Reports Sep 26, 2019 | 9:36 AMby Colin McGourty

FIDE World Cup QF: Aronian & Vitiugov crash out

Levon Aronian and Nikita Vitiugov left the 2019 FIDE World Cup in the most brutal manner possible in Wednesday’s quarterfinal tiebreaks. Levon sacrificed an exchange for a winning position against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave only to blunder a piece and the game. Nikita’s match with Yu Yangyi went all the way to Armageddon, where he found himself two pawns up by move 10 and needing only a draw. Somehow he still lost, later reflecting that the World Cup is like life and ends badly, sooner or later. Ding Liren-Yu Yangyi and MVL-Radjabov now play for a place in the final.

Just two matches in the FIDE World Cup Quarterfinal tiebreaks, but so much drama! | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

You can replay all the 2019 Khanty-Mansiysk FIDE World Cup games using the selector below:

And here’s the day’s live commentary, featuring not just Jan Gustafsson and Laurent Fressinet but Chess World Champion Magnus Carlsen:

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The semifinalists of the 2019 FIDE World Cup have been decided after a dramatic, and for some traumatic, day of tiebreaks:


28-year-old Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is a match win over Teimour Radjabov away from qualifying for his first ever Candidates Tournament after knocking out Levon Aronian, the man who stopped him in Armageddon on the brink of the 2017 final. If this was the universe’s way of balancing things out you wonder if it had to make it so painful.

For one and a half games Levon Aronian was in control | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

The first 25-minute game saw Maxime blitz out the first 20 moves with Black, though the watching World Champion felt the Frenchman had rushed into a strategically dangerous position. Magnus also felt, however, that it was a pragmatic decision for Levon to take a draw on move 31, given he was behind on the clock and that winning attempts would most likely fail anyway.

When the time came Maxime would show no mercy | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

In the second game Maxime again blitzed out his opening moves, but this time when he got into trouble it was real trouble, with the exchange sacrifice that happened in the game already hard to stop a few moves earlier:


27…Rxf5! 28.exf5 Re3! and it looked as though Levon was going to go through to the World Cup semifinals in style. Maxime commented:

I missed a couple of his ideas at some point and my position got from slightly better to slightly worse and then to extremely worse after I missed this exchange sacrifice, which is very strong. I found some way to hold the boat, prevent it from sinking immediately…

The boat should have been pulled into abyss after 29.Rae1 Qe7 30.Rxe3 Qxe3+ 31.Kh2:


The key move to see here was 31…Ne4!, relying on the fact that the d3-pawn is pinned. Qg3+ is the obvious threat, with the pawns on h3 and d3 ripe for the taking. Instead after 31…Qe2+ 32.Kg1 Nxd3? (it wasn’t too late to go back with 31…Qe3+ and then play Ne4) 33.bxa6! the worst was over for White, and on move 37 Levon should perhaps simply have repeated the position for a draw:


Instead he played 37…h5!? (“I guess h5 was a bad move, because I think after Qd1 I’m already holding a draw – I could be wrong, but I didn’t see a win for him or even a way to be better” – MVL) 38.Qd1 h4?? and, to his horror, discovered that his World Cup campaign was over after the reply 39.Rf3!, simply winning a piece. You can follow Magnus as he gradually realises that 38…h4 is a losing blunder, and then see Levon’s reaction when the winning move appears on the board:

The game continued until move 53, but by that point it was trivial for Maxime. The French no. 1 summed up afterwards:

This was scary, but in a World Cup, like I said, you cannot avoid the scary moments, so I hope it is a good sign, but of course my match starting tomorrow will be very difficult and very decisive.

For Levon there was the consolation that he’s won the World Cup twice before, and it was perhaps fair that Maxime should get a chance after the way he lost two years ago. It was a bitter way to get knocked out, though, and the larger issue is that Levon’s chances of qualifying for the Candidates Tournament and potentially reaching a World Championship match have suffered another heavy blow. He would later tweet:

For those who don’t know Russian that reads, “I read a book and discovered my favourite method of handling failures. And I thought I’d come up with it myself… #Guberman”. The quote is by a Jewish Ukrainian-born Russian writer living in Israel, Igor Guberman, and is the start of a friend’s advice for dealing with depression. It could be translated roughly:

It’s more reliable to relax and help it on. You need to say aloud and to yourself a few times that you’re bullshit, that you were bullshit in the past and will undoubtedly continue to be bullshit. And past successes don’t matter – they were accidental, nor the feeling of power or ability – that was inspired by a demon, nor anyone’s praise – that was definitely inspired by a demon. All has been lost, disappeared and sunk, scattered, vanished, evaporated, collapsed and dissolved. And now it will always be like that. Or even worse and more woeful. Hopeless, helpless and endless.

At that point it’s high time to lift the first shot glass.

In hindsight, however, the way Levon was knocked out of the World Cup was far from the worst that could befall a player…

Vitiugov-Yu Yangyi turned into a war of attrition | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

Nikita Vitiugov’s tiebreak match with Yu Yangyi began with two sharp draws, with Nikita coming closest to opening the scoring in the second game. He also had a brief chance in the first 10-minute game:


As Peter Svidler spotted in the chat 30…Rb6! would have left Black firmly in control, with chances to push the a-pawn to victory. Magnus Carlsen and our commentary team had dismissed that move due to the obvious reply 31.Nc8, but it turns out Black has 31…Ba3! there. Instead in the game Nikita played 30…Rb3!?, which was a good enough move to achieve what should have been a drawn 3 vs. 2 rook ending. Initially Magnus gave Yu Yangyi a 2% chance of winning, but then revised that up to 10% after Nikita’s 41…g6. Disaster struck on move 59:


Magnus had noted for a while that Black was going to be forced to take the unpleasant decision to leave the back two ranks with his king, and this was the moment. Instead he played 59…Kg8?? and after 60.hxg5 hxg5 61.Re5 he resigned, since after eliminating the black pawn the ending with two connected passed pawns is a trivial win.

Even in the aftermath of defeat Vitiugov reflected that he'd had bright moments, including his last-day comeback | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website 

That meant that, after losing for the first time this year in Khanty-Mansiysk, Nikita needed to win on demand in the second 10-minute game to stay in the tournament. The way he went about it was by playing 3.d4 against the Petroff, and in fact the opening went like a dream. By the time 19…Qh6? appeared on the board he could win almost on the spot, as Magnus quickly noticed (he also correctly pointed out that if Yu Yangyi wanted to play an ugly position he should have gone for 19…Nd6!):

Instead of 20.Ng5! Nikita played 20.Nf1!?, but he still retained an edge until 37.Kg1!? turned out to be a spark of genius. Magnus spotted a cunning plan and was explaining it when it happened on the board!

The second reason Magnus applauded 37.Kg1 was that it meant we would get to see more chess, since although 38…Rd7 avoided an immediate checkmate, after 39.Rf6! there was no hope of saving the game.

The 5-minute games started with an epic 90-move first game which seemed almost as if the players were hell-bent on ruining each other’s nerves, but although it was incredibly tense neither player ever got a real advantage. The same applied to the second 5-minute game, and we had reached Armageddon! (you can replay the full game below)

The players were visibly nervous before it began, and Laurent Fressinet felt it didn’t help at all that the arbiter spent a long time giving them instructions just before the start – his view was that the arbiter should answer any questions but otherwise not disturb the players at such a moment. The game, in which Yu Yangyi with White had 5 minutes to Vitiugov’s 4, began at a wild pace, which was the only explanation for the fact that Yu Yangyi blundered disastrously with 9.Be4??, allowing 9…Nxg2+

Yu Yangyi would comment afterwards:

I’m very nervous because I’m very, very lucky, because the last game I forgot Nxg2 Nxf4.

The advantage for Black went far beyond pawns by move 17:


Nikita later commented:

It’s hard, very hard to explain. If you just think for a second there - two pawns… I decided I had to play very fast, and as a result… It was terrible. I allowed everything. But life goes on. It’s not the end of the world.

Here, if he’d taken any time, Nikita would have spotted 17…Qc5!, and White can resign. You can’t defend the pinned d4-knight as 18.Ke3 runs into 18…Nc4+!, winning the queen on h5. On the other hand, there was nothing much wrong with the reflex 17…Nd7, even if after 18.Rhg1 most of Black’s advantage had gone when 18…Nf6?! 19.Qe5! appeared on the board. Then after 19…Nxe4+ 20.dxe4 f6 21.Qh5+ Qf7 22.Qc5 it was critical:


Black already has to be very careful, since White has a lethal threat of Nb5 next move. Nevertheless, a draw was still all Nikita needed to win the match, and he could have achieved it with moves such as 22…a6 or 22…Qf8. Instead 22…Qe7?, played after 15 seconds, was paying too high a price for removing queens from the board. After 23.Qxe7+ Kxe7 24.Rxg7+ Kf8 25.Rag1 Black was already in serious trouble, with Nikita’s slim hopes soon resting on the clock. Yu Yangyi wasn’t going to blunder again, however, and the Chinese no. 2 went on to win the match and set up a semifinal clash with Ding Liren.

Nikita’s devastation at the end was obvious and utterly understandable:

Nikita had the mental strength to appear for an interview afterwards, and when asked how he’d spend his winnings (the losing quarterfinalists all receive $35,000) understandably responded that he hadn’t thought about such things – instead he talked about how the World Cup is like life, a thought he later repeated in a tweet:

In the same interview Nikita struggled to explain how both he and Yu Yangyi had played so badly, but felt the result was fair:

He made slightly fewer mistakes - it’s a system where you don’t need to demonstrate any heights, you simply need to be a little better than your opponent.

Ian Nepomniachtchi was sceptical whether such a system should be used to determine places in the Candidates Tournament:

But despite all the turbulence there’s no denying that the players who’ve reached the semifinals deserve to be there, and when the no. 1 and no. 3 seeds have made it and 2758-rated Teimour Radjabov is the “weak link” you know it hasn’t been too random.

What can we expect from the matches? Well, Maxime lowered expectations when he pointed out his current score with Radjabov after 7 classical games:

If I’m correct I think we made all draws, so not to be pessimistic but this could be going to another tiebreak.

A victory for Maxime would see him reach a long-overdue first Candidates Tournament, while for Teimour Radjabov it would be his first Candidates since his disastrous 2013 collapse in London, a blow that seemed to knock him out of top-level chess for years afterwards.

The other quarterfinal is an intriguing all-Chinese battle. If you assume that the Chinese chess authorities will try to influence the outcome you might guess they’d ask Ding Liren to lose, since he’s already going to qualify for the Candidates by rating, while having two players in Yekaterinburg next year would be a triumph for China. On the other hand, winning the World Cup would also be a new achievement for China after Ding’s near-miss last time, and he would be a better bet in the final than Yu Yangyi. Of course the bottom line is that we’ve no reason to expect either player to be “under orders” from anyone!

Yu Yangyi will have the chance to emerge from Ding Liren's shadow | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

For chess fans and other interested observers things get more complicated. The watching Anish Giri’s chances of reaching the Candidates will get a huge boost if Ding Liren reaches the final and therefore qualifies through the World Cup and opens up the rating spot. Giri is next in line, and in fact he’d get another big boost if Maxime reached the final as well, since the Frenchman is his nearest rival.

For Magnus Carlsen, meanwhile, did that mean he was now rooting for Ding? Yes!

This is becoming so difficult. You have all the small goals, but maybe the overall goal is to get Giri into the Candidates, so maybe that trumps everything else!

As Magnus continues there:

I heard a lot of complex math yesterday from Peter [Heine Nielsen]: your enemy’s enemy is your friend, but your enemy’s enemy’s enemy is not your friend. But your friend’s friend is your friend - this there is no doubt about. Anish is our friend and Ding is also our friend, I would say, and he’s also Anish’s friend, so naturally he must be our friend!

“We’re all friends here”, Jan helpfully summed up. What did the watching Giri himself make of it all?

The quarterfinal tiebreaks felt so epic that it would be hard to get back to everyday life after them, but the World Cup schedule is relentless. The semifinals start immediately today, with favourites Ding Liren and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave playing with the white pieces in the first games. Don’t miss all the action live here on chess24 from 12:00 CEST.

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