Since its inaugural event in Shenyang, China back in 2000, the unpredictable knockout format of the 128-player FIDE World Cup has thrown up many twists and surprise result or two along the way – but as the latest $1.6m World Cup at Khanty-Mansiysk reaches the critical semi-final stages, we could be set to provide the biggest twist and shock of all with the possibility of the final being contested by two surprise underdogs.
The first big shock of the semi-final was Teimour Radjabov knocking out hot favourite Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, as the Frenchman picked just the wrong moment of game 2 to go wildly astray in the opening to allow the Azeri to build up what became an unstoppable attack, as he easily converted his big advantage. And safely into the final, Radjabov now also has a spot into the 2020 Candidates tournament – and with his comeback performance, he also breaks into the World top 10 for the first time since 2013!
A clearly stunned Radjabov almost had to pinch himself that he’d just beaten MVL to qualify for the first time to the candidates – his only other candidates’ appearance, in London in 2013, was via the organisers’ wildcard – and he wasn’t even all that sure that he would play! “I don’t even know if I will play the Candidates,” said Radjabov in his match victory interview, “but to get the place, an invitation for a nice party is always good!”
Radjabov, the Azeri #2 behind Shakhriyar Mamedyarov – whom he beat in the all-Azeri final 16 clash tie-breaker after a long series of draws – never really lived up to all his early promise as one of the world’s leading juniors when, aged 16, he sensationally beat Garry Kasparov during their first meeting at the 2003 Linares super-tournament. Now 32, he’s all but semi-retired from elite-level chess – and a player notorious for having the highest drawing percentage (81% since January 2018, according to the stats of Norwegian journalist Tarjei J. Svensen) of all players in the world’s top 20 – and set for his ‘Indian summer’ with one of the biggest matches of his career.
And waiting for Radjabov in the final could well be another underdog in China’s Yu Yangyi. Against all the odds Yu, 25, comfortably held his in-form fellow countryman and global #3 Ding Liren to a brace of draws, as their match now moves into what could become a tension-filled nervy speed tie-breaker, where anything can happen.
Ding is the World Cup top seed and seen by pundits and punters alike to be one of Magnus Carlsen’s genuine title challengers – but Yu’s resilience throughout this tournament has been quite remarkable, especially his saves from lost positions in the last two rounds against Russians Ian Nepomniachtchi and Nikita Vitiugov respectively, so another upset win – especially with the vagaries of a speed playoff – can’t be ruled out.
And with Ding all but a shoo-in for the candidates’ ratings qualifying spot, such an upset win from Yu would give Beijing a further propaganda boost as it gears up for its 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China next week, with not one but two of their players going forward to the 2020 Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg, Russia.
Ding 1-1 Yu – (match goes to tie-break decider)
Radjabov 1½-½ Vachier-Lagrave
GM Teimour Radjabov – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
FIDE World Cup Semi-final, (2)
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e3 The sharp option would have been 5.e4 Nb4 6.Bb5+ N8c6 7.Ne5 – but we were never going to see that from Radjabov! 5…Nxc3 6.dxc3 Qc7 Innocuous openings, such as this for White, and also including 6…Qxd1+ 7.Kxd1 is a safety-first approach from Radjabov – but such lines were used to great effect back in the 1980s by the one and only Ulf Andersson, as the Swede would relentlessly grind away in early queen-less games like this, torturing opponents in long endgames, much like his Norwegian neighbour Magnus Carlsen does today. 7.e4 e6 Radjabov has done his homework, as MVL has a fondness for playing this. But here, rather than Ulf-like grinding his opponent down, Radjabov was clearly looking for something simple and the early draw, looking to take the match into the tie-break – but MVL spoils this by going wildly astray in just a few moves, as he stumbles into a bad position. 8.Bd3 Be7 9.Qe2 Bd7 10.0-0 0-0? The first slip-up from MVL. What was needed was 10…Nc6 followed by castling queenside or even 10…e5, both avoiding White’s simple and yet very obvious, attacking plan. 11.e5! The idea is Qe4 forcing …g6 and then Bf4 with White having a big space advantage and also a bit of a free rein to attack the kingside. 11…Bc6 12.Ng5 h6 13.Bh7+! I can only assume that MVL must have missed, or perhaps underestimated this sequence of moves from Radjabov. 13…Kh8 14.Bc2! Radjabov probably couldn’t believe his luck here, as MVL has gifted him an easy attack to build on; the immediate threat being Qd3 g6 Nxe6! with a crushing attack, leaving MVL with no option now other than what he plays. 14…c4 15.Re1 Qd8 What a fix to find yourself in early doors! The alternative of 15…Nd7? only sees the attack reaching critical mass after 16.Qh5! Kg8 17.Nh3 f5 18.Nf4 and Black is all but doomed. 16.Nh3 Qd5 17.Nf4 Qc5 18.Bb1 Setting up Qc2 and the queen and bishop battery down the long b1-h7 diagonal – but even stronger was 18.Qg4! forcing the humbling 18…Bd8 (It could be worse. If 18…Nd7 Black walks right into 19.Be3 Qxe5 20.Ng6+! fxg6 21.Qxg6 Kg8 22.Qh7+ Kf7 23.Bxh6 Qf6 24.Bxg7! Qxg7 25.Bg6+! Kf6 26.Rxe6+!! winning.) 19.Be3 Qe7 20.Nh5 Rg8 21.Qxc4 Nd7 22.Qd3 g6 23.Nf6! Nxf6 24.exf6 Qf8 25.Qd4 winning a pawn and maintaining the attack. 18…Bg5 19.Nxe6 When you see a position such as this on the board in front of you, then your first instincts will be tactics, tactics, tactics – and this is what seduces Radjabov, but the engine always find the most clinical way forward, and that’s with the not-so-obvious 19.b4! deflecting Black from defending his c-pawn if the queen retreats to e7. That only leaves the forcing 19…cxb3 20.Qd3! g6 21.axb3 Nd7 22.Qg3! Rg8 23.Ba3 Qb6 24.Bc2 with a raging attack. 19…fxe6 20.Bxg5 Qd5! Credit where credit is due. MVL is in a bad way, but at least he’s trying to fight his way out of his self-inflicted difficulties with counter-tactics on g2. Naturally, if 20…hxg5?? 21.Qh5+ quickly mates after 21…Kg8 22.Bh7+ Kh8 23.Bg6+ Kg8 24.Qh7#. 21.Qg4 If 21.f4 you can see what MVL is angling for, namely the forcing line 21…Qxg2+! 22.Qxg2 Bxg2 23.Kxg2 hxg5 24.fxg5 Nc6 25.Re4 Rad8 26.Rh4+ Kg8 27.Bh7+ Kf7 28.Rf1+ Ke7 29.Rxf8 Kxf8 30.Rxc4 Rd2+ 31.Kg3 Rxb2 32.h4 Nxe5 33.Rc8+ Ke7 34.h5 where White still holds the winning hand, but it is far from easy to convert the win, as there are many ways for Black to try to sacrifice the knight to stop the advanced kingside pawns, leaving the possibility of the notoriously drawn technical ending of R+B v R. 21…Nd7? [A final mistake, and it is all downhill now for MVL – he had to go right to his own counter-tactics with 21…Qxg2+! 22.Qxg2 Bxg2 23.Bxh6 gxh6 24.Kxg2 Nd7 25.Bc2 Rf7! 26.Rad1 Rg8+ 27.Kf1 Rg5 and Black has good fighting chances to hold for a draw with his active rooks. 22.Be4! Nxe5 23.Qh5 The obvious move, but simpler and stronger was 23.Qg3! taking full advantage of Black’s overworked queen defending the knight, with now 23…Qb5 (There’s no hope. If 23…Nf3+? 24.Bxf3 Qxg5 25.Qxg5 hxg5 26.Bxc6 bxc6 27.Rxe6 Black has too many weak and vulnerable pawns.) 24.a4 Qa5 25.Bf4 Nd3 26.Bxd3 cxd3 27.Be5 Rf7 28.Qxd3 Rf5 29.b4 Qd5 30.Qxd5 Bxd5 and Black’s only hope is trying to force the trade of the rooks to go for the opposite bishop ending. 23…Qb5 24.Bxh6! Bxe4 25.Bf4+ Kg8 26.Qxe5 Bd5 I think the danger signs were all there for MVL, and he should have eased any opportunities for Radjabov to continue to attack his king by trading queens now with 26…Qxe5 27.Bxe5 and then 27…Bd5 where the bottom line is that White’s a pawn to the good, but with it being opposite-coloured bishops, then there’s always a good chance of battling on for a draw – but here, an added worry for Black is that White can easily double rooks on the g-file and push the h-pawn up the board to attack the king. 27.Re2 Rf5 28.Qe3 Qe8 29.f3 Qg6 30.h4 Raf8 Arguably this is the best position MVL has had in the whole game – but in fighting hard to stay in the game, the Frenchman has burnt a lot of his clock time and finds himself in a scramble to make the time control. 31.Bg5 a6 32.Rd1 Qe8 33.Rd4 Qc6 34.Rg4 Radjabov is a pawn to the good, the attack is starting to threaten again, and his opponent is now in dire time trouble to boot – so what’s not to like here? 34…Kh7 35.Bf4 R8f7 36.Be5 b5 37.Qf2! There’s just no stopping Qg3 and unbearable pressure on g7. But award yourself bonus points, as Danny King would say in his regular Chess column, if you also found the strong plan of 37.f4! and following up with Qg3 with threats of h5-h6 etc. 37…Qd7 38.Qg3 As if things weren’t bad enough with MVL’s defences in a mess, by this stage the Frenchman only had a few seconds left on his clock to reach move 40. 38…Rh5 39.Bd4 Qc7 40.Re5! [see diagram] The final blow with the second rook now coming into the attack. 40…Rhf5 Trading a set of rooks offers no relief. After 40…Rxe5 41.Bxe5 Qc5+ 42.Kh1 Qe7 43.h5! Qf8 44.Rh4 and there’s no way to stop Qg6+ and h6 crashing through to win. 41.Rg5 Kg8 42.h5! The end is nigh, as the placard carrying street-soothsayers would say, as there’s no stopping h6. 42…Rxg5 43.Qxg5 Qe7 44.Qg4 Totally lost and with Rg5 and h6 coming, MVL blunders away a rook. 44…Rf5 45.Qxf5 1-0