John Henderson
By John Henderson

The top 30 players in the world have the most opportunities in chess and can earn a good living. But it is considerably more difficult for the players ranked just below them to earn a crust. Their appearance fees are much lower, and they rarely are invited to the tournaments that can put them in the spotlight and offer the best prize money.

For those players, the Fide World Cup now underway in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, is a great opportunity to shine. With a field of 128 and prize money totalling $1.6 million – with $110,000 going to the winner – the behemoth knockout tournament is giving some second-tier players (and promising juniors looking to make a name as a giant-killer) a golden chance to compete against the elite, and perhaps to join them.

An added lure for all players, particularly the elite, is that the two finalists’ will be seeded directly into the eight-player 2020 Candidates’ Tournament, which governing body Fide recently announced will be held in Ekaterinburg, Russia – the winner of which will then go forward to challenge Carlsen for the World Championship crown.

The highest-ranked players in the World Cup are certainly favourites, but anything can happen in a long knockout tournament where the eventual winner has to win seven mini-matches and potentially lots of nervy tie-break playoffs. There were no major seeding upsets in the opening round, and the first player to officially make it into the round of 64 proved to be the top US junior GM Jeffery Xiong. Other US players also joining him in round two will be: Leinier Dominguez, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura and Sam Sevian, but not so Sam Shankland, as the 2018 US champion was knocked out by GM Eltaj Safarli after a series of tie-breakers.

With the World Cup, you can get many opening round mismatches; and one of the biggest in Khanty-Mansiysk witnessed top seed Ding Liren – fresh from his recent victory at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, after beating Magnus Carlsen in a tie-break decider – play Shaun Press, the lowly rated Papua New Guinean Fide Master and International Arbiter. Both games were instructive in their own way, yet the easy 2-0 win proved to be another milestone moment for the Chinese #1 who is now tipped to be Carlsen’s next title challenger.

Ding’s opponent was rated just 1954, and over 800 Elo rating points of a difference between them – but in winning 2-0, while Ding only gained +1.6 rating points, this proved crucial as he now overtakes Fabiano Caruana to become World #2 for the first time on the unofficial live rating list.  And Ding’s first win – regardless of his opponent’s lowly rating – was a classy finish in anyone’s book.

Photo: The official start of the top board clash of the World Cup – and Ding didn’t disappoint! | © FIDE World Cup

FM Shaun Press – GM Ding Liren
FIDE World Cup, (1)
Closed Sicilian
1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 d6 3.g3 The Closed Sicilian doesn’t get an outing anymore at elite-level, and we need to hark back to an era when two Soviet World Champions in Vasily Smyslov and Boris Spassky were its biggest exponents – Spassky in particular during the Sixties, and the run-up to his two title challenges against Tigran Petrosian. 3…Nc6 4.Bg2 g6 5.d3 Bg7 6.Be3 Rb8 7.Qd2 In essence, the Closed Sicilian is basically a Reversed English Opening v the King’s Indian Defence where has the extra move. 7…b5 8.Nge2 b4 9.Nd1 h5 10.h3 e6 11.0-0 Nge7 12.f4 a5 The battle plans have been drawn up – Black continues his relentless push on the queenside, and White is angling to get the disruptive f5 push to open lines on the kingside. 13.Rb1 Another plan is trying to breakdown the queenside with 13.a3 – but the move played is the more standard, non-committal Closed Sicilian move to defend b2, allowing the Nd1 back into the game; the idea being to try not to make committal pawn moves on the queenside unless it closes any activity there. This fine if it works, then you have a free-hand to try to prise open the kingside – but if it all backfires, White faces a daunting task trying to defend, as we soon see in the game. 13…0-0 14.g4 hxg4 15.hxg4 f5! Yet another typical Closed Sicilian move, only this time for Black, that not only prevents White pushing on with f5 but stakes a claim for ownership of the centre. 16.exf5 I think a better try was 16.gxf5 gxf5 17.Nf2 with the idea of Nh3-g5 and possible attacking chances on the kingside. But unfortunately, Press lets his position wonder somewhat, and with it, Ding Liren shows his class by ruthlessly outplaying his much lower-rated opponent. 16…exf5 17.g5 Be6 18.b3 Nd5 Equally good was also 18…Bd5 19.Bf2 Bxg2 20.Kxg2 Qd7 and Black has grand designs on …Qb7, …Kf7 and …Rh8 for an all-out attack on the White king. 19.Bf2 If White can somehow get Ne3 in, then his position might not be all that bad – but Ding beats him to the punch. 19…Nd4! It’s that feeling when you are sitting across the board from a world-class grandmaster, and you fear you are about to be rolled over, as all of Black’s pieces are now menacingly occupying commanding squares. 20.Nxd4 Stopping dead in its tracks 20.Ne3?? that now loses to 20…Nxe2+ 21.Qxe2 Nxf4 22.Qf3 Qxg5 and White can think about resigning soon. 20…cxd4 21.Re1 Bf7 22.Nb2 Ne3! Ding is fully aware of all the possible dynamics in the position, and he’s ready to strike before White can do anything about the coming tsunami. 23.Bxe3?! Press’ position is all but collapsing now under the relentless pressure from Ding. The only (very) slim chance was to try 23.Nc4 Nxg2 24.Kxg2 but after 24…Qc7! Black practically “owns” the board with threats of …Rfc8 and piling the pressure on the queenside. 23…dxe3 24.Qxe3 Re8 25.Qf2 Rxe1+ 26.Qxe1 Qb6+ Ding’s pieces are now ready to stretch White’s defences – but I talked in the note above about the “dynamics” in the position, and there’s also a not-so-obvious winning manoeuvre coming for Black. 27.Kh2 Re8 28.Qf1 d5 Certainly denying the White knight the c4 square, but it is doubtful anyone other than Ding had seen the follow-up. 29.Na4 Qd4 30.Kh1 Bf8!! [see diagram] Sure, Black’s easily winning here, but kudos to Ding for coming up with his dynamic and very original winning idea of …d5, …Qd4, ..Bf8-d6xf4 and the pièce de résistance with the unlikely queen retreat back to h8, forcing White’s resignation! 31.Rc1 Bd6 32.c3 bxc3 33.Nxc3 Bxf4 34.Rc2 Qh8+ 0-1 Press throws in the towel, faced with the forced mate of 35.Kg1 Qh2+ 36.Kf2 Bg3+ 37.Kf3 f4 38.Bh3 Re3+ 39.Kg4 Be6#


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