The third day of the Champions Chess Tour Airthings Masters 2023 presented the matchup of the ages, the duel for which the online chess sphere holds its breath: triple-crowned World Champion Magnus Carlsen vs. five-time Speed Chess Champion Hikaru Nakamura.
After four draws, Carlsen successfully defended with Black in the armageddon tiebreaker. He will play the winner of the Losers Bracket in the Grand Final.
In the Losers Bracket, GM Wesley So eliminated GM Alexey Sarana, and GM Arjun Erigaisi sent his countryman, GM Gukesh D, home. So and Erigaisi will face off in the Losers Bracket SemiFinals—and Nakamura will play the winner in the Final.
In Division II, GM Fabiano Caruana defeated GM Nodirbek Yakubboev in the Winners Bracket. He will face GM Yu Yangyi, who beat GM Alexander Predke, in the Winners Bracket Final.
In Division III, GM Sam Sevian sent GM R Praggnanandhaa to the Losers Bracket. The Indian prodigy, however, overcame GM Oleksandr Bortnyk to return for revenge. Sevian and Praggnanandhaa will play again in the Grand Final.
The Airthings Masters continues Thursday, February 9, 2023, at 8 a.m. PT/17:00 CET.
Six players remained in Division I at the start of day three. Just four remain.
The pairings were dramatic. Besides the star-studded matchup of Nakamura vs. Carlsen, there was also an all-Indian clash between two prodigies, Erigaisi and Gukesh. On the last board, Sarana—who knocked out world number-four GM Alireza Firouzja with a 2-0 sweep—played Global Champion So.
Back in the studio! Today we’ll see Magnus Carlsen versus Hikaru Nakamura in the #AirthingsMasters 🔥 There’s also an all-Indian clash between Erigaisi and Gukesh 🇮🇳 Who are you rooting for? Commentary starts at 4.45pm CET. #ChessChamps pic.twitter.com/Yhuysyxrki
— David Howell (@DavidHowellGM) February 8, 2023
While Carlsen enjoys a hefty 14-1 lead in their lifetime head-to-head record in classical chess, their results in the last year lie heavily in Nakamura’s favor. The Fischer Random world champion eeked out a victory in their last match in the SCC final.
It is never clear who is the “underdog” between two of the greatest speed chess players of all time.
Carlsen arrived characteristically late for the first game. While he is often late to games, this still surprised the commentators who acknowledged his unexpectedly timely appearance every previous day of this event.
In game one, Carlsen was winning in a knight endgame. Having a reputation for being perhaps the greatest endgame of all time, in most situations the world champion would be expected to have this game in the bag.
Nakamura, however, known for being one of the most creative and resilient defenders, especially in speed chess, complicated the position just enough to hold. A disappointing result for Carlsen.
Game two ended in a draw, but it wasn’t without highlights. Carlsen had the edge with the black pieces and missed a clear win after the American GM’s blunder 25.Bd7??. It was a case of mutual blindness and a reminder that even two of the greatest speed chess players in the world are human after all.
Carlsen, who has the edge in game two, misses a direct win of material after a blunder by Nakamura.
A case of mutual blindness by the super-grandmasters. 👀#AirthingsMasters #ChessChamps pic.twitter.com/t4DVV5u9Ks
— ChesscomLive (@ChesscomLive) February 8, 2023
Later, Carlsen called this “an opportunity I should never in a million years miss.”
Game three was just a good game. Nakamura played the Bogo-Indian Defense with a smile, which may have been a surprise for the world champion. Still, both players simply made perfect moves—the eval bar never veered far from equal. The game ended after 25 moves and, sure, this happens when two strong players are well-prepared.
In the last regular game, Carlsen opted for the Ruy Lopez Marshall Gambit with the black pieces. Although Black sacrifices a pawn, this has a reputation to be “drawish” at the highest level as Black’s activity is enough for the pawn. They made a threefold repetition on move 21 without having played a single new move—the final position had been reached seven times prior.
Carlsen later admitted he had a feeling Nakamura would just go for the armageddon, and that he was already thinking about his strategy for during game four.
Now, the following will be hard to believe, but this is really what happened: Carlsen outbid Nakamura for the black pieces by one second. He bet 8:58, just under nine minutes, while Nakamura wagered 8:59. You can’t make this stuff up!
Thus Carlsen played with the black pieces with nearly half his opponent’s time. But a draw would win the match. The final game, which could have gone either way, is annotated by Rafael Leitao as our Game of the Day.
The annotations will be added soon.
In the interview, the victor stated: “I think the match was of a really, really poor quality and I think Hikaru would agree as well.” He also hinted at his hope that Nakamura win the Losers Bracket so that they can have a rematch.
Later in the interview, he added: “Every time I get a chance to play him, it’s a privilege.” He also shared his favorite Pokemon: Psyduck.
The Losers Bracket matches consisted of only two games, not four. In both matches, the players with the white pieces won their games, and their adversaries were unable to recover from the loss in the following game.
As commentator Sachdev said on the broadcast: “Everyone loves both of them … it’s hard to have a favorite.” The Gukesh-Erigaisi matchup surely left Indian fans in a quandary; one of the teenage national heroes would be eliminated on Wednesday.
It wasn’t clear who was the favorite, although both players would no doubt have remembered their last major encounter, Tata Steel India Rapid and Blitz 2022. Erigaisi, who is three years older, won their last two blitz games, with a draw in the rapid.
Erigaisi brazenly pushed his g- and h-pawns in the middlegame, even at the cost of exposing his own king. Although Black had many chances at counterplay, the practical difficulty of defending this attack in a rapid game proved too much for Gukesh.
Gukesh, in a must-win game already, sent Harry the h-pawn up the board as well in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. It backfired, and Erigaisi was better (needing only to draw). In the end, Gukesh sacrificed his queen to muddy the waters, but Erigaisi held the draw.
A big highlight in the game was Erigaisi’s exchange sacrifice with 21…Ne5, a move that caught the whole commentary team off guard.
Erigaisi openly explained the critical moments of game one: “I think both games were quite intense. The first game he walked into my prep. I knew until I did Qc2 a3 and then I didn’t know …Re8 but I was pretty sure it’s not a good move. … He maneuvered very well until this …Nf8-Ne6 and the critical moment was instead of playing …Nf4 I thought he could go …Qb5 and …Nxd4. … [Later] I kind of blundered …Nxe6 … but after that game went my way, I was fairly confident.”
In the other match, So played Sarana. While the Russian grandmaster swept Firouzja 2-0 the previous day, Sarana has yet to defeat So in a game of chess. Their lifetime score heading into the match was three wins for the American GM and three draws.
Amusingly, by the way, So managed to win both Titled Tuesdays yesterday—one before his Airthings Masters match and another after. He is the only player besides Nakamura to accomplish this feat since Chess.com doubled the Titled Tuesday tournaments.
If one is in a must-win situation, So is arguably the last player on earth one would want to play. His super-solid style is nearly impregnable in normal games—if he’s trying to draw, the difficulty of beating him evokes the image of slicing through steel with a butter knife.
So held his position comfortably in the Nimzo-Indian Defense with the black pieces. White didn’t manage to prove a semblance of an advantage, and So even went on to outplay his opponent and win.
After his match, So shared a change in his routine during a tournament:”Before, during tournaments, I would prepare or work on problem-solving, or analyze my games. But these days I just, you know, play blitz instead to try and relax.”
He also mentioned that he will be playing in the inaugural WR Chess Masters 2023 next week in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Sarana and Gukesh finish the event pocketing $10,000.
Division I Bracket
The Winners Bracket of this division has just two players left, while four remain in the Losers Bracket. In the former, the two favorites moved through: Yangyi and Caruana. No surprises, to be frank.
If searching for surprises, the Losers Bracket was more interesting. GM Vladimir Kramnik bulldozed through world number-two GM Ian Nepomniachtchi and German number-two GM Matthias Bluebaum, showing that although he retired in 2019 he still means business.
In addition, GM Denis Lazavik defeated the more experienced and established GM Daniil Dubov, renowned for his creative ideas in openings. The 17-year-old Belarusian’s name may be less known, as he earned his GM title just last year. Some might remember his Titled Tuesday win, however, when he was 15 years old and an FM.
He won both games. In their second, can you find the win for Black in this equal-looking rook endgame after White’s last move, 58.Kd3?
Black to move and win.
Division II Bracket
Just two players remain in Division III now, Praggnanandhaa and Sevian. they will decide the winner of this division in the Grand Final.
What occurred in this division is exactly what the double-elimination format is built for: a second chance at life. Sevian faced Praggnanandhaa in the Winners Bracket Final and, after two draws, won their match in the armageddon game with a black victory.
The 17-year-old entered the Losers Bracket in a fury, the brunt of which Bortnyk had to face. They each traded wins, and the third game was an armageddon tiebreaker to decide a winner.
In this game, he unleashed a dizzying cascade of tactics to trade pieces, after which his central pawn mass won a bishop. He not only drew but won the armageddon game with Black.
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 Chess.com 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 Chess.com’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.