Sergey Karjakin has single-handedly defeated China 4:0 in the first half of an unusual new China-Russia match held from 29 July to 1 August. It began with Karjakin playing rising star Wei Yi, and as he won their first-day encounter he continued to represent Russia on the second day as well. He went on to beat Ding Liren, Ni Hua and then Yu Yangyi, meaning his Russian teammates Evgeny Tomashevsky and Alexander Morozevich had effectively travelled to China as tourists!
It was only last month that China defeated Russia in a traditional match where each member of the two teams played each member of the opposing team. For China-Russia II they decided to try something different – the Super Go Team Tournament system, popular in Go matches held between China and neighbouring countries. One player represents each team each day in a knockout match (in chess blitz and Armageddon were used to prevent encounters ending as draws) and the winning player stays for the next day. The match continues until all members of one team have lost.
It’s not actually untried in chess, since it’s been used in the US Chess League and was adopted for the Ultimate Games exhibition at the end of last year’s Sinquefield Cup. Watch the explanation of the "winner continues" format before Garry Kasparov took on Magnus Carlsen:
Still, while that worked fine for a fun afternoon exhibition, the match in China was planned to feature one match a day with ten top players competing in four rounds now and another five to follow this December. Peter Svidler, who led the Russians in the first match, described it as an “interesting format… definitely worth a try at least”. Perhaps as a keen cricket fan he’s used to the fact that two batsmen from one team can defeat the opposition almost alone, and a match can finish days early. But still, what would happen if one player won all their games?
The doomsday scenario did in fact take place! Perhaps in hindsight it might have been better to follow the Super Go formula to the letter and start with the weakest member of each team? In any case, let’s take a look at Karjakin’s triumphant run:
It was appropriate that Sergey Karjakin went on to dominate the match, since he provided almost the only advance warning that a match was about to take place. He tweeted on July 25th:
It’s a tricky route. We’re flying to Khabarovsk and then sailing on the Amur River to Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island. We’re going to compete with the Chinese there The tournament format will be new!
He went on to provide plenty of photos to document the trip:
We're taking off! Good night, everyone!
Amur River, #Khabarovsk
Some photos from #Khabarovsk
Everyday life #Khabarovsk
But for all Sergey’s heroics he wasn’t able to do anything about the Great Internet Wall of China. This was his last tweet before “going dark”:
The match itself was taking place not in Khabarovsk, or in the Chinese city of Fuyuan...
...but on an island between the two. Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, or Heixiazi in Chinese ("Black Bear Island" if we believe Google Translate, and on this occasion we're inclined to!) was wholly Russian from 1929 until 2004, when an agreement was reached to divide it between the two countries.
You can zoom in and out of the map below:
But now let's turn to the chess!
First up was perhaps the most feared member of the Chinese team, 16-year-old prodigy Wei Yi. Peter Svidler had beaten him in some style in the first match, but commented on chess24:
He’s quite obviously an extremely gifted tactical player. The fact that dry, possibly slightly worse endgames do not interest him as much as positions where he can give mate should not be held against him.
Watch Peter’s full assessment of the Chinese boy wonder:
On the island, Sergey held the youngster at bay in the classical game, taking a draw by repetition on move 23 of a Ruy Lopez that never quite got going. In the first blitz game, though, Wei Yi went for 1.b3 and soon lived to regret it, finding himself utterly outplayed in a powerful display of technique.
That meant Wei Yi had to win with Black in the remaining blitz game to force an Armageddon playoff. He wasn’t far away:
In a chaotic position Wei Yi will be a piece up if he can pick up the errant white knight on d8, but he has to watch out for one simple trap. 46…Qb6 or 46…Re8 would have done the job, but after 46…Rd7?? Karjakin unleashed 47.fxg4! – a double attack on the black queen and the now undefended e3-knight. The tables had turned, and some more errors (not worth pointing out in a blitz game) saw Sergey take the match.
You can watch all the games from that round and later rounds below:
This was the biggest match of the whole encounter, and lived up to its billing. 22-year-old Ding Liren is the Chinese no. 1 and has now broken into the official Top 10 on the August FIDE rating list, making him only the second Chinese player, after Wang Yue, to accomplish that feat. He also did it by knocking Levon Aronian out of the Top 10 after the Armenian's almost unbroken ten year spell in that elite company.
Sergey Karjakin may be “only” no. 13 and rated 17 points below his Chinese opponent, but he certainly wasn’t going to give up his seat at the match without a fight.
Ding Liren had White in the classical game, but despite gaining the bishop pair in an ending against a bishop and knight he failed to apply any real pressure and took a draw by repetition. The blitz encounters saw an exchange of blows. Sergey suffered his one defeat in China when Ding Liren played an unusual opening and overpowered his opponent. The d2-pawn will demand blood...
In the other game Ding Liren seems to have lost on time in a position where he was no worse, meaning the match went to an Armageddon decider. Ding Liren had the white pieces and more time, but he had to win. He came very close:
In this position 46.Ra7! (or 46.Rb7) is crushing, since Qc7 next move, threatening mate on h7, or Ra8 if the queen leaves the back rank, can’t be stopped. Instead after 46.Qe5?! Rxd6 47.Qxb5 Rd8 48.Qxa4? Ding Liren was soon left with only an ending a pawn up. He could still win, but in the mayhem that followed the players eventually played on to bare kings – and Karjakin had defeated another Chinese player.
32-year-old "veteran" Ni Hua was the one player Karjakin managed to beat in the classical game. All it took was a single slip on move 16, when Karjakin was able to exchange off most of the pieces and then play 20.d5!
Whatever Ni Hua does here he can’t avoid ending up a pawn down, with the queen ready to invade on c7 and gobble up the black queenside. Karjakin was soon left with a passed a-pawn, and the rest was a matter of technique – Karjakin handled it to perfection.
Could Karjakin complete a clean sweep? The answer, of course, was yes, and for the final round let’s switch to Sergey’s own description given to gazeta.ru:
Today was yet another tough match. In the classical game we played the Anti-Berlin, in which my opponent beat Vladimir Kramnik last year and snatched victory in the prestigious Qatar Masters. I’d prepared an improvement, and after a complex struggle a position arose that was better for me but very hard to improve. The draw was a fair result.
The first blitz game developed according to a similar scenario. Again the Anti-Berlin, Black completely equalised, but then for a moment I lost concentration and blundered a pawn. I continued to play confidently and fast and after a series of mistakes my opponent got a hopeless position and resigned. Incidentally, at the end of the game I had around two and a half minutes left – that’s an awful lot for blitz.
After getting upset in the next game Yu went all-in, sacrificing a piece, but three moves later he had to concede defeat.
I think I can safely count those four days as one of the best patches of my playing career. But personal success isn’t the main thing. It’s very pleasant that Russia won the first half of the friendly match with a clean sweep. After all, we were up against the current Olympic and World Champions.
The Chinese line-up was, in fact, the exact team that won the 2014 Olympiad, with only Wang Yue not managing to play. A puzzle remains as to what happens next. The plan was to play another five rounds of the match in Harbin City from the 12-17 December, and there’s plenty at stake, since $50,000 goes to the winning team with the losers getting nothing. But if Karjakin won in Round 5 would the match stop there and then?
Sergey Karjakin, meanwhile, can bask in the glory of his achievements… but not for long. The Russian Championship starts in exactly one week’s time!
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