Aronian, Carlsen strike on first day semifinals

Firouzja, Keymer also win their games

1.g2-g4! If Henri Grob (1904-74) had watched the semi-final opener in WEISSENHAUS, he would have liked what he saw on Magnus Carlsen’s board: his opening! What Carlsen wrote down on his scoresheet would even have flattered the IM and two-time Swiss chess champion. The world number one wrote “Grob” after he had played his first move g2-g4.

Levon Aronian and Carlsen both won their white game today and need only a draw in their second game of the semifinals on Wednesday to reach the final of the WEISSENHAUS Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T. Challenge. While Aronian defeated his friend and co-St. Louis resident Fabiano Caruana, Carlsen won against Nodirbek Abdusattorov. It was the first loss for the Uzbek grandmaster in five days of freestyle chess.

Alireza Firouzja and Vincent Keymer both won their game with black in the “loser’s bracket”. A draw in the next game against Ding Liren and Gukesh Dommaraju respectively would secure them a spot in the match for fifth place.

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The spectators of the stream and in the Big Barn Studios saw four very different games. A strategic struggle ensued between Aronian and Caruana, which resembled a traditional chess game after just a few moves. The battle between Carlsen and Abdusattorov, on the other hand, was irrational and off the beaten track. In addition, there were two short wins by Keymer and Firouzja, which illustrate how easily even super grandmasters can let a 960 game slip away. Or, to quote our commentator Peter Leko: “The first five moves are the most important.”

Co-organizer Carlsen probably had no influence on the design of the scoresheets when meticulously planning the event. Now he doesn’t bother to puzzle over why there’s a blank line for the opening name on the freestyle sheets. He simply uses it by comparing the pawn structure and piece position on his board with known patterns and then writes down what seems most plausible to him. During the tournament, there have indeed been Stonewalls, a London System and Queen’s Pawn Openings on the Chess960 boards.

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Today’s position.

Now Grob, surprising but not sensational in a starting position which, with the knight on h1, favors the double move of the g-pawn rather than the traditional one (Grob’s attack, as Henri Grob imagined it, is considered dubious today). Nevertheless, it wasn’t because of the opening that Carlsen won the game and took a big step towards the final. On the contrary.

If Abdusattorov had accepted the Norwegian’s “overenthusiastic” (Carlsen) pawn sacrifice on move three, it would not have been easy to prove its justification. But perhaps it was more important to Carlsen that he is no longer mocked by Aronian than the compensation on the board?

When exchanging ideas before the games, Aronian has been teasing the former world champion for days that he considers his 960 ideas to be unsuitable. Now, as Carlsen let slip in the confession booth, he had played an idea that Aronian should like. But Aronian probably liked even more what he played himself in the semi-final opener. After his victory over Caruana, Aronian also has his sights set on the final.

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Will Levon Aronian now stop mocking Magnus Carlsen for his chess960 ideas? Photo: Maria Emelianova

Whenever the voices of the commentary trio Peter Leko, Tania Sachdev and Niclas Huschenbeth drop, it’s clear who they’re talking about. World Champion Ding Liren is not in the best of form, nor is he in the best of shape, and this is still reflected in the results.

When he lost a piece on move 6 this time, Leko felt for the Chinese player. “Poor Ding,” he said. “Everyone around him gets playable positions, but he runs into a minefield every time.” After less than two hours, Ding conceded defeat.

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Tournament Director Sebastian Siebrecht with Ding Liren and his mother. Photo: Maria Emelianova

The battle between Gukesh and Keymer was also fought quickly, at least in terms of the number of moves. After 22 moves and already in a lost position, Gukesh succumbed to a nice discovery.

Magnus Carlsen vs. Nodirbek Abdusattorov 1:0

A ” weird game” according to Carlsen, in which both opponents were unsure for a long time how to assess what they had produced on the board. The Norwegian star was sure of only one thing: his pawn sacrifice on move three was not ideal. But he had already played it before coming to this conclusion. The relief was all the greater when Abdusattorov did not take the pawn.

The mutual uncertainty continued until Abdusattorov offered to exchange queens – a good idea, but wrongly executed. Carlsen: “When the queens were off the board, I suddenly realized that I was winning.”

Levon Aronian vs. Fabiano Caruana 1-0

Aronian has expressed many times that he is a big fan of Chess960, and that joy, combined with the move to a long time control, has worked out well for him. After an excellent win yesterday against Keymer, the American-Armenian grandmaster today defeated Caruana in another good game with the white pieces.

In the 10 minutes before the game, Aronian analyzed the starting position together with Ding. They mostly looked at 1.d4, but at the board he chose 1.e4 instead. After his second move, Caruana started thinking. “I went and saw that Magnus played 1.g4,” said Aronian. “Then I kind of told myself, OK, the position is full of surprises, I should watch out.”

Aronian entered the confession booth not once but twice today, the second time after he just won the bishop pair. “I like my position, it should be a tiny bit better because of the bishops,” he said. “If he manages to develop his pieces and not allow me to attack his center then it should be OK for Black but if he doesn’t it should be a rather pleasant position for me to play.”

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Ding and Aronian mostly looked at 1.d4. Photo: Maria Emelianova.

White’s edge wasn’t serious until Caruana refrained from trading the bishops on move 17. That allowed White to keep Black’s pieces away from any action on the queenside and grab space on the kingside himself. By move 35, a white pawn had walked all the way to g6, paralyzing Black’s king.

With 25 seconds left on the board, Caruana made his 39th move instantly but as it turned out, it was the wrong square for the queen. After that, the endgame soon looked lost, also to the eyes of Carlsen: “I guess Levon is winning. I think at some point c5 is gonna come. The board is just way too big so there’s just never going to be any perpetual so Fabi’s only chance is to push the g-pawn but I don’t see it happening.”

White’s d-pawn was indeed the deciding factor, and on move 62, Caruana resigned. “I’m very pleased with my performance so far, commented Aronian. “Maybe Chess960 suits my style!”

Commentator Peter Leko pointed out that this was the very first classical game that saw an intriguing endgame. The Hungarian former world championship contender noted the it was “almost a miracle because you have to survive so many things to get there.” Aronian agreed, and said: “The positions are so interesting and so weird that it’s a real joy.”

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Carlsen checking out the game. Photo: Maria Emelianova.

Gukesh vs. Vincent Keymer 0:1

After being kicked out of the fight for the first four places, Keymer started the battle for fifth with a good win over Gukesh. Afterward, the German number one said it didn’t make much of a difference to him: “Not really, no. I mean, of course, I’m very motivated because I felt like basically I had only one bad day so far this whole tournament and this immediately knocked me down to the kind of losers bracket. So, yeah, surely I will try to win the remaining matches, but I think so is everybody else.”

Although the position looked the closest to the classical starting position, it wasn’t easier than other Chess960 positions, Keymer said: “No, it was very difficult actually, because basically both sides were very ready to occupy the center so all the e4, d4, e5, d5 squares were already pretty easy to control. So this was kind of weird that both sides had the opportunity to play e4 and d4 more or less immediately, which made it very difficult.”

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“I’m very motivated because I felt like basically I had only one bad day so far this whole tournament.” Photo: Maria Emelianova.

Keymer thought that his best chance was to go for symmetrical play. “When he went 5.Nb3 I was a little surprised because, like, to me, it made more sense to put the knight on d6 to have more pressure on the center but of course this knight on f5 idea was very interesting. First of all, I was not as happy but I think after 6…Nc4 then at least I will get a very complicated game.”

As early as move seven, Gukesh erred, according to Keymer: “At this point, I’m pretty sure that he can’t be worse, maybe he’s better, but I felt that 7.Qc3 should be a really a wrong move, simply like he’s basically trapping his own bishop on b1 and this proved to be a huge problem.”

The real, big mistake by Gukesh only came on move 10, when he decided to trade his f5-knight for Black’s c4-knight. He likely underestimated a queen sortie by Keymer, after which the tactics all worked in Black’s favor. It was over surprisingly quickly after this.

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Gukesh once again had trouble surviving the opening stage. Photo: Maria Emelianova.

Ding Liren vs. Alireza Firouzja 0:1

There’s no end to Ding Liren’s suffering. In principle, the game was over after six moves, even though the world champion tried his best to create chances.

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Ding Liren and Alireza Firouzja played 26 moves, but it had been almost over after 6. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Firouzja didn’t give too much credit to having beaten the world champion with Black. Obviously Ding Liren was out of form, he explained in our interview. He didn’t think his own performance was particularly special either. “I just played the logical moves.”

By Peter Doggers and Conrad Schormann

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