Greg Shahade on the World Cup: Predictions on Team USA

Jeffery Xiong is among the nine US players at the World Cup in Tbilisi, Photo: Austin Fuller

The World Cup begins in Tbilisi, Georgia on September 3 and you can find the pairing tree here. In this preview, IM Greg Shahade predicts how our nine-player delegation will fare. Greg’s opinions are not reflective of the US Chess position, which is that all of our players will win every game until they face each other. GM Ian Rogers will be reporting on the event for US Chess. 

It’s time for the most exciting chess tournament of the year: The FIDE World Cup.

This year it’s more exciting than ever, as World Champion Magnus Carlsen will be participating.

In this article I’ll first focus on our nine American representatives, and then I’ll make some brief overall predictions.

Of our nine players, I think we can expect 5 or 6 total players make it to the second round.

I’m going to review the players in reverse order, meaning that I will start with the player that I think has the smallest chance to advance to Round 2:

  1. Alex Lenderman: Lenderman faces off against the consummate professional, Ukrainian 2700+ Grandmaster, Pavel Eljanov. Eljanov has a wealth of experience in this type of event, having made the Semifinal in 2015. En route, he knocked off Hikaru Nakamura, Alexander Grischuk and Dmitry Jakovenko. I think he is one of the most dangerous opponents for this format in his rating range.

Lenderman at the US Open in Norfolk, Photo Jim Doyle

Lenderman is coming off a major win at the US Open and he is a great fighter, so I hope he proves my prediction dead wrong.

  1. Sam Sevian: Sam faces off against a dangerous veteran: Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu. Nisipeanu has been playing the top players in the world for decades now, and is a fierce and determined attacking player.

    GM Sam Sevian relaxing in Tbilisi before the tournament, Photo Armen Sevian

Sam has been on an incredible roll lately, winning the Philadelphia Open, his section of the Saint Louis Spring Classic, the Chicago Open and the Continental Championships. Still, I have to consider him an underdog. Let’s just hope that Nisipeanu underestimates Sam, as we have all seen what happens if you relax against this talented young star.

If Sam wins, he will probably be facing one of the top Chinese players: Li Chao. Li Chao played extremely well in the PRO Chess League this year, as one of the top scorers for the Montreal Chessbrahs.

  1. Jeffery Xiong: Xiong faces Alexander Motylev, one of my favorite players to study as a teenager, as he played very aggressively in 1. e4 openings. I always rooted for him and hoped he’d find his way to the top 10 in the world, but he never quite made it, and usually hangs out somewhere around the top 50 for the past decade.

I like Motylev’s experience but I also love Jeffery’s skills at quick time controls (he gave MVL a surprisingly tough time in the blitz portion of their Speed Chess Championship match.) I’m going to call this match a coinflip. I’m rooting hard for a Xiong win though, as in Round 2 he would likely face off against Anish Giri. Let’s just hope that if he gets a shot at Giri, Jeffery gets Black in the Armageddon game.

Forgive me if that line is old, but Giri himself seems to be in a joking mood on his way to Tbilisi:

  1. Varuzhan Akobian: Varuzhan (2657) is slightly higher rated than Anton Kovalyov (2641). Akobian also had a fantastic US Championship, almost winning what must now be considered an elite event. Despite my general optimism about Var’s form and improvement I have some concerning personal experience with his young opponent (b 1992).

Varuzhan Akobian, Photo Betsy Zacate-Dynako

My wife and I traveled to Montreal earlier this year, and wandered into a famous Chess Café (Café Pi), shortly after arriving. In this café, Anton was sitting around and his friend said he should play people for money. I could tell he was strong because he was wearing a University of Texas Rio-Grande shirt, but I like to play and volunteered. I generally score pretty well in blitz against Grandmasters anyway, so I wasn’t too concerned.

We eventually just played for fun, and let me tell you something about this kid: He is one of the best blitz players I have ever faced. I’ve played a lot of strong players in blitz, and based on our six games, it was obvious to me that he is exceptionally strong and that he was a massive favorite against me. He won every game we played.

So for this reason, if the match goes to blitz and rapid tiebreakers, I worry that Akobian may have a tougher time than his rating edge would indicate. I will be rooting for him to avoid that and win in the classical games. And if he does, Var will almost certainly face off against Vishy Anand in Round 2!

4+5: Alexander Onischuk and Yaro Zherebukh:

I’m putting these two together because they are playing each other in Round 1. For those rooting hard for Team USA, this means our max number of Americans in round two is eight.

Based on his sterling performance in the U.S. Championship, and his experience edge in all time controls, I have to give the advantage to Onischuk.

GM Alex Onischuk. Photo: Anastasia Balakhontseva

Alex and Yaro two faced off in the U.S. Championship in a hard fought draw.

Whoever wins, Radoslaw Wojtaszek will likely be waiting for our American Grandmaster in round two. As far as Round 2 matchups go, I like this one for our Americans. Wojtaszek is the 17th ranked player, while Peter Svidler is ranked 16th. I’d much rather our players take their chances against the Polish Wojtaszek than the 2015 World Cup Finalist and multiple time World Championship Candidate, Peter Svidler.

I would not be at all surprised to see the USA score a second round upset here. However if we do manage to pull it off, Svidler will likely be waiting for the winner in Round 3.

  1. Wesley So: In format I rank Nakamura, So, and Caruana to be approximately equal. The reason I’m putting So in the third spot is that I believe he has a somewhat tougher draw. If he manages to win his first 2 matches, he has to play the winner of Vallejo Pons vs Tomashevsky. I am particularly concerned with Tomashevsky due to his past success in the World Cup event. I think that of all of the opponents that So, Caruana or Hikaru could face in Round 3, Tomashevsky is the most dangerous. Tomashevsky is known to be a great practical player with a wealth of chess knowledge, earning him the nickname of “The Professor”. He displayed his strong nerves when he won a marathon match against Morozevich and reached the Semifinal of the 2013 event.

In the 2013 event, Tomashevsky beat the following players: Levon Aronian, Alexander Morozevich, Gata Kamsky and last, but not least: a younger version of Wesley So.

Wesley So at Paris GCT. Photo: Lennart Ootes

If So manages to make it past Round 3, he stands a good chance of facing Ian Neopomniachtchi, in what looks like another extremely difficult matchup.

Of course So is one of the favorites to win the entire event, but I do think he has a dangerous draw.

  1. Hikaru Nakamura:

Nakamura is a big favorite in Round 1 and 2, just like our other big three American players. However in Round 3 I prefer his matchups over So. He will likely face the winner of Fedoseev and Inarkiev. Both of these guys are dangerous, but neither has demonstrated the firepower to consistently hang with the top players in the world.

If Hikaru makes it past that test, he stands a good chance of facing former World Champion, Vishy Anand, in the 4th round.

Photo Lennart Ootes from Grand Chess Tour in Paris

Keep in mind that it is not possible for Hikaru and Wesley to both make the SemiFinal, as if they win their first four matches, they will face off in Round 5.

  1. Fabiano Caruana:

Although I feel Hikaru and So have a small edge when it comes to faster time controls, I prefer Fabiano’s draw and give him the best chances to win.

Fabiano recently practiced his blitz skills in a successful Speed Chess Championship match vs. Hou Yifan on Photo: Isle of Man International

In Round 3 he is likely to face the winner of Vitiugov and Najer, both of whom are very formidable, but should be clear underdogs to Caruana.

In Round 4 he is likely to face either Wei Yi or his Chessbrah teammate, Li Chao. Both of these guys are exceptionally strong, but I’d still prefer to face them instead of Anand or Nepomniachtchi. If he makes it to Round 5, there is no Aronian, Kramnik or Carlsen waiting for him, but instead Mamedyarov, Liren Ding, Boris Gelfand or an underdog.

Despite liking Fabi’s chances best of all, I think there is a fine margin between So, Nakamura and Caruana, all within 1 or 2 percentage points of each other to win the whole thing.

Armenian Church in Tbilisi, Photo Armen Sevian

Who will win the Tournament?

In what will come as a shock to no one, I’m going to pick Magnus Carlsen as favorite. I don’t think his individual chances to win are above 25%, as there are just too many strong players in the field.

What are some potential early matchups we might see?

Round 2:

Pentala Harikrishna vs Ruslan Ponomariov

Levon Aronian vs Hou Yifan

Vallejo Pons vs Tomashevsky

Wei Yi vs Richard Rapport

Round 3:

Sergey Karjakin vs Teimour Radjabov

Vladimir Kramnik vs Vasily Ivanchuk

Maxime Vachier Lagrave vs Pavel Eljanov

Levon Aronian vs Dmitryi Andreikin (watch out Levon!)

Wesley So vs Evgeny Tomashevsky

Viswanathan Anand vs Michael Adams

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov vs Boris Gelfand

As you can see above, some of the top stars in the world will have very tough Round 3 matchups. By Round 4 it’s already heavyweight vs heavyweight, with Nakamura vs Anand, Aronian vs Karjakin, Carlsen vs Svidler all quite possible. To top the World Cup,  you need to win seven matches, with the final five being against absolute killers. It will be a brutal tournament to win no matter who you are, and it’s going to be amazing to watch!

Follow Greg Shahade on twitter, blog and his US Chess School’s instagram. Look for exclusive reports from GM Ian Rogers on after rounds one and two.


  1. Considering a perfectly played game of chess is a draw, not sure why USChess is predicting or even hoping that all USA players win every game…Greg’s opinions always very interesting. As someone that is currently traveling, I’m guessing some upsets could occur due to one’s traveling companions being a distraction at the wrong time perhaps.

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