Before the rise of the so-called “super-opens” in Gibraltar and Isle of Man that attracts many top 10 players and memorably even World Champion Magnus Carlsen himself, the high-flying tournament was the Aeroflot Open in Moscow, once recognised as the strongest and richest classical international opens in the world, which would fly in grandmasters from around the globe to augment the many home-based grandmasters on the doorstep of the Russian capital for what would make for a formidably strong field.
The Aeroflot Open was launched in 2002 in the new age of capitalism in the former communist country, and with its rich pickings, was always packed to the gunnels with many of the world’s strongest GMs looking for a feeding frenzy provided by the generous sponsorship package by the Russian state airline. But nowadays, there are financial strains – but despite being “downgraded”, the latest edition, the 17th Aeroflot Open, held at Moscow’s famous Cosmo Hotel, is still one of the strongest and most fiercely competitive opens in the world, with a handful of near elite-level 2700+ players, and nearly 50 entrants above 2600, the level of what some would describe as “jobbing grandmasters”.
As usual for such a big international open, China and India – with state support – sent a large delegation of grandmasters, and the smart money was that they would take the lion’s share of the €140,000 prize fund. And with China also sending among their line-up 2700-level top seedsWei Yi, and Wang Hao, the even smarter money was one of those two winning the title.
However in an upset finish, and against all the odds, there were two big final round wins from relative unknowns that stole the show – one coming from a so-called jobbing grandmaster in 42-year-old Estonian GM Kaldo Kulaots (2542), and the other from a rising young Armenian star, 18-year-old GM Haik Martirosyan.
With a brace of big last round wins, over Denis Khismatulin and Tigran L. Petrosian respectively, Kulaots and Martirosyan top-scored on 7/9 to finish a half-point ahead of India’s GM Krishnan Sasikiran. Although they tied for first, veteran Kulaots, seeded 62nd, in the biggest win of his long career, took the bragging rights to the title and the automatic invitation to the upcoming Dortmund Supertournament, as he had the superior tiebreak score of the two, that included a clutch of crucial wins against younger stars such as Maghsoodloo, Firouzja, Dubov and Wei Yi.
And the unlikeliest of unlikeliest victories even moved Magnus Carlsen to immediately tweet: “Congrats to Kaido Kulaots for an absolutely amazing underdog victory at the Aeroflot open! 19-years-ago, he shared a flat with my father and I at the Gausdal tournament, and inspired an unrated 9-year-old by predicting that he would one day be rated 2650.”
The sky is also the limit for Martirosyan following his big breakthrough performance. While the 18-year-old lost out on the Dortmund Supertournament invite, there are already strong rumours that he is being headhunted by several US Colleges for a scholarship placement into one of the many and growing collegiate chess programmes across the country.
1-2. GM Kaido Kulaots* (Estonia), GM Haik Martirosyan (Armenia) 7/9; 3. GM Krishnan Sasikiran (India) 6½; 4-9. GM Wang Hao (China), GM Wei Yi (China), GM Makisim Chigaev (Russia), GM Ernesto Inarkiev (Russia), GM Alexey Sarana (Russia), GM David Anton (Spain) 6.
Photo: Apart from a big breakthrough performance, Martirosyan is also a regular for the 2018 title-winning Armenia Eagles in the Pro Chess League | © Pro Chess League
GM Tigran L. Petrosian – GM Haik Martirosyan
Aeroflot Open, (9)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The name Giuoco Piano means ‘quiet game’ in Italian – and chess-wise, it is also one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, played in the 16th century. And like its name, it is initially very quiet with a slow build-up as both sides position their pieces for the middlegame battle. 3…Bc5 4.d3 Nf6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 a6 7.a4 d6 8.c3 Ba7 9.0-0 Qe7 10.Nbd2 g5 11.Bg3 Nd7 12.Bd5 Interestingly, Martirosyan himself played the same line with White just a few weeks earlier against Robert Hovhannisyan – there, Black played 12…Nf8 and the game ended in a somewhat tame draw. With the benefit of this knowledge however, it seems Martirosyan found a more dangerous way to play for Black from here! 12…h5!? 13.h4 g4 14.Ne1 Nf8 15.d4 Ng6 16.Nc4 exd4 17.Nd3 Nce5 18.cxd4 Nxc4 19.Bxc4 Bxd4 20.Nf4 c5 21.Nxg6?! We’ve reached the critical point of a money-deciding last round game. There’s a lot at stake, and here, Petrosian blinks by capturing on g6 – a move that only serves to open lines for Black to attack. Much better and stronger was 21.Nd5! centralising the knight on the strategically strong d5 outpost where, octopus-like, its tentacles stretch across the board. 21…fxg6 22.b4? One bad move seems to beget another – and with it, Petrosian is now doomed. I can only imagine he was having some sort of hallucination, believing he stood better – if so, how wrong he was. 22…Be6 Good enough, but more clinical and stronger was cutting straight to the chase with the very direct 22…g5! forcing 23.hxg5 h4 24.Bf4 h3! that rips right through White’s defences, and resignation can’t be far off. 23.bxc5 dxc5 24.Bxe6 Qxe6 The Black bishop is a monster, as it eyes up a possible mating attack and/or rapidly pushing forward Black’s queenside pawns – take your pick. 25.Rb1 b6 26.Qb3 c4! Trading queens will only ease the pressure on White’s creaking position – but by keeping the queens on the board, now something has to give. 27.Qb4 Bc5 28.Qc3 0-0! 29.Rfc1 Rad8 30.Rc2 If only White could safely capture on c4 – but alas, he simply can’t, as 30.Qxc4?? Rd1+! wins on the spot. 30…Rd4 With c4 protected, Petrosian just has to sit there and watch his young rising countryman force home the win – and the young Armenian does so with more than a touch of élan! 31.Re1 b5 32.axb5 axb5 33.Qa5 Qc6 34.Rb1 b4 A heavy loss of material now is inevitable. 35.Rxb4 Bxb4 36.Qxb4 Qxe4 37.Ra2 If Petrosian can get his rook to the seventh, then all may not be lost – but Martirosyan cuts him off at the pass. 37…Qe6! 38.Kh2 Black has everything under control. If Petrosian tries for the hail mary save with 38.Ra7 Rd1+ 39.Kh2 Qe1 40.Qxc4+ Kh8 then White is left with no checks and no hope of stopping …Qh1 mate. 38…Rd7! With this strategic retreat, Martirosyan covers all the bases: the white rook can’t get to the seventh now, and Black will consolidate behind the c-pawn with …Rc8. 39.Rc2 Rc8 40.Qc3 Rd3 41.Qa5 All Petrosian can do is just hang on for now, reduced to shuffling his queen around in the slim hope that Martirosyan might freeze under the under the pressure of having in front of him the biggest tournament win of his career. 41…Rd1 42.Qg5 c3 43.Qh6 Qf5 44.Re2 c2 45.Be5 Did Martirosyan blunder under what must have been the enormous pressure on him by now? 45…Rh1+! [see diagram] Anything but, as the young Armenian finds a very spectacular way to make a name for himself with an unlikely big pay-day. 46.Kg3 Rh3+! 0-1 Petrosian resigns, as the sacrificing rook will force mate after 47.gxh3 Qf3+ 48.Kh2 Qxh3+ 49.Kg1 c1Q+ 50.Qxc1 Rxc1+ 51.Re1 Rxe1#.