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It’s the calm before the storm of arguably the strongest knockout tournament of all-time, as almost all of the world’s elite players get ready to rumble in the FIDE World Cup that gets underway in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi this coming Sunday. The behemoth 128-player event not only has a $1.6 million prize fund (and $120,000 first prize), but it will also directly qualify two players into next year’s Candidates tournament that will ultimately determine World Champion Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger.

And the cast-list is indeed mightily impressive, with Carlsen heading a field that also includes the rest of the new FIDE September top 10 of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Vladimir Kramnik, Levon Aronian, Fabiano Caruana, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Viswanathan Anand, Wesley So, Alexander Grischuk and Hikaru Nakamura. The only top grandmasters missing will be Veselin Topalov, Leinier Dominguez, and Dmitry Jakovenko.

Also included is Carlsen’s last title-challenger and the 2015 World Cup winner, Russia’s Sergey Krajakin; Anish Giri, the young Dutch former top 10 star; Wei Yi, the teenage Chinese champion; Peter Svidler, the seven-time Russian champion and 2011 World Cup winner; Boris Gelfand, the 2012 title challenger and 2009 World Cup winner; and not forgetting Hou Yifan, the world’s strongest female player.

Carlsen heads the FIDE rating list now for the 75th time – but this time, the Norwegian has a new rival for the #1 spot, with the dramatic rise of the in-form French star, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who on the back of his Sinquefield Cup victory climbs from 8th place to 2nd, swapping places with the plummeting Wesley So.

FIDE September Top 10
1. Magnus Carlsen 2827 (+5); 2. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2804 (+15); 3. Vladimir Kramnik 2803 (=); 4. Levon Aronian 2802 (+3); 5. Fabiano Caruana 2799 (-8); 6. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov 2797 (=); 7. Viswanathan Anand 2794 (+11); 8. Wesley So 2792 (-18); 9. Alexander Grischuk 2788 (+5); 10. Hikaru Nakamura 2781 (-11)

And earlier this week, MVL overwhelmed another American, Jeffrey Xiong, the current world junior champion, in his first round match-up of the 2017 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship. MVL beat Xiong, 19-12, and he now joins Karjakin, Nakamura, Grischuk, Caruana, So and Ian Nepomniachtchi in the next round. The final first round match-up will see defending champion Carlsen playing Gadir Guseinov on 5 October.

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Jeffrey Xiong
Chess.com Speed Ch., (5m+2spm), (1)
Sicilian Najdorf
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Nf6 4.Nc3 cxd4 5.Nxd4 a6 6.Be2 e5 7.Nf3 Be7 8.Bg5 Nbd7 9.a4 Qb6 10.a5!? Being a speed game, MVL rightly opts to “go for it”, reckoning that his active piece play might well be worth the sacrificed material. And defending b2 with 10.Rb1 wasn’t really an option anyway, as after 10…h6 11.Be3 Qc6! Black has heavy pressure on e4 and will be following up with …Nc5 and …Be6 and an excellent Sicilian set-up. 10…Qxb2 11.Bd2 Qb4 12.Nd5 Qc5 13.Bb4 Qc6 14.Nxe7 Kxe7 15.Nxe5!? It may well not be completely sound, but in blitz, this kind of bolt out of the blue can be a winner because, for the sacrificed piece, MVL has lots of pressure while Xiong has to accurately figure out how he gets his king to safety before White can bludgeon a route through to his indisposed king. 15…Nxe5 16.Qd4 Ke8 17.Bxd6 All the engines will tell you here that Black is much better – but in reality, in human terms and in this speed-play scenario, this is a tough position to play as the Black king is stranded in the middle of the board, and this makes it difficult to develop the kingside rook. 17…Ng6 18.f3 Be6 19.c4 Rd8 20.c5 Nd7 The g7 pawn is insignificant here. If Black can somehow break the stranglehold of the dominant bishop on d6, then his game will ease. 21.Rd1 f6 22.0-0 For now, being a piece down is not a problem for MVL, as Black’s position needs to unravel first to make it count – but if Black does unravel successfully, then he’s winning. 22…Kf7? Calamity! With his digital clock metaphorically ticking down, and Xiong so preoccupied with the job of getting his kingside rook into the game, he overlooks a simple winning shot from MVL. He had to play 22…Ne7! followed by …h5, with the idea of playing …Bg4 if White throws in f4. 23.f4! (see diagram) The simple threat of f5 regaining the piece with interest, gives MVL a vital extra tempo to bust the position wide open. 23…Nxc5 What else is there now? If 23…Ngf8 24.f5 Ba2 there are many ways to win, but the most obvious to my eye is 25.Bc4+ Bxc4 26.Qxc4+ Ke8 27.Rd5! and Black is left paralyzed, waiting for White to move in for the kill with Rfd1 followed by e5. 24.f5 Ne5 25.fxe6+ Nxe6 I suppose it was too much to ask for the spectacular finish of 25… Kxe6 26. Qxe5+!! fxe5 27. Bg4#. 26.Qxe5 1-0

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