Champions Chess Tour: Magnus wins Division I of Airthings Masters

It started with 142 grandmasters (and two wildcards) in a nine-round bloodbath. From there, 76 players made it to a series of sudden death knockout matches, where only 54 were able to play on. Players were relegated to lower divisions and losers’ brackets as chaos and confusion ensued. But when the dust settled, we arrived exactly where we expected: Carlsen and Nakamura in the Grand Finals with $30,000 on the line.

Joining the two heavyweights in Division I were automatic qualifier GM Wesley So and notorious speedster GM Alireza Firouzja. The inclusion of Indian prodigies Gukesh D and Arjun Erigaisi was hardly a surprise, either. But one benefit to the new format’s multi-tiered seeding system was it allowed a few underdogs to join the fold. For instance, Azeri GM Rauf Mamedov was a surprise to finish in the top of an event where his compatriot Radjabov failed to qualify for the lowest division.

The biggest shock, though, had to be Russian GM Alexey Sarana knocking out eventual Division II champ GM Fabiano Caruana to earn the final spot in Division I. After losing the first game of the play-in match, Sarana first won on demand to force tiebreaks.



Then, he ran it back, winning on demand again against Caruana’s draw odds. The match was particularly bitter for Caruana, as he had winning (and drawing) chances in each game.



Another name missing from the top eight was Russian GM Daniil Dubov. Despite a strong finish in the Swiss qualifier, he drew an unfortunate pairing in a slightly underperforming Nakamura. The head-to-head, however, lived up to the hype.



In the main bracket, Nakamura and So were on course to meet in the semi-finals. But upsets were not out of the question.


bracket 1


Nakamura took care of Gukesh in typical fashion, eschewing theoretical and critical variations and letting his opponent make increasingly committal choices.




So certainly had his hands full against Mamedov. At one moment, he even found himself up an exchange yet holding on for dear life. He managed to navigate the game to a more open board and slowly outplayed his well-prepared opponent.



This set up a semifinal match between the two Americans. The first few games were tense, but neither player was able to land a decisive blow. Then, a quick Berlin draw in the fourth game set up Armageddon. Nakamura wanted to play as Black with draw odds, and managed to undercut So’s bid for time. As a result, Nakamura played the tiebreaker with only nine minutes to So’s 15. But, draw odds are such a draw for a reason.



As Nakamura prepared for his winners’ final match, So had more work to do. First, he dispatched Sarana in consecutive games in the losers’ quarterfinals.




Then, he played one of the more complete games of the tournament against Arjun to earn his spot in the losers’ final and a chance to get into the Grand Finals.



As it turned out, So would have to win a rematch against Nakamura for this opportunity. Carlsen had a relatively easy time reaching the winners’ final, defeating Sarana and Arjun. His first win against Sarana was particularly impressive.



The winners’ final took a similar course to Nakamura’s first match against So. A few tense games failed to deliver anything decisive, and the fourth game ended quickly. Then, as it looked like Nakamura was headed for another Black in Armageddon, there was fire off the board.



The one extra second proved pivotal, as Carlsen held the draw to win the match.



After two more draws in the losers’ final, Nakamura again earned Black in the tiebreaker. Nevertheless, he still played a bit recklessly, and, for most of the game, he was in danger of losing. But So could never find the right time to break through, and eventually Nakamura emerged victorious.



In the first game of the Grand Finals, Carlsen finally broke through the series of draws.



After playing it safe the rest of the match, Carlsen emerged victorious with $30,000. Nakamura earned $20,000 for finishing second. With five more events this season, the race is on for who can join the two frontrunners to compete for additional prizes in the playoffs.