Magnus Carlsen won the first game and survived a 132-move thriller in the third to defeat Hikaru Nakamura 2.5:1.5 and win the $30,000 Airthings Masters top prize. Magnus commented, “it didn’t feel like I managed to play close to my best level”, but he’s already booked his spot in the Champions Chess Tour Playoffs in December. Fabiano Caruana overcame Yu Yangyi to win Division II and qualifies for Division I in the next event in April.
When Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura met in the Winners Final there were five draws, with the last winning the match for Magnus in Armageddon. In the Grand Final, however, we didn’t need to wait long for decisive action.
Hikaru would later put the blame on a decision he took as early as move 11.
Here he went for 11…Na5?! instead of 11…Ne7, explaining:
I think in the first game I just put my knight on the wrong square, and it’s kind of crazy that putting the knight on the wrong square basically led to me getting a horrible position. I put this knight on a5 instead of e7 in Game 1, and then after that it was difficult. Maybe a computer could have found a better way to play it, but I thought that Magnus played very principled, and it was just a very clean win for him after that.
After 12.Rd1 our commentators flagged up 12…Rb8!? as a dubious decision, depriving Black of the chance to castle queenside, and things escalated fast, with Magnus launching his h-pawn up the board to ensure the black king would have a difficult life.
Perhaps the last best chance to hold came on move 23, when Hikaru spent almost three minutes.
23…Rc8! offered some chances, while after 23…0-0?! Magnus reached a winning endgame almost by force, with the h6-pawn, knight and rook by the end weaving a mating net. Hikaru headed for the exit.
Any hopes of a swift comeback faded in the second game when Magnus emerged from the opening with a promising position with the black pieces. He was also in great spirits…
The aggressive opening seemed to have fizzled out into nothing, but the position was sharper that it at first appeared.
Here 28…f4 suddenly introduced the idea of Rxd3 Kxd3 and Bf5+, skewering the rook on b1. The game continued, with Magnus at one point rejecting a draw by repetition, but it did ultimately end in a draw.
That meant Carlsen could clinch victory with the white pieces in Game 3, and those chances increased as Nakamura played the Sicilian and went for a hyper-aggressive push of his g-pawn to open up a path to the white king.
Magnus seemed to be doing Magnus things as he defused the danger and looked poised to take over.
It turns out breaking open Black’s position with 22.a4! is very strong, with e.g. 22…bxa4 23.Rb6! suddenly introducing ideas such as Rxe5, exploiting the undefended rook on h6.
After two minutes of thought, however, Magnus opted for 22.cxb5!? axb5 23.Bxb5!?, giving up all his advantage. He noted afterwards:
I spent a lot of that time trying to find a win, and then I thought I’ll bail out into a draw, but I know, of course, from experience, and everybody knows, that when playing him, playing me as well, as long as you can’t force the draw you’re not going to get the draw. You really have to earn it, and I didn’t do it and he should have won the game.
In what should have been an equal position the world champion lost his way, and soon found himself defending a miserable ending.
I thought I was completely lost! I mean I just couldn’t pull myself together in time. The thing is, when you play on three seconds [the time added each move] compared to 10, you don’t really have time at all, so I was playing on instinct, but my instincts weren’t working.
It became an epic contest in which just when Hikaru seemed about to win he lost his way, and just when Magnus looked to have escaped he found himself in trouble again. Peter Leko exclaimed, “chess is insane, rook endgames are insane!” The final slip turned out to be 90…Kc3 (e.g. 90…Kd1 and Hikaru is winning).
After that Magnus managed to set up a fortress where Black had two extra pawns but no way to advance them, and the game ended in 132 moves. Of course there were mixed emotions!
It was a bitter outcome for Hikaru, but on the other hand, he was rightly proud.
The big difference between me now and the me of, let’s say, 2014-9, is pretty much that I don’t just give up, I find a way to keep going. I think in the past very easily I would have just gone in the 3rd game, I would have lost this game also with Black, and the match is over very quickly. That’s probably the biggest thing for me, that I’ve found a way to keep playing, keep moving forward and not really worrying about anything else.
Magnus, meanwhile, was buoyed up by that result, knowing he only needed a draw with the black pieces in the final game.
After surviving the third game I was pretty confident. I feel like that was his chance. Both against Wesley and me he’s not had a lot of chances to win, so I thought that was it, and also Eric [Hansen] told me that now you have to play an Armageddon with 15 minutes, so I thought, yeah, that was my Armageddon today!
Briefly Hikaru seemed to have everything he could hope for from the opening, but 13.Be3-g5?!, played after a 3-minute think, released the pressure on the d4-square, which Magnus immediately exploited with 13…Nd4!
The rest went smoothly for Magnus, who was completely winning in the final position where he accepted a title-clinching draw.
Magnus had defeated Alexey Sarana, Arjun Erigaisi (the only player to win a game against him) and Hikaru Nakamura (twice) on the path to winning the Airthings Masters for a 2nd year in a row.
He didn’t, however, feel that he’d done something remarkable.
It’s a little bit weird, since I don’t really feel like I did much at all this tournament. Usually you win preliminaries, you win a lot of matches, but this time it felt like you’re playing matches from the start. Suddenly I was in the final, and out of my last nine games I won one of them and I won the tournament, so it feels a bit weird, also since it didn’t feel like I managed to play close to my best level, but of course winning feels great!
Hikaru had fallen just short, but earned high praise from Magnus.
I know that he’s been fighting through some difficult stuff in this tournament with his family, and I think he’ll agree as well that he didn’t manage to show his best level, but the fact that he still gets through the qualifier and then all the way to the final and makes it close, that’s a real testament to his strength of character and also how good he is.
Magnus earned $30,000, 150 Tour points and direct qualification to the 8-player Champions Chess Tour Playoffs in December — one of those eight players will win the $200,000 top prize.
5 more spots in the Playoffs are open to the winners of the next 5 events, with the remaining places decided by Tour points
Hikaru took $20,000, 100 points and qualification for Division I of the next event in April, along with Wesley So, who earned $15,000 and 75 points. The next best result, however, was for a player who didn’t make it into the top group: Fabiano Caruana. His victory in Division II gave him $10,000, 50 points and the 4th automatic spot in Division I.
Fabiano’s opponent in the final was Yu Yangyi, and it’s notable that in all three divisions the loser of the Winners Final — Nakamura (vs. Carlsen), Yu Yangyi (vs. Caruana) and Praggnanandhaa (vs. Sevian) — made it back into the Grand Final... only to lose again.
Caruana won the first game, putting him on course to continue his record of winning all his matches with a game to spare after two wins and no defeats. This time, however, Yu Yangyi hit back in the second game, after Fabi blundered last in a tricky endgame with three pawns against a knight.
The US star hit back again, however, with some help from Yu Yangyi’s 28…Kh8? (28…g6! was the only way to stop immediate disaster).
Only the queen on b2 is defending against checkmate on g7, so Fabi set about hunting the queen with 29.Rb6! Qa1 30.Rb1! Qd4 and the final touch, 31.c3!, leaving the queen with no more squares.
Yu Yangyi won a pawn in the final game, but couldn’t prevent Caruana from getting the draw he needed to win Division II. Fabi was thrilled, especially as he’d been unaware until a day previously that he was playing for more than money and Tour points.
It definitely gives me a good shot in the overall standings, at least it’s a good start. Of course it was a bit of a heartbreaker to get eliminated from Division I by losing to Sarana, and after that I was already a bit dejected about the whole tournament, but after going through Division II I didn’t even know until yesterday that it actually qualifies for Division I. That’s sort of the icing on the cake!
That means there will be at least four star names in action in the top division of the next event on April 3-7…
…with the other four decided in the Play-In day on March 13. That event is open to all grandmasters, but there’s also a path for other titled players. This Monday, February 13, and each Monday, there will be a Swiss tournament on Chess.com where the Top 3 earn the right to play in any Play-In event.
Replay all the Airthings Masters games:
The main upcoming over-the-board event, meanwhile, is the new WR Chess Masters tournament in Dusseldorf, Germany running February 16-25. That features Ian Nepomniachtchi, Anish Giri, Wesley So, Levon Aronian, Nodirbek Abdusattorov, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Gukesh, Vincent Keymer, Praggnanandhaa and Andrey Esipenko. We'll have all the action here on chess24!
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