In Wednesday’s quarterfinal tiebreaks, Levon Aronian and Nikita Vitiugov exited the 2019 FIDE World Cup in the most brutal way possible. Levon made a sacrifice for a winning position against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, only to lose a piece and the game. Nikita’s match with Yu Yangyi went all the way to Armageddon, where he found himself two pawns up and needing only a draw by move 10. He still lost, later reflecting that the World Cup, like life, ends in disaster sooner or later. Ding Liren-Yu Yangyi and MVL-Radjabov are now competing for a spot in the final.
The 2019 FIDE World Cup semifinalists have been determined following a dramatic, and for some, traumatic, day of tiebreaks:
28-year-old Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is one match away from qualifying for his first Candidates Tournament after defeating Levon Aronian, the man who stopped him in Armageddon on the verge of the 2017 final. If this was the universe’s way of balancing things out, why did it have to be so painful?
Levon Aronian dominated for one and a half games | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website
Maxime blitzed out the first 20 moves with Black in the first 25-minute game, but the Chess World Champion watching felt the Frenchman had rushed into a strategically dangerous position. Magnus, on the other hand, thought it was a pragmatic decision for Levon to take a draw on move 31, given that he was behind on time and that winning attempts would almost certainly fail anyway.
Maxime would have no mercy when the time came. Maxime blitzed out his opening moves again in the second game, but this time when he got into trouble, it was serious trouble, with the exchange sacrifice that happened earlier in the game already difficult to stop:
28.exf5 Re3! 27…Rxf5! Levon appeared to be on his way to the World Cup semifinals in fine form. Maxime remarked:
I missed a couple of his ideas, and my position went from slightly better to slightly worse, and then to extremely worse after I missed this very strong exchange sacrifice. I discovered a way to keep the boat from sinking immediately…
After 29.Rae1 Qe7, 30.Rxe3 Qxe3+, and 31.Kh2, the boat should have been dragged into the abyss.
The key move to notice here is 31…Ne4!, which takes advantage of the fact that the d3-pawn is pinned. Qg3+ is the obvious threat, with pawns on h3 and d3 available. Instead, after 31…Qe2+, 32.Kg1 Nxd3? (It wasn’t too late to try 31…Qe3+ and then play Ne4) 33.bxa6! White’s worst was over, and on move 37, Levon should have simply repeated the position for a draw:
Instead, he chose 37…h5!? (“I guess h5 was a bad move, because I think I’m already holding a draw after Qd1 – I could be wrong, but I didn’t see a win or even a way to be better” – MVL) 38.Qd1 h4?? and, to his horror, discovered that his World Cup campaign had ended after the response 39.Rf3!, with only a piece won. You can watch Magnus gradually realize that 38…h4 is a losing move, and then watch Levon react when the winning move appears on the board:
The game continued until move 53, but Maxime had already beaten it. Following that, the French number one summarized:
This was scary, but as I said, in a World Cup, you can’t avoid the scary moments, so I’m hoping it’s a good sign, but my match, which begins tomorrow, will be very difficult and decisive.
Levon could take solace in the fact that he’d won the World Cup twice before, and Maxime deserved a chance after the way he lost two years ago. However, it was a painful way to be eliminated, and the larger issue is that Levon’s chances of qualifying for the Candidates Tournament and potentially reaching a World Championship match have been severely harmed. He later tweeted:
For those who don’t speak Russian, that translates as “I read a book and discovered my favorite method of dealing with failures.” And I thought I’d thought of it myself… #Guberman”. The quote is by Igor Guberman, a Jewish Ukrainian-born Russian writer living in Israel, and it is the beginning of a friend’s advice for dealing with depression. It could be roughly translated as follows:
It is more reliable to relax and assist it. You should tell yourself and others several times that you’re a liar, that you’ve always been a liar, and that you will undoubtedly continue to be a liar. And past successes are irrelevant because they were unintentional, as is the sense of power or ability, which was inspired by a demon, or anyone’s praise, which was definitely inspired by a demon. Everything was lost, vanished and sunk, scattered, vanished, evaporated, collapsed, and dissolved. And it will remain that way in the future. Or even worse and more depressing. Hopeless, helpless, and never-ending.
It’s now or never to raise the first shot glass.
In retrospect, however, the manner in which Levon was eliminated from the World Cup was far from the worst that could happen to a player…
Nikita Vitiugov’s tiebreak match against Yu Yangyi began with two close draws, with Nikita coming closest to scoring in the second game.
As Peter Svidler pointed out in the chat, 30…Rb6! would have put Black in command, with chances to push the a-pawn to victory. Magnus Carlsen and our commentary team had dismissed that move due to the obvious response 31.Nc8, but Black has 31…Ba3! there. Instead, in the game, Nikita played 30…Rb3!?, which was a good enough move to achieve a drawn 3 vs. 2 rook ending.
Magnus had been predicting for a while that Black would be forced to leave the back two ranks with his king, and now was the time. Instead, he played 59…Kg8?? and resigned after 60.hxg5 hxg5 61.Re5, because the ending with two connected passed pawns is a trivial win after eliminating the black pawn.
Nikita needed to win on demand in the second 10-minute game to stay in the tournament after losing for the first time this year in Khanty-Mansiysk. He did so by playing 3.d4 against the Petroff, and the opening went off without a hitch. Nikita played 20.Nf1!? instead of 20.Ng5, but he still had the upper hand until 37.Kg1!? proved to be a stroke of genius. Magnus had spotted a clever plan and was explaining it when it went wrong on the board!
The second reason Magnus applauded 37.Kg1 was that it meant we’d get to see more chess, because while 38…Rd7 avoided an immediate checkmate, there was no hope of saving the game after 39.Rf6!
The 5-minute games began with an epic 90-move first game in which the players seemed hell-bent on ruining each other’s nerves, but despite being extremely tense, neither player ever gained a real advantage. The same thing happened in the second 5-minute game, and we had arrived at Armageddon! (You can watch the entire game below.)
Laurent Fressinet felt it didn’t help that the arbiter spent a long time giving them instructions just before the start – his view was that the arbiter should answer any questions but otherwise not disturb the players at such a time. The game, in which Yu Yangyi had 5 minutes to Vitiugov’s 4, started at a breakneck pace, which was the only explanation for Yu Yangyi’s disastrous blunder with 9.Be4??, allowing 9…Nxg2+.