There’s just no holding back a rampant Magnus Carlsen these days. The reigning Meltwater Champions Chess Tour champion started the new season just as he finished the old one – and his recent World Championship Match! – with the Norwegian dominating Russian No.1 Ian Nepomniachtchi to claim an emphatic victory in the Airthings Masters Final over the weekend.
Despite a setback by being hit by Covid during the preliminaries, Carlsen soon stormed back to his brilliant best when he qualified through to the ‘business end’ of the knockout stages, comfortably beating Liam Quang Le and Vladislav Artemiev before overcoming the Nepomniachtchi in the final to win the first leg of the new Tour season.
Day 1 of the final proved to be a veritable see-saw with chances missed by both players, and ended tied at 2-2 with four draws apiece. The final turned dramatically on Day 2, where after five draws in the match, and just like their recent title match, the Russian cracked in game six, as Carlsen turned on the style to take first blood.
And with games fast running out and Carlsen holding all the cards by being ahead, Nepo had to gamble with a risky attack that spectacularly backfired to give Carlsen a second win, and with it the Airthings Masters title, the first prize of $25,000 plus an additional $6,250 in Tour bonuses, as he takes the early lead in the $1.6 million 2022 Meltwater Champions Chess Tour standings.
Nepo was on fire and the man to beat early doors after he sizzled to the top of the 16-player prelims, just ahead of Carlsen. But it became evident as the tournament went into the Knockout stage that the Russian was playing under considerable strain, understandable given the geopolitical turmoil in Ukraine, which he had expressed his considerable unease about.
In victory, Carlsen acknowledge the strain and paid tribute to Nepo, saying it just wasn’t his day: “These things are always going to be about whether you can perform on that particular day. But even so my games were going in a positive direction here. I felt I was playing better as the tournament went along and that was enough.”
The Tour will return with the next even starting on March 19.
GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Magnus Carlsen
Airthings Masters Final, (2.3)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 5.Nc3 Qc7 The Sicilian Taimanov, named after Mark Taimanov (1926-2016), the Soviet-era grandmaster who was equalled gifted both as a leading concert pianist and chess player; though perhaps somewhat unfairly remembered as Bobby Fischer’s first 6-0 Candidates whitewash ‘victim’, en route to the American winning the world crown in 1972. 6.Be3 a6 Here’s the thing about the Sicilian Taimanov – once dubbed in a popular book as “The Safest Sicilian” – that should make more club players think about playing it: It’s a solid defence; it’s very flexible; it’s not overly-risky; it’s giving Black very good results, and very good positions. What more can you ask for? 7.g4 The fashionable way to play against the Sicilian Taimanov is with 7.Qf3 – but Nepo’s more aggressive touch is similar to the Keres Attack against the Sicilian Scheveningen. 7…Nxd4 8.Qxd4 b5 9.0-0-0 Bb7 10.Kb1 Nf6 11.f3 The difference between Nepo’s 7.g4 and the Keres Attack is that with the latter, you could more easily harass the knight with g5 – but with no queen sitting on d1 to stop …Ng4 or …Nh5, the attack is not as effective. 11…Rc8 12.g5 Nh5 13.Qd2 Preventing …Nf4 – and with the queen retreat, Carlsen has all but equalised already. 13…Be7 14.Bh3 b4 15.Ne2 d5! It’s a fact of life that when you can play …d5 safely in the Sicilian, then Black is doing OK. 16.Bg4 g6 17.Bxh5 Not bad per se, but better first was 17.Bd4! Rg8 where you can now support 18.e5! Ng7 and we have “a game”. 17…gxh5 Carlsen is not worried about his pawn structure on the kingside being compromised – he’s putting his faith in his bishop-pair, open lines and the centre dramatically bursting open. 18.Nf4 dxe4 19.Nxh5 exf3 20.Bf4 Qd8 21.Qe3 Bd5! Carlsen now beings to dominate, as Nepo realises he’s probably bitten off more than he can chew here trying in vain to snatch a win to get back in the match – certainly there’s no danger to Black’s king, which is probably something Nepo was gambling on. 22.Nf6+? A serious misstep from Nepo. Crucially, as in the above note, he had to play 22.Be5 Rg8 23.Nf6+ Bxf6 24.Bxf6 Qa5 25.b3 Qc5 26.Qd3 Rg6 27.h4 h5! and again, we have “a game”. 22…Bxf6 23.gxf6 Rg8! [see diagram] “Oft!”, as they would say – Nepo just has no answer whatsoever to Carlsen’s coming …Rg2. 24.Rhe1 It’s the same debacle after 24.Rhg1 with 24…Rg2! 25.Rxg2 fxg2 26.Be5 Qa5! 27.b3 Qc5 that’s going to force the trade of queens and an easily won game for Black. 24…Rg2 25.Qa7 Nepo’s only hope now, other than an unexpected earthquake hitting Norway, is Carlsen somehow blundering into a mate – and there’s no chances of that. And also note that 25.Rd2 Qa5! 26.b3 loses to the big tactic 26…Rxc2!! 27.Rxc2 Rxc2 28.Kxc2 Qxa2+ 29.Kc1 f2 (Definitely not 29…Bxb3?? 30.Qc5! and the Black king gets mated!) 30.Rf1 Qa1+ 31.Kd2 Qxf1 32.Bg3 Bxb3 33.Qxf2 Qd1+ 34.Ke3 Qc1+ 35.Kf3 Qc6+ 36.Ke2 Qc2+ 37.Kf1 Bc4+ 38.Kg2 Bd5+ 39.Kf1 Qxf2+ 40.Bxf2 a5 and the two queenside passers will easily win. 25…Qd7 26.Qd4 No better was 26.Qxa6 Rcxc2 easily winning, as in the game. 26…Rcxc2 27.Bc1 Rxc1+! 28.Kxc1 Taking advantage of the fact that 28.Rxc1 Bxa2+ picks up the hanging queen on d4. 28…Qc6+ 29.Kb1 Qa4 30.Rd2 There’s no defence. If 30.a3 Qc2+ 31.Ka1 Qb3 with mate to follow. 30…Bxa2+ 0-1 Nepo resigns as 31.Kc1 Qc6+ will win both the queen and then the king!