Keymer Overcomes So With Black; Aronian ‘Over The Moon’ After Saving Lost Game

Keymer Overcomes So With Black; Aronian 'Over The Moon' After Saving Lost Game


GM Levon Aronian evaded a second consecutive loss by the skin of his teeth in round eight of the WR Chess Masters 2023. After making an unsound piece sacrifice, he managed to draw GM Andrey Esipenko and keep his dreams of title victory alive. GM Gukesh D, the other tournament leader, was unable to make inroads with the white pieces against GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda.

GM Vincent Keymer, with the black pieces, won the single decisive game of the round as he took down GM Wesley So in the longest game of the day, knocking the latter out of title contention. He will battle with the white pieces against third-place GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, who drew with GM R Praggnanandhaa, in the next and final round. Lastly, GM Anish Giri correctly predicted GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov‘s opening, and although he had an overwhelming advantage at one point, the game ended in a draw.

The two leaders, Aronian and Gukesh, will be paired in round nine. Aronian will have the white pieces. Half of the participants are on 3.5 points, with three wins out of 40 games (29 draws) among the bottom five players.

The last round begins on Saturday, February 25, at 5:00 a.m. PT/14:00 CET

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

Esipenko nearly caused a meltdown for Aronian in the penultimate round of the event. The game featured a deep level of preparation as the players followed a previous game for 16 moves, Gelfand-Anand, Leon 2022. 

Esipenko cooked up 17.e4!?N, followed by a temporary exchange sacrifice. Black walked a tightrope; although the engine claimed full equality, Aronian had to find a series of only moves to stay afloat.

Esipenko on the precipice of victory. Photo: Lennart Ootes / WR Chess Masters.

The game took a serious turn; after eight minutes of thought, Black made an unsound piece sacrifice, 22…Nd4?. Aronian misremembered something in his preparation and quickly realized it. Esipenko took his time, fully knowing this to be the decisive moment. After 49 minutes of thought, checking and re-checking, he called the bluff and grabbed the piece. Aronian was dead lost.

After the game, the American grandmaster said: “I thought I practically have no chances [to defend]… . And I told myself, it’s just a game, let’s see how it goes.”

On move 35, Aronian attempted to trade bishops, a last-ditch effort at some activity. And nothing short of a miracle happened; Esipenko captured his bishop and allowed the counterplay he hoped for. Two moves later, they agreed to a draw.

After the astonishing result, Aronian replied: “I am over the moon with joy.” Going into the last day of the tournament, Aronian remains at the top of the leaderboard with a chance to win the title on Saturday, while Abdusattorov is in a five-way tie for last.

Meanwhile, Gukesh was—and still is—the other tournament leader. During his game, he watched Aronian’s, knowing that it was possible he’d finish the day in sole first even with a draw. Gukesh said: “I wanted to play a normal game regardless of their games … I just kept an eye on that game, but it didn’t really influence any decisions that I made.”

In his game with Duda, he was met with the ultra-solid Petroff Defense. He was already caught by surprise by “this Nc6 variation” and didn’t have anything specific prepared, although he remembered “a Caruana game” where Black played …g5 (possibly Caruana-Ponomariov, Dortmund 2014). 

Although there were slight chances here and there—and possibly the best chance for an edge was with 20.Be3 instead of 20.c4—Gukesh surmised: “I don’t really think any of us got any serious chances.” They agreed to a draw in a position where each player had a rook and opposite-color bishops.

In the only decisive game on Friday, Keymer defeated the previously undefeated So. The American grandmaster won his first game and, with draws in his other six, was always near the top of the leaderboard.

In the interview, Keymer was “extremely happy to win such a game. I mean, Wesley, I have also huge respect for him … when he’s in his best shape I think he’s absolutely one of the best players … he’s on one level with Magnus absolutely if he’s on his best.”

“… he’s on one level with Magnus absolutely if he’s on his best,” says Keymer. Photo: Lennart Ootes / WR Chess Masters.

A loss for So, and especially with the white pieces, is a rare sight in general. In the following game, he erred first with 18.exd5?! and then released the central tension with 19.c5?!. 

By move 22, Keymer said: “I realized that, okay, now that position is already very bad.”

As GM Rafael Leitao writes a few moves after that: “On the board, we have a textbook example of everything that could go wrong for White.” This is our Game of the Day, analyzed below.

Giri-Abdusattorov was an interesting pairing, as the former just barely stole tournament victory from the latter in Tata Steel Chess a month ago. A possible storyline of revenge for Abdusattorov, or affirmation for Giri, was potentially in store.

The Dutch grandmaster showed a clairvoyant level of preparation as he predicted the Classical Sicilian from his opponent, who played the Sicilian Dragon earlier in the tournament.

 Giri quipped: “Nodirbek is [a] very classical player, so I expected the Classical Sicilian today. No, I have to say I’m absolutely brilliant at predicting my opponents’ openings. I don’t know how, but I kind of predicted it.”

He uncorked a novelty on move 15, something he had just checked before the game, and was met with an immediate mistake, 15…Bxe4?. It was a position where Black had just one playable but difficult move.

However, the advantage was far from simple to understand, and Giri lost the edge.

By move 20, the game featured a classic, ageless question: which rook to move? It’s a question that cannot be answered on general grounds but only with concrete calculation, and Giri decided to go for a rook endgame with an extra pawn. As the game showed, Abdusattorov had enough play to draw the game.

Abdusattorov with a clutch defense. Photo: Lennart Ootes / WR Chess Masters.

Praggnanandhaa had already beaten one of this year’s world championship challengers, GM Ding Liren, last month in Wijk aan Zee. A victory over the world number-two would have added yet another accolade to his illustrious resume. This includes a win over World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the 2022 Champions Chess Tour at the age of 16, which brought his name to mass media.

With the black pieces, he faced the Russian challenger in their first-ever over-the-board game. He had lost their previous (and only) encounter at the 2022 Airthings Masters, and his opponent was coming in hot from victory in the previous round. 

Nepomniachtchi’s last game with the white pieces in this tournament. Photo: Lennart Ootes / WR Chess Masters.

Praggnanandhaa equalized comfortably in the Italian Opening, and by the time he played 18…c5 it was clear that Black was slightly better. The teenage grandmaster recalled: “Memories of the game against Ding was coming, and it’d be nice to win, but okay I’m also fortunate not to lose today.”

After the game, he criticized his move 21…Bd4, calling it “very bad,” and indeed spotted that the better move is 21…Rac8. Another opportunity arose with 30…Nh5, but he said that by the time he played 30…Ne8, he was already low on time. 

The trend shifted in Nepomniachtchi’s favor after that—”I was just fortunate to make move 40 without making a huge blunder or something” (Praggnanandhaa)—but the Indian grandmaster escaped with a draw by perpetual check.

The two most critical matchups on Saturday will be Keymer-Nepomniachtchi and Aronian-Gukesh. Money prizes are shared among players with the same number of points except for those in first place.

If Aronian-Gukesh ends in a draw, they will play two games at the 10+2 time control; if drawn, they will play two games at the 5+2 time control; and if that is drawn, they will play an armageddon game with five minutes for White and four for Black plus a two-second increment starting on move 61.

The two leaders posed for a photo ahead of the last day. Will they be so cordial over the board?

All Games – Round 8

Standings – Round 8

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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