Carlsen, Nakamura Advance To Winners Bracket Final

Carlsen, Nakamura Advance To Winners Bracket Final


The second day of the Champions Chess Tour Airthings Masters 2023 set the stage for the match many chess fans have been waiting for. GMs Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura defeated GMs Arjun Erigaisi and Wesley So respectively and will face off on Wednesday in the Division I Winners Bracket Final. This will be their first match since Nakamura won their last encounter in the SCC final.

GM Alexey Sarana eliminated GM Alireza Firouzja from the Division I Losers Bracket and will play So on Wednesday in the Losers Quarterfinals. In the other match, Erigaisi will face GM Gukesh D, who knocked GM Rauf Mamedov out of the event.

In Division II, the biggest upset is GM Nodirbek Yakubboev‘s win over GM Dmitry Andreikin. He will face GM Fabiano Caruana in the Winners Semifinals, while the other match will feature GM Alexander Predke (who won by forfeit after GM Ian Nepomniachtchi did not show) vs. GM Yu Yangyi.

In Division III, GM R Praggnanandhaa defeated GM Aleksandr Lenderman in the Winners Bracket Semifinals. He will face GM Sam Sevian, who defeated GM Oleksandr Bortnyk, in the Winners Bracket Final.

The Airthings Masters continues Wednesday, February 8, 2023, at 8 a.m. PT/17:00 CET.

Division I

The four players who lost their matches on the previous day moved to the Losers Bracket. The four others remained in the Winners.

With the double-elimination format, every player who remains has a chance to win the entire event—the winner of the Losers Bracket, however, must defeat the victor of the Winners Bracket two times in the Grand Finals.

Winners Bracket

As in the previous day, four-game matches were played. A tied result would lead to an armageddon tiebreaker to decide the match. In fact, both closely contested matches in the Winners Bracket were decided by armageddon tiebreakers. 

So started his day with a casual first-place finish in the early Titled Tuesday, finishing with a perfect 10/11 score just in time for his match with Nakamura (who did not play this morning). 

In their first game, So held a small, nagging advantage with the white pieces in an Italian Opening. Nakamura ultimately held a pawn-down rook and queen endgame to a draw. Nakamura got nothing in the second with White, and So got nothing in the third with Black. In the fourth game, they played the notorious 14-move Berlin draw, hinting that both players were prepared for an armageddon game.

For the armageddon tiebreaker, both players bid times—the lower bid earns the right to play with the black pieces, for whom a draw equals a win. Nakamura won the bid for the black pieces by 16 seconds after bidding nine minutes and 28 seconds.

So, in a must-win game with White, with time odds of 15 minutes to 9:16, played the Italian Opening—but the game was suddenly aborted. The increment hadn’t been removed, and they had to start again in a game without increment.

Curiously, when they restarted, So opted to play the Ruy Lopez, Delayed Exchange Variation—he changed his opening. Although Nakamura expressed dissatisfaction with this in the post-game interview, feeling it’s fairer to stick to the moves both players committed to in the first game, the game ended in his favor. 

As So was unable to make inroads, Nakamura advanced his kingside pawns. It was growing quite clear that by 27…h3, Nakamura was more comfortable. Soon after, the queens were traded, and Nakamura drew an endgame where only he could be better.

The other Winners Bracket match was between Erigaisi, who had defeated Firouzja 3-0 the day before, and the world champion.

Carlsen won a positional masterclass with the white pieces in his first game against Erigaisi. It showcased dominance on the only open file in a way that may remind some readers of Alekhine’s famous win over Nimzovich in 1930. 

It was a game that the world champion, who holds himself to a high standard, later deemed “very good.” We’ve selected this as our Game of the Day, annotated by GM Rafael Leitao.

GM Rafael Leitao GotD

In the second game, the Indian grandmaster had a few opportunities to win. Carlsen showed resilient defense under severe time trouble (dropping below five seconds) and ultimately held a draw.

The clearest chance Erigaisi had was the tactical 20.Nxe6, which would have won a pawn.

Erigaisi had the upper hand in game three despite having the black pieces. After missing a few opportunities in a complicated middlegame, he finally brought home the win after forcing the trade of queens in the time scramble.

A draw in the fourth game meant an armageddon game would decide the match. 

Carlsen won the bid for the black pieces by offering 10 minutes and one second against Erigaisi’s 11 minutes and 59 seconds.

Needing only a draw, he defended solidly. By move 23, he was already better, and a desperate Erigaisi, who complicated the game as much as he could, was never unable to turn the tide. The game ended in a draw, a match win for the world champion.

Carlsen reflected on the overall match: “The last three games weren’t so good. Especially the third game was pretty unnecessary. … I got short of time and he found this resource with …Qe4. So that was a bit vexing. … I thought that the match was, if not over, then close to it, but that was not the case at all.”

The top three places in Division I earn automatic qualification into Division I of the next Champions Chess Tour. Thus, with these victories, Nakamura and Carlsen have punched their tickets to Division I of the next event, which comes with a minimum $7,500 prize.

Losers Bracket

One key difference in the Losers Bracket is that the matches are just two games. A loss in the first game means a must-win situation in the next to force armageddon.

In the first game, Firouzja seemed to be caught in his opponent’s preparation in a Queen’s Gambit Declined Semi-Tarrasch. By the middlegame, his predicament on the clock seemed direr than the one on the board, even after he had lost a pawn.

Sarana went on to trap his opponent’s knight with a “cunning trap,” as Howell called it on the broadcast.

After the game, Hess summarized: “That was one of the cleanest games I think I’ve ever seen. It was that dominant from start to finish … from the opening to the middlegame all the way to the very last pawns. Perfect game.”

That was one of the cleanest games I think I’ve ever seen.

—Robert Hess

Indeed, in his interview, the Russian grandmaster shared that he used leftover preparation for Carlsen: “I was very lucky with [the] opening. I also prepared it against Magnus, and in this game it happen[ed], and it worked quite well.”

Firouzja was unable to produce any true winning chances against Sarana in game two and ultimately lost trying to win. With no difference between a draw and a loss, Firouzja was eliminated from the event.

The other Losers Bracket match was Mamedov-Gukesh. Under pressure with the white pieces for most of the game, Mamedov blundered on move 31. Can you find the win for Gukesh?

Black to move and win. 

Mamedov managed to win the second game on demand with Black. Although objectively Gukesh had a draw with the impossible-to-find 60.Qd4+ Ka6 61.b5!!, he was unable to find the miracle defense with seconds on the clock.

I encourage readers to look at the wild variations below—my favorite line includes a rare underpromotion to a knight.

Later Gukesh explained his opening strategy: “In the second game … I was expecting him to go King’s Indian. So after Nf3 g6, I was planning Nc3 d5 Bf4, and it’s a very solid line. But in the armageddon, I thought I had to play some normal stuff and not be too solid. I was still expecting him to go King’s Indian, but Slav was quite a surprise. I didn’t really remember this …Bg6 line well, so I just blitzed something over the board, and I got a playable position.”

Mamedov’s offer of 11 minutes beat out Gukesh’s 11:45. Anything but a win would eliminate Gukesh from the event.

Commentator Howell summarized the game, which Gukesh did win, nicely below.

Division I Bracket

Division II

The Division II Winners Bracket, which started with 16 players, has funneled down to four. Like Division I, the Winners Bracket matches were four-game matches while the Losers Bracket was decided in two (with a possible armageddon).

There were two clear upsets. First, GM Alexandr Predke defeated Nepomniachtchi after the latter failed to arrive. The latter did alert tournament directors that he was catching a flight, and he is likely traveling to Germany, where he will play in the WR Chess Masters 2023 over the board next week. He is expected to arrive and play in the Airthings Masters tomorrow.

GM Nodirbek Yakubboev upset GM Dmitry Andreikin—each traded a win, and Yakubboev held a draw with Black in the armageddon tiebreaker to win the match.

His win in game one featured some quirky king moves—first, sidestepping the king to f8, and then later coming back to the center with 23.Ke7!.

If you’re encouraging students to castle their kings, don’t show them this game—or just start at move 24, when his attack kicks in. 

Yakubboev will have to show great form to overcome another heavyweight, GM Fabiano Caruana, in his match on Wednesday. One exciting rivalry in the Losers Bracket will be the all-Russian duel between Nepomniachtchi and GM Vladimir Kramnik.

Division II Bracket

Division III

Just two players remain in the Winners Bracket by the second day’s end, Praggnanandhaa and Sevian. Both the Winners and Losers brackets of this division featured two-game matches.

On his way to the Winners Bracket Final, the Indian grandmaster took down his countryman GM V Pranav with a 2-0 clean sweep in the Winners Bracket Quarterfinals. His first win featured a thematic exchange sacrifice on the f6-square in what can be described as a French Tarrasch pawn structure with colors reversed.

Division III Bracket 

The Champions Chess Tour 2023 (CCT) is a massive chess circuit combining the best features of previous Champions Chess Tour editions with the Global Championship. The tour comprises six events spanning the entire year and culminating in live in-person Finals. With the very best players in the world and a $2,000,000 prize fund, the CCT is’s most important event to date.

Only grandmasters are eligible for automatic entry into the Play-In Phase. Other titled players (IM and below) can play in the Qualifiers that take place every Monday starting February 13, except on weeks with a Play-In or Knockout (21 in total). The top three players from each Qualifier will be eligible to participate in the upcoming Play-In. 

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