We’ve never had it so good, to paraphrase the old political saying. There’s not one but two elite-level events running in parallel right now for the insatiable chess fans to feast and fest on, as the Charity Cup, the second leg of the online $1.6m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour goes head to head with the third and final leg of the FIDE Grand Prix in Berlin, which crucially will decide two Candidates spots.
In the Charity Cup, which is a UNICEF fundraiser for Ukraine (and so far raising $86k from the chess community), Prelims frontrunners Liem Quang Le and Magnus Carlsen finished first and second respectively, and they were joined in the ‘business end’ of the eight-player Knockout stage by Ding Liren, Jan-Krysztof Duda, David Navara, Jorden Van Foreest, David Anton and Hans Niemann.
And keeping up their relentless pace, Carlsen and Liem stormed into the semis with a emphatic wins over American hopeful Niemann and Navara, and now joined in the final four by Ding Liren (who beat Van Foreest) and Duda (who beat Anton). The semifinal pairings now sees the big rating match-up with world #1 Carlsen taking on world #3 Ding, with the second match-up seeing Liem take on World Cup-winner Duda.
Coverage of the Knockouts through Thursday-Saturday, will be provided by chess24 and available on Play Magnus Group channels and in several languages. In Norway, the event will be broadcast live on TV 2 with the regular Tour commentary team of host Kaja Snare assisted by experts GM David Howell and WGM Jovanka Houska.
Meanwhile in Berlin, there was a sense of déjà vue all over again in more ways than one for the two American opening leg Berlin finalists Hikaru Nakamura and Levon Aronian, with their forced clash in the opening round of Pool A – a group of death made all that little less deadly with the surprise announcement last week that GP fourth-placed Russia’s Dmitry Andreiken would not be playing by citing ‘personal reasons’, and was replaced by another Russian, Andrey Esipenko.
Nakamura dared to reprise a very risky line that Aronian had successfully faced during a wild semifinal encounter against Leinier Dominguez in the opening leg, but his gamble backfired, with the game hinging on the five-time US champion making a not-too-obvious blunder that proved decisive for his opponent.
That opening round win could well prove to be crucial now for Aronian in the overall standings, as going on to win the pool ahead of Nakamura will see the latest recruit to the Stars and Stripes go forward into the knockout stages, and with it, a big favourite to join the FIDE Grand Prix clubhouse leader Richard Rapport in the Candidates Tournament in Madrid in June, that will ultimately decide Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger.
GM Levon Aronian – GM Hikaru Nakamura
FIDE Berlin Grand Prix | Pool A, (1)
Queen’s Gambit Accepted, Greco Variation
1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.e4 b5 4.a4 c6 5.axb5 cxb5 6.Nc3 Qb6 It’s déjà vu all over again, as Nakamura has the chutzpah to risk playing the same wild line of the Queen’s Gambit Accepted that Levon faced against Leinier Dominguez in their opening Berlin Grand Prix Semi-Final match. 7.Nd5 The ‘quiet’ line against the Greco variation is 7.b3 , but picking up the gauntlet once again is Aronian, who repeats the same aggressive line he successfully used against Dominguez in the aforementioned game. 7…Qb7 8.Bf4 With Nc7+ being threatened, and the position early doors becoming double-edged, Black has to move quickly to whip up counterplay. 8…e5! The only show in town for Black if he wants to survive. 9.Bxe5 Nd7! Black’s counterplay hinges on tempo-winning development. 10.Bf4 It’s very easy to go very wrong, very quickly here, with 10.Nc7+?? Kd8 11.Nxa8 Bb4+! 12.Ke2 Qxe4#! 10…Ngf6 The rook can’t be saved now, but Black has gained a huge lead in development. 11.Nc7+! If White blinks, he’s liable to go down quickly. 11…Kd8 12.Nxa8 Qxe4+ More accurate than 12…Bb4+ 13.Bd2 Qxe4+ 14.Ne2 Bxd2+ 15.Qxd2 Qxa8 16.Qa5+! and White’s clearly well on top. 13.Ne2 Qxa8 Despite losing castling rights, Black has excellent compensation as his pieces harmoniously develop on good squares, while the white king also remains trapped in the center of the board amidst the growing tempest. 14.Qd2N And Aronian comes up with a novelty over his previous game with this line last month, which continued 14.f3 Nd5 15.Bg5+! f6 16.Bd2 Bd6 and a wild, wild game with Dominguez. 14…Nd5 15.Nc3 Bb4 16.Be2 Re8 It’s all wonderfully double-edged, and you have to admire Nakamura’s nerve and audacity for reprising this sharp line so soon against Aronian. But then again, great accuracy is still needed to keep the game ‘competitive’. 17.Bg3 N7f6 18.0-0 Ne4 19.Qc2 Bf5 Better and more accurate was 19…Ndxc3!? 20.bxc3 Bxc3 (Not 20…Nxc3? 21.Bf3 Bb7 22.d5! and suddenly Black is in trouble with his king caught in the center of the board.) 21.Rab1 Qd5 22.Bf3 b4 where any three results is quite possible here. 20.Bh4+ f6 21.Bf3! Aronian holds his nerve, and remarkably the discovered attack on the queen bears no fruits for Black. 21…Bxc3 The seemingly obviously 21…Ng3?? works out badly for Black after 22.Bxd5 Bxc2 23.Bxa8 Nxf1 24.Kxf1 Bxc3 25.bxc3 Bd3+ 26.Kg1 b4 27.cxb4 c3 28.f3 Re2 29.Rc1 c2 30.Bc6 and, with Ba4 coming, White will easily deal with the big c2-pawn. 22.bxc3 g5 23.Rfe1! Nf4? The game turns on the wrong knight move. To keep the game ‘alive’, Nakamura had to play 23…Ndxc3! 24.Bg3 b4 25.Ra5 Bg6 26.Qb2 Nxg3 27.Rxe8+ Kxe8 28.hxg3 Qb8 where White holds the advantage, but this is not the easiest of positions to convert a win from. 24.Qa2! [see diagram] The threatening mass of Black minor pieces on the kingside admittedly looks menacing, but now, with Qxa7 and the queens coming off hanging in the air, the tactics don’t work in Nakamura’s favour. 24…Qb7 Our silicon overlords are quick to tell us that it was either this or 24…a5 25.Qxa5+ Qxa5 26.Rxa5 Re6 27.Bxe4 Rxe4 28.f3! Re2 29.Bf2 Rb2 30.h4! Nd3 31.Ra8+ Kd7 32.Ra7+ Kd8 33.Ree7! and the mating threats with the doubled rooks on the seventh prove decisive, with the game likely ending with 33…Rxf2 34.Rf7 Re2 35.hxg5 Bc8 (Unfortunately for Black, 35…Bg6?? allows 36.Ra8#) 36.gxf6 Nf4 37.Rg7 and the f-pawn will soon see Black resigning. 25.Qxa7 Qxa7 26.Rxa7 Re6 27.Bxe4 Rxe4 28.f3! Gaining a vital tempo, and with it this solves Aronian last problem. 28…Re2 29.Bf2 b4 Nakamura’s last throw of the dice is to create some difficulties with his passed c-pawn running down the board. It just takes some careful play from Aronian before he can begin to think about converting his material advantage. 30.cxb4 c3 31.Rxe2 Nxe2+ 32.Kh1 Also winning was 32.Kf1 c2 33.Be3 c1Q+ 34.Bxc1 Nxc1 35.Rf7 Bd3+ 36.Ke1 Nb3 37.d5 Nd4 38.Rxf6 Ke7 39.Rb6 but it is simpler for Aronian just by avoiding a little annoying check by shunting his king right into the corner of the board, so wastes no time running his passed b-pawn up the board. 32…c2 33.Be3 c1R+ 34.Bxc1 Nxc1 35.b5 Kc8 36.b6 Kb8 37.d5 Nd3 38.g4 Bc8 39.Rf7 Ba6 40.Rxf6 It’s a mopping up exercise now for Aronian, but, to his credit, Nakamura makes him work all the way for the full point. 40…Kb7 41.Kg1 Bb5 42.Rf5 Nf4 43.h4 Bd3 44.Rf6 It is all too easy to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory here by sleepwalking into the knight fork with 44.Rxg5?? Nh3+ 45.Kg2 Nxg5 46.hxg5 Kxb6 etc. 44…Bb1 45.hxg5 Nxd5 46.Rf8 Nxb6 47.f4 Aronian’s mobile pawns win the day, but there’s still some pitfalls to be avoided. 47…Kc6 48.Kf2 Nd7 49.Rf7 Nc5 50.Kg3 Bg6 51.Rf8 Ne6 52.Rg8 Kd6! 53.Ra8! You have to admire Nakamura’s fighting spirit! He’s the player most likely to fight on right to the bitter end, as he continually throws curve balls at you even in the most lost of endings. And here, the seemingly obvious 53.f5? allows Black to salvage an unlikely draw with 53…Bf7 54.Ra8 Nxg5 55.Ra5 Be8 56.Kf4 Nh3+ 57.Kg3 Ng5 58.Ra7 Bf7! and a fortress with White unable to make a breakthrough. The problem for Nakamura though, is that his potential fortress trap is somewhat ‘telegraphed’, and Aronian just plays around it. 53…Bb1 54.Ra1 Be4 55.Rd1+ Bd5 With the h7 pawn being the same colour as the bishop, Nakamura plays on a bit more, just in case of any possible …Nxg5 piece sacrifice tricks. 56.Rd2 Nc7 57.Kh4 It’s all over now after this move from Aronian. 57…Ne6 58.f5 Nc5 59.Kh5 Ke5 60.Kh6 Ne4 61.Rb2 Bc4 62.Rb4 Bd3 63.Rxe4+! Aronian ends all hope for Nakamura with his timely rook sacrifice that will see White’s pawn phalanx crashing up the board. 63…Bxe4 64.Kxh7 Kf4 65.Kh6! 1-0 Just one last accurate move and Nakamura resign, as 65.g6?? Kxg4 will see Black salvaging an unlikely draw after 66.f6 Kg5! 67.f7 Bxg6+ 68.Kg7 Bxf7 and we’re down to ‘the kings’.