Two US players moved into pole position to lead the race for the final Candidates spots, as Levon Aronian and Hikaru Nakamura convincingly won their way through to the final of the FIDE Grand Prix in Berlin with a brace of identical 1½-½ semifinal victories over Leinier Dominguez and Richard Rapport respectively, to set up an intriguing all-American clash in the final.
It proved to be two hard-fought semifinal clashes with lots of wild and enterprising play that was ultimately decided with wins in the first game, but in the end, it was Nakamura and Aronian – the two standout players of the tournament – who deservedly prevailed. And with it, the duo are now guaranteed to take maximum points as they will top the leaderboard come the end of the first leg of the 2022 FIDE Grand Prix in Berlin.
All players competing in the Grand Prix gets to play in two of the three legs – with Belgrade and a second Berlin leg still to come – but as early leaders, Aronian and Nakamura will now be installed as the big favourites to go forward in June to the eight-player Candidates in Madrid, Spain.
And after his hiatus of over two years without playing a single classical game – whether pandemic-induced or otherwise – it was particularly pleasing to see the return of Nakamura back in the mix at elite-level, rather than confined to playing online or having to concentrate on his “day job” as a chess influencer, streaming about the game on his popular Twitch channel. Asked about reaching the final, Nakamura – who was a wildcard GP selection – candidly commented: “It’s nice I guess. Probably not expected, but I felt that I have played well. I don’t think I have done anything super-special, but when you are solid, and you take advantage of the few opportunities you have, then good things seem to happen.”
For Aronian, his recent switch to the Stars and Stripes is turning out to be something of a revelation, a new lease of life for the former Armenian #1 who – like Nakamura – has also re-found his best form with a series of steadfast and confident performances. With it, he also jumps up the world rankings once again, as he displaces Fabiano Caruana in the unofficial live ratings to now become the new US #1 and world #4.
The two-game Nakamura-Aronian final will take place February 15-16, with speed tiebreakers (if needed) on February 17. There will be live coverage of the final with top Grandmaster commentary on Chess24.
GM Levon Aronian – GM Leinier Dominguez
Berlin FIDE Grand Prix, s/final (1)
Queen’s Gambit Accepted
1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.e4 b5 4.a4 c6 5.axb5 cxb5 6.Nc3 Qb6 A provocative move. 7.Nd5 Qb7 8.Bf4 e5 If anything, both players should be applauded for daring to take a Lou Reed ‘walk on the wild side’ in this full-on Queen’s Gambit Accepted. 9.Bxe5 Nd7 10.Bf4 Definitely not 10.Nc7+?! Kd8 11.Nxa8? Bb4+ 12.Ke2 Qxe4#! 10…Ngf6 11.Nc7+ Kd8 12.Nxa8 Qxe4+ 13.Ne2 Qxa8 Black’s compensation for the loss of the exchange is going to hinge on if he can make something with his queenside pawns. 14.f3 Nd5 15.Bg5+ f6 16.Bd2 Bd6 17.Ng3 Qb8! Stopping both Ne4 and castling – and forcing a concession from Aronian, who now has to stop …Bxg3. 18.Kf2 Re8 An ideal double-edged position for a decisive result: can White make use of his material advantage, or will Black make a breakthrough with his active pieces? 19.Be2 Bc7 20.Re1 Bb6?! Admittedly, it does looks a very seductive move, both hitting d4 and potentially setting up an x-ray attack on the White king – but it was wiser just to leave the bishop on c7 for now, as the king can’t escape with Kg1, as happens in the game. Instead, Black can just play 20…a6 defending the a-pawn long-term, by getting it off of a7, and leave White to figure out how to unravel; one possibility being 21.Bc3 (Alternatively, after 21.Ba5 Bxa5 22.Rxa5 Qf4! and Black’s pieces are very active.) 21…f5! 22.Bf1 (It’s dangerous to snatch the pawn. After 22.Nxf5? Bxh2 White’s in trouble.) 22…N7f6 and Black has more than enough compensation for his exchange sac; it’s not going to be easy for White to cover some of the holes in his position on e3 and f4. 21.Kg1! A brave run, but this does solve a lot of Aronian’s headaches, as the king escapes to a safe haven. 21…Ne5 Now aesthetically it looks good, but this is just a waste of time and squanders what little chances Dominguez had to hold the game. Best was the rather obvious and forcing 21…Bxd4+!? 22.Kh1 Bxb2 23.Ba5+ N5b6 24.Rb1 Be5 25.Rxb5 Bxg3 26.hxg3 Qxg3 27.Qd4 Re5! 28.Rxe5 Qxe5 29.Bxb6+ axb6 30.Qxc4 Qh5+ 31.Kg1 Qc5+ 32.Qxc5 Nxc5 and White will have to put in a very hard shift to convert for the full point now. 22.Kh1 At least Aronian has managed to run his king to safety – but can he now convert his material advantage for the full point? 22…Nc6 23.b3! [see diagram] Finely timed, and it totally undermines Dominguez’s position – and with it, the US #4 is living on the edge with his king caught in the middle of the mayhem as the position bursts open. 23…c3 24.Bxb5! Bd7 25.Rxe8+ Bxe8 26.Be1 It’s hard to be critical in the era of the engine, but the beast doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to tactics, and it quickly spots the killer move that the human brain might not realise is there, such as the stunning sequence: 26.Bxc6 Bxc6 27.Bxc3!! and Black is doomed. The (full) point is that 27…Nxc3 28.Qc2 Bxd4 29.Qd3! Nb5 (Worse is 29…Qd6? 30.Nf5!) 30.Nf5! Qb6 31.Rd1 recapturing the piece with an easily won game, and to paraphrase the legendary former Manchester Utd boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, “Engines, bloody hell!” 26…Nxd4 27.Bxe8 c2 Dominguez is betting the house on the c-pawn saving his skin. 28.Qd3 Kxe8 29.Bd2 Aronian has to double-down on safeguarding the c1 queening square. If 29.Bf2? Qc7 30.Rc1 Nb4 31.Qxh7 Qf4! and suddenly it’s White that’s in a fight for survival. 29…Qe5 30.Rc1 It’s tempting to think White can simply play 30.Re1 but, alas, it dramatically and horrifically backfires after 30…Qxe1+! 31.Bxe1 c1Q and White can resign. 30…f5 31.Qc4 Ne3? Not so good, but then again, with Dominguez typically very short of time, and in a complex position, he might not have wanted to give Aronian the e4 outpost for his knight, but best was 31…f4! 32.Ne4 and now 32…Ne3 33.Qg8+ Kd7 34.Re1 Ndf5! and Black is far from dead here. 32.Qc8+ Kf7 33.Qd7+ And the same could be said for Aronian here as the above note, as the engine demonstrates the quick path to victory with the immediate 33.f4! Qe6 (Forced. After 33…Qe7 34.Re1! Black is going to either lose a piece or his c7-pawn.) 34.Qxe6+ Nxe6 35.Bxe3 Bxe3 36.Rxc2 and White will have no problems converting the endgame. 33…Kg6 34.f4 Better late than never, I suppose! 34…Qe6 The f-pawn is taboo: 34…Qxf4? 35.Qe8+ and Black can resign. 35.Qxe6+ With the queens off the board and the c-pawn doomed, Dominguez is basically just playing out some moves in order to reach the time-control before he resigns. 35…Nxe6 36.Ne2 Ng4 37.g3 Nc5 38.b4 Nd3 39.Rxc2 Ngf2+ 40.Kg2 Ne4 41.Nc1 1-0