Gukesh Beats Former World Champion Kramnik 3 Times, Dominates CCT Play-In

GM Gukesh D finished first in the inaugural Champions Chess Tour Airthings Masters Play-In Swiss 2023. With six wins and three draws, he went undefeated to secure the top spot in the grandmaster-only Swiss Event.

Gukesh, as well as five other players—GMs Rauf Mamedov, Alireza Firouzja, Arjun Erigaisi, Alexey Sarana, and Hikaru Nakamura—qualified for Division I after the Match Play segment. They will meet GMs Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So, who received automatic bids to the Airthings Masters Knockout Phase as reigning CCT and CGC champions.

In the Swiss on Friday, 146 grandmasters competed, and 54 players advance to Knockout Phase, where they will be divided into three divisions based on their final standings.

The Airthings Masters main event starts Monday, February 6, 2023, at 8 a.m. PT/17:00 CET.

The Champions Chess Tour promises high-level chess action running from February all the way to the in-person live finals in December. The Airthings Masters, which started on February 3 and will conclude on February 10, is the first of six events. The $2 million prize fund makes this the most lucrative online chess event in history. 

Only grandmasters are eligible for automatic entry into the Play-In Phase of each event. The Play-In takes just one day and begins with a nine-round Swiss tournament. The time control is 10 minutes plus a two-second increment. 

The top 76 finishers after these nine rounds compete in Match Play to determine 54 players who will then be grouped into Divisions I-III in the Airthings Masters next week. 

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. 


Gukesh may have slipped under the radar after his first-round draw with Firouzja (where he had chances to win!), but he ultimately prevailed with the best performance in the tournament. It was a refreshing result for the 16-year-old Indian grandmaster after his difficult time at the Tata Steel Chess Masters 2023, this year’s first classical super-tournament.

There were no easy pairings in the all-GM field—a sentiment the commentators repeated in the first half of the show. As early as round two, GM Xu Xiangyu, one of the Chengdu Pandas in the 2019 Pro Chess League, defeated Nakamura, a favorite to win any online event, be it rapid or blitz.

After this disappointing early loss, Nakamura nevertheless qualified for the Division I Match Play by scoring four wins and three draws in his remaining games. His last-round win over world number-24 GM Le Liem was surely his most significant result in the Swiss. 

With this victory, Nakamura squeezed into the eighth spot in the Swiss standings by tiebreaks with 6.5/9.

Caruana was on an absolute rampage in the first half of the event. As he sacrificed the exchange for a mating attack in round four and took his fourth consecutive win, he betrayed a rare smile.

After four rounds, the number of players on a perfect score was whittled down to two: Caruana and former world champion Vladimir Kramnik. Their round-five game headed quickly for the endgame and finished in a draw. In fact, both players would not score another win in the remaining five rounds of the Swiss event.

Gukesh, who won all his previous games except draws with Firouzja and GM Ian Nepomniactchi, emerged as the sole leader with six points after seven rounds with a win with the black pieces over Kramnik.

Whether the former world champion tried to sacrifice the pawn or blundered it, the Indian superstar grabbed it, held on to it, won the exchange later, and finished the game with an artful zugzwang.

Although he finished 45th in the end, GM Nikolas Theodorou defeated GM Ngoc Truong Son Nguyen in round three with a mating attack I absolutely had to include here.

The first move is the hardest to find, and although there are alternatives that also win, the one he played is clearly the most beautiful. 

White to play and win. 

The top 12 finishers advanced to fight for six spots in Division I on Monday (the six players who lose in Match Play will be placed in Division II). The remaining 64 players fought for spots in Divisions II and III. 

Airthings Masters Play-In Swiss Standings 

Number Rk Fed Title Name Username Rating Score Buchholz Cut 1
1 80 GM Gukesh D GukeshDommaraju 2810 7.5 44
2 7

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi lachesisQ 2813 6.5 49.5
3 8 GM Alireza Firouzja Firouzja2003 2809 6.5 48.5
4 12 GM Dmitry Andreikin FairChess_on_YouTube 2746 6.5 47
5 15 GM Fabiano Caruana FabianoCaruana 2758 6.5 46.5
6 23

GM Daniil Dubov Duhless 2706 6.5 44.5
7 13 GM Arjun Erigaisi GHANDEEVAM2003 2744 6.5 43.5
8 3 GM Hikaru Nakamura Hikaru 2805 6.5 42.5
9 16 GM Rauf Mamedov Baku_Boulevard 2720 6.5 40.5
10 19 GM Raunak Sadhwani RaunakSadhwani2005 2710 6.5 39.5
11 14 GM Alexey Sarana mishanick 2732 6.5 39
12 10

GM Vladimir Kramnik VladimirKramnik 2770 6 48.5

(See full results here)

Match Play 

The Match Play segment commenced after a short break following the Swiss. Players would face off in two-game matches, and an equal score would lead to an armageddon tiebreaker.

The top six finishers chose their opponents from the next six players in the Division I Match Play—this was not done for Divisions II and III.

Interestingly, Gukesh chose to play Kramnik—a bold decision that paid off in the end. In a Catalan Opening, he put maximum pressure on his opponent’s position until Black cracked. By move 37 he won his opponent’s queen and went on to convert the advantage.

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

GM Rafael Leitao GotD

Kramnik unleashed a wild attack in the second game, going AlphaZero mode with an early h4 in the English Opening, but Gukesh held tight and went on to win with an extra piece when his opponent overpressed.  

Mamedov and Nepomniachtchi drew their first game and the Azerbaijani grandmaster won the match in game two. Firouzja defeated GM Raunak Sadhwani in the second game after a draw.

Erigaisi defeated GM Dmitry Andreikin in their second game with the black pieces after drawing the first. Finally, Caruana was just about coasting to victory after his first-game win against Sarana, but in a time scramble he blundered and allowed the Russian grandmaster to even the score on demand.

Two armageddon games took place: Nakamura vs. GM Daniil Dubov after two draws in their match and Caruana vs. Sarana. 

Dubov bid six minutes to secure the black pieces against Nakamura, a wager that ultimately backfired. Although he had a draw in the end, it was too difficult to find given the time situation. By the time he played the correct move to defend, he was hopelessly lost on the clock.

Considering how close Caruana was to simply winning in their first two games without needing an armageddon, his eventual defeat at the hands of Sarana is the most heartbreaking of the six Division I matches.

In a sharp position where White pushed a central majority and Black his queenside majority, Caruana traded off his light-squared bishop for an enemy knight on the f5-square. What followed was a pawn sacrifice followed by a deadly pawn storm that brought the Russian GM the back-from-the-dead match victory.

The players in Division I are guaranteed a minimum of $7,500, while in Division II they can score a minimum of $3,000, and in Division III a minimum of $1,000. (Find complete prize information here.)

Division I Bracket

Division II Bracket

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.



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