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.
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.
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…
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.
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.