Levon Aronian has won the WR Chess Masters. After Aronian, Gukesh and Ian Nepomniachtchi were tied with 5.5/9 each at the end of the regular distance of nine rounds, Aronian won the tiebreak. He was very happy about the victory, Aronian said. He thanked host Wadim Rosenstein for an excellently organized tournament and the exceptionally good conditions in Düsseldorf, where he had “felt the respect for the players” every day.
Predicting the first and last finished games of the ninth round wasn’t too difficult. In their tournament game, the supposed showdown, co-leaders Levon Aronian and Gukesh were not looking for a fight to the death. In a well-known variation of the Ragozin, both opponents headed straight for a repetition that many grandmasters have used to quickly split the point.
The two had thus postponed the decision about the tournament victory and who would win the first prize of 40,000 euros and the trophy to the tiebreak – and risked Ian Nepomniachtchi disputing this prize. But before Nepomniachtchi got the chance to do so, he had to win against Vincent Keymer. The World Championship finalist needed a full point to catch up with Gukesh and Aronian.
While all the other games of the day gradually petered out, Vincent Keymer once again had to put in a six-hour shift. Opposite of him, Nepo didn’t let up, looking for opportunities to sharpen things up even with reduced material. For five hours Keymer kept the position balanced, then he rashly let his passed pawn run, and it was over: On the other wing, Nepomniachtchi’s play against the white king would prove decisive, while Kemer’s passed pawn didn’t reach the eighth rank. Nepomniachtchi had managed to intercept Aronian and Gukesh on the home stretch.
Three players tied at the top of the table – a rarity, but it happens. Levon Aronian has experience of this: in 2018 at the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis he, Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana ended up at the top with equal points. A drawing of lots was scheduled there – and the players negotiated it away at short notice. They preferred to share first place. Such negotiations were not planned in Düsseldorf, and they did not arise. The rules in the event of a tie at the top of the table were clear.
Nepomniachtchi, after his hard-fought victory over Keymer, nevertheless first had to ask main referee Gregor Johann how things would proceed. “A round robin, double round robin, 10+2,” he got in reply. After an 82-move and more than 6-hour tournament game, he was now to face a potentially more than five-hour playoff against two rested opponents.
After winning the first tiebreak game against Gukesh, Aronian added another win in the second against Nepo. Nepomniachtchi seemed to have created nice attacking chances, but had made structural concessions. And these weighed heavier.
After that Nepomniachtchi had to play again, this time against Gukesh, and it was already a decisive game. Only the winner would still have a chance to challenge Levon Aronian for the tiebreaker. It went back and forth, both had chances, and at the end of an open game the Indian prevailed. That gave him a must-win game against Aronian: now one more win and the youngest competitor would be back on the heels of the oldest.
It started well for Gukesh, who first smashed up Aronian’s structure, then took aim at some pawn weaknesses and seemed to be on the winning track with two extra pawns. But Aronian didn’t let up, continuously creating problems, and Gukesh failed to turn his big advantage into a decisive one. In the end, the game turned completely around.
After these three full points in a row, Aronian could no longer be denied the tournament victory. The last two games of the tiebreak were not played.