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It’s a Russian invasion of the Airthings Masters Knockout now, and only the lone battling figure of defending two-time champion Magnus Carlsen stands in the way of the first leg of the new season of the $1.6m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour being taken over by the game’s former superpower, as three Russians and one Norwegian make it through to the semifinal stage of the competition.

First to go through to the semis was Ian Nepomniachtch, as the defeated title challenger broke the young German prodigy Vincent Keymer’s spirit and resolve with a decisive win in game 3 of their mini-match to secure a 2½-1½ victory. Nepo will now face fellow Russian Andrey Esipenko, as the 19-year-old finally ended the dream run of Canada’s Eric Hansen with the popular chess streamer and world #237 losing the final two games of their mini-match to crash out 3-1.

An opening game power-play from Carlsen proved to be all the difference in his mini-match victory over Vietnam’s Liem Quang Le, with the World Champion going through 2½-1½. On settling for a draw in the final game, Carlsen said: “I have not come to value the Tour rating that high that I’d forgo absolute certain qualification to go for more!” He now faces Vladislav Artemiev, who completed the Russian clean sweep of the quarterfinals by punishing China’s Ding Liren for missing several knockout blows, eventually winning their mini-match 2½-1½.

Now it is down to Russia vs lone wolf Magnus Carlsen to decide who wins the opening leg of the new Meltwater Champions Chess Tour season. Can Artemiev land a killer blow on the world #1 and two-time reigning Tour champion, or will we see a repeat of the Nepominiachtchi-Carlsen recent world title match? We’ll soon see as the semis start on Thursday.

Airthings Masters quarterfinal results:
Nepomniachtchi 2½-1½ Keymer; Esipenko 3-1 Hansen; Ding Liren 1½-2½ Artemiev; Carlsen 2½-1½ Le.

Airthings Masters semifinal pairings:
Nepomniachtchi v Esipenko
Artemiev v Carlsen

Thursday sees the Airthings Masters Knockout continue as we get down to the final four. 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 Magnus Carlsen – GM Liem Quang Le
Airthings Masters | Knockout Q/finals, (1)
English Opening, Bremen System
1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 German master Carl Carls’ (1888-1958) system against the English Opening, the Bremen – named after his hometown of Bremen – is just a Reversed Sicilian Dragon, but the crucial difference is that, with the colours reversed, White has the extra move, so there’s no need to fear the sharpest lines in the Yugoslav Attack. 6.Bg2 Bc5 7.0-0 0-0 8.Qc2 Nf6 9.a3 Bb6 10.e3 a5 11.b3 Bg4 12.Bb2 Qd7 13.Na4 Rfe8 Also possible was 13…Bf5 14.Qd1 Qe7 (Tempting is 14…Bd3 but after the positional exchange sac with 15.Nxe5! Nxe5 16.Bxe5 Bxf1 17.Qxf1 Qe6 18.Bxf6 Qxf6 19.Bxb7 White has good compensation for his sacrificed exchange.) 15.d4 Rfd8 16.Nxb6 cxb6 where the engine will tell you Black is slightly better here, but it’s not as easy position to assess with White having the bishop-pair and a foothold in the center. 14.d4 Bxf3 15.Bxf3 exd4 16.Rfd1 The pin on the d-file comes in handy for Carlsen, as he gets his rook into the game with tempi. 16…Ne5?! This just doesn’t look right, as all the complications and tactics seem to work in White’s favour. But then again, Liem probably felt he had to try and “hustle” Carlsen rather than have him come in for the squeeze. 17.Bxb7 d3 18.Bxe5?! And Magnus misses a big trick. White seizes the advantage after 18.Bxa8! Rxa8 19.Bxe5 dxc2 20.Rxd7 Nxd7 21.Bb2 and with no stopping Rc1, White easily corrals the c-pawn. 18…dxc2 19.Rxd7 Nxd7 20.Bxa8 Rxa8? Faced with the capture of two bishops, Liem opts for the wrong one! And it proves to be a big game-swinger, as Carlsen now capitalises on the blunder. Correct was 20…Rxe5! which more or less forces White into 21.Rc1. And no matter what White plays, the same tactic applies, such as a) 21.Kf1 Rxe3! 22.fxe3 (There’s no time for 22.Nxb6? Rxb3!! with no stopping …Rb1(+) winning.) 22…Bxe3 and a draw with the c-pawn unstoppable or b) no better is 21.e4 Nc5! 22.Rc1 Nxa4 23.bxa4 Rc5 24.Kf1 and Black has the better of the endgame.; 21…Rxe3! 22.Rxc2 Rxb3 23.Nxb6 cxb6 24.Rc7 Rd3 25.Bc6 Nf8 26.Rb7 and a likely draw on the cards, but White will have slightly the worst of it being a pawn down. 21.Bb2 Nc5 22.Rc1 Nxb3 The lesser of the two evils. After 22…Nxa4 23.bxa4 Re8 24.Rxc2 Re4 doesn’t quite work, as there’s 25.Bd4! Bxd4 (Worse is 25…h6 26.f3! Re6 27.Kf2 Rd6 28.Rc4 and White is clearly better.) 26.Rxc7! f5 (If 26…g6? 27.Rc4! is easily winning.) 27.Rc8+ Kf7 28.exd4 Rxd4 29.Rc5 Rxa4 30.Rxf5+ Ke6 31.Rf3 and White will have the long R+P ending squeeze to win – but something Carlsen would have no qualms in going into! 23.Rxc2 Liem may well have avoided going a pawn down, but the big question now for him is what the hell is he going to do about his knight, which is very short of squares and marooned deep in White’s territory? 23…f6 24.Kf1 Rb8 25.Bc3 Kf7 26.Rb2 Ba7 27.Ke2 Ke6 28.Kd3! [see diagram] Heading to c4 to win the knight, so Liem’s hand is forced now. 28…Kd5 29.e4+ Kc6 30.Kc4 Nc1 31.Rxb8 Bxb8 32.Bxa5 It’s not just a pawn that Carlsen has won, the ace is that he still has Liem’s knight trapped in no-man’s land. 32…Ba7 33.Bd2! Ne2 34.Kd3 Kb5 35.Nb2 Ng1 36.Be3 c5 No better is 36…Bxe3 37.Kxe3 Nh3 38.f4 Kc5 39.a4 Kb4 40.Kf3! Kb3 41.a5 and the a-pawn is off to the races. 37.f4 Nf3 38.h3 Defending this had to be nothing but pure agony for Liem: his knight is effectively marooned on f3, his bishop is squeezed out of the game on a7, and note how White’s knight and a4-pawn stops the Black king coming in. 38…Bb6 39.Ke2 Forcing a winning ending. 39…Nd4+ 40.Bxd4 cxd4 41.Kd3 Bc5 42.a4+ Kb4 43.e5! The second passed pawn seals the full point for Carlsen. 43…f5 44.e6 g6 There’s no Hail Mary save – after 44…Kb3 45.a5! and the bishop can’t deal with the two advanced passed pawns. 45.g4 h6 46.g5 h5 47.h4 1-0 And Liem resigns as he’s in effectively in zugzwang. After 47…Ka5 48.Nc4+ Kxa4 49.Ne5 not only does the g6-pawn fall, but it does so with no stopping e7 next move winning the bishop.

 

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