Every two years FIDE, the game’s governing body, holds a World Chess Championship. One of the qualifying events in the cycle that earns not one, but two seats to the Candidates’ that ultimately decides Magnus Carlsen’s official challenger is the World Cup – and this is different than most tournaments because it is a mega 128-player knockout event. In many respects, the World Cup is similar to the NCAA’s March Madness as it involves the science of ‘bracketology’ with half the players eliminated every round.
And with mini-matches and a knockout, anything can happen as the top players can go out by just making a simple slip – but generally, this does not happen in the opening round of the event, as the rating disparity is so great. But the fear of being sensationally eliminated is always there in the back of the mind of the elite players.
So when the 2017 World Cup got underway on Sunday in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, all eyes were on who would struggle to go forward to the next round of the $1.6m tournament. There were no concerns for Carlsen, as the world champion made it all look so easy, not even breaking a sweat as he easily beat the 2255-rated Nigerian FM, Oluwafemi Balogun, and now a virtual a shoo-in to go forward to the next round.
But some elite stars were not so lucky. ‘Man-of-the-Moment’ Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was held to a draw in his opening round game by IM Muhammad Khusenkhojaev of Tajikistan; and not only MVL struggling but also Sergey Karjakin, the previous World Cup winner and last year’s defeated title-challenger, who was held to a draw by the young Australian IM Anton Smirnov.
And among the 37 players rated 2700+, there were even bigger shocks with Wei Yi, Pentala Harikrishna, Pavel Eljanov and Vladimir Fedoseev all losing and now find themselves in the World Cup madness of a must-win scenario in game two. The most sensational downfall proved to be that of Wei Yi, who was felled in truly spectacular fashion by the unknown 36-year-old Russian/Canadian GM Bator Sambuev, who is rated almost 250-points lower than the Chinese teenage champion.
(Photo opposite) Wei Yi and the Chinese team at the opening ceremony | © Anastasia Karlovich official site
GM Bator Sambuev – GM Wei Yi
FIDE World Cup, (1.1)
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d5 4.d4 Bb4 5.g3 An interesting divergence from Sambuev, who is trying to bamboozle his higher-rated opponent by steering the game from a Ragozin into Catalan territory. Also, it is very similar to the g3 systems deployed against the Nimzo-Indian that was popularised back in the late 1980s by the likes of Garry Kasparov and Oleg Romanishin 5…0-0 6.Bg2 dxc4 Sambuev doesn’t care a jot about the c-pawn – he’s just going to continue developing his pieces on active squares and building a strong centre. And this strategy works big-time for the Russian-Canadian, as the teenage Chinese star simply falls into a really bad position as he attempts to hang on to the material. 7.0-0 Nc6 8.a3 Be7 The alternative 8…Bxc3 9.bxc3 Na5 10.a4!? gives White lots of promising piece-play with Ne5 and Ba3. However, with the retreat of the bishop, White takes full control of the centre – and Wei Yi never finds a way to counter this. 9.e4! Na5 10.Be3 Rb8 The art of chess commentary is always 20/20, but in view of what now follows, Wei Yi would have been better going for 10…Nb3 11.Rb1 c5!? 12.dxc5 Nxc5 13.Ne5! Qc7 14.Nxc4 Ncxe4 15.Nxe4 Qxc4 16.Rc1 Qb5 17.a4 Qf5 18.Nd6 where Black is still a pawn up, but in all likelihood, it will fizzle out to a draw with pieces being exchanged rapidly and Black’s queenside pawns under attack. Wei Yi likely declined this safer option as the end result does look drawish, and instead, he wanted to make the game more complex for his inexperienced opponent – but it all backfires spectacularly on him. 11.Qe2 b5 12.Rad1 Sambuev just continues his game-plan of building in the centre. 12…Bb7 13.Ne5 This is always a key move in the Catalan, as the knight finds a dominant outpost, and exchanging it off opens the d-file for the rook. 13…a6 14.g4! A brave choice from Sambuev. With full control of the centre and Black’s knight on a5 so offside that a blind linesman would even be furiously waving his flag here, he decides the time is right to launch a kingside attack that will give his illustrious opponent something to worry about. 14…Ne8?! This looks wrong. A pawn up and facing an opponent about to unleash an all-out attack, Wei Yi attempts to huddle all his pieces together to hunker down for the defence. However, better looked 14…Nd7 which would have at the very least prevented White next breakthrough move – but with the knight on e8, Sambuev just bludgeons his way through the middle of the board and ensuing chaos for Black defending. 15.d5 It’s always a good sign in a Catalan set-up when White can get this move in. 15…exd5 16.Nxd5 Nd6 17.g5!? Rightly, Sambuev gives Wei Yi no respite whatsoever in this position – he’s going ‘all-in’ here, as Wei Yi’s pieces are totally disorganised. 17…Bxd5? Wei Yi’s last hope here was to try 17…Bxg5!? 18.Bxg5 Qxg5 19.Nd7 Rbe8 Where it is not so clear what’s happening, as after 20.f4! Qf5 21.Nxf8 Bxd5! 22.exf5 Rxe2 23.Rxd5 Kxf8 leads to an unclear position – Black is the exchange down, but he has a couple of pawns for it, and White’s pawns are not exactly in good shape. In fact, if anything, this position could still produce any of three results! 18.Rxd5 c6 19.Rdd1 Qc7 20.Qh5 g6? Ultimately the losing move as it creates a weaker defence around Wei Yi’s king. However, under pressure, this is a gut-instinct reaction in such positions – but a calm look at the position will tell you that not moving the pawn and playing instead 20…Rbd8 offered up a better defence, as White has to figure a way to crash through with the mating attack. But with the rook on d8, Black is ready to offer an early exchange of rooks down the d-file that will lessen the dangers….as we will soon see in the game. 21.Qh6 Nxe4? Black can try and hold on still with 21…Rfd8 and …Bf8 kicking the queen back. But even here, White will soon be playing Ng4 and Nf6+ exploiting the weakness created by …g6. 22.Nd7 Nd6 23.Bh3! (see diagram) Watching all this unfold live online, it suddenly began to dawn on me that perhaps Wei Yi had missed this very clever move that not only defends the knight on d7, but more crucially stops Black defending with …Nf5 – and this, in turn, leads to a spectacular giant-killing feat. 23…Rfd8 24.Rd4! 1-0 Wei Yi resigns, as there’s simply no defence to Rh4 mating down the h-file.