Panda in the Headlights

by admin on November 25, 2009

Yesterday Jesse Kraai gave his usual excellent ChessLecture, which this time was called “The Panda Loses to Wang Hao in the First Round of the World Cup.” It was about his friend/housemate/training partner Josh Friedel, who qualified to play in the 2009 World Cup but got beaten like a rug by Chinese super-GM Wang Hao. “Panda” is Jesse’s nickname for Josh, the origin of which was explained to me once, but which now escapes me. Does Josh look like a panda? Does he eat bamboo? I’m not quite sure.

Anyway, I think a better title for the lecture might have been “Panda in the Headlights,” because Josh played just like a deer in the headlights. I don’t know if this was the first time he was playing this caliber of opposition, but anyway he was caught completely flat-footed by Hao’s opening, then lashed out and played aggressively when he should have hunkered down and tried to hold the position. Hao played a nice exchange sacrifice, and then Josh’s pawns just started getting vacuumed up, one after another. It was awesome.

If he wants an excuse, Josh can always point to the ordeal of getting to the tournament in the first place. He needed an impressive knowledge of Siberian geology just to find a flight to Khanty-Mansiysk!

The World Cup is a rarity in the chess world, a knockout tournament. There are 128 players, and they play two-game matches. If the matches are tied, they have a four-game rapid playoff (game/25, I think), and if they are still tied, they play pairs of 5-minute games. Finally, if they are still tied after 16 games, the match goes to an Armageddon game. Keep that in mind!

The U.S. had ten qualifiers. Our younger generation was well represented with Friedel, Roy Robson, and Robert Hess, but unfortunately all of them went down to defeat in their first appearances on a world championship stage. Alexander Ivanov, Jaan Ehlvest, and Yuri Shulman also made early exits. However, the other four U.S. participants — Varuzhan Akobian, Alexander Shabalov, Gata Kamsky, and Alexander Onischuk — all survived to the round of 64. Varuzhan’s performance was especially remarkable. He outlasted a Russian player, Pavel Tregubov, by the outrageous score of 9-7! That’s right, they needed the full complement of 16 games to decide a winner. What’s especially remarkable is that there were only two draws out of 16 games (the first and second 25-minute games). Four consecutive times Akobian was a game down and facing elimination, and four consecutive times he pulled through and tied the match up again.

I can sort of relate to this situation, because Juande Perea and I had a similar marathon match for the Santa Cruz Cup in 2007, where we split two full-length games, then split two 25-minute games, two 10-minute games, and two 5-minute games. At that point we were supposed to play an Armageddon game but we mutually agreed to be co-champions instead. Of course, Akobian and Tregubov did not have that luxury, because only one player could go through to the next round. I remember how nerve-wracking those six playoff games were, and this was just a friendly match for a city championship. Just imagine how much tension there must have been in a match where the prize is a chance at a world championship.

In fact, Akobian’s prize for winning this endurance contest was to play against Ruslan Ponomariov, a former World Cup champion, in round two! And guess what … After two games, the score is 1-1 again. As for the other Americans, Shabalov is also tied 1-1 with David Navara of the Czech Republic. Kamsky won his match against Weiqi Zhou, and Alexander Onischuk lost to Arkadi Naiditsch. Hopefully Shabalov or Akobian will pull through, because it would be pretty discouraging to have only one American left after two rounds …

By the way, you might be wondering, “What about Hikaru Nakamura?” Well, he passed on this tournament in order to play in a tournament in London instead. A chance to play in London, or a chance to play in Siberia. Who in their right mind would choose London? Go figure …

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

thadeus frei November 27, 2009 at 8:01 am

Thanks for the great covarage.


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