Airthings Masters: Nepo grabs the lead

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/21/2022 – Ian Nepomniachtchi is almost certain to reach the knockout stage at the Airthings Masters, as he grabbed a 4-point lead after a strong performance on the second day of the preliminaries. Sharing second place are Ding Liren and Eric Hansen, while Magnus Carlsen stands two points behind the chasers after losing his round-8 game against 16-year-old Praggnanandhaa. | Photo: Maria Emelianova / FIDE

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Pragg beats Carlsen

Meltwater Champions Chess TourThe diverse lineup, in terms of rating, has made for an exciting preliminary stage at the Airthings Masters. Most games end decisively, and some of the big guns are struggling to find the correct approach while facing lower-rated opposition, with the likes of Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov currently sitting in the bottom half of the standings table.

On the other hand, a couple of sub-2700 players are over-performing. That is the case of Canadian streamer Eric Hansen and German rising star Vincent Keymer. Currently sharing second place, Hansen defeated Duda and Mamedyarov on the second day of the round-robin, while Keymer managed to beat none other than Anish Giri in round 5.

Coming from his debut at the Masters section of the Tata Steel Tournament, Praggnanandhaa is not fighting for the top spots in the table, but has so far remarkably claimed the scalps of Aronian and world champion Magnus Carlsen. The latter had a tough first day and came back swinging on Sunday, scoring three wins in a row before seeing his streak come to a halt in his game with white against the 16-year-old from Chennai.

The one player who can be fully satisfied with his play on day 2 is Ian Nepomniachtchi, who scored three wins and a draw to climb to clear first place on 19/24 points. Importantly, Nepo got to beat an in-form Andrey Esipenko in round 6. The latest World Championship challenger will try to keep up the rhythm on Monday, as he is set to face Keymer and Hans Niemann in the first two rounds of day 3.

Airthings Masters 2022

Nepomniachtchi kicked off day 2 with a win over world rapid champion Nodirbek Abdusattorov, and went on to face a trio of compatriots. A win and a draw against Esipenko and Vladislav Artemiev were followed by a King’s Gambit against Alexandra Kosteniuk.

 

Both players were ready to play this variation, as they followed theory until Kosteniuk went for 10...Qa5, which is the engine’s first suggestion. However, while Kosteniuk spent three minutes on her tenth move, Nepo continued to blitz out the most trying continuations — i.e. 11.Nxg7 Kxg7 12.Bxc6

 

Black faltered here with 12...bxc6. The former women’s world champion needed to go for 12...Rfe8 13.Bxe8 Rxe8 14.Qxe8 Nxe8, entering a position with queen, bishop and knight against two rooks and two minor pieces — more important than the material, though, is the fact that White’s queenside is almost completely undeveloped.

In the game, Nepo quickly stabilized his position with 13.0-0 Rae8 14.Qf3 Nh5 15.d4

 

White is a pawn up and has a vastly superior pawn structure. Kosteniuk resigned five moves later. Notably, Nepo spent more than 10 seconds only on 5 out of the 20 moves he played in this game!

 

In another dynamic battle from round 10, Pragg got his first-ever victory over the reigning world champion, and he did it with the black pieces.

 

Pragg had missed a winning tactical shot in the early middlegame. Here, however, after Carlsen blundered with 32.Nc3, the youngster was ruthless in conversion.

White is two pawns to the good, but also has the weaker king and needs to deal with a dangerous passer on the d-file. In the diagrammed position, he had to prioritize bringing his queen back to a defensive post via 32.Qa5. After the text, on the other hand, Pragg could make the most of his initiative with 32...Nf4 33.Nd1 Qd2

 

Queen and knight are famously a strong attacking duo. The game continued 34.Nf2 Ne2 35.h4 Qe1 36.Qd7 Nxg3

 

White is doomed. Grabbing the knight with 37.Kxg3 would be followed by 37...Qxe5+ and if the king goes to h3 or g4, Black would grab the queen with 38...Bf5+. Carlsen tried 37.Qxd4+, giving up a piece, and resigned two moves later.

 

Endgame analyses by GM Karsten Müller

Our in-house expert looks at two instructive endgames from rounds 5-8. Besides Esipenko vs Artemiev, in which the former missed a chance to save a draw, Müller shows how Hansen could have got yet another remarkable win, as he wasted a chance to beat Ding Liren from a rook vs bishop endgame.

 

Instead of 63.Rd8, which wastes a precious tempo, Hansen could have won with the straightforward 63.Kxc2. After the text, Ding immediately played 63...Be5, getting a dominating bishop which allowed him to salvage a draw.

 

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.

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