Aronian and Nakamura get ahead

The semi-finals began punctually with the solemn first step of the German cabaret artist Matthias Deutschmann on board one. After the customary greetings, Nakamura indicated his intention to open the game with 1.d4, and Deutschmann moved the d-pawn firmly two steps forward.

The rules and regulations of the FIDE Grand Prix 2022 determine a prize of 24,000 euros for the winner while the runner-up receives 18,000 euros. The two semi-finalists receive a check for 12,000 euros. In addition to the prize money, the winner of the Berlin stage gets 13 Grand Prix points, slightly more than the 7 received by the semi-finalists. Winning here – or at least advancing to the final – is definitely a big step towards the end goal: the two places that qualify for the Candidates.
Currently US Olympic teammates, Levon Aronian and Leinier Dominguez Perez have played at the highest level for over fifteen years. According to my database, their first meeting was in Beer Sheva (Israel) during the 2005 World Team Championship, in the match between Cuba and Armenia.

That game ended in a relatively quick draw and since then they have faced each other 59 times, excluding online events, with a clear scoreboard advantage for the former Armenian player: 37.5 – 22 ,5. However, excluding the quick and lightning OTB matches, Aronian barely leads 4-3.

After winning his preliminary group one round before the end, Aronian was essentially given two days off, while Dominguez returned to the field of play yesterday to knock out Wesley So. But these things can work both ways – you can never tell if extra play and effort favors a player or tires them out even more.

Although according to the rating Richard Rapport would be considered a favorite, things are not so clear if we review their history together. Excluding blitzes and rapids, Nakamura scored 2.5 points in the 3 games they faced each other. Moreover, the American qualified for the semi-finals without needing a tie-break: an additional day of rest and preparation for him.

Finally, every classic match in this tournament has extra significance for Nakamura: he has already confirmed here that he will only play for the United States at the Moscow Olympiad if he is one of the four main draws, never as a reserve. Currently he is in fifth place behind Caruana (2792), So (2772), Aronian (2772) and Dominguez (2752) so he still has some way to go.

Tray 1: GM Hikaru Nakamura (USA 2736) – GM Richard Rapport (Hungary 2779)

The report went for the Queen’s Gambit declined for this very important game. In the opening, Nakamura kept looking at the game monitor and checking the other board: obviously, he was also interested in developing Aronian’s line pick.

For many moves the position was identical to Kasparov-Smyslov from the 1988 USSR Chess Championship, until Nakamura diverged with 15.Kb1 (15.Nf4 was played in this game and a draw was was agreed soon after). The report kept the balance with precise defensive moves until Nakamura initiated some interesting tactics on the kingside with 23.Bxg6!?, giving up the exchange but getting a passed h-pawn on the outside.

Shortly, Rapport couldn’t find the best defense and quickly decided to surrender the material. However, even if only one pawn down from the end of the rook was very difficult to defend due to Nakamura’s active king and past central pawns: with a few precise moves, Nakamura ended the game.

In a conversation with IM Michael Rahal, press officer for the event, Nakamura felt he played well, but complicated things unnecessarily: “Of course it should be a winner but it’s very tricky: with a bad move I can lose, black has two pawns as well, going down rows a and b. I was quite mad at myself because at first I think I had an easier win. But that’s how it is, and you just try to play the best shots even after you make a mistake”.

Rapport acknowledged making the trade was a mistake: “I didn’t realize 15 moves would be so binding.”

Grid 2: GM Levon Aronian (USA 2772) – GM Leinier Dominguez (USA 2752)

The match between Aronian and Dominguez was a treat for the spectators, full of twists and turns, a real roller coaster. Aronian’s preparation for the game was unparalleled: he played the opening so quickly that it looked like he was expecting that line to appear on the board.

“You can never guarantee that you will get certain positions on the board, but since Leinier is using this opening, which is very interesting for black people, I thought there was a probability of this happening. It’s a tough position to play for humans as it requires immense pressure and I felt that after a tough tie-break this was my best chance to surprise Lenier” were Aronian’s impressions after the game.

The opening, an accepted Queen’s Gambit, is one of Leinier’s specialties, but Aronian came up with a very aggressive idea that wins the exchange (a rook for a minor piece) but leaves him behind in development.

“Dominguez has less than an hour on the clock, which makes me doubt the depth of his preparation. He is the one who chose this very clear line and yet he thinks too much,” online commentator Evgenij Miroshnichenko commented on Leinier’s choice of variation.

For a short time, Dominguez was unable to continue generating threats to make up for his material deficit and at one point Aronian was able to force the queen trade, leading to an easily winning ending.

In a post-match press conference, Leinier understood that the match had not gone his way: “It’s obviously a very difficult position to play in training. I probably took too long thinking about the different possibilities. Tactically I couldn’t see how to capture on d4 with my bishop so I opted for this idea with …Ne5 and …Nc6 but I missed the strength of 23.b3!. All in all a difficult game: I had some interesting chances but the way I played was not good”.

About the tournament

The series of three Grand Prix tournaments which will run from February to April will feature twenty-four of the world’s best Grandmasters, who will compete in two of the three events. In order to make the series more exciting and reduce the percentage of draws, FIDE and World Chess changed the format.

This innovative approach is new to the world of chess but very similar to the Super League: the first stage has four pools of four players and the winner of each pool advances to the semi-finals and then to the final.

The venue for the first leg is the World Chess Club Berlin, located downtown on Unter den Linden, 26-30 and matches will be played February 4-17 every afternoon at 3 p.m. Along with the two qualifying places for contestants, the event has a prize pool of 150,000 euros, which is 20,000 euros more than the 2019 series.

All games will be streamed live with expert commentary in three languages ​​here. More information and the full program are also available on the worldchess.com website. Full pairings can be found here.

Due to the COVID restrictions currently in place, only a limited number of tickets are available. Please note that the 2G+ rule applies to the event, which means that visiting the venue is only possible for those who have a full vaccination with an EU certified vaccine or proof of recovery and can additionally present a booster dose certificate or a negative test result.

Major companies supporting the FIDE Grand Prix Series 2022 include:

Kaspersky as an official cybersecurity partner;
Algorand as an official blockchain partner;
Prytek as a technology transfer partner;
FIDE Online Arena as an official partner.

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