The biggest over-the-board major international event to be held since the easing of the pandemic lockdown protocols got underway earlier this week with the 206-player World Cup and 103-payer Women’s World Cup kicking off in Sochi, Russia. But with so many players playing under the one roof, it didn’t take long for the sort of ‘World Cup fever’ to breakout that organisers FIDE didn’t want to see.
It all came in the second-round of the behemoth knockout event, with the arrival of top seed stars such as Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian into the fray. Alarm bells started ringing when Caruana’s game with Susanto Megaranto was dramatically stopped after just 15 move when tournament officials had to step in mid-game with the bad news that the Indonesian had tested positive for Covid-19.
The match was subsequently awarded to Caruana, with the American world #2 then having to immediately isolate in his hotel room to await the outcome of his latest Covid-19 test. And FIDE are also now urgently reviewing the protocols that led to the bad timing of the health agency conducting the required tests for the event, and why a positive test managed to come back two hours beyond their official deadline before the start of the round.
The bad news though just got worse for FIDE, when it emerged that additional members of the Indonesian delegation had since also tested positive. Megaranto – who was tested before leaving for Sochi, and three times following his arrival, all being returned negative apart from his positive result on July 14 – and two Indonesians in the Women’s World Cup, who had no symptoms, all withdrew from the competition “in order to not risk the safety of other players”.
And FIDE’s misery got compounded with the announcement today that Levon Aronian, the world #5 and third seed at Sochi, also had to forfeit his match with Australia’s Bobby Cheng. Aronian, who is on the cusp of a big federation switch to the USA, tweeted: “Having a high fever and tonsillitis, despite my great desire to play, I have to be rational and put my health, and the health of other players, first.”
Despite all the concerns being raised, the games and the knockouts nevertheless continue, as hot-favourite Magnus Carlsen almost effortlessly cruised through to the third round following his 2-0 victory today over the Croatian GM Sasa Martinovic – and with it, he now faces an intriguing clash with the Norwegian #2 Aryan Tari!
GM Sasa Martinovic – GM Magnus Carlsen
FIDE World Cup, (2.1)
Grünfeld Defence Exchange variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 One of the problems of facing the World Champion is that not only is he a very good player, but he can be extremely difficult to prepare against – and the Grünfeld Defence – first played almost a century ago by the leading hyper-modernist of his day, Austrian GM Ernst Grünfeld, to beat the soon-to-be World champion Alexander Alekhine in 1922 – comes as something of a surprise, as it has not currently been on Carlsen’s ‘hot list’ . 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bd2 This move looks a little strange – but the whole nub of the Grünfeld Defence revolves around Black chip, chipping away at White’s pawn centre supported by his bishop on g7. And this attempts to prevent that, as after a …Nxc3, White will play Bxc3 and contest the diagonal. Another piece of good psychology ploy for Martinovic using this line against Carlsen, is that it is also a favourite of the world champion, and no one likes having to face their own pet-line! 5…c5 Now there’s a telling tip from Carlsen, as 5…Nb6 is thought to be Black’s best reply in this innocuous little line, and indeed Carlsen has had many fine wins when facing this – but he eschews this and goes right to standard Grünfeld fare of chipping away at White’s centre. 6.Rc1 Nc6 Carlsen opts to sacrifice a pawn and hopes his speedy development and bishop-pair will offer good compensation and counter-play. 7.dxc5 Bg7 8.e4 Ndb4 9.Nf3?! A puzzling try from Martinovic, who may well have been better by cutting straight to the chase with 9.a3!? Nd3+ 10.Bxd3 Qxd3 11.Qe2 Qxe2+ 12.Ngxe2 rather than what he played in the game. 9…0-0 10.a3 Nd3+ 11.Bxd3 Qxd3 12.Qe2 Qxe2+ 13.Kxe2 Be6! Despite Matinovic hanging onto the extra pawn, it’s Carlsen who is now in control with his hyper-active bishop-pair. 14.Nd5 Martinovic would love to simply play 14.Rhd1 but after the simple 14…Bc4+ 15.Ke1 Bb3 White is in deep trouble. And if 14.b4 Bc4+ 15.Ke1 Rfd8 it will not be easy for White to unravel his position to get his kingside rook into the game. So rather than that, Martinovic hopes his big outpost on d5 for his knight will offer good chances. 14…Bxb2! 15.Rc2 Bxa3 It looks like a very risky pawn grab from Carlsen, but the world champion has everything all under control. 16.Ra1 f5! [see diagram] A very clever tactic that soon turns the game in Carlsen direction for a nice, technical debut win in the tournament. 17.Rxa3 fxe4 18.Nxe7+ Nxe7 19.Nd4 Trickier was 19.Ne5!? Rf5 20.Ng4 Kf8 21.Bh6+ Kf7 22.Ne3 Rh5 23.Bf4 but at the end of the day Black still has the extra pawn and likely to convert for the full point. 19…Bd7 Slightly better looked the more centralising route for the bishop to defend b7, with 19…Bd5!? 20.Rb2 Nc6 21.Be3 It looked better to keep the knight on the board, as the White knight proves more problematic for Black with 21.Nb5 Ne5 22.Nd6 Bc6 23.Be3 where at least the well-placed knight offers genuine hope of saving the game. 21…Nxd4+ 22.Bxd4 As it is, Martinovic is putting all his faith on reaching an opposite-bishop ending to potentially save his skin. 22…Bc6 23.Rba2 a6 24.Ke3?! This just walks into more trouble – the best chance to hang on was 24.Be3. 24…Rad8! Carlsen is going to turn the screw with 25…Rd5 followed by 26…Rfd8 and a rook ‘invasion’ into d3. 25.Rd2 Rd5 26.Ke2 Rfd8 27.Be3 Rd3 28.Ra1 Kf7! Carlsen makes it all look so easy, with the second part of his plan being to march his king over to the queenside via the long white diagonal. 29.g3 Rxd2+ 30.Bxd2 Bb5+ 31.Ke1 Rd3 32.Rb1 Ke6 33.Rb4 Bc6 34.Rb2 Kd5 0-1 Martinovic has had enough, realising which way the wind is blowing with his somewhat premature resignation, and not wishing to defend against Carlsen’s simple winning plan now of …Ra3 followed by pushing the a-pawn to a4.