World Champion Magnus Carlsen was sensationally beaten by Bu Xiangzhi on Saturday and must now win on demand with the black pieces on Sunday to remain in the 2017 World Cup. It’s hard to imagine a World Cup story that could eclipse that news, but one did – Anton Kovalyov forfeited his game and quit the tournament, accusing organiser and Chairman of the Appeals Committee Zurab Azmaiparashvili of bullying after an arbiter’s request that the player change out of shorts escalated into a major scandal.
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15 minutes into Round 3 of the World Cup the game between Maxim Rodshtein and Anton Kovalyov switched to show that Maxim had won with White after his opponent failed to reply to the move 1.d4. Speculation raged about what was going on until news began to filter out:
It soon became clear that the issue had been with the shorts that Anton had worn to each round of the tournament so far:
The 25-year-old Ukrainian-born Canadian Grandmaster can be seen wearing the shorts as he gave an interview after pulling off the biggest sensation of the event – beating Vishy Anand with the black pieces:
Kovalyov was a classic tournament underdog, explaining he wasn’t currently a professional player and was concentrating on studying for a Masters in Texas, but nevertheless, he wasn’t planning on leaving before he had to. The interview ends:
It’s very nice to play against such strong opponents but I’m really stressed, so I’m not really enjoying myself here, but I try to survive as long as I can.
When it was known that the dress code was the issue people naturally began to investigate, and it soon became clear that there was nothing specific:
A “dignified image” or “dressing properly” are of course open to interpretation, while a FIDE proposal on a dress code (one apparently never implemented) specifically allowed “Bermuda shorts”.
What also soon became clear was that Anton Kovalyov had left the playing hall after a heated discussion with Chairman of the Appeals Committee and local organiser Zurab Azmaiparashvili. He gave his side of the story at a time when it still seemed possible Kovalyov would play the next day:
Chief Arbiter Tomasz Delega also appeared on the live broadcast, implying and later confirming that while he had admonished Kovalyov about wearing shorts he had no intention of stopping Anton from playing his game that day. The forfeit was a result of the player not appearing within the 15 minutes you're allowed to be late for a game.
Events moved fast, with Kovalyov then spotted checking out of the hotel and leaving the tournament:
With competing versions of events Anton decided he had to give his side of the story, as he did in a Facebook post where he explained that the issue was “not the shorts but how I was treated”, specifically by Azmaiparashvili:
The key passage is perhaps:
At this point I was really angry but tried not to do anything stupid, and asked him why he was so rude to me, and he said because I'm a gypsy.
So imagine this, the round is about to start, I'm being bullied by the organizer of the tournament, being assured that I will be punished by FIDE, yelled at and racially insulted. What would you do in my situation? I think many people would have punched this person in the face or at least insulted him. I decided to leave.
We later asked Zurab Azmaiparashvili if he wanted to give his own version of the events in the light of the Facebook post. He responded (no changes have been made to the English – “tsigan” is the Russian word for “gypsy”):
There is not "my view". There is lie and true. The true is that Mr Kovalev came to Tbilisi (12000 km away from Canada) and took only short pants. By accident I was present when chief arbiter give a warning to him and he don't care about. After this as an organizer I interfered and ask him (in the beginning in polite way) to respect regulations and organizers and change his shorts. He told me that already played previous World Cup like this and what's wrong?! My reply was that "I don't care how he played previous World Cup, but I care how he will dress here" and "if he will not follow request of chief arbiter and organizer then he will be punished by FIDE on maximum level which allow contract and regulations". Kovalev asked me what is wrong in his dress and I told him he is dressed like gipsy. I mean of course homeless people and not tsigan nation. After this he left tournament hall and never come back. This is full story.
That confirms that the emotionally charged word “gypsy” was used and that at some point the conversation was no longer “polite”. Something may have been lost in translation - it's more likely the language used was deeply inappropriate and disrespectful rather than a racist insult directed at Kovalyov - but it was of course extremely unfortunate to be having such a confrontation immediately before an important game. In itself the request of an organiser or FIDE for players to adhere to a specific dress code is reasonable, but it needs to be handled diplomatically and with mutual respect. Azmaiparashvili, with a reputation for belligerence and a controversies section on his Wikipedia page, is perhaps not the ideal person to be dealing directly with the players in such cases. In the name of improving the image of chess great damage has instead been done to that image and to the tournament.
Over the course of the day the reaction was a mixture of outrage and humour. Grandmaster Alexander Areshchenko published a short piece entitled, Wardrobe paradox:
In our chess world you can be an outright scoundrel and thief, exploiting other chess players for years, but wear a suit and nothing happens to you.
But chess players can't wear shorts...
There was an outpouring of support for Kovalyov, as can
be seen, for instance, in the comments under his Facebook post. President of
the Association of Chess Professionals (ACP) Emil Sutovsky has vowed that the
organisation will respond with a formal statement, but has already expressed
support for the player:
UPDATE, 10 September 15:00
The ACP has now launched a petition that begins:
The ACP Board strongly condemns and protests the actions of Mr. Zurab Azmaiparashvili in his capacity as World Cup Organiser.
Bullying and threatening the player taking part in your event is unacceptable, doing it right before the game is even a bigger sin.
It remains to be seen what consequences will follow. For
now, though, let’s get back to the chess!
The World Champion had been making serene progress in Tbilisi and was the only player to have won all his games. In Bu Xiangzhi he had an opponent who was perhaps marginally easier than Etienne Bacrot, who had lost in the previous day’s tiebreaks, and up to a point everything seemed to be going to plan.
Magnus was moving fast in one of his typical unassuming opening positions, while Bu Xiangzhi was burning up time making some mysterious moves. When Magnus grabbed a central pawn the assumption was he had everything under control and was merely reaping the harvest of his earlier play, but then 15…Bxh3! electrified the game:
The first sign that this came as a shock was that Magnus didn’t respond instantly but took almost five minutes to accept the sacrifice with 16.gxh3. Then after 16…Qxh3 they reached what in hindsight was the critical moment of the game. Carlsen could simply have acknowledged things were getting out of hand and played 17.Qf3, when Black has no choice but to force an instant draw with 17…Bh2+ 18.Kh1 Bg3+ 19.Kg1 Bh2+ etc. A game with the white pieces would have been “wasted” and rating points lost, but that’s just the kind of thing that all the other top players in the tournament have come to accept.
You don’t become World Champion without being a maximalist, though, and after 10 minutes’ thought Magnus decided to play for a win with 17.Nf1. As early as after 17…Rbe8 18.d4 f5 Bu thought he was better, while after 23…g5! he already felt he was winning:
Besides pure chess issues Magnus was now the one behind on the clock, and the more than 6 minutes he spent on 24.Kf2!? here left him dangerously low on time in a situation where time was like gold dust. For instance, Xiangzhi’s 29…h5?! gave his king a good square on h6 and was the start of a triumphal march, but it also gave Magnus a crucial tempo for a defence that might have held:
30.Rd1!, with Rd2 to follow soon, would have brought another piece into the defence. Instead, after 30.Kd1 and manoeuvring the knight to e1, White proved helpless against Black’s simple plan of pushing the h-pawn. Bu Xiangzhi went on to finish a fine attack with the elegant last move 36…Rg1+!
Of course if the knight captures the rook the h-pawn queens, so Magnus resigned.
31-year-old Bu Xiangzhi talked about the game afterwards, and while of course he was happy he was also keeping his feet on the ground: “it’s a good start!”
Despite a reputation as one of the most difficult to beat players when he has the white pieces, Bu knows that Magnus will throw absolutely everything at him in Sunday’s game.
Otherwise the first day of Round 3 was similar to the first day of Round 2, with 12 draws across just 16 matches. Many players, including Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura with the white pieces, had nothing against relatively short draws, though there was action to be found. Vladimir Kramnik went all-out to try and beat Vassily Ivanchuk with the black pieces, Vidit missed a win against Ding Liren and David Navara held out for 70 moves as Alexander Grischuk gave it all he had to convert an ending a pawn up into a win.
There were only two more wins, but they came from some of the world’s top players.
Second seed Wesley So can’t have expected Paco Vallejo to meet his Caro-Kann with g4 on move 4, but as he explained afterwards (see the video just a couple of minutes before Bu Xiangzhi’s interview above) he was well aware of theoretical developments:
I think he’s never played the 4th move g4 before. It has been played recently by some Russians like Ian Nepomniachtchi, and with success, so when he played g4 I thought he might be working with one of the Russian players, but now I’m not completely sure!
He wasn't sure, we must assume, because of the very strange play that followed:
Here Vallejo gave up hopes of castling with 12.Kd2!? and soon went for a sacrifice. Wesley commented:
When he sacrificed an exchange I thought either I’m just worse or I’m better, because he’s sacrificing a lot of material and either he’s going to mate me or not!
It ended up being a resounding “not”, with the final position both sad and beautiful at the same time!
Shortly before this English GM Matthew Sadler had summed up:
We can also turn to Sadler to introduce the final win, Levon Aronian’s triumph over Maxim Matlakov:
Aronian strategically outplayed his opponent on both flanks and the final straw came with 32.Be2!, exploiting an inaccuracy from Maxim to target all Black’s weaknesses at once.
He finished off both stylishly and with ruthless precision, and a curious consequence is that for the moment Aronian is world no. 2 and the only 2800 player other than Magnus. It seems just recently we were reflecting it was the new normal to have half a dozen players in that club!
That means we go into the second day of Round 3 action with Matlakov, Vallejo and, of course, Carlsen needing to win to stay in the tournament and force tiebreaks on Monday. It's not going to be easy!
Watch all the Round 3, Game 2 action here on chess24 from 15:00 CEST onwards! You can also follow the games in our free mobile apps: