Last Monday the World Cup started in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. It’s a typical behemoth Fide knockout tournament, with 128 players battling it out for the first prize of $110,000 and the added attraction of two places into the Candidates tournament next year in Ekaterinburg, also in Russia. And one week later, as the field gets whittled down to the final 32, we’re now approaching the “business end” of the tournament.
A slight slip in this nerve-wracking mini-match format can mean the difference between a good run and an early exit. This is the fate that befell 2018 US champion Sam Shankland in the opening round, and round two saw another of the original contingent of five Americans packing his bags and heading for the exit – and it proved to be the biggest shock of the tournament so far, as the five-time reigning US champion, Hikaru Nakamura, ultimately paid the price for an opening mishap, as the 14th seed crashed out at the hands of Germany’s Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu.
Still in the hunt for the US by being in the round three draw, though, is Wesley So, Leinier Dominguez Perez and Jeffery Xiong. Also in the draw is ‘heavyweights’ Ding Liren, Anish Giri, the top Russian quartette of Ian Nepomniachtchi, former world championship challenger Sergey Karjakin, Alexander Grischuk and Peter Svidler, not to mention perennial Candidates bridesmaid Levon Aronian.
The World Cup can also be a wonderful tournament for emerging top juniors to make a name for themselves under the spotlight of a world championship qualifier, just as a teenage Bobby Fischer did during the 1958 Portorož Interzonal. The one to watch (apart from 18-year-old Texan teenager Xiong) is Alireza Firouzja, who at 16 is now the youngest player left in the tournament – and the Iranian teenager now has an intriguing high-profile match-up with top seed Ding Liren!
But spare a thought for 15-year-old Nihal Sarin, as the young Indian rising star looked set to best Firouzja in the age-stakes after a wonderfully-crafted, crushing kingside attack to beat Eltaj Safarli in their round 2 opening game that belied his youthful years. Only needing a draw in game 2 to go forward, the teenager badly blundered to lose and was then knocked out in the tiebreak playoff.
Photo: A photo says more than words can ever do, as Nihal Sarin goes out in a tiebreak decider | © Fide World Cup
GM Nihal Sarin – GM Eltaj Safarli
FIDE World Cup, (2.1)
Ruy Lopez, Breyer variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Nb8 Hungarian master Gyula Breyer (1893-1921) was one of the leading members of the hypermodern school of chess theory, but he is best remembered today for the variation of the Ruy Lopez named after him, identified by what at first looks like a seemingly bizarre knight retreat in the opening, with the deep strategic idea being to redeploy it on d7 and put his bishop on b7 to hit White’s centre. This line became fashionable in the 1960s, and soon became a big favourite of ex-world champion Boris Spassky and candidate Lajos Portisch during this period. It then went out of fashion for over 20 years at the elite level, only to now come back in vogue in the last 5-6 years after being resurrected by World Champion Magnus Carlsen. 10.d4 Nbd7 11.Nbd2 Bb7 12.Bc2 Re8 13.Nf1 Bf8 14.Ng3 g6 15.a4 Bg7 16.Bd3 c6 17.Bg5 h6 18.Be3 Qc7 19.Qd2 Kh7 So far so theory, as we reach what the Russian’s would call the tabiya of the Breyer, as each side patiently position their pieces for the coming middlegame battle. But one fatal slip from Safarli is all that it takes for the young Indian teenager to strike with an impressive sacrificial onslaught. 20.b4 Nb6? More accurate was 20…Rad8 not only putting the rook on the same file as the queen, but also eyeing up the possibility of the central break with …d5. White has to tread carefully now, with 21.Qc1 (If 21.dxe5 as in the game, then 21…Nxe5! 22.Nxe5 dxe5 23.Qe2 and Black looks to have a solid position.) 21…d5!? 22.Nxe5 Nxe5 23.dxe5 Qxe5 24.f4 Qe7 25.e5 Nd7 26.axb5 cxb5 27.Bd4 White has a space advantage to continue pressing his attack, but Black is not without resources, as a push forward from White potentially leaves a weakness in its wake that Black could exploit. 21.dxe5 dxe5 22.a5! Nbd7 Black’s position is so ‘dodgy’, that even the engine suggests that the best option now is to try and ‘mix it’ with 22…Na4 23.Bc2 Rad8 24.Qc1 c5!? 25.Bxa4 bxa4 26.Bxc5 Rc8 where Black’s active pieces and open lines offer compensation for the likelihood that the a4-pawn will easily fall. Play could continue 27.Ra3 (It’s not wise to grab the a-pawn right away, as 27.Rxa4 Nd7 28.Be3 Qxc3 29.Qb1 Qc2! and Black’s back in the game.) 27…Nd7 28.Be3 Qc4 29.Nd2 Qc6 30.f3 Bf8! 31.Qb2 Red8 and with Black’s actively-placed pieces, White still has a lot of work to do to convert any advantage for a win – certainly here, Black has lots of possibilities and still in the fight, as opposed to what transpires in the game. 23.c4! Rad8 24.Qa2 Kg8 25.Bc2! The repositioning of the bishop on b3 not only opens the d-file for a rook but will also bring pressure on f7. 25…Qd6 You get the gut feeling that now was the last time to try and stay in the game with 25…c5!? 26.cxb5 axb5 27.bxc5 Nxc5 28.Rec1 Qe7 29.Bxc5 Qxc5 30.Bb3 Qe7 the White a-pawn is certainly going to be an issue in the long-term, but for right now, Black is doing just enough to stay competitive with threats on the e-pawn. 26.Bb3 Qe7 27.Rad1 Rc8 This was the last call for 27…c5!? 28.Nh4! Too late now, as White’s attack comes in like a tsunami, and Black can only watch on in horror. 28…Kf8 The only way to stop White piling on the pressure with cxb5 and following up with Nxg6, as 28…Kh7? gets hit with 29.cxb5 axb5 30.Bxf7 easily winning. 29.c5! Now Black’s pieces are struggling for squares. 29…Nb8 30.Rd6 Red8 31.Ngf5! [see diagram] There are so many different ways to win now, and this is just one of them! Another sacrifice that crashes through is 31.Bxh6! Bxh6 32.Re6!! fxe6 33.Nxg6+ Kf7 34.Nxe7 Kxe7 35.Bxe6 with Nf5+ coming next if 35…Rc7. 31…gxf5 32.Nxf5 Qc7 33.Nxg7 Kxg7 34.Bxh6+! Kxh6 35.Rxf6+ The Black king is caught wandering dazed and confused in no-man’s land. 35…Kg5 36.Rf5+ Kh6 37.Qe2 1-0 Black resigns…there are no easy answers to Qh5+ and Re3 with many mates lurking.