Magnus Carlsen looked sharp as he got off to a winning start against birthday boy Sasa Martinovic on Thursday when the big guns joined the FIDE World Cup, but the chess was overshadowed by turmoil caused by COVID-19. Levon Aronian was forced to forfeit against Bobby Cheng, while Fabiano Caruana’s game against Indonesian GM Susanto Megaranto was suddenly stopped midway when test results came back showing Susanto was infected. Fabiano got a win by default, but faces more tests himself.
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Loek van Wely and Laurent Fressinet.
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Round 2 marked the point at which the top 50 seeds in the Open and the top 25 seeds in the Women’s event joined the action, and, given the complexity of travel during the pandemic, it was impressive that there was just one game out of 96 that didn’t start on Thursday. It was a big one, however, with world no. 5 and 2-time World Cup winner Levon Aronian forced to forfeit a game against 24-year-old 2552-rated Australian GM Bobby Cheng. The official communication from FIDE was oddly worded.
Some sources in Sochi claimed Levon failed a COVID-19 test and needs to be retested. On Friday, shortly before Game 2, Levon announced that he had to withdraw.
All the players were required to have a negative PCR test immediately before travelling to Sochi and were tested again on arrival, with tests to follow roughly once every round. In some cases, however, more tests have been carried out. Indonesian IM Mohamad Ervan tested positive, which gave his opponent Nodirbek Abdusattorov a 2:0 victory in Round 1. Another member of the Indonesian delegation was also positive, which understandably led to the other Indonesian players having to undergo more tests.
Update: Irene and Medina Aulia have also now dropped out, meaning Gunina and Harika Dronavalli will play each other in Round 3.
We got a dramatic situation in Round 2, when world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana was taking on Indonesia’s Susanto Megaranto, who pulled off a great escape in the second classical game in Round 1 before winning through on tiebreaks. It would soon turn out that Fabi’s biggest risk may not have been his cup placement.
Suddenly, on move 15, both players had left the board and a win was being shown for Caruana in a game that was only just getting started.
It wasn’t long until FIDE revealed that Megaranto had tested positive and the game had to be abandoned.
That of course immediately raised questions about how test results could only become available when games had begun, with FIDE placing the blame elsewhere.
Fabiano Caruana will likely now gain a place in Round 3, as long as he doesn’t test positive himself.
The FIDE World Cup health protocol requires masks to be worn outside of the playing hall, but doesn’t require them while playing chess. It also includes, “Avoid handshakes, high fives and fist bumps”.
That’s had mixed success, with the “handshake” between Alireza Firouzja and Jakokhir Sindarov joining the pantheon of best chess handshakes before their hard-fought draw.
Other entries include:
It remains to be seen how the FIDE World Cup will progress. The extra transmissibility of the Delta Variant, that has hit Russia and many other countries hard, is a major liability, as is the fact that although vaccination is very effective against hospitalisation and serious illness it’s less effective at stopping infection.
Let’s just hope that all the players will remain healthy!
Elsewhere Round 2 was all about the favourites joining the show, with the 128 players in the Open section and 64 in the Women’s exactly the format previous World Cups had had from Round 1. World Champion Magnus Carlsen received the Svetozar Gligoric Fair Play Trophy before play began, though he admitted fair play isn’t exactly what he’s known for.
Usually I’m not the first person you’d think about in that regard, since I’m somebody who generally tries to win at all costs — not by any bad means, but I don’t think that’s the perception people have of me, but obviously it’s an honour and I’ll try to live up to it!
Magnus had no qualms about spoiling the 30th birthday of his Croatian opponent GM Sasa Martinovic in what was a sharp and interesting struggle. Magnus admitted both players surprised each other early on, but the most unpleasant surprise for Sasa was seeing that Magnus was able to win a pawn with 15…Bxa3! After 16.Ra1 Black would be losing if not for a key resource.
16…f5! After 17.Rxa3 fxe4 18.Nxe7+ Nxe7 Magnus was a pawn up and went on to win smoothly. "So far it’s been lovely — I hope to be here for a long time!” said Magnus of his stay in Sochi.
There were also convincing wins for the likes of Anish Giri, Sergey Karjakin, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Dmitry Andreikin and Peter Svidler, while perhaps the most spectacular win of the day came for the irrepressible Adhiban against Neuris Delgado, who had battled through in the longest tiebreak in the open section a day earlier. Adhiban was refreshingly the opposite of self-deprecating when asked about the game.
It was a great game, I really liked it!
After 14.Ng5! Black was already in trouble, but 14…f5!? forced White to find one key move.
15.c5! opened up the a2-g8 diagonal and, as Adhiban noted, “my attack was too strong and all his pieces were just sleeping on the queenside”.
15…Qxc5 runs into 16.Qa2+!, while after 15…Kh8 16.Qe2 Nd7?! (16…Qxc5 is better, but Black is still lost after 17.Qh5) Adhiban could already play 17.Nxh7! The rest was all about choosing a preferred kill, and Adhiban’s was beautiful.
22.Qh7+! was the most brutal and efficient! It’s mate-in-4: 22…Nxh7 23.Bxh7+ Kh8 24.Rxf8+ Qg8 25.Rxg8#
We saw similar brutality in one of the day’s minor upsets, Argentina’s Sandro Mareco beating Peru's Jorge Cori.
By this stage there were many ways to win, but Sandro’s 28.Rf6! made a fine impression! The black king was hunted down with 28…Kxf6 29.Qxh6+ Kf5 30.f3 Rh8 31.g4+ Black resigns.
That was one of just 10 rating upsets in Game 1 of Round 2, if we don’t count Aronian’s forfeit loss, but only six of them saw a greater than 50-point gap between the players. Even then, no-one is too surprised to see Praggnanandhaa (2608) overcome Gabriel Sargissian (2682), since the 15-year-old Indian is underrated after the pandemic and an obvious future 2700-player.
It was a bad day for Spain, with Spanish no. 1 Paco Vallejo (2710) getting well-beaten by 18-year-old Serbian GM Velimir Ivic (2581), while Iran’s Pouya Idani (2614) also beat Spanish no. 2 David Anton (2673). That wasn’t the first time they’d met, since Pouya beat David in the 2013 World Under 18 Championship and went on to win gold, while David took silver.
Apart from Vallejo and Anton, just two more of the Top 50 seeds lost on Day 1. Yuriy Kryvoruchko (2699) lost to Croatia’s Ante Brkic (2592), while Salem Saleh (2682) was defeated by Serbia’s Aleksandr Indjic (2607) in the last game to finish in the Open section.
Some top players such as Shakhriyar Mamedyarov got into difficulty, but the closest we came to a real sensation on Day 1 was in the game featuring Croatian Grand Chess Tour winner Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (2760).
He seemed to be cruising against Iranian-American Grandmaster Elshan Moradiabadi (2555), but when he allowed White’s c-pawn to begin marching down the board the scales suddenly tipped. Maxime was simply lost, but Elshan’s lack of time made it understandable that he took a draw against one of the world’s best players.
It turns out that after 70.Kf7! the white king should be able to escape the checks somewhere in the middle of the board and White would go on to win.
There were 30 draws and 34 decisive games in the Open section, and the proportion for the Women was exactly the same, 15 draws and 17 decisive games. The difference was that there were even fewer upsets, as almost all the favourites won or drew. Top seed Aleksandra Goryachkina’s win over Uzbekistan born Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova, who now represents the USA, took her to a new personal best live rating of 2612.2.
The only significant upset was in fact a local affair, with 17-year-old Kazakhstan women’s no. 3 Bibisara Assaubayeva (2389) convincingly outplaying 21-year-old Kazakhstan no. 1 Zhansaya Abdumalik (2505). 29.e6! was devastating.
30.Qe5 is now one of the threats, while in the game we saw 29…Kh7 30.e7! and Black’s position is in ruins. Zhansaya tried 30…Kxg6 31.exf8=Q Bxf8 only to run into 32.Ne5+, forking her king and queen.
The lack of upsets didn’t mean a lack of amazing games, however, with Anna Muzychuk’s win over Tatev Abrahamyan featuring extraordinary positions, such as this one.
33.Rxh6+! gxh6 34.Qxc7+ is the kind of thing Anna would usually find, but she was down to just five seconds on her clock when she played 33.Qxc7? Tatev was then winning after 33…Bxf3+ 34.Nxf3 but needed to play 34…Qf5! Instead, with less than 30 seconds on her clock, she played 34…Rg4+ 35.Kh3 Qf5 and here Black would be winning if not for an amazing resource.
36.Rf6! was the only move not to lose! Tatev kept her cool to find the only reply, the double check 36…Rxh4+, and after 37.Kxh4 Qxf6+ the players reached the time control with no more drama. Objectively the game should probably have ended in a draw — which would have been fair given the missed chances and brilliancies — but instead Anna went on to grind out a win with her extra knight in the ending.
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