Picking the winner in the knockout-format FIDE World Cup is like trying to handicap a demolition derby — the traffic patterns are so chaotic and the collisions so random that almost anyone can emerge with the last functioning engine. In the format featuring two games at classical time controls and a rapid and blitz playoff, even the best players can be tripped up.
The current edition of the World Cup, now in the semifinal stage in Tromso, Norway, is proving no exception, with stars including top-seeded Levon Aronian of Armenia, defending champion Peter Svidler of Russia, Fabiano Caruana of Italy and American No. 1 Hikaru Nakamura all having fallen by the wayside. The four players still standing included former Russian world champ Vladimir Kramnik, Russian GM Dmitry Andreikin (who ousted Svidler), French champion Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (who bounced Caruana) and dark-horse Russian GM Evgeny Tomashevsky.
Widely reviled when used briefly by FIDE to determine the world champion, the knockout format can provide both some exciting matches and a welcome break from the more cautious round-robin and Swiss formats that dominate the international circuit today.
American star GM Gata Kamsky played one of the games of the year in defeating Azeri GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the first game of their round of 16 match — and then had to play perhaps an even better game to hold the draw against a desperate Mamedyarov in the second game. Kamsky's win finds the New York GM in full-attack mode, stringing together a series of powerful moves to overcome his opponent's tough defense.
Black's counterplay never seems to develop in this 6. f4 Sicilian Scheveningen, and by 13. a3 Rab8 (White also has steady pressure after 13...Nxd4 14. Bxd4 Bc6 15. Qh3 g6 16. f5 e5 17. Be3 Nh5 18. Rf3) 14. Nxc6 Bxc6 15. Qh3 Rfd8 16. Bd2!, clearing the e-file for a pawn push, Kamsky enjoys a clear initiative. He doesn't back down when Black tries to blunt his plans.
Thus: 16...d5 (White gets the bishop pair and real compensation after the alternative 16...e5 17. Nd5 Bxd5 18. exd5 e4 19. Rxe4! Nxe4 20. Bxe4) 17. e5 Ne4 (see diagram; the bishop in d2 now seems ill-placed, but White has no intention of shifting to defense) 18. f5!! (Be3?! g6 and Black is fine) Nxd2 19. fxe6! (f6? h6! 20. fxe7 Qxe7 21. Rf4 Qc7 22. Rg4 Ne4 23. Bxe4 dxe4 24. Qxh6 Qxe5 and holds) Ne4 (fxe6?? 20. Qxh7 mate; 19...h6 20. Qf5) 20. exf7+ Kh8 21. Nxd5 Bxd5 (Ng5 22. Qxh7+ Nxh7 23. Nxc7 and White is two pawns to the good) 22. Rxe4!, when Black loses quickly on 22...Bxe4? 23. Bxe4 h6 24. Qf5.
Mamedyarov keeps fighting, but he eventually loses his balance walking the defensive tightrope: 22...g6! 23. Ref4 Kg7!? (White threatened 24. Bxg6, but stronger might have been 23...Qc6!? 24. Qg3 Rbc8 25. c3 Kg7, and the battle between Black's extra piece and White's three pawns goes on) 24. e6 Rf8 25. Qe3 Bc5 26. Qe1 Bd6? (the losing move; the bishop had to return to e7, though White holds an edge in lines such as 26...Be7 27. c4! bxc4 28. Qc3+ Kh6 29. Qc1! Kg7 [29...Bg5 30. Rh4+ Kg7 31. Qc3+ Qe5 32. Qxe5+ Bf6 33. Qxf6 mate] 30. Bxc4 Bxc4 31. Qc3+ Kh6 32. Rxc4) 27. Rh4!, with the deadly threat of 28. Rxh7+! Kxh7 29. Qh4+ Kg7 30. Qf6+ Kh7 31. Qxg6+ and mate next.
The American GM proves lethally accurate in the game's final moves: 27...Be7 28. Qe3! h5 (Bxh4 29. Qd4+ Kh6 30. Qxh4+ Kg7 31. Qf6+ Kh6 32. Rf4 and wins) 29. Qd4+ Kh6 30. Rxh5+!, and Black resigns facing 30...Kxh5 (gxh5 31. Rf6+ Kg7 32. Rg6+ Kh7 33. Qg7 mate) 31. Qxd5+ Bg5 (Kh6 32. Qe4 Rg8 33. Rf3) 32. Rf3 Kh6 33. Qe4 Rg8 34. Rh3+ and White wins.
After (barely) holding off the Azerbaijan GM in the second game, Kamsky would fall to Tomashevsky a round later.
The best theater in the knockout events often comes in the early rounds, when the world's best players are thrown into two-round cage matches against unheralded, often unknown players with nothing to lose. Reigning world champ Viswanathan Anand famously lost his first game to obscure French IM Olivier Touzane in their opening round encounter in the 2001 event. (Anand would bounce back in Game 2 and capture the playoff.)
In Tromso, it was Russian superstar Alex Morozevich being ambushed by Canadian GM Bator Sambuev in their first-round game. In a classic illustration of the tension the knockout format can generate, Morozevich builds up a strong position only to throw away the win in a complicated position with the time control looming.
Sambuev, spotting his opponent more than 200 rating points, acquits himself well in the early stages of this Classical Grunfeld, but Black slowly wrests both the initiative and the open h-file from White's grasp after 28. f4 (Sambuev has sacrificed the exchange and rightly seeks to open lines, but his king proves just as vulnerable) Kg8 29. Qf3 Qh7! 30. Kf1 Ng7 (even stronger was 30...Nd6; e.g. 31. Ke1 [Black threatened 31...Rf8] Qh4+ 32. Kd2 Bg4 33. Qg2 Qh2 42. Qxh2 Rxh2+ 35. Ke1 Re8 and Black's attack is about to crash through) 31. Ke1 Rf8 32. Kd2 exf4 33. Bf2 Qh2, and White's defenses are about to crack.
But Sambuev manages to complicate the play and Black loses his way just at the first time control: 38. Be4 Qh5 39. e7 Re8 40. d6 Qxf3? (White's pawns look menacing, but Black should still win with 40...Bxe4! 41. Qxe4 [Qxh5 Rxh5 42. d7 Rd5 43. dxe8=Q+ (Rd1 Bd3) Nxe8 and wins] Rd5 42. Qxc4 Kh7 43. Qxf4 Nf5 44. Nf3 Nxd6) 41. Nxf3 Bxe4 42. Nxg5 Bc6 43. Bd4 — Black has won a pawn, but now White's pieces spring to life.
Trying to corral the White pawns, Morozevich even walks into a mating trap: 44...Rc8? (the last chance was 44...Nxe7 45. dxe7 Rxe7 46. Bxf4, though White had a clear edge) 45. Rf2! (eyeing the h-file and mate) Nh6 46. Rxf4! (Rh2?! Nf7 47. Bd4 Re8 and Black can struggle on) Bd7 47. Ne4 Bf5 48. Rh4 Ng4 (Bxe4 49. d7) 49. Rh8+ Kf7 50. Ng5 mate.
Kamsky-Mamedyarov, FIDE World Cup, Tromso, Norway, August 2013
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. Nc3 Qc7 6. f4 d6 7. Be3 Nf6 8. Qf3 a6 9. Bd3 Be7 10. O-O O-O 11. Kh1 Bd7 12. Rae1 b5 13. a3 Rab8 14. Nxc6 Bxc6 15. Qh3 Rfd8 16. Bd2 d5 17. e5 Ne4 18. f5 Nxd2 19. fxe6 Ne4 20. exf7+ Kh8 21. Nxd5 Bxd5 22. Rxe4 g6 23. Ref4 Kg7 24. e6 Rf8 25. Qe3 Bc5 26. Qe1 Bd6 27. Rh4 Be7 28. Qe3 h5 29. Qd4+ Kh6 30. Rxh5+ Black resigns.
Sambuev-Morozevich, FIDE World Cup, Tromso, Norway, August 2013
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nxc3 6. bxc3 Bg7 7. Bc4 O-O 8. Ne2 c5 9. O-O Nc6 10. Be3 Qc7 11. Rc1 b6 12. h4 Bb7 13. h5 e6 14. hxg6 hxg6 15. Nf4 Na5 16. Bd3 e5 17. Nh3 Rad8 18. d5 c4 19. Bc2 Bc8 20. g4 Nb7 21. Kg2 Nd6 22. g5 Rfe8 23. Rh1 Kf8 24. Ng1 Ke7 25. Rh7 Rh8 26. Rxg7 Ne8 27. Rxf7+ Kxf7 28. f4 Kg8 29. Qf3 Qh7 30. Kf1 Ng7 31. Ke1 Rf8 32. Kd2 exf4 33. Bf2 Qh2 34. Rf1 Rh4 35. e5 Rg4 36. e6 Rxg5 37. Kc1 Bb7 38. Be4 Qh5 39. e7 Re8 40. d6 Qxf3 41. Nxf3 Bxe4 42. Nxg5 Bc6 43. Bd4 Nf5 44. Be5 Rc8 45. Rf2 Nh6 46. Rxf4 Bd7 47. Ne4 Bf5 48. Rh4 Ng4 49. Rh8+ Kf7 50. Ng5 mate.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at email@example.com.
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