2021 FIDE World Cup and Women’s World Cup

The biannual FIDE World Cup ended last week in Sochi, Russia. For the first time, there was a concurrent Women’s World Cup as well, which ended a couple of days before that.

 

How Does It Work?

FIDE World CupImagine an elimination bracket of 256 players, sorted strictly by rating from highest to lowest.

They are paired 1 vs. 256, 2 vs. 255, 3 vs. 254, etc. Each pairing plays a two-game match, one contest each on consecutive days, and the loser is eliminated. The third day is a rest day for players who won their matches 2-0 or 1½-½, or tiebreaks (rapid, and if necessary blitz or armageddon) for pairings that ended 1-1.

After the first round, 128 players are left, then 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, and 2 in the final.

The Open World Cup had 206 players instead of 256, where the top 50 players by rating didn’t have an opponent, and got a bye into Round 2.

Similarly, the Women’s World Cup had 103 players: a bracket of 128 players where the top 25 by rating got a free pass into Round 2.

In case you’re wondering, males and females can qualify for and play in the World Cup, while only female players can participate in the Women’s World Cup. This is analogous to other major events that have an Open and Women’s section; e.g.: the Chess Olympiad, the World Championship cycle, and most if not all National Championships.

 

World Cup in The Pandemic Age

A few players needed to withdraw during the event because of a positive COVID test, and others did so out of caution, including Levon Aronian (Armenia).

As I posted in March 2020, FIDE’s decision to proceed with the Candidates Tournament was risky but in my opinion defensible. Once again, FIDE took serious chances in holding the World Cups, with hundreds of players and officials from around the world converging in one place.

The verdict? In the grand scheme of things, FIDE came out smelling like a rose!

 

Winners of the FWC and FWWC

Jan-Krzysztof Duda
Jan-Krzysztof Duda and the World Cup trophy. Not shown: his 110,000 euro prize! Photo: FIDE

Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) won the Open event, defeating Sergey Karjakin (Russia) in the final. Both qualified for the 2022 Candidates Tournament.

JKD, now just outside the Top 10, knocked out World Champion Magnus Carlsen (Norway) in the semi-final, while Karjakin eliminated Vladimir Fedoseev (Russia) in this round as well.

Carlsen beat Fedoseev in the third-place match, held concurrently with the final.

 

Having recently become the first female to ever qualify for a Russian Superfinal, I didn’t think anyone would stop Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia), top seed in the Women’s World Cup. Honestly, I had more confidence in her than I did Carlsen in the Open event!

Alexandra Kosteniuk
Alexandra Kosteniuk has reached yet another peak in a long, successful career. Photo: FIDE

Indeed, Goryachkina mowed down the field … until the final, where she was vanquished by former Women’s World Champion Alexandra Kosteniuk (Russia)!

The “Chess Queen” played out of her mind. After a first-round bye as the 14th seed, Kosteniuk won ALL of her matches in regulation, not needing any tiebreaks, and collected 43 Elo points!

Tan Zhongyi (China) won the third-place match over Anna Muzychuk (Ukraine). Since Goryachkina is already qualified for the next Women’s Candidates Tournament by virtue of playing the last Women’s World Championship Match, I believe Tan joins Kosteniuk in the next Women’s Candidates.

 

Why I Love the World Cup

So much drama! Two-game mini-matches guarantee excitement and frayed nerves.

Even if the players decide to make two short draws in regulation, the presence of tiebreaks ultimately don’t give them an easy way out.

We typically see the same players doing well in knockouts over the years (remember, they go back to 1997 if we include the FIDE World Champioships held in a similar format). In years past, Mickey Adams, Vishy Anand, Ruslan Ponomariov, Gata Kamsky, and Levon Aronian always seemed to reach the final stages of these events.

I don’t believe that’s a coincidence — great nerves and ability to handle pressure really show in the World Cup. Fun fact: from 2001-02 through 2011, Ponomariov either won the Knockout (2001-02), or lost to the eventual winner!

In recent times, Karjakin has taken on the mantle of “KO King.” He staged an epic comeback in the final against Peter Svidler in the 2015 edition.

On the Women’s side, this is Kosteniuk’s second victory (2008) and third finals appearance (she lost to Zhu Chen way back in 2001!). Those events were Women’s World Championships.

What do you think of the World Cup? Leave a comment!

Which Sicilian is Right for You?

I don’t believe that the Sicilian is necessarily the “best” opening, or that everyone should play it. I do believe, however, that any player who wants to answer 1.e4 with 1…c5 can find a system to their liking.

 

Choosing Your Sicilian: Like Ordering from a Diner Menu!

The Sarge’s Deli menu. Photo: TripAdvisor

I discussed the Smith-Morra Gambit and other Anti-Sicilians in passing in previous posts. When deciding to play the Siclian, however, the most important question is: which main system will I employ?

I’m talking about how to answer the Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3):

As you probably know, there is a huge array of options. Traditionally, they are grouped by Black’s reply from the diagram: does s/he play 2…Nc6, 2…d6, or 2…e6 ?

Instead I’ll consider popular variations based on my opinions about they rank on two scales:

Aggressive — Neutral — Solid

and

Tactical — Neutral — Positional.

Mastering the Sicilian by Danny KopecOf course, White has a hand in which line is played also, so these won’t be 100% accurate, but I’ll characterize some popular lines.

If you want an excellent overview of the Sicilian mainlines and Anti-Sicilian setups, get Mastering the Sicilian Defense by the late International Master Danny Kopec (1954-2016). It is probably the best book I have seen on the subject: good prose, good examples, and sensible recommendations.

Kopec always shined as an author when discussing structural play in the opening and middlegame.

Okay, here we go:

 

Aggressive and Tactical

High risk, high reward! Probably the most aggressive line in the entire Sicilian universe is the Dragon Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6):

The “Dragon bishop” plans to breathe fire on the long a1-h8 diagonal. White’s most critical try is the Yugoslav Attack (6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0): 

The first player will castle into an attack on the queenside, while starting one of their own on the kingside.

Despite this, I have never considered the Dragon super-tactical, because many of the sacrifices are standard and repeat themselves over and over again. Still, compared to other options, I will place it in this bucket.

Aggressive and Neutral

Najdorf Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6):

This may surprise some people, but I consider the Najdorf a blend of Tactical and Positional. Black doesn’t necessarily aim to attack the king, and often uses a “whole board” strategy. It is not as aggressive as the Dragon in a “kill the king” sense, but a positionally aggressive opening where Black willingly takes on some risk. I learned how to play this opening from the first edition of The Sharpest Sicilian, one of the finest opening books I have ever read.

There are lines like the English Attack (6.Be3), but here White more or less forces Black into a ferocious counterattack. Personally, 6.Bg5 annoys me the most: the late Ed Kopiecki shredded me with this a few years ago at the Marshall, in our only tournament encounter. RIP, Eddie.

Aggressive and Positional

Sveshnikov Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6):

Black seeks aggressive counterplay in this line, but the risks are more structural than anything else, with the potential outpost on d5. A knight ensconced here can be paralyzing. Still, neither side is too likely to get mated during a Sveshnikov battle, and the tactical play is relatively tame.

Neutral and Tactical

Taimanov Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6):

This is a dynamic, combative system with a large array of possible setups for both sides. Not only do both players need to be well-prepared and alert, some of the tactical motifs are strange. There are more solid lines a player can choose than the Taimanov, but more aggressive ones as well.

When I play 1.e4, it is my least favorite Sicilian to face because of its chameleon-like qualities. I should probably take a look at the Emms book!

 

Neutral and Neutral

Scheveningen Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6):

I’ve given a traditional move order, but this exact position is now infrequent because of the strong Keres Attack (6.g4). Nowadays the Scheveningen is more often reached through the Najdorf: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e6.

These positions are among the most balanced in the Sicilian, with something for everyone.

Dynamics of Chess Strategy by Vlastimil Jansa

For more than a crash course on the Scheveningen, get Dynamics of Chess Strategy (2003) by Czech Grandmaster Vlastimil Jansa. His most notable pupil is David Navara.

Jansa’s comments on the Scheveningen, Ruy Lopez, and other lines will help you understand these rich, maneuvering openings. Garry Kasparov, devoted Scheveningen player during his career, might also agree with Jansa’s recommendation against the Pirc as a “turkey shoot!”

This is one of the most underrated strategy books in many, many years. Get it if you can find it.

Neutral and Positional

Kan Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6):

This branch of the Sicilian is much tamer than, for example, the Sveshnikov or Taimanov. There are more solid or positional alternatives, however. Black’s play is restrained, but not plodding. White has very different ways of answering this opening, from the space-eating Maroczy Bind (5.c4) to the solid 5.Nc3 to the more aggressive 5.Bd3.

Honestly, this is a Sicilian I don’t like for either side! Of course, your mileage may vary.

Solid and Tactical

Paulsen Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 d6 5.Nc3 e6):

We saw just how crazy this line could get in Shirov — Polgar! ‘Nuff said!

There is some overlap between the Kan, Paulsen, and Taimanov systems. I think of a Sicilian as a Paulsen when Black develops the king knight from g8 to e7.

Solid and Neutral

Accelerated Dragon (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6):

I’ll say it plainly: I don’t think the Accelerated Dragon is very good if White plays the Maroczy Bind (5.c4!) and doesn’t allow Black to make a bunch of exchanges. I’ve never understood why this line is so popular in books/DVDs and with chess coaches. Can someone please explain it to me? Everytime I face it I feel like I’m shooting fish in a barrel.

Black has some tricks in non-Maroczy lines, but if White is prepared this defense will be a most welcome sight.

 

Solid and Positional

Classical Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6):

The polar opposite of the Dragon? I think so. Black hangs back and develops solidly, reacting to White’s ideas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you’re the kind of player who likes to bait the opponent into overextending themselves.

The Classical has some distinct advantages. Like the Dragon, there is only one really challenging line against it, the Richter-Rauzer (6.Bg5). Unlike the Najdorf or Taimanov, in the Classical you pretty much know what’s coming if your opponent doesn’t play an Anti-Sicilian.

An aggressive player might opt for the Sozin Attack (6.Bc4) and a very aggressive opponent will head for the Velimirovic Attack (6.Bc4 e6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qe2), but the prepared Classical player has nothing to fear in these lines.

Another benefit of the Classical is its flexible move order: Black can play 2…d6 and 5…Nc6, or 2…Nc6 and 5…d6. That’s helpful when trying to get your preferred setup against Anti-Sicilians.

I hope this overview helps players considering playing the Sicilian for the first time or, maybe, a player considering a system change! Which Sicilian is best for you?

Mark Dvoretsky: Great Chess Authors, Part 7

After mostly choosing authors for this series who geared their writings for beginners and intermediate players, let’s discuss an author on the opposite end of the spectrum.

I warn you: this post will be long.

Mark Dvoretsky (1947-2016)

Mark Dvoretsky. Photo: ChessBase.
Mark Dvoretsky. Photo: ChessBase

Muscovite Mark Dvoretsky was a very strong player, becoming an International Master in 1975. In this period he reached his peak as a player but soon became a trainer.

And what a trainer he was! He worked extensively with such players as Women’s World Championship Challenger Nana Alexandria, Valery Chekhov, Sergei Dolmatov, and Viktor Bologan, among many others.

His most prominent student was Artur Yusupov, who rose to World #3 in 1986. Dvoretsky and Yusupov would collaborate on many books for very strong (or at least very ambitious) players. These were borne out of training sessions with future stars, including Vladimir Kramnik and Peter Svidler.

NOT for Beginners!

Honestly, no other author scares me the way Mark Dvoretsky does. That’s a compliment, by the way: his books will make you work like no others that I’ve seen. A trademark of his books is very deep analysis of his own games or his students’ games. He will often discuss how well or poorly his students did in solving these training positions.

I’ve read reviews that complain about the inclusion of chapters from other trainers’, but I appreciate the different viewpoints. Dvoretsky frequently gets lost in a forest of analysis so dense you question how helpful it is to your chess development. The contributors tend to stick to one topic and cover it in very instructive fashion.

I consider my study session a success if I can get through one chapter of one of these books.

Batsford Series

These are the books that introduced the West to Mark Dvoretsky. They feature lectures at the his chess school, sometimes with chapters from other contributors like Igor Khenkin, Aleksei Kosikov, and Boris Zlotnik.

Secrets of Chess Training (1991), Secrets of Chess Tactics (1992)

I have not read these two books, unfortunately. Well, maybe I have…we’ll come back to that.

Training for the Tournament Player (1993)

Steve Colding of Chess for Children lent me this book in 1998. I remember taking notes and studying it very seriously. The problem, of course, was that I was only a 1400 player…

Opening Preparation (1994, with Artur Yusupov)

I absolutely love this book. It isn’t about opening theory, but typical maneuvers and operations in a variety of opening systems. This book forms the basis of how I play the Sicilian against the Grand Prix Attack, and helps orient me when I face King’s Indian Attack-style setups.

Technique for the Tournament Player (1995, with Artur Yusupov)

I think I got my hands on this one, but I’m not totally sure. I’ll discuss it below.

Positional Play (1996, with Artur Yusupov)

Devour this gem one bite (chapter) at a time. It discusses positional play in ways you wouldn’t expect having read other classics. The contributors each have something valuable to add — including chapters by top players Vladimir Kramnik and Evgeny Bareev!

Assiduous study of this book will vault you far ahead of other class players when it comes to positional understanding.

Attack and Defence (1998, with Artur Yusupov)

This one is quite good, but literally makes my head hurt! Dvoretsky keeps making you think he has revealed the answer to one of his analysis positions…only to go back and reveal a further nuance to consider. The lasting impact it has left on my play is don’t assume. The attack you think is irresistible…the defense you think is impenetrable…may not be so!

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (2003, 5th edition 2020)

This is perhaps the most popular of Dvoretsky’s books, as it is not aimed towards master-level players only. It contains a lot of explanatory material and diagrams, but personally I am not a big fan. Probably I would have a different opinion if I was taking my first steps in chess.

Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual (2008)

I have never read this book, and don’t intend to. It’s famous for its dense analysis, and is geared towards budding International Masters and Grandmasters.

Edition Olms Books

Before talking about the books, let me just say that I have never regretted purchasing an Edition Olms book, or paying their high prices. They produce gorgeous paperbacks that you never want to ruin: high-quality paper, print, and binding.

Some of these books are reprints of the Batsford books that have long been out of print.

School of Chess Excellence 1: Endgame Analysis (2003)

I have not read this one.

School of Chess Excellence 2: Tactical Play (2003)

A good mental workout! It’s not a puzzle book, but a collection of positions are discussed which feature unexpected tactical solutions. I didn’t find this book as challenging as Dvoretsky’s other works, because of I’m used to solving paradoxical “Russian” tactics.

School of Chess Excellence 3: Strategic Play (2002)

This book is original, and not a reprint of the earlier Batsford series. It’s challenging, and stresses the importance of small nuances. It’s really helpful if you play King’s English (1.c4 e5) or Reversed Closed Sicilian (1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 Bg7 etc.) positions from either side.

School of Chess Excellence 4: Opening Developments (2003)

I have not read this one.

School of Future Chess Champions 1: Secrets of Chess Training (2006)

This one really helped me in my coaching endeavors. It stressed to me how individual chess improvement really is, and how much of a disservice coaches can do to their students if they take a cookie-cutter approach.

I very much enjoyed the anecdotes Dvoretsky provides about his experiences as a trainer, and the frame of mind a coach should approach helping a student from. I recommend it to coaches and to anyone directing their own self-improvement.

School of Future Chess Champions 2: Secrets of Opening Preparation (2007)

I have not read this one, but I think it’s a reprint of the 1994 Batsford book.

School of Future Chess Champions 3: Secrets of Endgame Technique (2007)

I believe this one is very similar to, if not a reprint of, Technique for the Tournament Player. Since I couldn’t get that one, I got this version.

The book doesn’t really teach endgame play per se. It discusses the player’s frame of mind when dealing with endgames, and gives some advice for improving your endgame play.

School of Future Chess Champions 4: Secrets of Positional Play (2009)

This is the same book as Positional Play.

School of Future Chess Champions 5: Secrets of Creative Thinking (2009)

This is the same book as Attack and Defense.

Others

I stopped buying Dvoretsky’s books because they require a commitment to study that I was no longer willing to give, but I might read his two autobiographical works at some point. His other titles include:

Maneuvering was the great coach’s last book, as he died in September 2016 at the age of 68. The wealth of training material he created will long outlive him.

What are your thoughts on Mark Dvoretsky’s legacy? Please share!

Chess Tactics: Svidler — Vallejo-Pons, 2004

Svidler and Vallejo’s Rapid Race in the English Attack

We pick up the action after white’s 25th move. White has just moved his king out of check.

Francisco Vallejo-Pons in 2013. Photo: Przemyslaw Jahr/Wikimedia Commons

Peter Svidler has been one of the world’s best players since the 1990s. The 8-time(!) Russian Champion has played many outstanding games and has become one of the most popular chess commentators.

In contrast, this was the only game the young Francisco Vallejo-Pons won in the 2004 Melody Amber rapid, but what a victory it was! White’s king gets caught in a hurricane in a theoretical mainline of the Najdorf English Attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3).

With competing opposite-side castling attacks, Svidler decides to fight off black’s attack before launching an offensive of his own.

He never got the chance. How did Vallejo-Pons respond to 25.Ka1?

Pawns are line-opening tools in opposite-side castling attacks