GM Rogers on World Cup: Five US Players Still Alive

Hou Yifan on a Georgian Billboard, Photo Cathy Rogers
Sitting in the dining room at a Chess World Cup after a round has concluded is a strange experience. Half the people in the room will be competing the next day while the other half (and their seconds) will be going home. The scene after round one of the 2017 Tbilisi World Cup at the Hualing Preference Hotel restaurant was even more surreal. Hikaru Nakamura quietly chats with his second Kris Littlejohn, while Wesley So is involved in more animated conversation with his former compatriot, Texas-based Julio Sadorra, and 16-year-Australian Anton Smirnov – the latter two both leaving for their respective homes at 3am that night. Levon Aronian, pours himself some tea, dressed as if he had just emerged from the gym, and returns to his table to commiserate with fellow Armenian Hrant Melkumyan, who had just lost an extended rapid playoff match. It was unclear whether Melkumyan would stay around in Tbilisi to help Aronian or take the late night train from Georgia to Armenia’s capital Yerevan. Then a familiar tune is heard on the restaurant’s background music; Ray Charles singing ‘Georgia on my Mind’ - weirdly appropriate, both in wistfulness and geographical nomenclature. Grandmasters – unlike, say, tennis professionals - are not used to the ruthlessness and sadness of knock-out tournaments. It is often said of the World Cup, with some truth, that only one player finishes the event fully satisfied, while there are 127 losers. At a normal round-robin or Swiss system tournament, the number of people in the playing hall does not reduce by half every three days. Air tickets at a normal tournament can be booked with confidence on a particular date; here a player’s most practical choice is to book a one-way ticket and hope to convince Georgian passport control on entry that you do in fact plan to go home eventually. (Given the friendliness of the Tbilisi border officers, that should not be difficult; this writer was greeted with a smile, a stamp of the passport, and zero questions about length or purpose of visit.) Of course the fans and the journalists love knock-outs. Every game of every match has importance – even the two identical 9 move draws played between Mladen Palac and Ian Nepomniachtchi. One player’s tragic blunder under stress is great entertainment for spectators, who can claim - after checking with their computer - “Even I would have seen that!” The saddest of the 64 homeward bound players after the first round in Tbilisi would be the Egyptian GM Bassem Amin.

[Event "FIDE World Cup 2017"]
[Site "Tbilisi GEO"]
[Date "2017.09.04"]
[White "Erdos, Viktor"]
[Black "Amin, Bassem"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[ECO "E92"]
[WhiteElo "2628"]
[BlackElo "2680"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "R7/8/4k3/4p3/p6r/4K3/8/8 b - - 0 67"]
[PlyCount "5"]
[EventDate "2017.09.03"]

{ Amin has comprehensively outplayed his young Hungarian opponent and had
he moved his king to the queenside to support the a pawn, he would soon have
won the game, the match and become the first African player to pass the 2700
barrier. Instead Amin saw something quicker and played...}
67... a3 $4 {only to be shocked by} 68. Rxa3 $1 Rh3+ 69. Ke4 Rxa3 {Stalemate!
Returning the next day shattered, Amin was knocked out after four rapid
tiebreaking games.} 1/2-1/2[/pgn]
By day four of the Tbilisi World Cup, the expansive and luxurious Hualing Hotel ballroom was already looking too big for the remaining 64 players. The sense of disproportion is set to grow on Saturday when 32 more players will be missing, including experienced knock-out tournament specialists Anand and Adams, plus defending World Cup Champion Sergey Karjakin. The sense of being a smaller and smaller fish in a larger and larger fish bowl will persist until the final, when the players are set to move to a more intimate playing room at the base of the second-tallest skyscraper in Tbilisi, the Biltmore Hotel.
Aleksander Lenderman, Photo Cathy Rogers
Five out of six US players survived the second round cull, though all except Aleks Lenderman needed rapid tiebreakers to do so. Caruana and So were taken all the way to 10 minute games before overwhelming their opposition. A remarkable 21 of the 32 second round matches went to tiebreakers, due in no small part by over-avoidance of risk by many players. The willingness to send the match to tiebreakers meant that many players will have had no rest days before they are sent packing, missing out on the mysteries of the city of Tbilisi. (Anish Giri made a comment after an early game which could safely be paraphrased as “One town is very like another when your head’s down over your pieces, brother.”) Lenderman, the first US player to reach the third round, was the lowest rated player left in the field. Opposing another player who had caused a first round upset, Norwegian Aryan Tari, Lenderman qualified like a seasoned professional, taking an early draw with Black in the first game and then positionally outplaying his 18-year-old rival.

[Event "FIDE World Cup 2017"]
[Site "Tbilisi GEO"]
[Date "2017.09.07"]
[White "Lenderman, Aleksandr"]
[Black "Tari, Aryan"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "A34"]
[WhiteElo "2565"]
[BlackElo "2588"]
[PlyCount "77"]
[EventDate "2017.09.03"]

1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e3 Nxc3 6. dxc3 $5 {While a
well-known recapture after 5.e4, here allowing the queen exchange has been
considered rather wimpy.} Qxd1+ 7. Kxd1 Nc6 {In a recent game Svidler
attempted to prevent the White king finding a home on c2 (as well as control
e4) with} (7... Bf5 $6 {only to be hit by e4 anyway after} 8. Nd2 $1 {.}) 8. e4
{This position normally arises with White to move, so it is hard to believe
that Black should not be fine. However it is also a position where long-term
planning counts for more than a tempo, and Tari soon starts to drift.} b6 $6 {
Creating a target for a later a4-a5.} (8... Bd7 {followed by 0-0-0, e6 and f6
should offer comfortable equality.}) 9. Kc2 Bb7 10. Be3 e6 11. Nd2 Bd6 12. a4
Ke7 13. f3 $1 {The obvious plan involving f4 and e5 would turn the b7 bishop
into a monster. Instead Lenderman secures the e4 pawn in preparation for Nc4.}
Ne5 14. a5 h6 15. h4 Bc6 16. h5 Nd7 $6 {There is no reason to make White's job
easier when a move such as} (16... Rhd8 {would ask White what comes next.
(That could be} 17. Be2 {- White is in no hurry.)}) 17. Nc4 Bc7 18. Na3 bxa5 $6
{A move that looks and is dreadful, even though White will not be able to
regain the pawn for some time. Black should just sit tight.} 19. Bb5 $1 Bxb5
20. Nxb5 Bb6 21. Bf4 e5 22. Bd2 Nb8 $6 {The final error. Tari no doubt rejected
} (22... c4 {because of} 23. Ra4 Rhc8 24. Na3 {but at least after} Nc5 $1 25.
Rxc4 Rab8 {White will have to work hard to extricate his rook.}) 23. Na3 $1 Nc6
24. Nc4 Ke6 25. Be3 Rac8 26. Kb3 $1 {Great play by Lenderman. He knows that
rooks will sooner or later be exchanged on the d file and so prepares his king
to invade along Black's weakened light squares.} Rhd8 27. Rhd1 Rb8 28. Ka4 a6 {
This loses the c5 pawn but there was no answer to the threat of 29.Rxd8 Rxd8
(29...Nxd8 30.Rd1) 30.Kb5.} 29. Rxd8 Bxd8 30. Bxc5 Bc7 31. Rd1 g6 32. hxg6 fxg6
33. Rd2 Rb5 34. Bd6 Bd8 35. Bf8 Be7 36. Bxe7 Kxe7 37. Rd5 Na7 38. Rxe5+ Kf6 39.
Rd5 {A marvelous controlled effort by Lenderman.} 1-0[/pgn]
Alexander Onischuk, who had booked his ticket home after the first round, being unaware that Zherebukh was not going to play until after he had purchased his ticket, had to pay another $700 to alter his ticket again after upsetting Radoslaw Wojtaszek.
Radoslaw Wojtaszek v. Alex Onischuk, Photo Cathy Rogers
In the classical games Onischuk could make nothing of a small edge in the first game and Wojtaszek failed to exploit a larger advantage in the second. A similar pattern followed in the first set of rapid tiebreakers, Onischuk not achieving much with White and Wojtaszek spoiling an edge with Black. But then...

[Event "FIDE World Cup 2017"]
[Site "Tbilisi GEO"]
[Date "2017.09.08"]
[White "Wojtaszek, Radoslaw"]
[Black "Onischuk, Alexander"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "D35"]
[WhiteElo "2745"]
[BlackElo "2682"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "6r1/1p1nk1P1/2pn4/p2p1ppN/P2P4/1P1BP3/4KP2/7R b - - 0 30"]
[PlyCount "39"]
[EventDate "2017.09.03"]

{Onischuk, who had earlier resigned himself to a draw - and two further
10 minute playoff games - is close to rounding up the g pawn, so Wojtaszek is
now the player who has to be careful to hold the balance.} 30... Kf7 31. f4 $5
(31. Rg1 $1 g4 32. Rh1 $1 Nf6 33. Nxf6 Kxf6 34. Rh6+ Ke7 35. Rg6 {is a much
better version of the game, after which Black should be able to draw
comfortably.}) 31... gxf4 32. exf4 Nf6 33. Nxf6 Kxf6 34. Rh6+ Ke7 35. Rg6 (35.
Rh5 Rxg7 36. Kf3 (36. Bxf5 $6 Nxf5 37. Rxf5 Rg3 {is good for Black.}) 36... Rf7
{leaves Black a safe pawn ahead, although any win is a long way off.}) 35...
Ne4 36. Bxe4 dxe4 $6 {A serious misstep. After} (36... fxe4 $1 37. f5 Kf7 38.
Rd6 Rxg7 39. Kf2 Rg5 {Black is close to victory.}) 37. d5 $1 cxd5 38. Ke3 $2 {
Wojtaszek returns the favor. With} (38. Rb6 $1 Rxg7 39. Rxb7+ Kf6 (39... Kf8
40. Rb5 d4 41. Rxf5+ Kg8 42. Rxa5 {is also, despite first appearances, a draw,
with White's king sitting in front of the pawns and White's rook behind
whichever pawn advances to the sixth rank first.}) 40. Rb6+ Kf7 41. Rd6 {
White can hold the game.}) 38... Kf7 39. Rb6 Rxg7 40. Rxb7+ Kg6 $1 41. Rb5 Kh5
$1 {Now Black will secure connected passed e and f pawns, with the bonus of
having a king to support them.} 42. Rxd5 Rg3+ 43. Ke2 Kg4 44. Rxa5 Rxb3 45. Ra8
Kxf4 46. a5 Rb2+ 47. Kd1 Ra2 48. a6 Ke3 49. a7 f4 0-1[/pgn]
The only US player to lose in the second round was Sam Sevian, the youngest player remaining in the World Cup.
Sevian v. Li Chao
After two relatively quiet classical games against China’s Li Chao, Sevian suffered mightily in both rapid tiebreakers, hanging on to a technical rook v rook and pawn endgame after 95 moves in the first before finally faltering when playing on 10 second increment after heroic defence in the second.

[Event "FIDE World Cup 2017"]
[Site "Tbilisi GEO"]
[Date "2017.09.08"]
[White "Sevian, Samuel"]
[Black "Li, Chao b"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "D11"]
[WhiteElo "2620"]
[BlackElo "2744"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "8/8/8/R7/4k3/1P1n4/K7/4r3 w - - 0 66"]
[PlyCount "8"]
[EventDate "2017.09.03"]

{ Rook and knight v rook is of course a theoretical draw, although plenty
of players, from Onischuk down, have lost it. Here 66.b4 would be the most
practical choice, freeing a square for the White king, but instead Sevian
chooses an unlucky square for his rook...} 66. Ra8 $6 Nb4+ $1 67. Kb2 Re2+ 68.
Kc3 $4 {The most natural move on the board, but here moving the king to the
back rank was obligatory. After} (68. Kc1 Na2+ 69. Kd1 Nc3+ 70. Kc1 {Black can
make no progress even though the normal stalemate ideas are not possible here.}
) 68... Nd5+ 69. Kc4 Nb6+ $1 {Oops!} 0-1[/pgn]
The US’ big three all required tiebreakers to reach the third round but none were in serious danger of being knocked out. Hikaru Nakamura finished off Cuba’s Lazaro Bruzon 2.5-1.5 in four games. After a tough first classical game, Nakamura seemed happy to play a quiet draw with White in the second to reach the tiebreakers. The American had a controlled victory in the first rapid and then held off Bruzon – barely – in the next. Wesley So had a tougher struggle against the young German Matthias Bluebaum but after four consecutive draws, Bluebaum cracked and So won both the 10 minute games comfortably.
Caruana v. Lenic, Photo Cathy Rogers
Caruana found it hard to shake off strangely unambitious Slovenian Luka Lenic. After nothing happened in the first three games, Caruana missed a clear win in the fourth but made no mistake when the 10 minute playoff games began, winning the match 4-2.

[Event "FIDE World Cup 2017"]
[Site "Tbilisi GEO"]
[Date "2017.09.08"]
[Round "2.4"]
[White "Caruana, Fabiano"]
[Black "Lenic, Luka"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[ECO "B30"]
[WhiteElo "2807"]
[BlackElo "2646"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "6k1/1b1q1pp1/3Pp2p/1p1n1P1P/2p1B1P1/2P2QB1/7K/8 w - - 0 40"]
[PlyCount "54"]
[EventDate "2017.09.03"]

{[#] Caruana has sacrificed a pawn to obtain his monster on d6, but White's
advantage was still in manageable bounds until Lenic's faulty recapture next
move....} 40. fxe6 Qxe6 $2 (40... fxe6 41. Be5 {is not much fun for Black but
the text move is much worse.}) 41. Bf5 $1 Qe8 42. d7 Qd8 {[#]} 43. Qe4 $2 {
Caruana spent 41 seconds on this move - most of his remaining time - sensing
that this was a critical moment, but he failed to find one of the two paths to
victory. The human solution would be} (43. Kh3 $1 {with the unstoppable threat
of 44.Bh4, e.g.} Bc6 44. Bh4 f6 45. Be6+ {, winning the knight, while the
computer finds the beautiful combination}) (43. g5 $1 hxg5 (43... Qxg5 44. Qe4
$1) 44. Bh7+ $1 Kxh7 45. Qe4+ {followed by 46.Qe8.}) 43... Bc6 $1 {The coming
44...Ne7 forces Caruana's next move, after which a piece sacrifice solves all
Black's problems.} 44. Bd6 Bxd7 $1 45. Qxd5 Bxf5 46. gxf5 Qh4+ 47. Kg2 Qxh5 {
With three pawns for the piece and a safer king, Black is out of danger.} 48.
Qa8+ Kh7 49. Qe4 f6 50. Bc5 Qd1 51. Qf3 Qd2+ 52. Kh3 Qc2 53. Kg4 Qh2 54. Qf2
h5+ 55. Kf3 Qe5 56. Kg2 Qxc3 57. Qe2 Qe5 58. Qxh5+ Kg8 59. Bd4 Qe4+ 60. Kg3
Qe1+ 61. Kg2 Qe4+ 62. Kg3 c3 63. Bxc3 b4 64. Bb2 Qd3+ 65. Qf3 Qxf3+ 66. Kxf3
Kf7 1/2-1/2[/pgn]
US Pairings for Round 3 So v Vallejo (Spa) Caruana v Najer (Rus) Nakamura v Fedoseev (Rus) Onischuk v Svidler (Rus) Lenderman v Vachier-Lagrave (Fra) Games begin at 7 AM EST and may be viewed via and as well as the official site Ian Rogers has now left Tbilisi. Find his earlier report on US Chess and his twitter feed here.