John Saunders reports: The much-anticipated 1st FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss tournament began with a bang at the Comis Hotel near Douglas, Isle of Man on 10 October 2019 as the world champion and his immediate predecessor were pushed all the way by their opponents – and one of them fell at the first hurdle. 154 players did battle in this first of 11 rounds of play to decide a single qualifier for the 2020 FIDE World Championship Candidates' tournament, to be held in Ekaterinburg, Russia.
Chess.com commentators Anna Rudolf and Daniel King and the beautiful backdrop of the Comis Hotel and Golf Club (photo: John Saunders)
Those of us deputed to report on Swiss-paired events often dread covering the early rounds as the results tend to be all too predictable as the higher rated competitors slaughter the less exalted. However, the current tournament is a very different kettle of fish and there is no need to worry about mismatches. True, a sizeable disparity in rating still exists between the players but the lower rated here are, for the most part, stars in their own right. It’s just that their opponents are mega-stars.
Ukrainian Yuriy Kuzubov, looking relaxed, renews a youthful rivalry with Magnus Carlsen (photo: John Saunders)
Thus it was that world champion Magnus Carlsen was obliged to do battle with the 2636-rated Ukrainian GM Yuriy Kuzubov who ranks 78th in the 154-player line-up. These two are both from the same legendary vintage crop of 1990-born chess players and had done battle before in a world under-12 championship more than half their lifetime before. That was in 2002 when Carlsen beat Kuzubov but still had to be content with second place after winner Ian Nepomniachtchi (who is not in the field here). The pre-teen Norwegian was then rated 2250 and the Ukrainian 2186. Carlsen’s subsequent career needs no recap but Kuzubov is a much-respected grandmaster, winning the Ukrainian championship once and the very strong Reykjavik Open a couple of times.
World champion Magnus Carlsen starts with a QGD against Yuriy Kuzubov (photo: John Saunders)
Having drawn the white king from the bag at the opening ceremony (the top seed having the honour of determining their own colour sequence and indeed that of the entire entry), Magnus Carlsen proceeded to set up a small but stable opening edge, and we could all have been forgiven for expecting the traditional Carlsenesque grind to follow. Yuriy Kuzubov had other ideas. He defended actively and, after some uncharacteristically hesitant play by the world champion, managed to lodge a knight in the heart of Carlsen’s position, cutting the position in half and winning a pawn. Carlsen’s attempt to summon up activity only seemed to make matters worse. At first Kuzubov consolidated his advantage accurately and Carlsen was perilously close to losing had the Ukrainian continued in the same vein. But Carlsen made it just complicated enough to lure Kuzubov into using up rather too much time. This was his undoing, drifting from a likely win to a probable draw by the first time control. The same pattern continued up to the second time control, as Kuzubov failed to adapt to the change in complexion of the game and what might have been a safe draw gradually morphed into a sad loss as the Ukrainian’s metaphorical flag fell.
Chinese GM Zhang Zhong and world number two Fabiano Caruana await the signal to begin play (photo: John Saunders)
41-year-old Chinese (and briefly Singaporean) grandmaster Zhang Zhong has been largely inactive recently and the ring rust showed a little against world number two and 2018 world championship runner-up Fabiano Caruana in the opening as he tried a dubious opening gambit. It created some complications which might have tested a less figure but Caruana kept it well under control. His was one of the smoother wins of the higher rated stars, most of whom had to labour harder for their wins, if they managed them at all.
Evgeniy Najer and Viswanathan Anand compose themselves before what proved to be a momentous game (photo: John Saunders)
The game that sent shock waves round the world was Evgeniy Najer versus Viswanathan Anand. The Russian stirred things up in the opening, evidently hoping to catch the soon-to-be 50-year-old Anand cold in the first round, but it didn’t look entirely convincing. The Indian star largely neutralised White’s kingside advance but it remained decidedly tricky. Then, calamity: Anand miscalculated, making a knight move to threaten a piece but missing the fact that Najer could simply ignore the threat and gain time to super-charge his attack and expose the enemy king. Suddenly Anand was struggling and his attempts to stem the flow of Najer’s attack foundered against accurate play from his seasoned 2600+ rated opponent. However, Najer did allow one very difficult combination which would have secured a draw but the former world champion missed his opportunity to rescue a half point. Credit to Najer for mixing things up so effectively in the way advocated by the late Simon Webb in his much-admired book Chess for Tigers, showing that this risky, spoiling technique can even be effective against the legends of the game... on a very good day, with a following wind. Still, it tends to be breezy in the Isle of Man, so it’s worth a punt.
Sam Shankland vs Erwin L'Ami seemed set for a draw when the American GM made a fatal blunder (photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)
The next few boards were mostly attritional battles, with quite a few draws and only the occasional win for the 2700+ rated players with the white pieces. Just one other member of the 2700 club bit the dust as US GM Sam Shankland was downed by Dutchman Erwin L’Ami. This game seemed to be meandering towards a draw, with queen, knight and some pawns each, when the American allowed a terrible pin of his knight along the long diagonal, cutting his queen out of the game and leaving his king at the mercy of queen and knight, costing him a vital pawn.
Baadur Jobava and David Howell produced the expected fireworks (photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)
The game Baadur Jobava vs David Howell was tipped before the round as the likeliest to be exciting. Advice for aspiring pundits: tipping Jobava’s game as the most exciting before any round of a tournament is usually a safe bet. Throw time trouble desperado David Howell into the mix and you’ve got a sure-fire winner. Jobava, cavalier as ever, donated a pawn for what seemed little more than a temporary initiative. Around move 21 suddenly all hell broke loose and it’s more than my pay grade to try to make detailed sense of it. David Howell, in his usual time trouble, won a piece and seemed to be winning but he then allowed Jobava to sacrifice a rook and the Georgian was soon all over him like a cheap suit, commandeering all the pawns and dark squares. So, a victory for St George... over St George.
Nodirbek Abdusattorov being interviewed by Fiona Steil-Antoni for the live webcast (photo: John Saunders)
It was a disappointing day all round for the England squad, with the eight registered representatives of the country scoring just ½/8 between them. Luke McShane was the man with the half point, after reaching the advantageous side of a drawn (but winnable on a good day) rook and knight versus rook endgame against Mustafa Yilmaz of Turkey. Gawain Jones succumbed to the 14-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov of Uzbekistan, who became the second youngest GM ever last year at 13 years, 1 month and 11 days. The youngster found a way to win a tricky rook endgame, showing a calmness and maturity beyond his years; in fact, beyond almost anybody’s years. His is a remarkable talent.
English GM Keith Arkell does battle with young Russian star Grigoriy Oparin (photo: John Saunders)
At the other end of the age scale (and I hope he forgives me for mentioning this but he played tournaments in the Isle of Man before most of the other competitors were born) ever-popular English GM Keith Arkell is a renowned endgame player but this time found himself on the wrong end of the endgame action, going down to 22-year-old Russian GM Grigoriy Oparin in 70 moves.
Raunak Sadhwani, another exciting prospect from India, defeated 2662-rated opposition (photo: John Saunders)
Another 14-year-old who put in a fine performance was Raunak Sadhwani of India, who beat 2662-rated Sanan Sjugirov after the Elista-born Russian overlooked a kingside coup in a sharp position.
Wizard woman: former women's world champion Anna Ushenina, sporting her new Harry Potter-style spectacles (photo: John Saunders)
Where the disparity in rating in the tournament becomes starker is amongst the wildcard entries, when the gap starts to approach 200 points. Reading the results table, one might expect to see the traditional alternating pattern of 1-0, 0-1, 1-0, 0-1 descending down the page, but the wildcards did rather better than that, with a generous helping of ½-½ to break the monotony, as well as the Sadhwani win. Top women’s seed Harika Dronavalli and some of her rivals for the women’s prize such as Elisabeth Paehtz, Dinara Saduakassova, Lei Tingjie, Ekaterina Atalik, former women’s world champion Anna Ushenina and others drew their games against stern mid-2600 rated opposition to show that they would be no one’s push-overs.
Former Isle of Man International winner Pavel Eljanov seems to be giving Dinara Saduakassova an icy stare (photo: John Saunders)
Amongst the wildest of wild cards the Grand Swiss sports eight competitors rated below 2400 – and they have to be very good sports to face the unrelenting 2600+ rated opposition they can expect to face here – but they too managed a very respectable four draws from their eight first round games. Well done to Kenny Solomon, Soumya Swaminathan, Vera Nebolsina and Isle of Man resident Dietmar Kolbus for flying the under-2400 flag so valiantly and drawing their first close encounters with super-GMs. In fact, they might have scored even better had Soumya Swaminathan and Elina Danielian been able to exploit superior positions.
Flying the Manx flag: German (but long Isle of Man resident) IM Dietmar Kolbus drew with GM Robert Hovhannisyan (photo: John Saunders)
Round 2 starts at 3pm local time on Friday. Watch the action at Twitch.TV/chess.