The Mighty Have Fallen (Most of Them)

by admin on September 22, 2015

Round four of the 2015 FIDE World Cup was definitely the Round of the Underdogs. When the smoke cleared, five of the eight higher-seeded players had lost, and only two players who were originally seeded in the top 8 have actually made it to the final 8. The two favorites who survived were #2 Hikaru Nakamura and #4 Anish Giri. The outsiders who will join them in round five are #11 Sergei Karjakin, #16 Peter Svidler, #19 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, #21 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, #24 Wei Yi and #26 Pavel Eljanov.

I should really put the word “outsiders” in quotes, though, because the players on this list are hardly unknowns. In fact, four of them have been to the Elite Eight before. Karjakin made it to the Final Four in both 2007 and 2009. Svidler is the most experienced of the lot — he reached the Elite Eight in 2009 and 2013, and he won the whole tournament in 2011. (Obviously at this point you have to throw his #16 seed out the window and consider him one of the favorites.) Mamedyarov made it to the Elite Eight in 2009, where he lost to Karjakin. And Vachier-Lagrave reached the Final Four in 2013 before losing to the eventual champion, Vladimir Kramnik. All of these players have more experience than Giri or Nakamura, who have never made it this far before.

Of the two remaining players, Wei Yi is clearly not an outsider either. He attained the grandmaster title at age 13, the fourth-youngest in history, and now at the ripe old age of 16 he very much has the look of a future world champion. He is also the first Chinese player to get this far in the World Cup.

To get there Wei had to win a tense, come-from-behind battle against his countryman, Ding Liren. Liren was ahead, 1-0, and should have been able to draw game two in a rook and pawn endgame. But he went wrong, allowing Wei to sac his rook in order to queen a pawn. Queen versus rook endgames are starting to become a motif at this tournament! Wei’s victory seemed quite Carlsen-esque to me. The modern approach to chess is not to win on move 20 or move 30, but to treat the game as an opportunity to pose 50 or 60 or 70 difficult problems to your opponent. When your opponent gets one of those problems wrong, you pounce.

Of the final eight, I would say the only true outsider is Eljanov, who beat Dmitry Jakovenko 2½-1½. I think we can officially say now, if we couldn’t before, that Eljanov is having the tournament of his life. At age 32, he has never been a great prodigy and has never been in the conversation about future world champions, but in this tournament he has impressed with his determined, aggressive play and perhaps his opponents have not played their best against him.

So here’s a preview — without predictions — of the four upcoming matches.

Svidler vs. Wei. This is definitely older generation (Svidler is 39) versus younger generation (Wei is 16). Whoever wins this match has to be considered a very strong candidate to win the tournament. If Svidler wins, he proves that he is still master of the World Cup format. If Wei wins, he proves that the future is now.

Giri vs. Vachier-Lagrave. The championship of western Europe here, the Dutchman against the Frenchman. Vachier-Lagrave seems to be playing the best chess of his life, a great performance at the Sinquefield Cup followed by a great performance here. Giri, at age 21, has the advantage of youth and the look of a future world championship candidate.

Nakamura vs. Eljanov. Nakamura is, of course, the favorite now — the highest remaining seed — and he has the advantage of facing the lowest remaining seed. He should win this match, but he has to watch out for overconfidence. The question with Eljanov, as with any “Cinderella” player, is when does the pixie dust wear off and when does he start playing like his usual self? He does have the number 26 working for him, though. That was the seed of Flavia Pennetta, who won the U.S. Open women’s tennis tournament earlier this month.

Mamedyarov vs. Karjakin. As pointed out above, this is a rematch of their showdown at the same stage (Elite Eight) of the 2009 World Cup, which Karjakin won. What’s different this time? Everything. Well, mostly the fact that the tournament is being held in Azerbaijan and Mamedyarov is from Azerbaijan. Being the home-country favorite can be either a blessing or a curse, but so far it’s been a blessing for Mamedyarov.

No rest for the weary! Next round starts tomorrow.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

bosjo September 22, 2015 at 5:09 pm

… and of course 26 was Alekhine’s lucky number…

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