Georgia has in recent years been keen to promote itself as a desirable tourist destination. Add to that a chess tradition which includes producing some of the top women players of the previous century and Tbilisi could be viewed as an ideal place to host a major tournament.
So when billionaire Prime Minster Bidzina Ivanishvili was presented with a proposal back in 2012 to try to bring the Chess Olympiad to Georgia in 2018, he happily allocated the needed government funds, both to promote chess and to help advertise Georgia to 150+ countries around the world.
FIDE also requires the bidding country to host the World Cup in the year before the Olympiad, so at the start of September the Georgian capital Tbilisi found itself hosting the ever-entertaining – but expensive – 128 player knock-out event with a first prize of $96,000. Players qualify for the World Cup from zones around the world, supplemented by players selected on rating or gaining their places through the Women’s World Championship, the World Junior Championship plus various wild cards.
The 2017 World Cup is being held in Tbilisi’s best hotel, the Preference Hualing, part of a massive commercial development and (massive) residential project by the Chinese company Hualing on the outskirts of Tbilisi. Players are required to stay at the hotel for the duration of their survival in the tournament – those who initially chose to book an Airbnb apartment discovered that they would be slugged the $247 per day hotel rate by the tournament organizers anyway! (With 128 players staying from four days to almost a month, that totals more than the tournament’s first prize, a significant savings even allowing that some of that money must go to the hotel.)
The World Cup has attracted a sensational field, including the top 16 players in the world, yet walking around the centre of Tbilisi one would be hard-pressed to know that any chess tournament is taking place in Georgia’s capital.
In another apparent cost-saving measure, there are no posters advertising the tournament around the city – nor even in the tournament hotel.
There have been items about the event in the local media but the absence of local buzz was clear from the spectator numbers on the first day: 60 for the start of the round on a Sunday, and far fewer the next day.
Certainly the advertisers, had they been asked, would have had a wonderful event to promote thanks to Magnus Carlsen’s decision to compete in the World Cup, which also happens to be a World Championship qualifier.
Carlsen’s reasons for playing were simply that a 128 player knock-out World Cup was a unique and exciting event on the tournament calendar and a “loophole” allowed him to take part.
While some questioned the World Champion taking part in an event where he would have a chance to influence which players qualified for next year’s Candidates tournament, most welcomed Carlsen’s participation as creating – arguably, as all these claims inevitably are – the strongest tournament of all time (at the top end, at least).
The tournament format involves each pair playing two classical games and if the score is tied at 1-1 they compete at pairs of games at faster and faster time limits, culminating in an Armageddon game (where White has extra time but if Black draws, Black wins the match).
The pairing system is designed to reward high ratings, as the top seeds are likely to progress confidently in the early rounds, as seed 1 plays seed 128 in the first round, seed 2 meets seed 127, and so on.
The US contribution to the field consists of nine players, including three of the favorites – Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and second seed Wesley So – all placed in the opposite half of the draw to Carlsen. Caruana disputed his, or anyone else’s, favorite tag, saying “Nobody is really favourite to win. We calculated that Carlsen has about a 25% chance of making the final and even that may be too high.”
Nonetheless, for the US to have three players seeded to reach the quarterfinals (where Nakamura is due to run into So) is promising and all three won relatively comfortably in the first round.
Nakamura did, however, have his nervous moments in game one.
The most remarkable US result in round one came from Alex Lenderman who defeated world number 15 Pavel Eljanov 2-0 in a match which hinged on a few moments of madness/overconfidence by Eljanov.
With Black in the second game, Eljanov was given no chance to fight back and was summarily crushed, providing the only major upset of the first round of the World Cup. (Carlsen and the other 14 of the top 16 seeds made it to round 2 safely.)
Lenderman will meet Norway’s Aryan Tari in the next round, the Norwegian junior also pulling off an upset in beating England’s David Howell in an extended rapid playoff.
The other US player to score an upset was 16-year-old Sam Sevian who took on and beat the German number one Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu.
Sevian should have finished the match in the second classical game but failed to convert an extra piece against Nisipeanu.
The rapid playoffs on the third days looked at first as if Sevian was again squandering chances, when he agreed a draw in game 3 just when his solid defence with Black was about to bear fruit and leave Nisipeanu in trouble.
However Sevian kept his cool in game four and this time took his opportunities when they presented themselves.
Early on the second day, Alexander Onischuk had reserved his place in the second round by winning his second game on forfeit against compatriot Yaroslav Zherebukh, who did not arrive in Tbilisi. Zherebukh is apparently unable to travel due to restrictions after applying for green card, but many were wondering why he did not then give up his place to another player since he will not receive his first round loser’s prize money ($4,800) and may even face disciplinary sanctions by FIDE.
Apart from Zherebukh, the US has two other players who are going home from Georgia after the first KO round.
Varuzhan Akobian was rated slightly above his Canadian opponent Anton Kovalyov but admitted that he didn’t have a chance in the two games. Akobian lost the first game with White – almost always fatal in this format – saying “My brain just didn’t work that day.” The following day he created some complications against Kovalyov’s English Opening but the Canadian always had the position in hand and could have played for a win had the position required it.
Jeffery Xiong was another who exited quickly. The World Junior Champion’s match-up with the former Russian and European Champion,Alexander Motylev, was keenly anticipated but Xiong made nothing of the White pieces in the first game, drawing in just 15 moves, and found himself steadily outplayed in the second.
US Pairings for Round 2
So v Bluebaum (GER)
Caruana v Luka Lenic (SVN)
Nakamura v Bruzon (CUB)
Onischuk v Wojtaszek (POL)
Sevian v Li Chao (CHN)
Lenderman v Tari (NOR)
Games begin at 5am AEST and may be viewed via Chess24.com and Chess.com as well as the official site http://tbilisi2017.fide.com/