Clutch Chess International QF: Aronian and Caruana in the semis

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
6/10/2020 – On an exciting fourth day of action, Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian secured a spot in the semifinals of the Clutch Chess International Tournament. Caruana reached the semis by trading blows with Leinier Dominguez, as he came from getting ahead on the scoreboard in the first half of the match. Meanwhile, Aronian knocked out Alexander Grischuk by winning the very last game of the match — a clutch win indeed! | Photo: Crystal Fuller

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“That was very clutch”

Every new format presented during this period of online tournaments leads to the players having to adjust their strategies — a challenging task for them and, more often than not, a source of interest for the viewers. In this new “clutch chess” format, the organizers intend to motivate the players to continue fighting until the very end, awarding more points in the last two games of each day.

On day four of this international edition, the best side of the initiative came to the fore, at least in terms of entertainment. Levon Aronian won his match against Alexander Grischuk by scoring a win in the very last game of the match, right after Grischuk had got ahead with a win in the previous encounter, which was a ‘three-pointer’ as well! Aronian also used basketball jargon in the post-match interview:

We both, Sasha and I, are big fans of the NBA, so it was like one of those Lakers v Celtics encounters — you know, game seven. Something we live for — I guess he enjoys it too and I enjoy it too. We broke each other's hearts many, many times by winning some clutch games in our careers.

Fans of basketball must certainly remember the 2010 finals of the NBA, when the Lakers beat the Celtics in the deciding seventh game of the series — of course, the Celtics had done the same to their long-time rivals a couple of times in the 1960s.

Aronian was visibly satisfied with his win, noting that it is particularly nice to face a player of his generation. To have done it in dramatic fashion must have certainly added to the satisfaction. Jonathan Tisdall said it best on Twitter:

Levon Aronian

In the meantime, a repeat from the semifinals of the inaugural Clutch Chess tournament saw Fabiano Caruana beating Leinier Dominguez for the second time in a couple of weeks. However, the winning margin was smaller. Back then, Caruana got a massive 15:3 victory, while this time around he defeated the Cuban-born grandmaster 10½:7½.

Caruana entered into day two with a 3-point lead. Just like in the first half, Dominguez kicked off the day with a win. What followed was a series of back-to-back decisive games, in which the players traded wins with the black pieces. Thus, Caruana — who later commented that he had not played very well in this second half — was still 3 points ahead before the clutch games began. Each of the last two encounters granted 3 points for the winner. 

The world number two wasted winning chances in game 11 and drew game 12 from a position of strength after Dominguez did not make the most of a positional plus out of the opening, thus winning the match. 

Caruana will face Wesley So in the next round, just like he did in the all-American tournament. That match ended tied, but So claimed victory on tiebreaks (more wins in clutch games). As Caruana noted, this means he will face a second principled player in a row, for a second tournament in a row!

The semis begin on Thursday: Carlsen v Aronian and Caruana v So.

Fabiano Caruana

Aronian 10:8 Grischuk

Known for his poker skills, Grischuk paid close attention to the rules prior to the second half of the match. He was trailing by 2 points at the start of the day, which meant he needed three wins and a draw to enter the final clutch games knowing that a 1:1 result would be enough to get overall victory. Thus, after drawing one and winning one he used a win-at-all-costs approach in game 9 and, as so often happens, he ended up losing. A draw in game 12 maintained Aronian's 2-point lead entering into the deciding games.

Grischuk won game 11 after his rival's overly creative play in the opening left him in a tough position early on. A draw in game 12 would have been enough for the Russian to go through, but Aronian's inventive style came in handy in the must-win situation. A rook move was Grischuk's decisive mistake:

 

Choosing which rook to transfer to the open file is never easy. In this case, Grischuk's 22...Rfd8 was not the right choice (22...Rad8 was the way to go). After the text, White could use his initiative with 23.Rc1 Qa5 24.Nxe6. If Black had moved the a-rook to the d-file, he would have been able to reply to 24...fxe6 25.Qxe6+ with 25...Rf7, while in the game 25...Kf8 26.Bxg7+ is crushing for White. Grischuk conceded defeat three moves later.

  Total G1 G2 G3 G4 G5* G6* G7 G8 G9 G10 G11** G12**
Levon Aronian 10 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 ½ 0 1 ½ 0 1
Alexander Grischuk 8 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 0 ½ 1 0
*Games 5 and 6 are worth two points each
** Games 11 and 12 are worth three points each
 

Select an entry from the list to switch between games

Caruana 10½:7½ Dominguez

It was a good day for black in this matchup. In the first four games of the second half, Dominguez responded to Caruana's 1.d4 with the Nimzo-Indian and won twice, while Caruana responded to his rival's 1.e4 with the Caro-Kann and also won twice. 

Caruana deviated from the Nimzo in the first clutch game, going for 3.g3 and entering an Open Catalan. Although he came out of the opening with a slightly worse position, he managed to restore the balance and then get the upper hand. In the end, the Italian-American grandmaster was not able to secure match victory in that game, agreeing to a draw after 108 moves.

Given the tiebreak criteria in place, Dominguez would have got match victory with a win in game 12. Caruana stayed loyal to his Caro-Kann and kept things under control throughout:

 

Black had successfully simplified the position, and 30.Rc1 eased his task tremendously. There followed 30...Rxc1 31.Rxc1 Qe4 and with the queen centralized it is all but impossible to find a winning plan for White. Dominguez continued trying until move 36, but to no avail. A draw by repetition gave Caruana the pass to the semifinals.

  Total G1 G2 G3 G4 G5* G6* G7 G8 G9 G10 G11** G12**
Fabiano Caruana 10½ 0 ½ 1 1 1 ½ 0 1 0 1 ½ ½
Leinier Dominguez 1 ½ 0 0 0 ½ 1 0 1 0 ½ ½
*Games 5 and 6 are worth two points each
** Games 11 and 12 are worth three points each
 

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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.