Freestyle Challenge: Caruana beats Aronian in thrilling tiebreaks

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/14/2024 – Fabiano Caruana and Magnus Carlsen, the two highest-rated players in the world, will play the final match at the Freestyle G.O.A.T. Chess Challenge. While Carlsen defeated Nodirbek Abdusattorov by a 1½-½ score, Caruana’s match against Levon Aronian went all the way to Armageddon. Caruana twice blundered in winning positions in what was a thrilling confrontation. | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

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Two “donated” rooks

Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian had won the first games in the semi-finals of the Freestyle G.O.A.T. Chess Challenge, which meant they only needed a draw on Wednesday to reach the tournament’s final.

Carlsen had no trouble holding Nodirbek Abdusattorov to a draw with the black pieces, while Aronian saw his opponent, Fabiano Caruana, bouncing back and taking the match to tiebreaks. A thrilling series of games ended with Caruana advancing to the final by winning the sudden-death decider.

In the second game of the quarter-finals, Aronian had played a spectacular attack to beat Vincent Keymer with white. Only two days later, the Armenian-born grandmaster was on the losing side of a devastating attack — and Caruana got to play the same move that Aronian had played two days ago to prompt Keymer’s resignation: 25.Rd6

This tactical blow was not followed by resignation, as only after 25...exd6 did Caruana show the killer idea that justified the previous move — not 26.Rxe6 (which also wins) but 26.Bxb6+

There is no way to escape the overwhelming attack: 26...axb6 27.Qxb6+ Kd7 28.Qd8+ followed, and Aronian resigned the game three moves later.

Caruana had just won on demand, taking the match to rapid and blitz tiebreakers.

Expert analysis by GM Daniel King

The tiebreaks

Caruana was evidently in good form, and went on to get a clear advantage in the first rapid tiebreak encounter. However, already in an endgame position which could have emerged from a normal chess game, the U.S. grandmaster “donated a rook” (Caruana) to Aronian for the first time in the day.

Black has a strong, extra pawn on the c-file and should have little trouble converting this position into a win. Except that Caruana played 44...Rb8 here, forgetting about the placement of his opponent’s dark-squared bishop.

After 45.Bxb8, Aronian was suddenly winning — straightforward play was enough for White to grab the win, which meant Caruana was again in a must-win situation.

Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

Not only did Caruana manage to bounce back in style again, but he also won the first 5-minute game that followed. The world number two played the openings sensibly and struck tactically when the positions called for action. Moreover, he also obtained a winning position in the fourth game of the playoffs — and once again “donated” a rook to his colleague and friend!

White has a clear advantage here, with 39.Rf7 a clear path to continue making progress against a weakened king. Moreover, Caruana only needed a draw to win the match.

However, in deep mutual time trouble, the U.S. star first erred with the imprecise 39.c7, and after 39...Rh8 blundered his rook away with 40.Rb7

The plan is to play Rb7-b8 in the next move, but the knight sitting on c5 can simply grab the rook here! This unfortunate mistake granted Aronian a second lucky win in the tiebreakers and took the rollercoaster match to Armageddon.

Despite the unfortunate setbacks, a resilient Caruana regrouped mentally and won the sudden-death decider with the black pieces, gaining the right to face Carlsen in the final match of the tournament.

Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen will face Fabiano Caruana in the event’s final | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

Firouzja and Gukesh to fight for fifth place

Similarly to the semi-finals, one of the matches in the consolation bracket ended after two classical games and the other went to tiebreaks. Alireza Firouzja held Ding Liren to a draw with white on Wednesday to get a 1½-½ victory, while Gukesh D won on demand against Vincent Keymer to take their match to tiebreaks.

Gukesh showed great nerves in the rapid games that followed, first prevailing with the white pieces and then holding a difficult position against a resourceful Keymer.

Firouzja and Gukesh will play for the right to participate in the next edition of the event at the luxurious Weissenhaus Resort, as had been announced by Jan Henric Buettner on Tuesday.

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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.