In game 1 of his Airthings Masters Final against Radjabov, Aronian’s pawn push 21 e4-e5 (shown in the first diagram) created a tactical explosion. This was rapid chess at its best — stylish and exuberant. And yet, as thrilling as this game was, it was a pity that the players had so little time to navigate the complications. If they had, each player might have unearthed an even deeper idea.
In the first diagram, Radjabov had an improvement, as subtle as it is stunning: 21…d3!! 22 Qxd3 fxe3 23 Qg6+ reaches the same position as in the game, with one crucial difference; the missing pawn on f4 benefits Black, for reasons explained in the comment to 26…Bf5.
The second diagram shows Aronian’s missed opportunity. The immediate 29 Ng5 allows 29…Qc4+. That’s why the move he played, 29 Re6? was tempting, but Radjabov coolly rebuffed the attack. I suspect that Aronian also glanced at the alternative 29 Rxe8+ Rxe8 and then 30 Bxh7 Qxh7 31 f7 (hoping for 31…Qxh6 32 fxe8=Q+), but 31…Re1+! wrecks that idea. But instead of 30 Bxh7, the dispassionate 30 b3!! wins, though such restraint is scarcely possible with mere seconds for reflection. Then 30…Kg8 loses to 31 Ng5 Nxg5 32 Qxg5+ followed by Bf5-g6 and Qg5-h6+. Black should prefer 30…Rg8, but then 31 h4! introduces two ideas — first Nf3-g5, and second h4-h5 followed by Bf5-g6. Black would be busted, despite his extra rook.
Levon Aronian–Teimour Radjabov
1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Bc5 4 c3 Nf6 5 d3 O-O 6 O-O d6 7 Bg5 h6 8 Bh4 g5 9 Bg3 a5 10 Re1 Re8 11 Nbd2 Ba7 12 Nf1 Be6 13 Bb5 Bd7 14 Ne3 Ne7 15 a4 c6 16 Bc4 Ng6 17 Qc2 Nf4 18 Rad1 Qe7 19 d4 exd4 20 Bxf4 gxf4 21 e5 (see diagram 1) dxe3 22 Qg6+ Kh8 23 Qxh6+ Nh7 24 Bd3! Sacrificing a rook with check. exf2+ 25 Kf1 fxe1=Q+ 26 Rxe1 Bf5! An ingenious deflection. Consider the alternative: 26…f5 27 exf6 Qf7 28 Rxe8+ Rxe8 29 Ng5. If Black reached this position without the f4-pawn on the board, 29…Qxf6+ would place the White king in check, which explains why 21…d3!! would have been so powerful. But here, with the pawn on f4, Black loses quickly, e.g. 29… Qg8 30 Bxh7 Qf8 31 Nf7+ Qxf7 32 Bg6+ Kg8 33 Bxf7+ Kxf7 34 Qg7+ Ke6 35 f7 wins. 27 Bxf5 f6 28 exf6 Qf7 (see diagram 2) 29 Re6? Rxe6 30 Ng5 Rxf6 31 Nxf7+ Rxf7 32 Bxh7 Rxh7 33 Qf6+ Radjabov could have avoided the perpetual check, but acceding to it must have come as a welcome relief. Kg8 34 Qg6+ Rg7 35 Qe6+ Rf7 36 Qg6+ Kf8 37 Qxd6+ Kg7 38 Qe5+ Kg6 39 Qe6+ Kg7 40 Qe5+ Kg6 41 Qe6+ Kg7 42 Qe5+ Draw agreed
Radjabov went on to win the match and the tournament — the second of ten events in the Champions Chess Tour.