Reports Sep 28, 2019 | 8:30 AMby Colin McGourty

FIDE World Cup SF: Radjabov crushes MVL’s dream

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has lost a second World Cup semifinal in a row after Teimour Radjabov calmly converted a huge advantage he was gifted on move 10 of their second classical game. Radjabov has reached his first Candidates Tournament since London 2013, despite admitting that he never really set himself that goal and may not play, while Maxime risks crossing the age of 30 without ever qualifying. Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi will play tiebreaks for the remaining place in the final after drawing both their classical games.

Teimour Radjabov has now gone 18 games unbeaten in Khanty-Mansiysk, winning his last two classical games with the white pieces | 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 live commentary on Game 2 of the semifinal from Evgeny Miroshnichenko and Anna Rudolf:

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The Chinese battle goes to tiebreaks

Ding Liren is now a stronger favourite to win the World Cup, but first he has to get past Yu Yangyi in tiebreaks | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

We’re going to get tiebreaks for the highest possible stakes on Saturday - with Jan Gustafsson and Laurent Fressinet back to commentate - after Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi drew both their classical games. The first was no walk in the park for top seed Ding Liren, who despite having the white pieces found himself surprised after 1.c4 e5 2.g3 by the uncommon 2…c6. He later confessed to missing Yu Yangyi’s 12…Nbd7, 13…Ne5 manoeuvre and was worried by the possible 14…0-0, but after the line in the game he was holding on thanks to one small trick:

18.Rf4! and after 18…0-0 19.Nd4! the game soon liquidated into a draw.

The second game was much more comfortable for Ding Liren, who came armed with an improvement on Nikita Vitiugov’s play in the classical game against Yu Yangyi from the previous round:

Nikita had played 18…Bd5!? and got into some trouble, but 18…Rd5!, which Ding Liren pointed out was also the computer move, led to a quick draw. The tiebreaks ahead look too close to call, with Yu Yangyi something of a rapid and blitz specialist. On the other hand, Ding has recently climbed to no. 3 on the rapid rating list (Yu is 14th) and no. 2 on the blitz list (Yu is 7th). He said after the game:

Recently I play very good in faster time controls, since my classical rating has dropped a bit but my rapid and blitz rating has improved a lot.

Teimour Radjabov, the accidental Candidate

Teimour Radjabov has proven to be the dark horse in Khanty-Mansiysk | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

The other semifinal got off to a quiet start, with Maxime saying after the first game, “This was my idea: to get a safe position, but not without venom”. Teimour found the antidote for a quick 31-move draw, and would have the white pieces in the second game. He was sceptical whether that was an advantage, noting that some players have the strategy of playing for quiet draws with White. On the other hand, he later explained how the accumulated fatigue of the tournament creates the urge to go all-in:

It’s exhausting. I was very afraid that I would get into the tiebreaks against Xiong, not because he’s a strong rapid or blitz player - he’s of course a strong player anyway - but just this kind of exhaustion that comes here at some stage is like you try to finish it as soon as possible, so every game is like Armageddon for me after that, and especially that you have the chances, as I told you in the previous interview, somewhere it has to be decided, so I don’t see a problem with the classical part. If it’s decided in the classical part it’s even faster, so you don’t have to torture yourself and play some more matches like Yu Yangyi for example played against Vitiugov. For the person that loses at the end half of his life is passing by and he’s a half-dead man – we all are! But it’s this stage of exhaustion that you want to attack, sacrifice everything and just finish the tournament. If you win it’s nice, but if you lose you say ok, fine, I don’t have to be tortured anymore!

What happened in the game was somewhere in between those extremes, with Teimour’s opening preparation simply working to perfection. He repeated a line Maxime had played against Jakovenko in Khanty-Mansiysk, but with 6.dxc3 instead of 6.bxc3. Instead of exchanging queens Maxime repeated the 6…Qc7 line he’d played twice against Wesley So and once against Peter Svidler this year, but with 8.Bd3 Teimour played a clumsy-looking novelty which also happens to be the computer’s first line:

Teimour admitted in his Russian interview after the game that he was only expecting to get a “microscopic advantage”, but after 8…Be7 9.Qe2 Bd7 10.0-0 Maxime took just over a minute to play what may objectively be the losing blunder, 10…0-0? (e.g. 10…Bc6! looks fine for Black, with one key point being that if White plays as in the game Black can castle queenside). 11.e5! was the first move of the game that got Maxime seriously thinking, though it may already have been too late:

Radjabov commented, “probably nerves or the tiredness tells here at this stage and he mixed up the move-order in the opening, and then it’s very tricky for Black”. Teimour had seen in his preparation how much the computer liked what he did in the game: 11…Bc6 12.Ng5! h6 13.Bh7+! Kh8 14.Bc2:

Both the commentators and Radjabov wondered if 14.Bb1 would have been even stronger, since here 14…c4!? stopped the immediate threat of lining up on the b1-h7 diagonal with Qd3. The computer approves of the move Teimour played in the game, however, and in fact he did very little wrong in the coming moves either. The impression he had that his opponent was escaping was simply down to Maxime becoming deadly focused and stringing together some very good moves:

After 15.Re1 Qd8! 16.Nh3 Qd5! 17.Nf4 Qc5 18.Bb1 Bg5 19.Nxe6 fxe6 20.Bxg5 Qd5! 21.Qg4 we got the next critical moment:

Maxime had avoided losing a miniature and could here have forced an ending with 21…Qxg2+. It would still be favourable for White, and it’s understandable Maxime didn’t want to go for it against as technically gifted a player as Radjabov, but in hindsight it would have been the best practical choice. Teimour’s feeling that he’d gone astray would have made it more difficult for him to refocus for a different kind of game. As he said himself:  

Still the position’s very unpleasant, but I don’t know, once you’ve seen that you were winning by force and then you get this it’s kind of upsetting, so probably it would be hard to win this game, but the way he played I was very happy!

Maxime had taken advantage of Levon Aronian's collapse in the previous round but this time he was the one suffering | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

Maxime kept pieces on the board with 21…Nd7!? and again on move 26 rejected trading queens into another difficult ending. That was playing with fire, and Radjabov identified move 34 as his opponent’s last chance:

34…e5! was necessary, since in the game after 34…Kh7? 35.Bf4! Rf8f7 36.Be5! White had taken full control of the e5-square and the board. It was only on move 39 that Maxime finally offered a trade of queens himself, but that offer was summarily rejected. The last flicker of hope was that Teimour would lose on time as he admired his position, but when he made move 40 with 3 seconds to spare there was only going to be one outcome. Maxime accelerated the end with 44…Rf5?, running into 45.Qxf5!, but perhaps he just wanted to put himself out of his misery:

It was a bitter blow for Maxime, who lost in Armageddon to Levon Aronian in the 2017 World Cup semifinals, and had now once again missed out on qualifying directly for his first ever Candidates Tournament. When it comes to that qualification it’s not all over yet – Maxime could still qualify through the Grand Prix series, or by rating (if Ding Liren makes the World Cup final then Maxime is second to Anish Giri in the race), or as a wild card.

Not quite the end of the road for Maxime, who still has to play the 3rd place playoff | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

The wild card situation is the great unknown. According to the regulations the wild card must be in the Top 10 by average rating for 2019, or the next best non-qualifying player in the FIDE Grand Swiss, FIDE Grand Prix series or the FIDE World Cup. In fact FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich noted in the pre-tournament press conference that the 3rd place match could still be very important for Candidates qualification, though since the Candidates will be held in Yekaterinburg, Russia, you might expect a Russian player to be chosen. In any case, there may be some extra motivation for Maxime to go through the ordeal of the 3rd place match. It’s a crying shame that one of the world’s best players of the last decade hasn’t yet qualified for a shot at a World Championship match.

Teimour Radjabov, meanwhile, has qualified for the Candidates for the first time since London 2013, where he entered as a 2793-rated wild card only to score a disastrous 1 win and 6 losses to finish last, 2 points below Vassily Ivanchuk. Teimour had seemingly never fully recovered from that shock, until now, when he finds himself back in the Top 10 on the live rating list:

He talked about how tough chess, and particularly the World Cup, can be:

It’s a very hard thing and certainly psychologically it’s very hard here that every move can just lose the match, but it’s part of the professional life, so either you are here and you play or just don’t play chess and that’s it, which is the kind of thing that I’m considering for the last 10 years, but it’s always not easy. As we know, Kramnik also considered finishing his professional career for a long time, and then it took him around 10 or 15 years or something, so it’s a tricky thing. Once you start to play well you have this illusion that it will always be with you, then you suddenly get a lot of losses and then you simply understand who you are and that’s it.

Radjabov summed up:

I’m happy just to achieve kind of the goal that exists in this tournament – the place in the Candidates. I don’t even know if I will play the Candidates, but to get the place, an invitation for a nice party, is always good.

In the Russian interview Radjabov gave first he’d gone even further, admitting:

In principle, it seems to me that I didn't whole-heartedly want to get into the Candidates recently... and no doubt it showed in many of my games that honestly I often didn't have the mood to play.

He’d become famous for drawing games:

Radjabov said Candidates qualification wasn’t his goal at all and admitted he felt, “no particular joy”, though partly it was a matter of exhaustion. When asked about the challenges ahead he responded:

To finish playing, to leave, not to look at my games - that's the schedule I'd like to set for myself!

The World Cup fate of Maxime and Teimour recalls the famous penultimate paragraph of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s Nevsky Prospekt:

“Our world is strangely arranged!” I thought, walking on the third day along Nevsky Prospekt and recalling those two incidents. “How strangely, how incomprehensibly fate plays with us! Do we ever get what we want? Do we ever achieve what it seems our energies were purposefully designed for? Everything happens back to front. This person was given a pair of the most beautiful horses, but he rides them indifferently, not noticing their beauty at all – while this other person, whose heart burns with a passion for horses, goes on foot and has to be content merely to click his tongue when a racehorse is led past. This person has an excellent cook, but unfortunately such a small mouth that he can’t get in more than two small bites; the other has a mouth the size of the arch of the General Staff Building, but alas, he has to be content with some German potato dinner. How strangely our fate plays with us!”

The World Cup story isn’t over yet, however. Teimour will play a 4-game final while Maxime will play a 4-game match for 3rd place (and an extra $10,000) and before that Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi will play tiebreaks to decide which of those matches they’ll play in. As mentioned, Jan Gustafsson and Laurent Fressinet will be back to commentate on all the action live here on chess24 from 12:00 CEST!

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