World Cup 2019 Impressions

A huge knock-out tournament like the World Cup inevitably produces excitement and this excitement comes in many forms: unexpected streaks and winners, wild games, new opening ideas to name just a few.

In this post I’ll write about the things that made an impression on me, in no particular order.

Kiril Alekseenko

Apart from going far, losing only to Ding Liren in Round 4, his White preparation in the Giuoco Piano brought him 2 wins in the classical games, against Nguyen in Round 1 and Harikrishna in Round 3. He was very close to beating Ding Liren in the second classical game, again thanks to his preparation. He also put pressure on Ding in the second rapid game where he was in a must-win situation. The highlight of his performance was the 2-0 against Harikrishna. The young Russian shows good promise.

Anish Giri

Giri’s World Cup was notable for lack of notable things he did. The Armageddon win against Najer in Round 2 was the highlight of his tournament, but you would expect him to overcome Najer at an earlier stage. The same could have been said about his next match, but here he had no chance, as strange as it may seem. Read the next player for more.

Giri is slowly becoming one of the elite players who “deserve” to be in the Candidates but cannot qualify for different reasons. Luckily for him he will get there thanks to statistics, being the average highest-rated player for the year after Ding Liren, who qualified by making it to the final. In order to secure this Giri withdrew from the Isle of Man Grand Swiss, even with a signed contract, making sure he doesn’t lose any rating there. Not a courageous decision, to say the least.

Speaking of Giri’s game, I cannot escape the feeling that something substantial is missing there. He has fantastic opening preparation, calculates well, plays great chess (he’s changed a lot since his drawing days), he sharpened his game, but in spite of all this there is something that prevents him from moving forward. He often cannot overcome his opposition (the match with Najer started with 6 consecutive draws) and is struggling to win games. I can only guess it is something psychological, lack of breakthrough force or the internal intent that is bent out on winning, maybe lack of killer instinct. The only way I see him making progress is if everything falls into place for him as it did for Leko in 2002 when he won the Dortmund Candidates and qualified to play Kramnik.

Jeffery Xiong

For me, Xiong was the revelation of the tournament. His uncompromising aggression brought him farther than anyone expected. Beating Giri and Duda by playing courageous and ultra-aggressive chess was a feast to watch.

When I said above that Giri didn’t have a chance in this match I meant that Giri couldn’t adapt and handle such open aggression. Nobody in the elite does it so Giri wasn’t used to this type of high-tension tactical approach. The decisive game of the match was typical.

Xiong did the same to Duda before going down in flames in the same way in the second classical game against Radjabov, who was the first one who managed to navigate crazy complications better than him!

Teimour Radjabov

Quite a surprise this one. I never dreamed Radjabov could make it to the final and qualify for the Candidates, let alone win the whole thing. After his wunderkind years and the total collapse in London Candidates in 2013 I always considered Radjabov a very content wealthy young man who plays chess only because he has nothing else to do in his life. And even this often seemed against his will, as his games were mostly uneventful draws and he apparently lacked the ambition to try for anything at all.

In Khanty he didn’t seem any different at the beginning. But then he started winning games with White in technical style (the only exception is the second game against Xiong that I mentioned) and things started to go his way. It is no surprise that solidity is highly valued in knock-out events – another super-solid player, Ding Liren, was the other one who made it to the final.

In the final he showed better nerves. Coupled with his fantastic calculation he didn’t panic when low on time and just kept on playing good moves.

I cannot say how this will affect Radjabov. Will he motivate himself and wake up his ambition after the 6-year hiatus? Or will he come to Yekaterinburg to make draws and go home semi-content?

Vachier-Lagrave

The Frenchman failed again at the last hurdle. Last year it was Aronian in the semi-final, this year it was Radjabov.

I think his stubborness in the openings, especially the Grunfeld, has lately been causing him more trouble than bringing him benefits. The losses to Radjabov and Jakovenko plus some games in the match with Yu Yangyi proved that he can be caught in the opening and the players have started targeting him there with more success. A bit more versatility in the opening, finding a back-up to the Najdorf and the Grunfeld will be huge for him and I think will help him make the final step.

The fact he won the match for 3rd place is some comfort at least.

The Chinese

They are not coming, they’re here for some time now. Both Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi were impressive, each on their own slightly different scale.

Ding Liren seems to have reached a different level, doing what Carlsen mentioned some time ago – winning elite events. At least he showed this by winning the Sinquefield Cup before this event. However, losing a second final in a row in the World Cup shows that he has the stability and quality to reach two finals, but also that he suffers from nerves. In the tie-break he collapsed and lost a game that was impossible to lose with White and then didn’t take his one chance with Black. He will be very disappointed, but there is psychological work to be done here!

Yu Yangyi is establishing himself as a clear Top-10 candidate and the will power he demonstrated in the match with Vitiugov was impressive. Losing the match for 3rd place to Vachier shouldn’t bother him too much. He played 34 (!) games in total in Khanty, playing the most tie-breaks than any other player (he only won one match in classical, against Nepomniachtchi), so fatigue was definitely an issue.

Nikita Vitiugov

The look of Nikita Vitiugov after the heart-breaking Armageddon loss to Yu Yangyi will haunt me for quite some time. A blank stare, failure to understand how could reality so abruptly change the script. Everything pointed to him winning that match, the tendency was clear, and then, without any warning, everything came down crashing. It felt as if a law of physics has been broken, as if gravity ceased to exist on Earth. Unimaginable.

What Vitiugov did before that was fantastic. It seemed he raised his level and his wins against Karjakin and So, both in classical, were amazing. The fact that Karjakin blundered in one move in a technically difficult situation only shows the level of complexity of the problems he had to solve during the game.

There were also other notable things like Eltaj Safarli (knocking out Shankland and Nihal Sarin, the latter in quite an amazing way), Svidler’s fear of the Frenchman (after qualifying and observing Vachier’s game together with the official commentators his comment along the lines of “He is not in good shape” after Vachier missed a move reeked of fear to me as he knew he was going to play him next and subconsciously wanted to cheer himself up!), Christiansen’s knocking out Wojtaszek 2-0 in Round 1, Nakamura’s Round 2 loss to Nisipeanu (after managing 1-1 against Bellahcene in Round 1 and winning the rapid) which in fact wasn’t surprising (Nakamura’s not in the Top 20 nowadays), the Yuffa-McShane match and probably a few more things.

Knock-outs are great for the public, but much less so for the players. Just remember Vitiugov.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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