Nepomniachtchi Declines Draw, Topples Leader; Gukesh Jumps into Tie For 1st

Nepomniachtchi Declines Draw, Topples Leader; Gukesh Jumps into Tie For 1st


Round seven may be a turning point in the WR Chess Masters 2023 as GM Ian Nepomniachtchi defeated the tournament leader, GM Levon Aronian, with the black pieces. Nepomniachtchi slips into a tie for second place with GM Wesley So, who drew GM R Praggnanandhaa in the longest game (seven hours!) on Thursday. 

16-year-old GM Gukesh D also defeated GM Andrey Esipenko with Black to catch Aronian in the lead, each on 4.5 points. 

It took seven rounds for the black pieces to win a single game in this tournament; previously, all nine wins were achieved with White. With two rounds left, title victory at this inaugural tournament is once again up for grabs.

Round eight begins on Friday, February 24, at 5:00 a.m. PT/14:00 CET

See what happened:
The games of the WR Chess Masters 2023 can be found here

Nepomniachtchi had drawn all six of his games in the tournament, but it was not for a lack of trying to win. In round seven, his efforts bore fruit as he refused multiple invitations to repeat the position and draw. 

If counting their games across all time controls, Aronian and Nepomniachtchi have played over a hundred games since 2009. Nepomniachtchi won their last encounter in the 2022 Sinquefield Cup with Black in the Petroff Defense.

Aronian-Nepomniachtchi, two well-acquainted opponents. Photo: Lennart Ootes / WR Chess Masters.

This time they played a Queen’s Gambit Declined, and the Russian grandmaster took on an isolated queen’s pawn. Aronian, who led the tournament by a full point, was satisfied with a draw, and he repeated the position twice on move 23. Draw?

No, thank you very much—Black slams 23…g5!? on the board.

The position was equal but sharp, and although the players danced with Qb6-c5 and Be7-d8, Black refused the draw each time. Gradually, Nepomniachtchi started to build pressure against the white king, and after the fatal error, 38.Nd4?, Black struck like lightning with 38…Bh3 and 39…Nf7!, won a piece, and won the game. 

This is our Game of the Day, annotated by GM Rafael Leitao

Esipenko-Gukesh was the other decisive game, and the black pieces claimed victory in that one as well. Esipenko played the Catalan and sacrificed a pawn out of the opening with the White.

Gukesh seemed to mix his lines because …e5, a move that is sometimes playable, was not good in this game. As he explained in the interview, he missed White’s response.

By move 16, he equalized, although he said: “What he did was so logical, but suddenly [the game] got out of control for him.” And after a single yet large mistake, 23.Qe2?, Black had a winning or close-to-winning advantage. Cementing his bishop on the d4-square and ultimately attacking the king, he didn’t miss his chance.

Esipenko-Gukesh. Photo: Lennart Ootes / WR Chess Masters.

Gukesh now leads the tournament, tied with Aronian, and jumps to 20th in the world with a 2729 rating. A playwright could hardly write a better script for this tournament, as Gukesh and Aronian will face off in the final round on Saturday.

Praggnanandhaa-So was the last game to end but was certainly no less interesting. While on the surface it looked like an 82-move draw marathon with not much going on, So had two clear (and perhaps unexpected) shots at winning the game. 

The first one, missed on move 41, was findable. The second opportunity to win, which only cropped up on move 59, is one that belongs in a chess study rather than in a practical game. Even if he found the first move (already very difficult) it’s not clear a human being would win the game, even if the engine can.

Wesley So ends the day tied in second with Nepomniachtchi, each on four points.

A sixth draw for So after his win in round one. Photo: Lennart Ootes / WR Chess Masters.

GMs Vincent Keymer and Anish Giri, who played for the first time in Wijk aan Zee last month, played their second game here in Dusseldorf. This was was drawn, like the last, and they maintained an equal head-to-head score after Thursday’s game.

In the English Opening, Giri sacrificed a pawn with Black but held equality due to his lead in development. Although the engine might yawn at the relatively equal encounter throughout, it was an instructive game in how to play with a pawn less for the long term.

By 23…g5!, Black was completely fine and held the pawn-down rook endgame after 24.0-0 Bxf3.

Keymer facing Giri. Photo: Lennart Ootes / WR Chess Masters.

Asked about the high number of draws in the event overall, Giri responded: “I just think that, when you play such great players, it’s just going to be unpredictable. I think that’s what we’ll see in the future in top tournaments. You will see that it will be completely random, who will be at the top, at the bottom, because everybody is extremely good and extremely well prepared, and I don’t think anybody is better than anybody else at this point.” 

GMs Nodirbek Abdusattorov and Jan-Krzysztof Duda played their first classical game on this day. The game, which came out of the Petroff Defense, looked absolutely wild as both players mutually sacrificed their pieces on the f2 and f7 squares, and both sides sacrificed rooks in the corner, but the moves were known to theory.

The players followed the engine’s top recommendations for virtually the entire game, and by the time they reached the opposite-color bishop endgame (with two rooks), the result was not in question. A draw.

Both players, with three points, finish the day in the six-way tie for last place.

Another draw in Abdusattorov-Duda. Photo: Lennart Ootes / WR Chess Masters.

As announced on Thursday, four of the participants in this tournament will also take part in the 2023 Grand Chess Tour.

All Games – Round 7

Standings – Round 7

The WR Chess Masters 2023 takes place February 15-26, 2023, at the Hyatt Regency Dusseldorf in Germany. The format is a round-robin with 10 players. The time control is 120 minutes for the first 40 moves followed by 60 minutes for the next 20 moves and 15 minutes for the rest of the game plus a 30-second increment per move starting with move 61. The prize fund is 130,000 Euros.

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