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GM Rogers on Baku: Five Americans Advance Print E-mail
By GM Ian Rogers   
September 13, 2015
Fabiano Caruana in his first round match, Photo Cathy Rogers

"You can't win the Wimbledon title in the first week, but you can lose it."  - Roger Federer

Chess players compete in knock-out tournaments so rarely that there is no guidebook for survival. The ongoing World Cup in Baku has shown just that - after only one round former World Cup KO winners Kasimdzhanov, Gelfand and Kamsky are eliminated.

Shocking as it may seem for chessplayers brought up on round-robins and Swiss system tournaments, sixty-four of the 128 starters competing in Baku's iconic and luxurious Flame Towers are heading home, many cursing one ill-chosen move which cost them a chance for glory. The losers take home $4,800, a decent sum, though an eighth of the amount received by first round losers in the recent US Tennis Open. (Grand Slam tennis tournaments take place eight times as often as chess World Cup tournaments as well but, hey, who plays chess for the money?)

Eight of the ten players from the Sinquefield Cup travelled on to Baku and all survived the first round, including US stars Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So who cruised through the first hurdle with 2-0 scores.

Nakamura's demolition of his Zambian opponent was typical.

Baku World Cup
Round 1 Game 2

White: H.Nakamura
Black: R.Phiri
Opening: Sicilian Defence

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 Nc6 6.Nxc6 dxc6 7.0-0 e5 8.Nd2 Nf6 9.Nc4 Bg4?
This is known to be too risky. 9...Qc7 is the main line.

Soon to emerge on g3.

10...Nd7 11.f4! exf4?!
Now the d6 square becomes chronically weak. The humble 11...Be6 hangs on.
12.Bxf4 Nc5 13.Be2! Bxe2 14.Qxe2 Ne6 15.Rad1 Bc5+ 16.Kh1 Qh4 17.Bd6!

Winning material after which the result is not in doubt.

17...Rd8 18.Bxc5 Nxc5 19.Nd6+ Rxd6 20.Rxd6 0-0 21.e5 a5 22.b3 h6 23.Qe3 Ne6 24.Qf2 Qe7 25.Rfd1 Ng5 26.Qf4 Re8 27.Rd7 Qxe5 28.Qxe5 Rxe5 29.Rxb7 Re2 30.Rc1 Ne6 31.b4 axb4 32.Rxb4 Re5 33.Rc4 Ra5 34.a4 c5 35.Rb1 Kf8 36.Rb7 Ke8 37.Kg1 Ra8 38.Kf2 Nd8 39.Re4+ Kf8 40.Rb5 Ne6 41.a5 Ra7 42.c4 Ra8 43.Re1 Ra7 44.Reb1 Ra6 45.Rb8+ Ke7 46.R8b7+ Kf6 47.Ra1 Ke5 48.Rb6 Ra7 49.a6 Nd8 50.Ra5 Ne6 51.Rb7 Ra8 52.a7 1-0

So had one nervous moment:

Baku World Cup
Round 1 Game 1
White: W.So
Black: P.Maghsoodloo


Both players were in serious time trouble (though most of So's time had disappeared on his previous move, which prepared the following combination)

The more obvious 39.Re7 was actually stronger, but White had to be sure that the checks run out, as they do after 39...Ra1+ 40.Kf2 Ra2+ 41.Ke3 Ra3+ (41...f4+ 42.Kd3 Ra3+ 43.Kd4 is the easier line to calculate) 42.Nd3 Qb6+ 43.Kf4! Qb8+ 44.Ne5.
39...Qxd7 40.Re7 Qxe7
With more time Black might have found [40...Qa7+! 41.Rxa7 (41.Kh2 Qa1!) when after 41...Rxa7 Wesley may have found himself in his second game in a fortnight where his extra queen could not break through a rook and piece fortress.
41.Qxe7 Bf7 42.Qf6 Kf8 43.Qh8+


Notably, Anish Giri and Alexander Grischuk did not have it so easy. Giri drew his first game against Uganda's Arthur Ssegwanyi (in 158 moves!) and Ssegwani should probably have held the second as well. Grischuk's progress was even more difficult, against a 22-year-old IM from Turkmenistan, Yusup Atabayev. Atabayev drew the first six games of his match with Grischuk, only to fall in the blitz tiebreakers (against a former World Blitz Champion).

The best news for the US in the first round was Sam Shankland putting out Ivan Popov. A fine opening novelty by Shankland had the Russian on the back foot from early in the first game and sustained defence in the next game earned Shankland a deserved 1.5-0.5 victory against a slightly higher rated opponent.

Popov vs. Shankland, Photo Cathy Rogers

Baku World Cup
Round 1, Game 1

White: S.Shankland
Black: I.Popov
Opening: Sicilian Rauzer

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qd2 Be7 8.0-0-0 0-0 9.f4 h6 10.Bh4 Nxd4 11.Qxd4 Qa5 12.Bc4 e5 13.fxe5 dxe5 14.Qd3 Bg4 15.Bxf6 Bxf6 16.Rdf1 Qc5 17.Kb1 Bh4

17...Bh4 is an annoying move, typical in this line, which aims to provoke White into pushing his kingside pawns and creating obligations on that flank.

During the game this position seemed very familiar but it took my databse to tell me that up until now the players were following Rogers-Obudchuk from the Bled Olympiad. White won that game after 18.Nd5 (curiously with a final position close to identical to this game) but Black had almost equalised at one point.

Shankland's move is an improvement on 18.Nd5, as he prepares to retreat the c4 bishop to a2 rather than b3, making the bishop less of a target for advancing Black queenside pawns.

18.a3! a6 19.Ba2 Rad8 20.Nd5 Rd7 21.h3 Be6 22.Rf3
Sooner or later Black will have to capture on d5, but the resulting positions work out well when White can put pressure on f7.
22...Kh8 23.Rd1 Rfd8 24.Qe2 b5 25.Rfd3 Bxd5?
This is sooner, which makes White's life easy. After 25...a5, Black has no real queenside attack but he is still in the game.
26.Bxd5 Qf2 27.Qxf2 Bxf2 28.b4!

However this is a secondary plan for White, and hugely effective. By fixing the queenside pawns, soon White will be ready to play Bb7!

28...Bb6 29.c3 a5 30.Bc4! Rxd3 31.Bxd3
Now the b5 pawn is lost and White will win every endgame.
31...axb4 32.axb4 g6 33.Kc2 Kg7 34.Bxb5 Rxd1 35.Kxd1 f5 36.c4 Bd4 37.Kc2 fxe4 38.c5 Kf6 39.Kb3 Kf5 40.Kc4 1-0

Shankland's reward is to be paired with Nakamura in the second round, another huge test for the player who put out Peter Leko in the 2013 World Cup.

Gata Kamsky, sporting a trendy hairstyle, was one of the highest profile to be KOed in the first round, though the 41-year-old could be consoled by the strong play from Levon Aronian's former second Hrant Melkumyan.

GM Gata Kamsky in Baku, Photo Cathy Rogers

In the first game Kamsky was steadily outplayed on the White side of a Berlin Defence, with a final pretty combination ending any resistance.

Baku World Cup
Round 1 Game 1
White: G.Kamsky
Black: H.Melkumyan
Position after White's 35th move


35...Bxa3! 36.bxa3 Rd1!

Now the b pawn cannot be stopped.
37.Rxd1 Rxd1 38.f5 gxf5 39.gxf5 b2 40.Nd2 Rxd2 41.Rxd2 b1Q 42.f6 Ne1 43.f7 Nf3+ 44.Kg2 Qf5 45.Rf2 Qxf7 46.Rxf3 Qe7 47.Rf6 Kd5 0-1

With Black in the second game, Kamsky was given no chances to create counterplay in a g3 King's Indian and Melkumyan was able to repeat moves from a position of strength to proceed to round 2.

Ray Robson was the second higher-seeded US player to be sent packing, by Yuri Vovk, the elder of a pair of Grandmaster brothers from the Ukraine. Robson had the misfortune to be hit by one of the World Cup's most spectacular moves in the first game and then spent a fruitless five hours trying to break back with a frustratingly insufficient extra pawn in the second.

Baku World Cup
Round 1 Game 1
White: R.Robson
Black: Y.Vovk

Position after White's 26th move

Robson's kingside attack efforts involving a dodgy piece sacrifice, declined by Vovk, has yielded a passed pawn on g7 which would provide excellent endgame insurance should Black decide to win White's queen on c2.

Unfortunately for Robson, Vovk finds a terrific way to work around the pawn and take over the attack.
Threatening both 27...Qxe5! as well as capturing twice on c2, netting the rook on h1 at the end.
27.Re3 Bxc2! 28.Kd2 Bg6! 29.Rc1 Rxc1 30.Kxc1 Qf5 31.Qe2
Hoping to hang on, but Black keeps hitting and hitting hard.
31...d4! 32.Rb3 Qb1+ 33.Kd2 Qc2+ 34.Ke1 d3 35.Qd1 Rd7 36.Rxb4 d2+ 37.Ke2 Qxd1+ 0-1

14-year-old Sam Sevian forced local hero Teimour Radjabov to tiebreakers before the former Candidate proved too strong in the faster time limit games.

Baku World Cup
Round 1 Game 1
White: T.Radjabov
Black: S.Sevian


Position after White's 52nd move.

Sevian had emerged from the opening under pressure and had surrendered a pawn to reach an endgame which he defended excellently.

In the diagrammed position he has a choice to make - should he allow his king to be cut off from the kingside or allow an exchange of rooks?
52...Kg7! 53.Rg5+ Kh6!
Neither! The stalemate rescue makes the draw easy, though it should be noted that 53...Kf7 54.Rxg8 Kxg8 55.Kg5 Kg7 is also technically drawn, since White will have to commit his h pawn to h3 or h4 before he can force the Black king to the back rank, depriving White of the tempo move he needs to win such an ending.
54.Re5 Rf8+ 55.Kg3 Rf7 56.h4 Kg7 57.Rg5+ Kh8 58.Rf5 Ra7 59.Kf4 Kg7 60.Rg5+ Kh6 61.Rd5 Kg7 62.Ke5 Re7+ 63.Kf5 Rf7+ 64.Ke6 Rf4 65.Rg5+ Kh6 66.Rg8 Rf6+ 67.Kxf6 Draw

Nonetheless, this was an honourable World cup debut for Sevian, the youngest player in the field (and a relief for the Azeri fans on site who gave Radjabov's victory a hearty round of applause).

Alexander Onischuk enjoyed the delights of rapid tiebrealers before finally triumphing over Ukraine's Andrei Volokitin. In the first tiebreaker Onischuk built up a winning position with a fine exchange sacrifice, only to blunder one of his connected passed pawns and then try to find a way to win all over again, which he did.

Voloktin vs. Onischuk, Photo Cathy Rogers

Baku World Cup

Round 1 Game 4
White: A.Onischuk
Black: A.Volokitin


Position after Black's 34th move

White can win as he likes, except by playing...

35.Bc3?? Bxc3 36.Kxc3 Rxd5!
To his credit, Onischuk pulled himself together and realised that he was not worse.
37.Ba6 Rc7 38.Rb5 Rdc5?
After 38...Rd1, Black would have enough counterplay and probably more winning chances than White.
39.Rxc5 Rxc5 40.Kd4 Rc7 41.c5 Kf8 42.Kd5 Ke7 43.c6 Kd8 44.Kd6 Re7 45.Bc4 Rc7?
45....f5, here or last move was crucial.
This could/should also have been played a move earlier. Now, however, any delay with 46.Bd3 would hint to Volokitin that 46...f5 was necessary.
46...gxf5 47.Bd3 f4 48.gxf4 Re7 49.Bf5 Rc7 50.Bd7 Ra7 51.f5 Rc7


Avoiding Volokitin's last trap - 52.f6 Rxd7+! and stalemate.
52...Ke7 53.f6+! Kd8 54.Kb6 Rxd7 55.cxd7 Kxd7 56.Kxa5 Kc6 57.Kb4 Kb6 58.a5+ 1-0
In the second rapid game, Onischuk needed all his defensive skills to hold a rook ending, but he held firm to progress to a match-up against eleventh seed (and a fellow former Ukrainian!) Sergey Karjakin in the next round.

Varuzhan Akobian had cause to regret the 12 hour time difference between Baku and home, never quite overcoming jet-lag and going down meekly 0.5-1.5 to Czech Viktor Laznicka. In the first game Akobian did nothing with a slight advantage and then found his solid position disintegrating in the rematch.

Baku World Cup
Round 1 Game 2
White: V.Laznicka
Black: V.Akobian
Opening: English

1.c4 e6 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.g3 a6!? 4.Bg2 b5
Korchnoi's old recipe for playing for a win.
The most sober response. An attempt to win material with 5.Nd4 c6 6.cxb5 axb5 7.Nxb5 runs into 7...cxb5! 8.Bxa8 d5 when White is in trouble.
5...Bb7 6.Nc3 bxc4 7.bxc4 c5 8.Rb1 Bc6 9.0-0 Be7 10.d4 cxd4 11.Qxd4 0-0 12.Rd1 Qa5
Black can try for a boring life with 12...Bxf3 13.Bxf3 Nc6 but after 14.Qf4!? White has 15.Nd5! in the air.
13.Bd2 Qc5 14.Be3 Qxd4?!
Underestimating White's advantage in the endgame. After 14...Qa5 White's pressure is not easy to convert into something substantial.
15.Nxd4 Bxg2 16.Kxg2


"16...a5 is certainly not the move Black wants to play," said Akobian. "I had intended 16...Rc8 but then realised that after 17.Na4! Bd8 18.c5 followed by 19.Nb6 kills me."
17.Na4 Na6 18.Nb6 Rad8 19.Rb5
and White won the a pawn and the match.
19...Nc5 20.Rxa5 Rb8 21.Nb3 Nxb3 22.axb3 Rb7 23.c5 Bd8 24.Rda1 Ng4 25.Ra7 Nxe3+ 26.fxe3 Rxb6 27.cxb6 Bxb6 28.Rxd7 Bxe3 29.Kf3 Bb6 30.Ra6 Bc5 31.Rc7 Bb4 32.Rac6 g6 33.Rc8 1-0

So five of the nine US players have survived to fight another day in Baku.

The round 2 pairings for the surviving Americans (in bold) are:

Nakamura v Shankland

Caruana v Mamedov(AZE)
So v Balogh(HUN)
Onischuk v Karjakin(RUS)

World Cup games begin at 6am AEST and may be followed live via http://bakuworldcup2015.com/en

The English commentary stream features GMs Emil Sutovsky and Evgeny Miroshnichenko but the best post-game interviews (translated into English or Azeri as required) are to be found on the Azeri channel.