Reports Oct 5, 2019 | 11:28 AMby Colin McGourty

Teimour Radjabov wins the 2019 FIDE World Cup

Teimour Radjabov, one of the almost forgotten men of modern chess, has scored the greatest triumph of his career by beating top seed Ding Liren in tiebreaks to win the 2019 FIDE World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk. World Champion Magnus Carlsen called the Azerbaijan grandmaster “an absolutely deserved winner” after Teimour ended a sequence of draws by winning both 5-minute blitz games against Ding Liren. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave said it was “very good to end on a high note” after he snatched third place by outplaying Yu Yangyi in the first two games of day.

Teimour Radjabov was the surprise winner of the 2019 FIDE World Cup, with Ding Liren runner-up for a 2nd time in a row | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

You can replay all the games from the 2019 FIDE World Cup using the selector below:

And here’s our incredibly high-powered commentary on the final day. For Game 1 Jan Gustafsson was joined by 8-time Russian Champion Peter Svidler before World Champion Magnus Carlsen commentated from Game 2 onwards:

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MVL takes 3rd place, though the Candidates remains in doubt

“Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished”
Endgame, Samuel Beckett

The 3rd place match in the FIDE World Cup is the one nobody wants to play. It would have been different if Magnus Carlsen or Fabiano Caruana had played and reached the final, since a direct Candidates spot would then have opened up, but instead 3rd place merely meant a player could be considered for a wild card. In Maxime’s case he’s already met the requirements by rating, so that the only thing really at stake in the match was the $10,000 difference between $60,000 for 3rd place or $50,000 for 4th. It’s an interesting question whether he would willingly have forfeited that $10,000 to leave Siberia five days early if it was an option!

It was a 5-day match both players could have done without, but in the end MVL emerged a convincing winner | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

“To play for 3rd place would be very tough,” Radjabov agreed after his win, but at least the final day was short and sweet for Maxime. That meant, of course, that it was also brief and bitter for Yu Yangyi. The Chinese player has been resourceful and unpredictable in the opening in Khanty-Mansiysk, but he didn’t really get out of it alive in either of the final two games. In the first game 9…Nc7? (9…e5! looks good) was asking for trouble:

Maxime took his first significant think of the day before playing the temporary pawn sac 10.d4!, and by the time he’d regained the pawn five moves later he had a dominant position. Yu Yangyi cracked under the pressure of trying to defend his weak pawns, allowing Maxime to pick up two of them and ease to victory.

The second game was just as easy, with the Grünfeld Defence, that had let Maxime down a few times this year, coming to his aide in his hour of need. Yu Yangyi went astray with 12.d5?! and saw his attempts to play for the win he needed backfire. Again he was down two pawns when he took a decision that at least cut his suffering short:

It was time for White to castle and prolong the struggle a while, but instead Yu Yangyi went for 20.Bxe7? and after 20…Rfe8! 21.Bg5 b4 (preparing Bc3+) 22.Kf1 there was the hammer blow 22…Rxe2! The game ended 23.Kxe2 Bb5+ 24.Ke1 Bc3+:

So the 3rd seed had finished 3rd, and if Maxime wasn’t overjoyed at least it was finally over:

It’s a relief, of course. It’s still disappointing that I didn’t manage to qualify directly for the Candidates… I hope to have a chance in the FIDE Grand Prix starting in November, but it’s of course very good to end on a high note. Today I played very well. Of course I got very good positions from the start, so this helped a lot.

Everyone's a winner... almost! | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

Maxime isn’t playing on the Isle of Man, so it’s time for a break:

No, I’m escaping from my duties! I’ve been playing non-stop basically since the end of June, so I’m taking October off.

The chances of Maxime getting his first ever place in a Candidates Tournament now depend on performing well in the last two Grand Prix events in Hamburg and Tel Aviv, or getting that elusive wild card. It may actually boost Maxime’s chances with whoever’s choosing the wild card that he’s going to be doubly eligible – by rating and for finishing 3rd in the World Cup – though the organisers in Yekaterinburg might favour a Russian player, if they can. The watching Magnus Carlsen had some advice!

Have you checked Wikipedia? [Yekaterinburg] is probably twinned with some French city, no? So what I would do if I was him would be find out what that city is, move to said city and then I’m sure he’ll get a wild card, because I think Motylev is probably the best player from Yekaterinburg, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t think they have any of the very top guys… Again, I would advise my boy Maxime to get moving as soon as possible!

It turned out there are no French options, though Wuppertal has a “floating tram” dating from 1901, so what’s not to like? | source: Wikipedia

Teimour Radjabov pulls off a final surprise

Teimour Radjabov once again showed a level of motivation and aggression we hadn't seen in years | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

That meant that there was very little to distract from the real battle for the World Cup title, and it was one that didn’t disappoint. The first game followed an Aronian-Carlsen encounter from the 2015 London Chess Classic until 14…h6, when Teimour sank into a 5-minute think. It was a serious option to leave the knight on g5, either as Levon had with 15.Rfe1 or with 15.f4, and the watching Peter Svidler recalled how Teimour can be deadly in such positions:

His strategy in the later rounds in Khanty-Mansiysk has also been to take risks, aiming to avoid tiebreaks or to get them over with quickly. As he put it: “an attempt to deliver a blow, and if it works out, that’s great, if it doesn’t, I can rest!” That almost backfired in the first tiebreak against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, where the Azerbaijan no. 1 could have delivered the blow himself, and Teimour noted it was the same story against Ding Liren.

He eventually went for 15.Nf3, and it was gradually Ding Liren who took over with the black pieces, until objectively he was winning. The critical moment came on move 32:

Teimour’s 32.Rb5, defending against the Rg5+ threat, was a good try, played with 15 seconds remaining on his clock. Ding, who had almost 8 minutes here, made the mistake of responding quickly with 32…e5? and only then starting to think in the dynamically balanced position after 33.c5! The computer suggests the stylish 32…Bc5!, but there are many quieter options, including 32…Rf6. Ding would later lament:

Today I played well at the beginning and in the first game I got a very big advantage, not only on the position but on the clock, but maybe I misplayed with e5 – I should play positionally and the position is winning, I think.

After that things got out of hand, with Ding losing his edge on the clock and the board, until it was White who could have won:

40.a5! was the first of a number of chances for Teimour to complete the turnaround. 40…bxa5 is obviously bad due to 41.Bxa5, hitting the queen and rook, but if you don’t play that the pawn becomes a monster on a6. Teimour had no time, however, and never managed the mental gymnastics of switching fully from survival to predator mode. After 40.Qb5 the game fizzled out into a 64-move draw.

Ding Liren came close to taking the lead again | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

In the second game Ding once against played fast and soon built up a 10-minute edge on the clock, but Magnus Carlsen, who had now joined the commentary team, felt there were reasons other than opening knowledge and confidence for playing so fast:

Ding is sort of low key becoming a pretty good bluffer. He’s definitely a sneaky good bluffer! He’s playing quickly a lot of the time and you very often believe the guy, because he’s such a good player, but then oftentimes it turns out he didn’t particularly know what he was doing, but he plays quickly, he plays confidently and it’s not so easy to call the bluffs.

He’s clearly very tired, and when you’re tired playing quickly is a common strategy. You realise that if you think too long you’re just going to mess it up. It’s better to let your intuition do the talking!

There were moments when Radjabov looked to have chances to take over with Black, and Magnus criticised Ding for not switching to playing strictly for a draw, but a draw nevertheless was agreed in 40 moves.

The players tossed a coin to decide who had White in the first 10-minute game, and it turned out it would be Ding Liren for a second game in a row. He repeated the same line until varying on move 13, but though he briefly got an edge he missed the best chance for more (20.Qa1!) and found himself in some trouble, with Magnus impressed when Radjabov took the risky chance to grab a pawn with 23…Qxb3!

Magnus also correctly predicted, however, that despite an edge which objectively may have been huge for Black, the game would end in a draw, since the precision required was too great for a rapid game – especially when you have half the time of your opponent. The second 10-minute game was much less exciting, with Ding Liren defending well with the black pieces. There was some time for other topics, with Magnus answering one common question:

If the question is whether I think Kasparov or Fischer was greater, I think no serious chess player or historian thinks that Fischer is greater in a historical context than Kasparov.

Would Magnus stick around for the 5-minute games? The answer was yes:

It's sort of a not bad but not too great movie that you still want to see how it ends!

Sergey Shipov commentating in Russian at the venue | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

It was the first blitz game where Ding Liren had White that would ultimately decide the fate of the 2019 World Cup, with the Chinese no. 1 getting a healthy edge, perhaps missing a chance for more but then still entering the latter stages on top. This, however, is where Radjabov began to take over. He said afterwards that he was “able to outplay [Ding] in the fast part” when it was about moving by hand, and he actually rejected a draw offer since it only confirmed to him that his opponent was nervous. Nerves were something we didn’t see from Radjabov:

Jan: He’s very calm under pressure, this Radjabov guy?

Magnus: It’s amazing, it’s truly amazing. Maybe just he feels like there’s no pressure.

The game turned on the move 52.Kb5?, which allowed 52…Nf5!

The problem for White is that he can’t touch the g3-pawn without losing the bishop to the Nd6+ fork.

These things happen, with Magnus commenting:

It’s very hard to criticise people when they’re down to seconds in such a high stakes game. I know from experience that it’s impossible to play very well under those circumstances.

After 53.Kxa5 Nxg3 there were still chances (57.Kd4! probably holds), but it was becoming study-like, and a couple more inaccuracies doomed Ding Liren to what the World Champion described as a “sickening” defeat.

It was now a must-win game for Ding Liren to force Armageddon, and after playing the Sicilian he got all he could hope for in the opening. The big chance came on move 22:

Black had just moved his queen from e7 to f7 on the previous move, making it hard to move it again, and it’s not so obvious why 22.c3?! is a bad move (it deprives the queen and knight of the c3-square), but 22…Qc7! would have given Black a significant edge. The immediate threat is b6, trapping the queen, and White’s escape routes – pushing the a or f-pawns, perhaps after capturing on d5 – all have drawbacks. Magnus said of Ding’s 22…h4?! that, “playing h4 at the end without any plan just weakens his own king and gives White squares”, though after 23.h3 there was one last chance to play 23…Qc7! Instead 23…Rd7? was met by 24.Qb6! and that door had been slammed shut. 

Radjabov later commented:

At some point I think I got my pieces discoordinated, less on time, maybe two minutes down, but somehow I maintained the balance there, found the right moves probably, brought my pieces back and also brought my queen to b6, which was I think a very good decision. Then it was always controlling f2 and keeping him out of Rxf2 stuff and the tricks that he could create.

There was a nice flourish at the end after 40…Rxb6:

41.Rd7! Qxd7 42.Nf6+ and the black queen drops since the f5-rook is pinned and can’t capture on f6. A few moves later and Teimour Radjabov had won the World Cup and $110,000!

Afterwards an exhausted Radjabov was clearly happy, though it wasn’t the exhilaration he felt when he burst onto the chess scene:

It’s not like I’m going to celebrate as when I was 15 or 16 or something, when I beat Garry in Linares. I was really happy at that moment. It was one of the best players of all my life, I was studying his games, I won against him and I was really happy at that moment. You can’t compare it to today, somehow, even though this is a tournament victory and that was just a game victory in a tournament. I don’t have any plans. I didn’t plan it. Otherwise I would create some party or something at home…

Later in a press conference, where he spoke Russian, he commented:

To be honest I planned to leave first, but I left last. All my friends left the tournament and I was in such a solitary state that I either had to win the tournament or it would be kind of annoying to stay to the end. To play for 3rd place would be very tough.

The victorious and the vanquished | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

The victory was an astonishing achievement for a player who, although he started as 10th seed, had almost dropped off the radar of top-level chess after a disastrous Candidates Tournament in London in 2013. Although Teimour’s rating has been climbing for the last couple of years, he’s barely played. For instance, in 2018 he played 9 games (all drawn) in Shamkir and 10 games in the Batumi Olympiad (4 wins, 6 draws). This year was busier, with Wijk aan Zee (13 games, 1 win and his 1st loss since 2017), Shamkir (9 draws), the Moscow Grand Prix (2 draws vs. Nakamura and a loss in tiebreaks) and Dortmund (6 draws, 1 win).

Radjabov in his post-game interview suggested he will, after all, play in the 2020 Candidates:

I thought I have to make some plans maybe to prepare for the Candidates, but in a really relaxing manner. I’m not sure Carlsen is there shaking in his chair at home that I’m going to prepare for it, but it’s just kind of fun for me.

We actually got Magnus’ verdict during the final day:

He’s still a very, very good player. He knows himself in this particular format where being hard to beat is such an asset that he can be very dangerous, and so I think it’s a case of him cherry picking the events he wants to play. I think he still has some ambitions in the sense that he wants to do well whenever he plays. I don’t think he has any realistic goal of becoming the World Champion or anything, but no reason why he should stop.

When the match ended, Magnus was full of praise for what Teimour had done in Khanty-Mansiysk:

What can you say? The comeback from Radjabov, being down in the final, beating Mamedyarov then Maxime and not least Ding in a gruelling match. It’s an amazing performance! He showed such great character in this final. It’s an amazing coming back and today, with those nerves, also against Mamedyarov, outcalculating him in that decisive game, beating Xiong and MVL in impressive games as White. It’s simply been a wonderful event for him and he’s an absolutely deserved winner.

That left, of course, Ding Liren, who had again failed to end the ex-USSR’s dominance of the World Cup!

The Chinese no. 1 admitted he’d been outplayed on the final day, and it must have been hard to take. Here’s Magnus again:

For him having lost the last time in the final to Aronian, losing again in the final is a massive disappointment. I think he has such high ambitions at this point that he’s not going to take a whole lot of positives from the event, but he should! He’s done so well winning tiebreaks seemingly effortlessly time after time against very strong players, but he came up short today and evidently he’s quite tired.

The moment it was over for Ding Liren - funny memes aside, it's not true that the Chinese no. 1 shows no emotion | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

Now, it seems, there should finally be a chance for Ding Liren to rest after months of non-stop chess, but the chess world doesn’t stop turning. The Grand Swiss on the Isle of Man starts Thursday 10th October, with Carlsen and Caruana playing for fun while the likes of So, Anand, Yu Yangyi (no rest for some!), Karjakin, Grischuk, Aronian, Artemiev, Nakamura and Svidler fight for one place in the Candidates Tournament in what is now an 11-round open. Magnus had a cold, but when asked by Jan if he would still play responded:

Yes. I feel like I’ll recover - besides, I’ve got a bunch of rating to spare!

He’d earlier noted that Anish Giri might have missed a chance by pulling out of the tournament:

To be honest I've been feeling a bit under the weather the last few days, so now I'm thinking that my boy could have gotten an easy draw against me if I’m still not feeling so great, and a few rating points... So maybe he missed out on a huge opportunity there!

The next elite event after that is the European Team Championship that starts on October 24th in Batumi, Georgia. Azerbaijan are the defending champions and 2nd seeds behind Russia, so that’s when we can next expect to see Teimour Radjabov back in action. Anish Giri will also be playing for the Dutch team under captain Jan Gustafsson. Jan asked Magnus if he should agree if Giri wanted to play only White to help his chances of qualifying for the Candidates by rating:

Yes, I would give in to the requests. As the saying goes – the needs of the Giri outweigh the needs of the many!

And on that note, it’s time to end our coverage of the 2019 FIDE World Cup. We hope you enjoyed it and will stick around for all the upcoming events, including, of course, the chess24 Banter Blitz Cup!

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