The Tragedy of Cinderella

by admin on September 29, 2015

If there’s one person in the world I wouldn’t want to be today, it’s Pavel Eljanov. The Ukrainian grandmaster was the Cinderella player in this year’s chess World Cup. He started as the #26 seed, but played more impressively than anyone else in racing to a 6-0 start. Then he scored upsets over favorites like #10 Dmitry Jakovenko and #2 Hikaru Nakamura to reach the semifinals.

With one more match victory, Eljanov could have become the lowest-seeded player ever to reach the finals. He would also have qualified for next year’s World Championship Candidates tournament. As I wrote in my last post, that qualification would probably have meant more for him than any other semifinalist or even any other quarter-finalist. The other 7 quarter-finalists have either been to the Candidates tournament before or are young and gifted enough to be very confident of qualifying in the future. But for Eljanov, this was almost certainly the only shot.

The person standing in his way was #11 Sergey Karjakin. Who better to represent the society of chess royalty that Eljanov was trying to crash his way into? Karjakin was the youngest grandmaster in history. He has always looked like a potential world champion candidate, although he had the misfortune of being eclipsed by the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen (who was born in the same year, 1990). Realistically, I don’t think Karjakin will ever be world champion; Carlsen’s successor will be somebody younger, like perhaps Wei Yi. But as I said, Karjakin is chess royalty — a crown prince if not a king.

And to add to the psychological tension, there is also an interesting political situation. Eljanov is Ukrainian. Karjakin is an ethnic Russian born in Ukraine. Those are the two groups of people battling for control of Ukraine right now. I don’t know whether the players care or think about such things during the match, but it certainly adds to the intrigue.

Purely on the chessboard, it was a fascinating match. Eljanov will have a million regrets. First, in game one at the “classic” time control, he had a probably winning advantage and let it get away. Cinderella’s pixie dust was wearing out. Earlier in the tournament, Eljanov never let his advantages get away. The second “classic” game was an uninteresting 14-move draw. Karjakin didn’t even try to win as White.

That brought us to the 25-minute playoff games. In the first game, Eljanov as White returned to form and won. Now he was just one step away from winning the match. All he had to do was draw as Black.

It’s one of the most dangerous situations to be in, when you “only need a draw.” I firmly believe that the best way to get a draw is to play for a win. If you consciously play for a draw, you alter your style, you make concessions that you don’t need to make, and if you don’t watch out you will soon find yourself hanging on by your fingernails and praying for a draw. That’s exactly what happened to Eljanov. He traded down to an endgame where he had R+N versus R+B, balanced pawn structure, no obvious pawn weaknesses. But still, knight against a bishop. Uphill struggle. And in the end, too much in a short game. Karjakin conducted an absolute clinic in how to keep the knight reined in, and the match was once again tied.

On to the 10-minute games, and more drama. In the first 10-minute game, playing White, Eljanov absolutely crumbled. He had a slight advantage at one point, and could have gone into an endgame with some winning chances and absolutely no losing chances. But he swung for the fences, tried for more and his position just completely fell apart. Karjakin was once again ruthless, snapping up pawn after pawn until Eljanov was four pawns down! (On the board, not according to a computer evaluation.)

At this point you would think that Eljanov would be psychologically destroyed. After being one game away from winning, now he was one game away from losing. Not only that, he had to win as Black.

I’m sure that the last game will be dissected by many more competent people than me. Suffice to say that it looked like an exact repeat of the last game, with roles reversed. Karjakin’s position looked like a sinking ship, springing a leak here, a leak there, a leak everywhere. Eljanov won three pawns — a mammoth advantage for grandmaster chess. But it was still complicated, and clocks were ticking.

I don’t know whether what happened next was a miscalculation or a deliberate choice, but Eljanov gave back a pawn to exchange into a bishops of opposite color endgame — exactly the type of endgame where it would be hardest to convert a two-pawn advantage to a victory. Maybe he was sure that he could do it. But I think he should have kept the pedal to the gas like Karjakin had done in the previous game. He had to be ruthless.

So now we’re in the B’s of opposite color endgame, and we have barely gotten started when Eljanov accidentally allows a 3-fold repetition of the position. That’s an instant draw! Game over, match over. Cinderella’s saga ends, and everyone lives unhappily ever after.

Perhaps Karjakin could have held the endgame, perhaps not. (I think he would have.) But for the match to end on an accidental three-fold repetition is unbelievable. It’s as if two runners were sprinting toward the finish line and one of them tripped over his shoelaces.

What more can I say? Yes, Karjakin was pretty lucky. But in the end, in spite of what I wrote before about pixie dust, luck tends to happen to good players. Karjakin fought hard when he was down, and he was absolutely ruthless when he was ahead. He gave himself a chance to get lucky.

Now it’s on to the final match, Peter Svidler against Sergey Karjakin. In spite of all the changes to the chess world in recent years, it’s still a Russian against a Russian.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mary Kuhner October 2, 2015 at 5:03 am

I keep finding myself rooting for these guys: Gelfand, Tomashevsky, Eljanov. So close and yet so far…. Has it been a really good cycle for the long-shots, the older players staging a comeback, or a really bad one? Hard to say.

On a more local level, I am an older player trying to stage a comeback, and I have met an incredible number of other people doing the same. I can’t decide if it’s a perceptual bias (I notice them more now) or we’re actually having a boom in “I haven’t played for X years but I’m getting back into it.”

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