So, Nakamura Begin Knockout Bracket in Champions Tour Second Event

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Photo: Spectrum Studios

American super Grandmasters Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura are back in elite-level action as part of the Champions Chess Tour, a series of online rapid tournaments scheduled through 2021 and hosted by World Champion Magnus Carlsen. 

The Airthings Masters, which runs through January 3, is the second event of the $1.5M Champions Tour and follows up on the Skilling Open, the kickoff event that So won in November. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the US Chess Champion beat the World Champion on his birthday in a thrilling overtime final match, just two days after besting Nakamura in the semis. Per the tour’s format, the performances of both Americans earned them automatic invitations to the next event, which began on Saturday. 

The Airthings Masters also comes as the tour’s first “major” event, upgrading a regular tournament like the Skilling by doubling its prize fund and adding overall tour perks. The winner of a major event now takes $60,000 from a $200,000 fund, but more importantly earns an automatic invitation to the $300,000 Champions Tour finals in September 2021.  


Airthings Masters Lineup
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courtesy Champions Chess Tour

Beyond its major status, however, the tournament format runs very much the same as the last. Airthings Masters has collected 12 of the world’s top players who have already played through a three-day preliminary round-robin, which wrapped up Monday. The top-8 players from the round robin stage, which includes So, Nakamura and Carlsen who all tied for first with 6.5/11, now begin a knockout bracket which will progress through Sunday. The top eight have also earned invitations to the next tour event, scheduled for February 2021. 

Beginning Tuesday, So as the second seed will meet French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the bracket quarterfinals. In the third seed, Nakamura will face Armenian GM Levon Aronian. Each match in the bracket will be played over two days, with four rapid 15+10 games each day. If the match score is tied 1:1 after two days, two 5+3 blitz playoff games will follow and, if needed, Armageddon. 


Hikaru Nakamura, 2019 9LX
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Hikaru Nakamura, 2019 9LX (SLCC / Lennart Ootes)

Perhaps with the event stakes raised, the Airthings preliminary stage was played frustratingly tight with only 18 decisions through 132 games. Nakamura did turn up the gas with three decisions on Monday, however, earning points off Spanish GM David Anton Guijarro and Dutch GM Anish Giri, and a loss to Carlsen. Against Giri, Nakamura ignored his knight hanging and instead shoved 31. a6!, following with a nifty trick to queen the pawn.  

[pgn][Event "Airthings Masters"] [Site "https://protected-play.chess2"] [Date "2020.12.28"] [Round "11.2"] [White "Hikaru Nakamura"] [Black "Anish Giri"] [Result "1-0"] [Annotator ""] [PlyCount "109"] [EventDate "2020.??.??"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. g3 Nc6 4. Bg2 Nf6 5. d3 d5 6. Nbd2 Be7 7. O-O O-O 8. Re1 h6 9. c3 b5 10. exd5 Nxd5 11. a4 b4 12. c4 Nc7 13. Nb3 Bb7 14. Be3 Na6 15. d4 cxd4 16. Nfxd4 Qc8 17. Qe2 Nxd4 18. Bxd4 Bxg2 19. Kxg2 Rd8 20. Qf3 Qxc4 21. Rac1 Qd5 22. Qxd5 Rxd5 23. Rc6 Nb8 24. Rc8+ Rd8 25. Rec1 Nd7 26. Rxa8 Rxa8 27. Rc7 Rd8 28. Rxa7 Bf6 29. a5 Bxd4 30. Nxd4 Ne5 31. a6 Rxd4 32. Ra8+ Kh7 33. a7 Nc6 34. Rh8+ Kxh8 35. a8=Q+ Nd8 36. Qa7 Rd5 37. Qb6 Kg8 38. Qxb4 Nc6 39. Qb7 Nd4 40. Qb8+ Kh7 41. Qf8 Kg6 42. g4 h5 43. h3 hxg4 44. hxg4 e5 45. Qa8 Ne6 46. b4 Rd4 47. b5 Rxg4+ 48. Kf1 Rb4 49. Qc6 Kg5 50. b6 Nf4 51. Kg1 Rb1+ 52. Kh2 Ne6 53. Qe4 Rb5 54. b7 Nd8 55. b8=R 1-0 [/pgn]

So stayed undefeated +2 through the round robin preliminary. One of his wins included this fantastic attacking finish from a Ruy Lopez against youngster Russian GM Daniil Dubov on Monday. 

[pgn][Event "Airthings Masters"] [Site "https://protected-play.chess2"] [Date "2020.12.28"] [Round "11.5"] [White "Wesley So"] [Black "Daniil Dubov"] [Result "1-0"] [Annotator ""] [PlyCount "69"] [EventDate "2020.??.??"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O b5 6. Bb3 Bc5 7. a4 Rb8 8. c3 d6 9. d4 Bb6 10. axb5 axb5 11. Na3 O-O 12. Nxb5 Bg4 13. Re1 Bxf3 14. gxf3 Nh5 15. Kh1 Qf6 16. Be3 exd4 17. cxd4 Ba5 18. Rg1 Rxb5 19. Ba4 Rxb2 20. Bxc6 Bb6 21. Rg4 g6 22. f4 Rb4 23. Ra4 Rxa4 24. Qxa4 Ng7 25. Bd5 Kh8 26. h3 Qe7 27. f5 gxf5 28. exf5 Nxf5 29. Bg5 f6 30. Re4 Qg7 31. Re8 Ba7 32. Qd7 h6 33. Qc8 Rxe8 34. Qxe8+ Kh7 35. Bxf6 1-0 [/pgn]

The Airthings Masters bracket quarterfinals will be played as four games on both Tuesday and Wednesdays, beginning both days at 9:00 a.m. The finals will begin Saturday. All tournament information, including live play with commentary, may be viewed at the official Champions Chess Tour website