditto! Likewise, Pragg stops the awkward Bg5 pin. 11.Re1 Bf5 if anything, Pragg had to be happy here with his lot against the World Champion, as he emerges from the opening with no problems and total equality. 12.Ne5 Rc8 13.Bf4 Re8 14.Rc1 Qb6 15.Bxc6 A slight concession for Carlsen, as he cedes the bishop-pair – but probably better this rather than 15.Qd2 Ne4! and the tactics begin to work in Black’s favour, with the forcing line 16.Nxe4 Bxe4 17.Bxc6 bxc6 18.a3 c5! 19.dxc5 Bxc5 20.Nd7 Qg6 21.Rxe4 Bxf2+! 22.Qxf2 Rxc1+ 23.Bxc1 Qxe4 24.Bf4 and Black has slightly the better of it in the ending with his passed d-pawn – but White should really have enough with his two minor pieces to hold the balance. 15…bxc6 16.Na4 Qa6 17.Re3 Ne4! 18.f3 Ng5 19.Rec3 You can understand Carlsen reluctance in not wanting to allow 19.Bxg5?! hxg5 as White can easily find himself getting into a “murky” position, such as 20.Nc5 Qxa2 21.Na4 f6! 22.Ra1 Bc2! 23.Qc1 Qxa1! 24.Qxa1 fxe5 and Black has the better off it with his well-placed pieces and the bishop-pair and extra pawn that are more than a match for the queen. 19…Qb7 20.Bh2 Just getting the bishop out of the pin rather than hanging loose on f4 – but that said, Carlsen’s position is looking somewhat shaky in comparison to Pragg’s more pragmatic deployment of his pieces. 20…Ne6 21.Nxc6?! Just when we thought Carlsen was being cautious retreating his loose bishop, we discover that he was, in fact, just seeing “ghosts” – probably through his Covid – with a faulty tactic. Instead, he had to play first 21.g4 Bh7 and now more playable is 22.Nxc6!? Bxh2+ 23.Kxh2 and White just has to be wary of any play on his king down the long b8-h2 diagonal. 21…Nf4?! And Pragg believes Carlsen, missing that it was a blunder, as the simple solution is 21…Bxh2+! 22.Kxh2 and now 22…Nf4! threatening both …Ne2 or …Re2 that leaves Black with a big advantage, and one where this time 23.Ne5 fails to 23…Rxc3 24.Rxc3 f6 25.Ng4 Re2! with no defence to …Rxg2+ winning. 22.Ne5 Bxe5 23.dxe5 Nd3 The intruding knight is not such a big problem for Carlsen, as he can easily play around it. 24.Rxc8 Rxc8 25.Rxc8+ Qxc8 26.Bg3! Bringing the bishop into the game, and just giving the White king a little air with no back-rank mating threats. 26…d4 27.b3 Qc6 28.Qd2 Kh7 29.Kh2 Bg6 Seeking the queen exchange with 29…Qc1 30.Qxc1 Nxc1 was also possible, but works in White’s favour after 31.Bf2! Black is going to face a tough endgame. 30.Qa5! A provocative punt from Carlsen, but if the Indian prodigy blinks, then he’s likely to find himself being outplayed by the world champion in the ending. 30…Qc1! [see diagram] A brave reply from Pragg who simply ignores Carlsen’s threats to the a7-pawn by creating his own problems for the World Champion, as the active Black queen generates its own threats with the imaginative …Qe3 and …Qe2, both threatening the White king and looking to push the d-pawn home. 31.Qxa7 The engine soon comes up with the best way for White to avoid the dangers here, and that’s with 31.e6! fxe6 and now 32.Qxa7 The point is that now 32…Qe3 33.Nc5 Nf4 34.Nd7! Bf5 35.Qb8 Ne2 36.Nf8+ Kg8 37.Nd7+ Kh7 38.Nf8+ and White bails-out with a perpetual. 31…Qe3 32.Nc3?? Covid-caused or not, this is a complete hallucination from Carlsen. He had to play 32.Nb6! allowing the sequence 32…Nxe5 33.Qb8 Nxf3+! 34.gxf3 d3 35.Nd7 (White has to play with caution as 35.Bf4?? walks into a forced mate after 35…Qf2+ 36.Kh1 Qxf3+ 37.Kg1 Be4 etc.) 35…Bf5 36.Nf8+ Kh8 37.Ng6+ Kh7 38.Nf8+ Kh8 39.Ng6+ and a draw. 32…Nf4! And just like that, Pragg is winning, as ultimately there’s no answer to the coming …Qd2. 33.Nd1 Qd2 34.Nf2 Ne2 The threat is now …Qe1 and a forced mate. 35.h4 Pure desperation now for Carlsen, looking for an escape path for his king – but it is all futile. 35…Qe1 36.Qd7 Nxg3 37.Qxd4 Even more desperation from the world champion, but then again he’s just lost. If 37.Kxg3 Qxe5+ 38.Kg4 (38.f4 Qe3+ 39.Kh2 Qxf2) 38…Qh2! either mates or wins the knight, such as 39.Nh3 (Otherwise it’s 39.g3 Qxf2 etc.) 39…h5+ 40.Kg5 f6# 37…Nf1+ 38.Kh3 Ne3 39.Qb2 Bc2! 0-1 Disconnecting the queen from the knight forces Carlsen’s resignation, as he’s getting mated after 40.Ng4 Qh1+ 41.Kg3 Qxg2+ 42.Kf4 Nd5#