Today the Skilling Open advanced to the knockout phase with its eight leading players from the preliminaries—GMs Magnus Carlsen, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Teimour Radjabov, Wesley So, and Anish Giri.
In the new knockout format consisting of two-day matches, it is not necessary for the matches to finish decisively in day one. Had any matches finished with a score of 2-2 today, play would have proceeded to day two without a tiebreaker. Only if the second match on day two is also drawn, will play continue to tiebreaks. As it turned out, this format was largely irrelevant today as all matches finished decisively, the winners being Carlsen, Vachier-Lagrave, Levon Aronian, and Teimour Radjabov. Each of these players needs only a 2-2 draw in tomorrow’s match to advance.
Carlsen vs. Giri
By his own admission, Carlsen struggled in his first three games against Giri. In the first game particularly, Giri came very close to a win, but in a critical moment on move 27, Giri traded the queens, retaining a small advantage, but losing his shot at a knockout blow. Always resilient, Carlsen defended well and drew the resulting worse endgame.
Games two and three never saw either player approach a decisive advantage, but in the final game, Carlsen won a truly classic grind. The seemingly simple position slowly drifted in his favor and became decisive when Giri possessed an extra doubled pawn, but Carlsen’s rook, bishop, and king dominated their counterparts on Giri’s side of the board.
The traditional heated Twitter drama between the two trash-talking rivals was muted today as Carlsen simply stated that he was playing “that guy,” and Giri sent him a wave in return.
— Anish Giri (@anishgiri) November 25, 2020
Vachier-Lagrave vs. Nakamura
Vachier-Lagrave has been one of the most well-prepared players on the white side of the Berlin Defense for a couple of years, but Nakamura decided to test his preparation in game one. Unfortunately for Nakamura, although the resulting opening position was equal, Vachier-Lagrave knew the ensuing complexities better and won an outstanding game.
If you are seeking a Berlin Defense hero to model your opening play after, the author highly recommends Vachier-Lagrave, and the author is currently benefiting from following Vachier-Lagrave’s preparation in this specific line in the Chess.com staff tournament.
Nakamura made a heroic effort to come back and win one of the remaining three games to tie the match, but although he had some chances in each game, Vachier-Lagrave’s play was excellent and each game was ultimately drawn.
Radjabov vs. So
Radjabov is often considered a solid or even a drawish player, but today he was the most aggressive player in the field. What’s more, his aggression was rewarded with victory in only three games against the very difficult-to-defeat So. In game one, Radjabov won with the following excellent counterattack after So misplayed a promising piece sacrifice and tried too hard to win.
In game three, Radjabov played even more beautifully, and with the stunning 22… Nd5!!, he put So under a great deal of pressure. After mutual errors, Radjabov even finished the game with a very pretty checkmate on the board. In an in-person tournament, such mates are rarely allowed by top grandmasters, but in an online event, inertia often means the losing player plays the game out to the very last move.
Aronian vs. Nepomniachtchi
Aronian and Nepomniachtchi share the exact same FIDE rapid rating of 2778. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that these two equally matched and creative opponents played the hardest fought match of the day. Nepomniachtchi won the first decisive game in game two, but Aronian won both games three and four with incredible knight sacrifices (Ng4!! in game three was particularly stunning) to finish as the day’s victor.
The Skilling Open continues tomorrow with the second knockout day, The four winners after tomorrow’s matches will advance to the semifinals.
The chess24 Champions Chess Tour Skilling Open runs November 22-30. The preliminary phase was a 16-player rapid round-robin (15 + 10). The top eight players have advanced to a six-day knockout that will consist of two days of four-game rapid matches, which may advance to blitz (5 + 3) and armageddon (White has five minutes, Black four with no increment) tiebreaks only if the knockout match is tied after the second day. The prize fund is $100,000 with $30,000 for first place.