Freestyle Challenge: Carlsen and Aronian score

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/14/2024 – Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian defeated Nodirbek Abdusattorov and Fabiano Caruana respectively to get ahead on the scoreboard in the semi-finals of the Freestyle G.O.A.T. Challenge. Meanwhile, in the consolation bracket, Alireza Firouzja and Vincent Keymer got the better of Ding Liren and Gukesh D. | Photo: Amruta Mokal

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A Carlsen symphony

Known for starting tournaments slowly, Magnus Carlsen seems to have regained his usual level at the Freestyle G.O.A.T. Challenge. In the first game of the semi-finals, the former world champion obtained a remarkable victory over Nodirbek Abdusattorov. Star commentator Peter Leko had this to say about Carlsen’s performance:

Every single decision that Magnus has made in this game makes perfect sense — it’s like a symphony, it’s all connected. He’s very happy, and Nodirbek needs all his crazy skills to create some complications.

Carlsen was still critical of his play, noting that his victory was by no means a masterpiece. However, he conceded that it was an interesting, strategic game.

Before reaching the strategic fight, though, Carlsen decided to offer a pawn sacrifice as early as on move 4.

Playing 1.g4 already was quite the unorthodox choice (Aronian, Ding and Gukesh all opted either for 1.d4 or 1.e4), while here the idea is that after 4.d4 exd4, White can play 5.f4, attacking the pawn with the now freed bishop on g1.

However, a positional player himself, Abdusattorov did not grab the pawn and played 4...Nb6 instead. A few developing manoeuvres followed, and the nature of the position was greatly defined by Carlsen’s minor-piece trade on move 7.

Adusattorov’s 6...c4 was a bit surprising, since a plan involving Bb8-c7 and 0-0-0 seemed more natural for Black. Surely the youngster considered that 7.Bxb6+ axb6, as played in the game, was not particularly enticing for White.

At that point, however, Carlsen began to showcase his outstanding ability to patiently improve his pieces while keeping the tension — until reaching a point where releasing said tension will work in his favour, of course.

Throughout the game, the engines’ evaluation went from giving White a slight advantage to assessing the position as balanced. However, as Leko mentioned, it always felt — from a human point of view — like White was the one calling the shots strategically.

As it turned out, Black’s 29...Qe4, offering a queen trade, ended un being a crucial mistake.

At first sight, the position after 30.Qxe4 Rxe4 31.axb6 does not look particularly favourable for White. But Carlsen only needed five more moves to force his opponent’s resignation.

Black failed to find the one idea that would have kept the game going on move 35.

Only 35...Bf4 (or 35...Bxf5 36.Nxf5 Bf4), improving the dark-squared bishop, would have given Abdusattorov a chance to reach the time control and try to defend the position after getting an extra 30 minutes on his clock.

His 35...Rf8, on the other hand, was replied by 36.Nd6, which prompted what might seem like a premature resignation.

White is completely winning, indeed. The threats include Nd4-e6-c5, creating mating ideas with the king unable to escape from the back rank (due to the pawn on b6). Remarkable!

Expert analysis by GM Daniel King

Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris

Aronian beats Caruana

In a game in which a more ‘regular’ position was reached rather quickly, Levon Aronian obtained a 62-move victory over Fabiano Caruana.

Both contenders have castled kingside and a closed structure has been set up, with a clear space advantage for White. Here Caruana could have played 17...Bxe3, getting rid of the stronger white bishop, but went for 17...d6 instead.

Aronian immediately played 18.Bd2, preventing the aforementioned bishop trade, and went on to increase his space advantage by pushing his kingside pawns.

Right after the time control, it was clear who had the better minor piece in the position.

Caruana got an outside passer after 41...Qxh4, and White quickly obtained a passed pawn of his own in the centre.

In the final position, White’s passer on the d-file is clearly stronger than its counterpart on the h-file.

It is Black to move, so both pawns could reach the promotion square at the same time. But the threat of mate on g8 is what prompted Black’s resignation.

Caruana, like Abdusattorov, needs a win on Wednesday to take the match to tiebreakers.

Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana sharing a laugh with commentators Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev on Monday | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Keymer and Firouzja score with black

While the two semi-finals saw the eventual winners scoring with white, the consolation bracket saw Alireza Firouzja and Vincent Keymer grabbing victories with the black pieces.

These players continue fighting to decide who gets 5th-8th place once the tournament comes to an end on Friday. Besides the entertainment value for spectators, they are also playing to get a spot in next year’s edition of the event (which might become a series of tournaments in 2025), as announced by Jan Henric Buettner, the man behind the whole operation.

Buetner also mentioned that, apart from the same tournament taking place in February next year, he plans to put together a Freestyle Tour with events in the United States, India and South Africa.

An enthusiastic Buetner was interviewed right before the start of the event:

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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.