It started with a prize fund of $1.6m and a field of 128 players, and after 432 games and 22 days, the 2019 FIDE World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk ended in the most dramatic of ways with Teimour Radjabov defying the odds to record one of the biggest upset wins in recent years in a world championship cycle qualifier, as the Azeri underdog beat top seed Ding Liren of China in a tiebreak playoff to take the title.
Although both finalists automatically qualified into next years’ Ekaterinburg Candidates Tournament, all the expectations were that in-form favourite Ding – coming hard on the heels of his Sinquefield Cup playoff victory over Magnus Carlsen in St Louis in late August – would be a shoo-in to win the title – and the odds of the world #3 doing so dramatically increased after his impressive win in game 2 as he took first-blood in the four-game match.
But in a strange turn of events, when victory looked almost within his grasp, Ding blew a critical drawing position in game 3 and duly lost, throwing his opponent a vital lifeline. The final classical game 4 ended in a draw, and with one win apiece, the match moved into a speed tie-break for the title and first prize of $110,000. And after a series of tension-filled draws, Radjabov seized his chance after further blunders from Ding in the final two blitz games (5 min + 3 sec), to claim a stunning 6-4 victory.
The result gives Radjabov, 32, the biggest tournament victory of his life, and a stunning result that could well revive his flagging career. Aged 15, I well remember having a ringside seat in the press room when Radjabov shot to fame in his debut super-tournament with a memorable defeat of Garry Kasparov at Linares in 2003 – but the Baku-born teenage ace never quite lived up to all his early promise.
Up to now, the highlight of his individual career had been a three-way share of first place – alongside Levon Aronian and Veselin Topalov – at Wijk aan Zee in 2007, ahead of a certain rising star-in-the-making, namely a young Magnus Carlsen. In recent years, Radjabov – who married into an oil-rich Azeri family, and devoted to his wife and young daughter – has been semi-retired from the elite circuit, and in a recent interview, he further revealed that he was considering the possibility of retirement…after the World Cup!
Clearly exhausted and a little confused during his post-match interview, Radjabov explained that his victory hadn’t quite sunk in yet. “It’s not like I’m going to celebrate like I was 15 or 16 or something when I beat Garry [Kasparov] for example at Linares,” he said. “I was really happy at the moment, as it was kind of one of the best players of all my life that I was studying his games and so on, and I won against him and I was really happy at that moment. I can’t compare it to today somehow, even though this is a tournament victory and that was just a game victory in the tournament.”
But now a rejuvenated Radjabov could well be turning his thoughts, not to retirement, but instead a good candidates performance to make up for his disastrous last-place finish in London in 2013 – and with a major tournament victory now under his belt (and a return to the world top 10 on the back of his World Cup victory), the comeback kid might well be a force to reckon with once again.
In the tiebreak playoff for third place, there was some conciliation for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – who was looking for a finalists’ placing to grab his spot in the candidates – as the Frenchman celebrated a convincing victory by beating China’s Yu Yangyi to claim the bronze medal with a 4-2 match victory.
World Cup Final:
Ding 4-6 Radjabov
Third Place Match:
MVL 4-2 Yu
GM Teimour Radjabov – GM Ding Liren
FIDE World Cup Final, (10)
Sicilian Defence, Boleslavsky variation
1.e4 c5 Needing now to win ‘on-demand’, and as many commentators predicted – including Magnus Carlsen – Ding opts for the Sicilian. 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Be2 e5 The Boleslavsky variation, named after the Soviet-era theoretician Isaac Boleslavsky, was popular during the mid 20th Century and remains very playable today. 7.Nb3 Be7 8.Bg5 0-0 9.Bxf6 Bxf6 10.Nd5 Radjabov’s knight takes up the d5-outpost of the so-called “Boleslavsky hole” – the idea being a positional battle with White exploiting the backward d6-pawn by reinforcing his control over the d5 square, while Black’s strategy hinges on a queenside minority attack coupled with control over the c4-square. Well, that’s the theory anyway – but both players seem to ignore this. 10…Bg5 11.Bg4 Be6 12.0-0 g6 13.Bxe6 Forced, as …f5 was threatened. 13…fxe6 14.Nc3 Qe7 15.Qd3 Rad8 16.Rad1 a6 17.a3 Kg7 18.Qg3 h5 19.Ne2 d5!?! It’s usually a good sign for Black in the Sicilian if he can get in the thematic central thrust of …d5 – but here, Ding was likely conflicted also with 19…b5, but probably felt the match situation dictated that he had to risk ‘mixing it’ with …d5 to try to unsettle Radjabov… but Radjabov is more than a match for him here. 20.Qc3 Rf6 21.Qc5! The c5 square is a very tempting target. 21…Qf7 22.c3?! The easy option was 22.Na5 more or less forcing 22…Nxa5 23.Qxa5 Rf8 24.f3! with an equal game. But this is a blitz with all the marbles at stake, and even top grandmasters can – and often do – miss unforeseen consequences of their moves, and that’s what happens here. 22…h4 It’s hard to criticise when players have to play quickly in such a high-stakes blitz game – and especially when you are an armchair warrior, with an engine running in the background crunching it all for you! – but they can’t see everything, and both missed the very subtle thunderbolt of 22…Qc7! which leaves White in a quandary, as out of nowhere, suddenly his queen has no squares with the threat simply being …b6 winning the queen! White is now forced into 23.exd5 exd5 24.f3 (What else is there? If 24.f4?! exf4 25.Kh1 b6 26.Qg1 is just ugly. And simply losing is 24.Rxd5? b6 25.Qc4 Qf7! with the pin on the rook being the clincher now, as 26.Rfd1 allows 26…Rxf2 crashing through.) 24…Qf7! Black is in total control, dominating the center and threatening to launch a kingside attack. 23.h3 Rd7? Again, 23…Qc7 does the biz – but now Ding has totally blown his chances, as he allows Radjabov to boss the c5 square with a better piece than his queen: his knight! 24.Qb6! Re7 25.Nc5 Radjabov has a strategically won game from here; all he needs to do is hold his nerve and the position should win itself – and he does this very efficiently! 25…Kh7 26.b4 d4 This is Ding only chance to try to do something, anything. 27.Nd3 Even stronger was 27.c4 followed by Nd3 or simply threatening b4 – but either way, all roads lead to victory for Radjabov. 27…Rd7 28.Qc5 dxc3 29.Qxc3 The weakness on e5 is going to be a killer for Ding – so he has to do something about it, and fast! 29…Bh6 30.a4 Nd4 Desperate times call for desperate measures. 31.Nxd4 exd4 32.Qc4 Qe7 33.Ne5! The knight now bosses the vital e5 square, and something simply has to give for Black. 33…Rc7 34.Qxd4 Bf4 35.Ng4 Rf7 36.e5! Threatening Nf6+ winning the bishop. 36…Rf5 37.b5! With Ding virtually paralysed, Radjabov smoothly moves in for the kill by exploiting Black’s queenside weakness. 37…axb5 38.axb5 g5 39.b6 Rc6 40.Qe4 Rxb6? Frustrated, and now very low on time, Ding blunders away the game and the match. He was in a bad way anyway, but his best try to stay in the game was with 40…Kg7 41.Rd4! and the threat of the rooks doubling on the d-file is going to be tough to meet. And no better was 40…Kg6 41.Rd6! Rxd6 42.exd6 Qxd6 43.Qxb7 Rb5 44.Qa8 and, with the Black king looking vulnerable, eventually the b-pawn will come up trumps. 41.Rd7!! [see diagram] If you are going to win a major title, then do it with a touch of élan! The tactic wins the house, as there’s no stopping the knight fork on f6 as the Rf5 is pinned by the queen. 41…Qxd7 42.Nf6+ Kg7 43.Nxd7 Rb5 44.Qc4 Rd5 45.Nc5 Rfxe5 46.Nxe6+ 1-0