For the next few weeks, the FIDE World Cup will be taking place in the arctic town of Tromsø, in the very north of Norway. Many of the best players in the world are competing, beginning with the top seed, Levon Aronian (2813). The winner and runner-up will qualify to the World Championship Candidates Tournament.
I have decided to spend my next few articles presenting games from the World Cup. In keeping with the topic of my column, of course, I will be specifically analyzing those games which involve an endgame or queenless middlegame.
At the time of writing, the first round (although not the tiebreaks) has concluded. The first round, matching players of vastly different strengths, is particularly interesting to me - and I believe instructive - because we get to see and try to understand how the top players outclass their opponents, as well as in which kinds of situations upsets occur. When you have a big difference in the levels of the players, you get to see, played out on the board, exploitations of various errors, which might only be found in annotations (if there) when it is a game between super-grandmasters. I'm particularly interested in how the top players outplay their 2300-2500 rated opponents in this computer age when everyone has relatively equal access to information.
The way the pairing system works in the World Cup is somewhat different from Swiss system tournaments. Like in the Swiss system, the field is divided in half according to rating. Thus the top half plays against the bottom half. However, unlike the Swiss system, the pairings are "upside down". Thus, the top player plays against the lowest-rated player in the tournament, rather than the highest rated player in the bottom half. The second highest rated player plays against the second lowest-rated player, and so on. Thus, the very top boards have huge rating disparities, while the lower boards have approximately equal players playing each other.
This system is used to avoid penalizing the higher-rated players for their rating, which is very important for a knockout tournament (since there is no chance for the pairings to "equalize out" later). Meanwhile, if the lower-rated player wins a match, he takes the position of his former opponent, and therefore throughout the rest of the tournament will receive the pairings that player would have had.
I will be doing several articles on the endgames played in Tromsø, perhaps one article for each round. Naturally, especially in the first round, there are many games, so I just picked some of the most interesting and instructive endgames.
On board one Aronian won against Mikhail Markov, rated more than 500 points less at 2304. However, the first game was hardly a convincing win. Positions with rook against two minor pieces are sometimes difficult to evaluate, but my sense was that Black was at least okay at the beginning of the endgame. Slowly Aronian outplayed him, but only after Markov avoided an obvious move which would leave him with little chance to lose.
On board 2 Fabiano Caruana won an instructive endgame against G. Akash (2340). This endgame would fit well into a column I did earlier, which focused on situations where one player has a strong bishop against a knight but also some weaknesses. In this game, with powerful play Caruana gained more and more space while White never found a good square for his knight.
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov showed that sharp play is not limited to positions with the queens on the board, as he hit all of Black's weaknesses and quickly gained a decisive attack:
Meanwhile, Ruslan Ponomariov excellently exploited the positional plusses that a typical Dragon position gives him in the endgame. Often these type of endgames, with Black's weak queenside pawns, a blocked bishop, and White's potentially-passed a-pawn, are simply hopeless for Black unless he can use his knight for some counterplay or target White's h4 pawn.
There were a couple of checkmates. Bator Sambuev of Canada scored a big upset, defeating Alexander Morozevich in their first game. On the last move of the time control, probably in time pressure, Morozevich made a fatal blunder, going into an endgame where he had an extra pawn, but White's connected passed pawns and perfectly placed pieces gave him a decisive attack on the king. Keeping the queens on would leave the game unclear, and perhaps somewhat better for Black.
Meanwhile, Nikita Vitiugov's knights swept over in an elegant attack on Conrad Holt's king:
There were also a couple of games which featured a sacrifice in order to create an impressive row of pawns. Vladimir Malakhov's piece sacrifice against Eric Hansen:
And Baadur Jobava's exchange sacrifice against Martyn Kravtsiv:
A very nice ending with opposite-colored bishops was won by Dmitry Jakovenko against Mark Paragua. First look at the following position in order to understand the concepts:
This is a basic draw - the black king cannot leave the defense of g4, nor can Black play ...g3 at any point, since a total blockade would result. Thus there is no way to support the breakthrough ...f3+, which at this point would just allow White to sacrifice his bishop for the remaining black pawns. In the meantime White just waits with Bd1-e2-d1. Note that if the whole position were moved one rank towards White, then Black would be winning, since White would run out of waiting moves and have to allow the f-pawn to advance.
In the second game of the round, there were less interesting endgames which I felt belong in the article. However, Hikaru Nakamura's win was a bit humorous (not for his opponent, though). Although he needed only a draw to win the match, Nakamura decided to play for a win in the following very drawish position, and actually succeeded:
Meanwhile, Lou Yiping showed great skill in using his active pieces to hold a pawn-down ending against the masterful technician Gata Kamsky.
Photos by Paul Truong courtesy of the tournament website