Back in 1958 at the Portoroz Interzonal, American chess fans had to think they were living in a dream when teenage sensation Bobby Fischer won his way into the Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade Candidates Tournament held the following year that was shared between the three Yugoslavian cities. Aged just 15, Fischer shot his way into the chess annals by becoming the youngest ever Grandmaster, and also the youngest player to become a candidate for the world championship cycle – a record that still stands even today.
Fast-forward some 60 years, the Interzonal is long gone, now replaced by a mammoth 128-player knockout tournament, the FIDE World Cup in Khanty-Mansysk in Siberia, where another teenager had a chance to emulate Fischer’s famous candidates’ feat: 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja of Iran. After holding top seed Ding Liren of China to two hard-fought draws in their 3rd round mini-match, the odds on the teenager making it to the next round rapidly dropped – but the natural order of things was soon restored, as Ding crushed his dream with a brace of wins in the rapid tiebreak to make it through to the final 16.
Also making the cut to join Ding is Wesley So (USA), Peter Svidler (Russia), Yu Yangyi (China), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Le Quang Liem (Vietnam), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Lenier Dominguez (USA), Kirill Alekseenko (Russia), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland), Nikita Vitiugov (Russia), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) Temour Radjabov (Azerbaijan) and last but not least, Jeffery Xiong (USA).
The Texan teenager, after holding second seed Anish Giri also to a brace of draws in their mini-match, faired better than Firouzja by sensationally going on to beat the Dutchman in a pulsating speed tiebreaker. After several exciting, fighting draws, Xiong won the second 10-minute game to win the match. The 18-year-old is now just three matches away from the fairytale dream of a coveted spot in the 2020 Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg – and if he gets there, he will now become the youngest American player to do so since Fischer!
Round 4 pairings:
Ding v Kirill, Duda v Xiong, Vachier-Lagrave v Svidler, Vitiugov v So, Nepomniachtchi v Yu, Ke Quang v Aronian, Mamedyarov v Radjabov, Grischuk v Dominguez.
Photo: The calm before the storm as Xiong goes on to beat Giri in the deciding tiebreak game | © FIDE World Cup
GM Anish Giri – GM Jeffery Xiong
FIDE World Cup, (3.6)
1.Nf3 g6 2.e4 Bg7 3.d4 d6 Xiong was asked about his aggressive attitude shown against Giri in the tiebreak, and he confirmed his strategy was “just to try and make a mess out of every game and to play some unusual openings to avoid his preparation.” And here, his choice of a sideline in the Pirc defence fits that bill. 4.Be3 Nf6 5.Nc3 0-0 6.Qd2 Nc6 7.d5 Nb8 The knight coming to c6 and then retreating back to b8 may look strange, but with the central pawn committed now to d5, Black can play …c6 and redeploy the knight with …Nbd7-e5 (or even c5, if needed). 8.Bh6 c6 9.Bxg7 Kxg7 10.0-0-0 cxd5 11.exd5 Bg4 12.Be2 Nbd7 13.Rhe1 Rc8 14.Nd4 Also tempting was the alternative punt of 14.h3!? Bxf3 15.Bxf3 and hope to claim some bragging rights later having the bishop. 14…Bxe2 15.Rxe2 Ne5 With this being a speed playoff, I would have thought Xiong would have been pleased to have reached this position, as he has good counterattacking chances on the queenside. 16.f4 And given the circumstances, many may well have wondered why Giri didn’t try the more adventurous 16.Qg5!? which does seem to give White good attacking prospects with the queen playing more of a part in the game. But now, Giri’s position gets more than just a little awkward. 16…Nc4 17.Qd3 Qb6 18.b3 Na3 19.Rxe7 Giri snatches a solid pawn – but Xiong has direct attacking chances on the White king. And in a nervy tiebreak-decider, I know which of those two options I would much rather have! 19…Qb4 20.Nde2 Rc5 21.Qd4 Not losing per se, but a move that will soon come back to haunt Giri. Better was 21.Qe3! threatening Rd4 – and, in certain positions, if the f8 rook moves, perhaps even a possible Rxf7+! shot. 21…a5! 22.Kb2? The pressure is now piling on Giri – he had to hold his nerve and try 22.g4 but even then, after 22…Qxd4! 23.Rxd4 b5 24.Rd2 (If 24.g5 Ng8 25.Ree4 Rfc8 and Black stands slightly better now.) 24…b4 25.Ne4 Nxe4 26.Rxe4 Rfc8 27.Nd4 Rxd5 Black has his pawn back and stands no worse. 22…Rc4! A nice shot that gains Xiong more momentum for his attack – and with all those pieces now swarming around the White king, something for Giri to panic over. 23.Qd3 Rfc8 24.Rc1? And sure enough, Giri presses the panic button! You can understand this move with the pressure building around Giri’s king, but the Dutchman simply had to find 24.Qh3! b5 25.Rd3! to stay in the game. Of course, the playing engine shows no nerves and easily finds such resourceful moves, but humans (and especially here, in a crucial tiebreak-decider) are only human and can – and often do! – make mistakes under extreme pressure. 24…b5 25.f5? And after making the initial mistake, Giri follows up with a further error – and there’s no coming back now for the Dutchman! His only hope, here again, was to find the very resourceful 25.Qh3! where now 25…a4 (Also 25…Nxd5 26.Rxf7+! Kxf7 27.Qxh7+ is a variation on the same main drawing theme.) 26.Rxf7+! Kxf7 27.Qe6+ Kg7 28.Qe7+ Kg8 (Don’t try this at home, but there’s also the dangerous option of 28…Kh6 29.Qxf6 Rxc3 30.Nxc3 Nc4+ 31.Ka1! Ne5 32.Ne2! axb3 33.Rb1! b2+ 34.Rxb2 Qe1+ 35.Rb1 Qxe2 36.Qh4+ Kg7 37.Qe7+ is also leading to a perpetual…or so I am reliably informed by the unbeating heart of my playing engine!) 29.Qe6+ Kg7 30.Qe7+ Kg8 31.Qe6+ and a draw. 25…Rxc3! This just crashes through for a big milestone win for Xiong! 26.Nxc3 Rxc3 27.Qe2 The point is that 27.Qxc3? Nc4+! wins the queen and the game. 27…Nc4+ 28.Ka1 Ne5 You can understand the young American wanting to regroup his pieces to offer some protection for his own king, but stronger first was 28…Qa3! forcing 29.Rb1 and now 29…Ne5 with a completely won position. 29.fxg6 hxg6 30.Rf1 Qd4 I think we can safely say that Xiong dominates the dark squares here! 31.Kb1 Nxd5 32.Rd1 Rd3!! [see diagram] If you are going to take a ‘heavyweight’ down, then do it with a touch of class! 33.Rxd3 The (full) point of Xiong’s tactic is that 33.cxd3 Nc3+ and the family fork wins the queen. 33…Nxd3 34.Qxd3 Qxd3 35.Rxf7+ Kxf7 36.cxd3 Nf4 0-1