Any fears of dull chess in the final 4-game matches in Khanty-Mansiysk soon vanished as they got off to an exciting start. Peter Svidler won his fourth classical game in a row with the black pieces to take an early lead against Alexander Grischuk, while Ruslan Ponomariov’s bold opening play nearly backfired against Vassily Ivanchuk.
Various observers felt we wouldn’t see a battle in Grischuk – Svidler given the two Russian players had already qualified for the Candidates Tournament, were good friends and had worked together on openings in Kazan. Chess journalist Yury Vasiliev concluded: “I’ll just state my assumption: the main battle for the World Cup among the friends/compatriots will take place on 20 September, when tiebreaks are set to be played”.
True, there was some evidence to the contrary. The two played an exciting game at the recent Russian Championship, where Svidler had good winning chances with the black pieces (his virtuoso demonstration of the game was a joy to behold). In a long interview after winning the event Svidler commented (note Sanya is one of Russian’s many short forms for Alexander):
The main problem was that there were some regions of opening theory which it would be uncomfortable for him to play against me, or me against him, as we’d built up a certain baggage of common analysis. As for simply playing against Sanya – it’s interesting and a pleasure because you’ve got a strong and unconventional chess player sitting opposite you. (…) I rate him very, very highly as a chess player.
So the only problem standing in the way of a real fight was the opening, but that issue was solved when Svidler adopted an unusual and provocative approach in the Sicilian (Sergey Shipov was surprised to find 8…Qb8 and 10…Bc7 weren’t new when he checked his database). Grischuk’s 10.e5 was already a novelty:
In the moves that followed Shipov wasn’t convinced by the black position and wondered, “can you really play chess like that?” The Russian commentators were showing variation after variation where it looked as though White would crash through. However, something strange happened in the game that wasn’t immediately obvious to spectators. Grischuk correctly took on d7 with his rook, and Svidler correctly responded with 17…Nd5:
Here Grischuk played 18.Nd6, which although not the only option was one of those being discussed on the live broadcast. Svidler replied 18…Nb6, trapping the rook. From Grischuk’s reaction Shipov briefly wondered whether Grischuk had simply missed the move, but then dismissed that as impossible for a player at his level (he felt it could be missed from a distance, but not before you played 18.Nd6). However, it seems that was exactly what happened! In the press conference afterwards a dejected Grischuk noted, “you often lose when you blunder a rook”.
Objectively White’s position is still fine, but Grischuk had a huge problem: time. It was best illustrated by the position after 23.Qg4:
Grischuk now had well under a minute, while Svidler had over 20. If the clocks were reversed it’s hard not to feel the advantage would be heavily on White’s side – he has three pawns for a piece, mate on g7 if the g6-knight moves, and the threat of simply pushing the h or f-pawns. Svidler has a difficult task to untangle his pieces, but from here on he took his time and played with Houdini-like accuracy. 23…Ra7! was almost an only move, while Grischuk played 24.Rd1? with 3 seconds remaining. That was already a serious error, as 24…Na4! proved. The next move Grischuk played on the 30-second increment, 25.h3, lost a pawn, and would probably have proved decisive even if he hadn’t gone on to make a series of moves that were like the convulsions of a dying animal.
The press conference wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from Svidler, as he clearly didn’t want to revel in his friend’s discomfort. He only noted that he’s been getting nothing with the white pieces and bad positions with Black – which he then manages to win regardless. Grischuk explained 18.Nd6 as a “classic blunder” which can be overlooked because it creates a threat (18…Nb6) that hadn’t existed before the move was made. He didn’t comment on the larger “blunder” of his time handling, though he’s often said before that there’s essentially nothing he can say or do about it.
A lot of water’s flowed under the bridge since Ruslan Ponomariov beat Vassily Ivanchuk in the 2001-2 FIDE World Championship in Moscow, but despite their subsequent games and play in team events for Ukraine we have to assume it adds an extra edge to their current match for a place in the Candidates Tournament. The 2002 match was the closest Ivanchuk has yet come to winning the crown many feel is his birthright in terms of pure chess talent. In the immediate aftermath he gave emotional interviews, including one to the Russian chess magazine “64” (quoted by the official World Cup website):
Only one thing disappoints me: I think I’m stronger than my opponent, and I dream about a rematch where I can prove that. If fate brings us together again then firstly, Ponomariov will no longer be an unknown quantity to me (lit. “a cat in a bag”): during the match I studied his strong and weak points. Secondly, it’s inevitable that Ruslan himself will change. He’ll take a more sober approach to this or that situation in a game of chess and in a hopeless situation he will, like all the players in super-tournaments, simply resign, rather than childlishly persisting the way he did in the final match in the hope of a miraculous occurrence. Miracles, as a rule, only happen once. And Ponomariov’s already had his.
Recently, reflecting on his own contribution to chess at Crestbook, Ponomariov wrote:
It’s somehow immodest to talk about myself, but it strikes me that in the match against Ivanchuk I introduced an element you could call playing to the end, seeking out chances in positions where, it might seem, there are no longer any resources to continue the fight. My opponent complained that my games were too drawn out, and that in somewhere like Linares people resign or agree to draws much sooner. And then he started to play that way himself!
In any case, today’s game was very hard-fought. Ponomariov played quickly and boldly, taking a strategic gamble with 15…e3:
In the play that followed Ponomariov had chances of an attack on the kingside, but ultimately Ivanchuk consolidated and was better at the time control:
41.Kf3? was a blunder, as Ivanchuk immediately realised when 41…Rc1! followed. Suddenly Black can force a draw “from a position of strength”, as Ivanchuk put it. If White tries to avoid the draw he ends up worse. 41.Bxf4! would have retained some chances.
Svidler’s win with the black pieces of course gives him a clear edge in the match against Grischuk, while Ponomariov’s draw gives him a slight edge – though it’s worth noting that whenever we’ve written that before in this World Cup the player at a “disadvantage” has tended to win with the black pieces!
Game 2 of the 4-game matches takes place on Saturday, 17 September.