Vladimir Fedoseev and Baadur Jobava lead the World Rapid Championship on 4.5/5 after a first day that saw top seeds tumble, with Magnus Carlsen, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Sergey Karjakin all starting with defeats. Ju Wenjun was the only player to score a perfect 5/5, giving her a full point lead in the women’s section. The day was partly overshadowed, however, by controversy over the exclusion of Israeli players from the event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The unprecedented $2 million prize fund for the 5-day World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Riyadh was part of a bid by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to present a positive image of a changing Saudi Arabia, but the exclusion of Israeli players has put a huge dent in that PR project, with the world’s media reporting the event with headlines such as Saudi chess tournament starts without Israeli players (the BBC) and Saudi Arabia chess tournament row over ‘shameful’ treatment of Israeli and Qatari players (the Telegraph).
Before getting to the chess, then, let’s briefly take a look at the controversy over the decision to hold the event in Saudi Arabia.
1. Human rights in Saudi Arabia
For a long time it seemed unlikely a World Rapid and Blitz Championship would take place in 2017, but when Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was finally announced as a venue on 9 November it drew instant condemnation from one of the top US players, Hikaru Nakamura:
For an idea of the issues he has in mind you could check out the Wikipedia article Human rights in Saudi Arabia.
2. The treatment of women
Anna Muzychuk, the winner of the 2016 Women’s World Rapid and Blitz Championships, is the other top profile player to publicise her reasons for not playing in the event, writing first on 11 November:
And then a few days ago:
3. Gens una sumus – Israel, Qatar and Iran
Players from multiple countries were left fretting about visas until the last moment, but that was particularly acute for those from Saudi Arabia’s regional rivals. It seemed three countries might be excluded, but at the last minute players from Qatar and Iran were allowed to play (it remains to be seen if any Iranian players will feature in the blitz):
That choice was trumpeted on the FIDE website in an article entitled FIDE secured visas for Qatar and Iran, but the article didn’t mention Israel, despite including the phrase:
As everybody clearly understands from the above, FIDE and the Saudi organisers are always ready to welcome any participant.
That may even be true if “Saudi organisers” is taken to mean only the organisers of the chess event (and not, for instance, the Saudi immigration authorities), but it was a crass statement given visas were denied to the Israeli players, in clear contradiction of FIDE’s statutes
4. A large-scale boycott?
Israeli Grandmaster and Association of Chess Professionals President Emil Sutovsky was riled by claims that only two players had publicly boycotted the event:
In response he implied that those other than Nakamura absent from the event (Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Vladimir Kramnik, Anish Giri, Radek Wojtaszek and so no) were making a silent protest (he also listed more players in a Russian Facebook post):
1. Human rights in Saudi Arabia and other chess venues
It remains to be seen what comes of it, but the same process that has seen the World Rapid and Blitz taking place in Saudi Arabia has seen wider reforms, with symbolic changes such as women set to be allowed to drive and cinemas reopened after a 35-year ban. There’s at least a case for supporting such changes.
The other point to be made is that many traditional chess countries have less than stellar human rights records. The 2017 report of Freedom House gives Azerbaijan a 14/100 and Russia a 20/100 score for freedom, which is a narrow lead over Saudi Arabia’s 10/100, especially if reforms do follow in Saudi Arabia.
2. No hijabs or abayas
The worst fears about the dress code for women ended up being unfounded, with no hijab or abaya required in the playing hall and players also stating they weren’t essential beyond. That was in stark contrast to the Women’s World Championship in Tehran, where hijabs were obligatory.
3. An inexcusable exclusion, but also a familiar story
The one clear red line crossed in the Riyadh World Rapid and Blitz Championship is the failure to provide Israeli players with visas. At one stage it looked as though the visas might be forthcoming, with the Times of Israel quoting Lior Aizenberg that the Israeli Chess Federation “supports FIDE’s policy to hold the tournament in Saudi alongside FIDE’s commitment to ensure participation of Israelis would not be subject to limitations”. In the end, though, seven players were denied visas, with the Times of Israel speculating that Donald Trump was partly to blame:
But the Saudis ultimately nixed their participation after Arab ire surged over US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Israeli players have a clear grievance against FIDE and the organisers, and one would hope that the 3-year contract apparently signed to host the event will be torn up unless strong guarantees are given that all players can take part in future years. That was obliquely referenced in the opening speech in Riyadh by FIDE Deputy President Georgios Makropoulos, as reported on the FIDE website:
Mr Makropoulos went beyond his prepared text and addressed His Excellency Turki bin Abdel Muhsin Al-Asheikh: "Your Excellency, I am going to tell you something from my heart. FIDE motto is 'We are one family' and we firmly believe in this. We also believe that our sport, and especially such events, should help in developing peace and friendship among people. We would like to see the next event, here, as King Salman Peace & Friendship World Rapid & Blitz Chess Championships. Where everybody will be welcomed. (The audience applauded).
This was a rare case of players being formally refused visas, but there has of course been past controversy over players unable to take part in chess events. The 2004 World Championship knockout in Tripoli, Libya ultimately took place with no Israeli participants, as did the previous World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Doha, Qatar in 2016. The 2016 Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan was considered a step too far for the Armenian team and government, though their players weren’t restricted from travelling.
4. No large-scale boycott
Tarjei’s claim that only two players have publically boycotted the event in Riyadh may be suspect. For instance, Anna Muzychuk references her sister Mariya as agreeing with her, while Carolina Lujan writes…
I already lost out on the World Championship in Iran, nor did I consider playing in Saudi Arabia! I hope that the next World Championship, which I also qualified for, is organised in a country which respects human rights and cultural diversity!
…but it’s clearly also wishful thinking on Emil Sutovsky’s part to treat the absence of many players as a protest. Although the prize fund has received a massive boost (top prizes going from $40,000 and $10,000 in 2016 to $250,000 and $80,000 in 2017) the prizes were already generous in 2016, but a number of top players (including Caruana, So and Kramnik) chose not to take part. There’s no reason to believe, if they don’t publicly state it, that they’re boycotting the 2017 event. The 2017 tournament was announced late, with many already having made Christmas and New Year plans. For instance, Grzegorz Gajewski explained why Radek Wojtaszek wasn’t taking part:
Many star names are, of course, involved
Barring dramatic developments, we’re now going to switch to
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his results so far:
Rewatch the full commentary on Day 1 of the event:
Lightning struck twice as, just as in the Tbilisi World Cup, Magnus Carlsen was beaten with the black pieces by China’s Bu Xiangzhi, after failing to withstand an attack in time trouble. On this occasion Magnus actually lost on time, but that just spared him the final blow:
38…Rxh3+ 39.gxh3 Qg1# was going to follow.
Magnus was far from alone among the stars in suffering, though. On board 2 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was outplayed by Levan Pantsulaia, Levon Aronian could only draw on board 3 and Sergey Karjakin was beaten by Pavel Eljanov. That was something that could happen to anyone, but then in Round 2 Sergey was blown away by 2360-rated Jordanian IM Sami Khader… and we mean blown away!
18.Bxf5!! gxf5 19.Qg3! gave White a crushing attack. Others continued to suffer, with MVL losing three games in total, including allowing Adhiban a nice queenless mating attack:
37…Nxf3! and there was nothing White could do.
Karjakin recovered somewhat with three wins in a row, while Magnus also got back in the groove by outplaying Dobrov, Salem and Kasimdzhanov, though he came close to losing again, this time to Eljanov. For the purposes of Norwegian TV he plays each game on the top board, and seemed to delay the start of some of the rounds with a late arrival at the board. Of course it might merely have seemed that way, since none of the other players were covered in such detail.
Vishy Anand had a miserable event in London recently, but the past king of rapid and blitz gave some signs that he might be ready to remind the young guys what he’s capable of. His victory over Peter Leko featured a beautiful sacrificial attack – 23.Nh5! leaves two pieces en prise!
There followed 23…gxf6 24.Nxf7! Kxf7 25.Qxh6 and despite being two pieces up Black’s exposed king spells doom.
Vishy wasn’t quite finished for the day:
He talked about some of his games:
Ding Liren whipped up a swashbuckling attack out of nowhere after sacrificing a knight against Andrei Volokitin. Soon everything Black had was directed at the white king, which didn’t survive long:
It wasn’t Volokitin’s day, since he also fell victim to a Peter Svidler, who was showing the fast, confident chess he’d shown in his two Banter Blitz sessions here on chess24 after winning the Russian Championship. 27.Qc7? was a blunder played with little time on the clock:
27…Qxf5! could feature in a child’s chess primer on back rank weaknesses.
Svidler is on 4/5 along with Alexander Grischuk, who he drew against in Round 4. Grischuk talked about his day afterwards:
22-year-old Vladimir Fedoseev is having by far the best year of his career so far, and although he spoiled a great start to the Russian Championship he raced into the sole lead on 4/4 in Riyadh. Perhaps his most impressive win came against Tigran Petrosian:
20.c3! Qb8 21.Qc2 Qb7 trapped the black bishop out of the action, so Fedoseev could blow the position open on the kingside to win the game. 22.f5! was later followed by 25.e5! and 26.g4! in a sparkling win. Fedoseev had earlier said in an interview that he wasn’t quite sure himself what he was capable of:
Another maverick, Baadur Jobava, is co-leader, and in his win over Wang Hao he demonstrated all his brilliance:
20.Nc6!! The point is 20…bxc6 21.Qxc6+ Bd7 22.Rxd7 Rxd7 23.Rd1 and White has simply won a pawn, though that would have been considerably better than what happened in the game. Baadur also talked about his performance afterwards:
The standings at the top of the open section look as follows, with Magnus Carlsen in the group half a point back on 3.5/5:
Hou Yifan has again chosen to skip the World Rapid and Blitz Championships, but her Chinese compatriot Ju Wenjun was a worthy replacement, finishing the first day with a perfect score. The crucial Round 5 win over Bela Khotenashvili was all about finding a plan in a good position where it isn’t immediately obvious how White should make progress:
Here Ju Wenjun found 36.Bf2!, transferring the bishop to g3 to put pressure on e5 and d6, while also freeing up the e-file to double her queen and rook and eventually win the e6-pawn. She made the rest look very easy.
She talked to Goran Urosevic:
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