Oceans Apart, Same Chessboard: World Cup Kicks Off in Baku

Imagine a room the size of the movie theater, but bigger. From the front of the room rolls down a giant projector, where real-time chess action of the top boards is broadcast live to both the players and spectators miles away. On stage, the top three boards of each section are showcased, their tables standing firmly on the shining podium. In the two corners of the hall, myriad national flags wave proudly, displaying their vibrant colors in all their glamor. Situated like tiny islands, pairs of chessboards populate the playing area, full of the strongest chess players from all over the world. Although the players come from thousands of miles away, the World Cup brings together everyone in a lovely biannual tournament.


Scenes from Baku (screen photograph courtesy Stev Bonhage/FIDE and start-of-round photograph courtesy of Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)


This year’s World Cup was held in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and boasts over 200 players in the Open section and over 100 players in the Women section from dozens of countries. The World Cup consists of seven rounds and a final match, with each round lasting two games and a tiebreaker if needed. The Women’s World Cup is one round shorter. The format is explained in more detail here.


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Carissa Yip was victorious in round one (photo courtesy Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)


Despite its single-elimination format knocking out almost half of its participants in just a few days and taking the players onto a roller coaster of emotions during the tiebreaker rounds, IM Carissa Yip, one of three American players in the women’s section and the 2021 U.S. Women’s Champion, described the tournament as having a “relaxed atmosphere.” Contrary to the tense do-or-die preparation that one would expect for an elimination event, Yip’s schedule consists of sessions of preparation accompanied with casual mealtime hangouts with friends and getting to the playing hall early to explore and chat with other players pre-round.

Yip even recalls a story from her previous 2021 World Cup experience where, despite accidentally preparing for the wrong color, she still managed to defeat a higher-rated player in the first game of a round. Yip’s strategy of easing the mind seems to be working quite well, as she started off the event with two strong wins against WIM Campos Maria Jose of Argentina, securing her spot in the second round. In her first-round game, Yip used her signature King’s Indian set-up and whipped up a ferocious “knightmare” attack against the white king to decide the game.



It is unclear whether several of the players’ 6:00 am wake-up time is due to the jet lag or the adrenaline due to the World Cup, but one thing is for sure: they are definitely full of energy and excitement going into their rounds.


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Liang made quick work of his first-round opponent (photo courtesy Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)


GM Awonder Liang, who is now a permanent resident of the overall top 100 player lists, seized the momentum in his first game against Alisher Karimov of Tajikistan when a thematic central pawn push against the Catalan led to a solid extra pawn and a smooth conversion with the Black pieces.



With a draw in game two, Liang won the match and claimed his spot in the second round.

At world events like these, it is always great to see many members of the U.S. team, many of whom have been regulars at national invitationals. The American representatives at the World Cup are some of the strongest chess players in the nation and are full of talent from young to veteran. Even in a foreign place, team USA shows strong team spirit, and their mealtime moments are always full of smiles.

Team USA
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(Left-to-right) IM Carissa Yip, WGM Jennifer Yu, IM Josiah Stearman, GM Awonder Liang represent the American youth (photo courtesy of the subjects)



Of the other Americans, WGM Jennifer Yu, IM Josiah Stearman, GM Gregory Kaidanov all lost their matches 1½–½. GM Timur Gareyev lost 2–0 to GM Emillio Cordova, and GM Christopher Yoo was unable to make it in time for his first-round match, forfeiting both games.

The unique pairing system of the World Cup can make for some very intriguing matchups. Instead of splitting the field into two halves and pairing the corresponding people on each half, the World Cup’s top-bottom pairing system causes the top boards to have huge rating differences and the bottom boards to be nearly identical in rating.


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Kaidanov had one of the most evenly matched first rounds (photo courtesy Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)


GM Gregory Kaidanov, who is fresh off of the U.S. Senior Championships last month, faced Karthik Venkataraman of India, who differs in rating by only two points! The two played a nearly perfect first round draw, where Kaidanov’s strong play in the triangle Slav allowed him to achieve comfortable equality as Black.



In a sharp second-round encounter with the white pieces, Kaidanov opted for a sharp line in the Italian game, and took a daring risk with mutual king hunts. Building up a strong attack, it seemed like “Alekhine's gun” was about to crash through with checkmate, but unfortunately in a one-tempo detail, the second player was able to hit first, gaining a decisive initiative that ended the game and Kaidanov’s tournament.


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A tense match against a tough opponent for IM Josiah Stearman (photo courtesy Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)


Another fellow American, IM Josiah Stearman, who had just played in the U.S. Junior Championships, faced a huge challenge in the first round of the World Cup, taking on the strong Grandmaster Mikhail Antipov. After a scramble in the English opening, Stearman found himself up an Exchange for a pawn, but the closed position rendered the second player’s knight very powerful. Stearman defended stubbornly, but the knight and passed pawns eventually overwhelmed the rook.



Also facing a tough round one match was the defending U.S. Women’s Champion WGM Jennifer Yu, who faced off against a nearly identically rated WGM Ordaz Teresa from Cuba.


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WGM Jennifer Yu won a pawn in her comeback game, but it wasn't enough (courtesy Stev Bonhage/FIDE)


Despite a tough round one loss after her opponent demonstrated precise accuracy in an endgame, Yu created good counterplay as Black the following game, opting for the sharp Modern defense, a rare guest at the top level, but good for must-win games. She remained up a pawn in the rook endgame, but sadly, it was not enough for the win.



Also advancing to round two is GM Emilio Cordova, a Peruvian Grandmaster who lives in St. Louis. Although the Queen’s Indian can often be a quiet opening with risk-free play, Cordova’s first round game was far from quiet.


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Emilio Cordova overcame a fierce piece sac to knock off his American opponent (photo courtesy Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)


Facing an early piece sac as Black from a familiar name to American chess fans, Cordova neutralized a passed pawn and brought his king to safety, after which the extra knight showed its power.



Speaking of Cordova (who plays under the Peruvian flag), a number of foreign competitors in this event will be familiar to American chess fans because of their frequent participation in American events, such as Austrian GM Felix Blohberger, who played one of the tensest matches of the first round, eventually losing 4–2 in blitz tiebreaks.


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Austrian GM Felix Blohberger was recently on the cover of Chess Life magazine for the Saint Louis Classic (photo courtesy Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)


Tense for both players and spectators, the ever-faster controls of the tiebreaker rounds keep us on the edge of our seats! Felix Blohberger, an Austrian Grandmaster who lives in the U.S., had a nail-biting match with Dimitrios Mastrovasilis of Greece after the two standard and rapid (G/25) games failed to determine a winner. Mastrovasilis ultimately prevailed after the rooks on the seventh rank proved decisive in the G/10 tiebreaker game, but with every game before that ending in a victory for one side, the path to the G/10 tiebreaker was anything but dull. Here is the second G/25 game, where Blohberger got the better of a sharp minor piece endgame with mutual time pressure:



Another familiar name is Webster University’s GM Benjamin Gledura (playing under Hungary’s flag) who won his first-round match 1½–½ thanks to a sharp first-game victory with white against FM Orozbaev Eldiar from Kyrgyzstan.


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Speaking of the Saint Louis Classic, GM Benjamin Gledura wrote the article on it! (photo courtesy Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)


After his opponent sacrificed a piece for two pawns, it looked like Gledura was falling dangerously behind in development, but a clutch kingside castle made White’s king as safe as Fort Knox, and the extra bishop prevailed.



With almost half of the players being eliminated in just a few days, the World Cup can be a brutal tournament, but as the top players are seeded after their first-round bye, round two should only grow ever more exciting.

Some big names joining the fray in round two include: GM Hikaru Nakamura, GM Fabiano Caruana, GM Wesley So, GM Leinier Dominguez, GM Sam Shankland, and GM Ray Robson in the open section and GM Irina Krush in the Women’s section.

Will any early upsets occur? Will any of the “big names” such as Magnus, Hikaru, or Fabiano be taken to tiebreaks? We will find out soon!

Play resumes tomorrow, August 4, at 6:00 a.m. CDT, with the tiebreakers for round two. All results can be found here and games will be broadcast on LiChess.org and Chess.com.