The just-concluded WR Masters tournament was one of those rare events where the winner and the runners-up can all be happy with the result.
Armenian-born U.S. GM Levon Aronian had one of his best results in years, winning the Dusseldorf event by defeating Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi and Indian prodigy GM D. Gukesh in a rapid playoff after the three finished atop the 10-player round-robin at 5½-3½.
The 40-year-old Aronian, who was ranked as high as No. 2 in the world ratings just a few years ago, has slipped a bit in the elite pecking order but should get a nice boost from his play here.
Gukesh, just 16, said on Twitter he had a “nice solid run” in one of his first A-lister events, not dropping a game during the classical portion of the tournament.
The result is probably even more welcome for Nepomniachtchi, who posted a very strong result despite the fact he’s deep into preparations for his world title match against China’s GM Ding Liren starting in just over a month in Kazakhstan.
It will be “Nepo’s” second try at the title, having lost to reigning Norwegian champ Magnus Carlsen in Dubai in 2021. (Carlsen, the champion since 2012, has decided not to defend his crown this time.)
Aronian took command of the tournament early with three wins in the first five rounds, capped by a nice endgame win over Dutch star GM Anish Giri. White gets very little out of the opening play in this Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense line, but benefits from the tiniest of assists from his opponent on 21. f4 f5?! — this looks like a case of grandmasterly overthinking, giving White a protected passed pawn that must be eternally watched. What Giri saw is a bit of a mystery, as the straightforward 21 … Qxd3 22. cxd3 c5 23. Kf2 b5 24. axb5 axb5 25. Ra5 Ra8! 26. Rxb5 Rab8 27. Rxb8 Rxb8 28. Bc1 Rxb3 is one way to keep a likely draw well in hand.
Even after 30. Kh2 Red8 31. Rec3, Black is not losing, but now a queen trade reveals the power of White’s more active rooks on 31 … Qc4 32. Rg3! Qxd4 33. cxd4 Rc4 34. Rxb5 Rxd4 35. Rb7 g6 36. Ra3!, and the dreaded doubled rooks on the seventh rank are well worth the temporarily sacrificed pawn.
Double-rook endings can be notoriously finicky, and the critical position arises on 36. Rxf4 37. Raa7 (see diagram), when Black’s only saving idea appears to be the risky 37 … Rh4! 38. Kg3 g5!, and Giri can get his own rooks into the action just in time on 39. Rg7+ Kh8 40. Rxg5 Rb4 41. Rxf5 (Rgg7 looks lethal, but Black defends with the clever pin 41 … Rg8!) Rg8+ 42. Kf3 Rb3+ 43. Kf4 Rb4+ 44. Ke3 d4+ 45. Kf3 Rb3+ 46. Ke4 Rxg2 47. Kxd4 Rb8 48. Rh5 Rg7 49. Rxg7 Kxg7, drawing.
Easy enough for a computer to see, but Black with the clock ticking tries the safer but misguided 37 … Re4?, and White’s rooks take over the play on 38. Rg7+ Kf8 39. Rf7+ Ke8 40. Rxh7 Rh4 (Rxe5? 41. Ra7! and there’s no good way to stop 42. Rh8 mate) 41. Re7+ Kf8 42. Rhf7+ Kg8 43. Rg7+ Kh8 44. Rxg6 d4 45. Rd6!, and the Black pawn is just a move too slow to divert Aronian’s attack; e.g. 45 … Rxd6 46. exd6 d3 47. d7 Rd4 48. Re8+ Kh7 49. d8=Q and wins.
The e-pawn Black treated so cavalierly nearly 30 moves ago applies the finishing touch: 47. e6 Kg8 (Re8 48. Rdd7 Re4 49. Rh7+ Kg8 50. Rdg7+ Kf8 51. Rf7+ Kg8 52. e7 d3 53. Rfg7 mate) 48. Rdd7, and Black resigned facing lines such as 48 … Rh4 49. Rg7+ Kh8 50. Kg3 Rh6 51. e7 Re8 52. Rf7 Kg8 53. Rxf5 Rg6+ 54. Kh2 Rg7 55. Rf8+ Rxf8 56. exf8=Q+ Kxf8 57. Rxg7 Kxg7 58. Kg3, with an elementary pawn-ending win.
Nepomniachtchi, perhaps trying to keep some ideas in reserve for the Ding match, opened with an uncharacteristic string of six draws, but broke the skein in style by handing Aronian his only loss of the event in Round 7 from the Black side of a classic Queen’s Gambit Declined line.
Aronian as White, perhaps a little too eager for a draw to protect his tournament lead, puts his queen offside with 15. Rac1 Be6 16. Qb5?! Rac8 (Nepo said later 16 … Rfc8 might have been even stronger) 17. Rc2 a6 18. Qb6 Qd7 19. Nb3 Bd8 20. Qc5 Be7 — all but begging his opponent to split the point with the little two-step involving the White queen and Black bishop. The queen and bishop will do their little shuttle so often during the game (gaining valuable thinking time for Black, as Nepo later remarked) that Aronian on Move 23 mistakenly claimed a draw for a threefold repetition, resulting in a rare two-minute time bonus for Black after his claim was rejected.
Black was banking all the calculating time for a kingside thrust while White’s big pieces were otherwise occupied. In a fascinating post-mortem, the Russian admitted he hadn’t calculated all the tactical niceties of the position, but trusted that his pieces were so much better placed that something was bound to turn up.
His intuition is rewarded when White can’t navigate the combinational shoals on 36. Qd6 Rce8 37. Re1? (missing the power of Black’s 39th move) Ne5 38. Nd4? (tougher was 38. Kh1!, with better chances of holding in lines such as 38 … Qd7 39. Qxd7 Bxd7 40. Nc1 Nxd3 41. Nxd3 Rxe1+ 42. Bxe1 Bf5, though Black has a clear edge) Bh3 39. Bf1 Nf7!, a clever move that attacks the queen but also exposes the overworked White bishop on f2, which is guarding both the rook on e1 and the knight on d4.
Black wins a piece on 40. Qxd5 Rxe1 41. Bxe1 Bxd4+ 42. Kh1 Bc8, and snuffs out White’s still-dangerous counterplay by cleverly exploiting Aronian’s back-rank weaknesses: 45. Bd3 Bc3! (simple and clarifying) 46. Bxc3 Qxc3! 47. g4 (both the pawn and rook captures of the queen allow 47 … Re1+ 48. Bf1 Rxf1 mate) Qf6, and now Black’s material advantage proves decisive.
One last desperate White attack is turned back on 50. Qh5 Qxb2+ 51. Kh3 h6 52. Qg6+ Qg7 53. Kh4 (Qh5 Ng5+) Rh1, and White resigned as 54. Kh3 (Rc2 Qxg6 55. Bxg6 Ng5 also wins) Ng5+ 52. Kg2 Qxg6 56. Bxg6 Rd1 57. Rc3 Bd5 leaves White with no compensation for the lost piece.
(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)
Aronian-Giri, WR Chess Masters Tournament, Dusseldorf, Germany, February 2023
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. Re1 Nd6 6. a4 Be7 7. Nc3 a6 8. Bf1 e4 9. Nxe4 Nxe4 10. Rxe4 d5 11. Re1 Bg4 12. h3 Bh5 13. Be2 O-O 14. d4 Re8 15. Ne5 Bxe2 16. Rxe2 Nxe5 17. dxe5 Qd7 18. Qd3 Rad8 19. b3 Qe6 20. Bd2 Qg6 21. f4 f5 22. b4 Qe6 23. c3 c5 24. bxc5 Bxc5+ 25. Be3 Bxe3+ 26. Qxe3 Rc8 27. Rb1 Qc6 28. Qd4 b5 29. axb5 axb5 30. Kh2 Red8 31. Re3 Qc4 32. Rg3 Qxd4 33. cxd4 Rc4 34. Rxb5 Rxd4 35. Rb7 g6 36. Ra3 Rxf4 37. Raa7 Re4 38. Rg7+ Kf8 39. Raf7+ Ke8 40. Rxh7 Rh4 41. Re7+ Kf8 42. Rhf7+ Kg8 43. Rg7+ Kh8 44. Rxg6 d4 45. Rd6 Rc8 46. Rf7 Rf4 47. e6 Kg8 48. Rdd7 Black resigns.
Aronian-Nepomniachtchi, WR Chess Masters Tournament, Dusseldorf, Germany, February 2023
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 Be7 5. Bf4 O-O 6. e3 c5 7. dxc5 Bxc5 8. cxd5 Nxd5 9. Nxd5 exd5 10. Bd3 Bb4+ 11. Nd2 Nc6 12. O-O Be7 13. Qb3 Bf6 14. a3 Qe7 15. Rac1 Be6 16. Qb5 Rac8 17. Rc2 a6 18. Qb6 Qd7 19. Nb3 Bd8 20. Qc5 Be7 21. Qb6 Bd8 22. Qc5 Be7 23. Qb6 g5 24. Bg3 Bd8 25. Qc5 Be7 26. Qb6 f5 27. f3 Bd8 28. Qc5 Be7 29. Qb6 Bd8 30. Qc5 f4 31. exf4 gxf4 32. Bf2 Be7 33. Qb6 Bd8 34. Qc5 Bf6 35. Rfc1 Qg7 36. Qd6 Rce8 37. Re1 Ne5 38. Nd4 Bh3 39. Bf1 Nf7 40. Qxd5 Rxe1 41. Bxe1 Bxd4+ 42. Kh1 Bc8 43. Bc4 Re8 44. Bb4 Qf6 45. Bd3 Bc3 46. Bxc3 Qxc3 47. g4 Qf6 48. Rc7 Re1+ 49. Kg2 Be6 50. Qh5 Qxb2+ 51. Kh3 h6 52. Qg6+ Qg7 53. Kh4 Rh1 White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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