Airthings Masters Final: Exciting draws

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/26/2022 – While the quarterfinals and the semifinals of the Airthings Masters lasted a single day, the finals consist of two ‘sets’. The first one, played on Friday, saw Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi signing four straight draws. But the lack of decisive results does not mean there was a lack of excitement. To the contrary, the games were hard-fought and enthralling. | Photo: Niki Riga

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All to be decided on Saturday

Meltwater Champions Chess TourThe contestants of the 2021 World Championship match reached the finals of this year’s first event of the Meltwater Champions Tour. Notably well-prepared, they finished first and second in the preliminaries and swiftly defeated their opponents in the first two stages of the 8-player knockout. Now they are playing a 2-day match to decide the winner of the online event.

Just by looking at the results of the finals’ first set, one might think it was a case of two cagey elite players trying to avoid their rival’s preparation and agreeing to risk-free draws. But the opposite was true. Friday’s games were hard-fought struggles in which both contestants took considerable risks and went for the most fighting alternatives at almost every turn.

The rapid time control led to imperfect play and more than a few missed chances. For those following the games live without engine assistance, the struggle was particularly exciting. One could almost feel the tension, with kings in the open field often looking inches away from being mated and unexpected manoeuvres causing the players to make strange decisions.

After the draw in the first set, all will be decided on Saturday, when, in case of another draw, blitz and an Armageddon encounter (if needed) will take place to break the tie.

Airthings Masters 2022

Games 2, 3 and 4 were all sharp tactical battles which saw the finalists both impress with some of their finds and shock the audience by failing to find killer blows or key defensive ideas.

For example, in the second game, Carlsen found a great exchange sacrifice to gain a considerable advantage with the black pieces.

 

White has gone for an attack on the kingside, grabbing a pawn on h6 with his knight. What Nepo missed though was the intermediate move 25...Rxb1, when after 26.Rxb1 Ng6 Black will safely capture the sacrificed piece via 27.Qg5 gxh6.

In the resulting position, after a few more simplifications, the world champion had two minor pieces for a rook with his king safely placed on its initial square, where he had returned to find shelter behind a trio of pawns.

 

Here, after White’s 36.Rg7, Carlsen went a step too far by playing 36...Kd8, allowing Nepo to capture the f7-pawn. At this point, Black needed to start pushing his passer on the d-file. Carlsen’s error gave his Russian opponent a chance to get ahead on the scoreboard, but Nepo could not find the most precise continuations at critical points in an odd-looking position.

The game was only drawn after 76 moves, in an endgame with a rook versus two connected passers. A suitable ending to a wild struggle.

 

Jonathan Tisdall was impressed:

Another double-edged game which ended with the players splitting the point followed. In the fourth encounter, it seemed like Carlsen was heading to a set-clinching win with the black pieces. But an oversight gave away his advantage.

 

Black is a rook up, and only needs to stop his opponent’s passer on the b-file to annihilate all compensation. With 37...Qb8, Carlsen would have kept things under control, while his 37...Qc7 gave Nepo a chance to escape — 38.Qa3 is now playable, since in case of 38...Ra2 White counts with the intermediate 39.Nxe6, attacking the queen (note that this was not possible with the black queen on b8).

That single missed tempo by Black equalized the position. Nepo did not falter in the remainder of the game, and eventually got the all-important draw that left the scoreboard tied going into Saturday’s second set.

 

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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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