Champions Chess Tour: Sevian Wins Airthings Masters Division III

As the e-sports world grows in popularity, how can chess be made more accessible to this wider audience? Even at faster time controls, plenty of games still end in a draw. And once the time control gets too fast, the same two or three players seem to always end up on top. Where is the suspense? The drama? The confusion over the format?

Enter the new season of the Champions Chess Tour (CCT). Each event will now feature three (or six, or nine, depending on how you count them) finals, emerging from three separate brackets. The bracket with the highest prize fund also has the smallest number of players, making it doubly desirable.

The CCT brings chess fully into the sporting world first by showing off the fast-paced commentary from the crack team of IM Tania Sachdev, GM Robert Hess and GM David Howell.



Not only did each game feel more like a sporting event, but the overall format introduced a league relegation system reminiscent of European soccer and the double-elimination playoff format of the NCAA College World Series of baseball and softball (and backgammon, I am told).

What this format lacks in simplicity, it makes up for in suspense and thousands of high-quality rapid games. Moreover, while the Division I Grand Final was (you guessed it!) between GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Magnus Carlsen, the two other finals featured players who don’t have as many chances to show off on a main stage.



Additionally, the entire makeup of the top division was a bit unexpected, with current top ten players and former world champions relegated to lower divisions in the process.

Today, we will dive into the format of this event and celebrate American GM Sam Sevian, the Division III champion. Then, tomorrow, we will pick up with results from the top divisions.


Many will enter. Few will win.

While previous events were primarily invitation-only, with a few wild cards up for grabs, this tournament — the first since acquired Chess24, who previously hosted the tour — is a whole new ballgame. This time, only two players were given automatic invitations: Magnus Carlsen for winning the previous CCT playoff and Wesley So for winning the Global Championship. It is worth noting that Carlsen’s standing as World Chess Champion was not used for consideration, but So’s title of ‘Global Champion’ was.



The other 54 (yes, fifty-four) spots were determined by a nine-round Swiss System play-in open to all grandmasters. After the play-in, the top group of finishers were seeded into mini-matches based on their score. Then, from there, winners of the six mini-matches between the top finishers got to join So and Carlsen in Division I. Losers of those matches, along with winners of the next tier of matches, made up the 16 players in Division II. Finally, the losers of the previous tier of matches, plus the winners of the lowest tier of matches, made up the 32 players in Division III. What about those who lose their Division III match? Unfortunately for those players, including some serious legends, they’ll have to hope they have better luck next event!



Got all that? Good. Well, the main thing to understand is that, from there, players only compete against others within their division. Winning a lower division can earn invitation into a higher division in the next CCT event. Additionally, all players, regardless of division, earn tour points. After the six events of the tour complete, the six individual Division I winners will be joined by the two players who have accumulated the most points to compete for additional prizes in the Tour’s playoffs. There will also be bonus prizes for top finishers based on total points.

As for this tournament, once the players are sorted into divisions, the format should be easy to follow, right? Well, rather than follow a typical Round Robin or knock-out format, each tournament proceeded by the rules of double elimination. The short version means players are eliminated once they lose their second match and keep playing until only one player has lost fewer than two matches.



To take Division I as an example, the eight players would play four head-to-head matches. The four losers would then play each other in the ‘losers’ bracket’. The two losers of those matches would be eliminated. The two winners of the losers’ bracket, however, would play the two losers of the matches in the second round of the winners’ bracket. Again, the two losers would be eliminated, and the two winners would play a match to determine the losers’ bracket’s first finalist. The second finalist would be the loser of the match of the two remaining undefeated players. Finally, the losers' bracket’s winner would play the Grand Final against the winners' bracket’s winner. If the winner wins, that’s the tournament. If the loser wins, a second match follows. If you’re finding this hard to follow, imagine how the players in Division II (twice as many players) or III (four times as many players) feel.


Sevian brings it home!

While Sevian is no newcomer to prestigious online events, his Tour victory is particularly impressive considering his final opponent’s pedigree. Sevian remained in the winners’ bracket until the “winners’ final” against Indian GM Praggnanandhaa, who was coming off a successful performance in the Tata Steel Masters’. Despite Pragg’s strong showing alongside many of the competitors in Division I and II, Sevian managed to win their head-to-head showdown.


Bracket 3


Now is a good time to mention that every match in every division, whether two-game or four-game, consisted of an even number of games. In case of ties, the match comes down to Armageddon game. As usual, Black will play with less time but a draw would count as a win. Additionally, players would “bid” on time, with whomever selected a smaller amount of time would have to play with that amount of time as Black. And while the main match games involved three-second increments, keeping the players mostly honest, the Armageddons offered no such comfort. Which would explain why this was how Sevian won the winners’ final:



From there, he had to defeat “Pragg,” who won his “losers’ final” match, a second time. What ensued was a series of truly chaotic chess, starting from the first game.



Immediately, Sevian leveled the score the second Pragg underestimated Black’s activity in a Nimzo-turned-Carlsbad.



After a peaceful third game, things looked headed to tiebreaks again until Pragg unleashed a furious attack on Sevian’s king. From a completely hopeless position, however, Sevian found multiple necessary only moves to hold the draw. And then…



Overall, this match produced highly original, suspenseful chess between two players who don’t often get to play for the finals of a major event (yet). This alone shows that the new CCT format is worth the hour it took to write the paragraphs explaining the format.


Image Caption
Sam Sevian at the 2022 US Championships (courtesy SLCC)


With 32 players in Division III, each match (before the Grand Final) consisted of only two games. The pressure to play fighting chess, rather than hand one’s fate over to Armageddon, was great. Here are a few highlights from Sevian’s earlier matches against players who were willing to “go for broke”.




Another American who made a nice run in Division III was GM Aleksandr Lenderman. In the quarterfinals against Russian GM Aleksey Dreev, he only needed a draw to advance. Instead, he put Dreev’s king on a long-distance flight.



From there, his run was cut short by Pragg’s flexible hedgehog. He managed to defeat Dreev again in the losers’ quarterfinals, but Ukrainian GM Olexandr Bortnyk had something to say.



The other American in Division III was GM Christopher Yoo, who is no stranger to online action. He managed to win two matches in the losers’ bracket (after an initial loss to Bortnyk) before being knocked out by Russian GM Grigoriy Oparin.

What’s notable about Yoo, though, was not so much his performance as how he qualified in the first place. In order to get seeded into the main bracket, he first had to win a match against a player who typically spends more time getting automatic invitations into these sorts of events. Showing no fear, Yoo opened the match by dispatching his legendary opponent in 18 moves. Perhaps Black mixed up his preparation?



Needing only a draw to clinch the match, he showed no mercy in notching a second victory.



Radjabov was not the only legend unable to earn a spot in Division III. Lenderman earned his spot with a tiebreaker victory over former US Champion GM Gata Kamsky.



Another “legends” match came when Svidler knocked out Aronian. It’s no secret that the younger generation excels in faster time control, but it was a testament to the top-to-bottom strength of the competition that this was an elimination match for the next-to-last spot in the event.



Come back later this week to find out who won the Grand Final in Divisions I and II and, more importantly, how they got there.