The discipline might be called Fischer Random, but the scenario that unfolded in the first four quarterfinal knockout qualifiers has been anything but. So far in the event, despite a regular helping of upsets and inspired underdog performances, each final match has been contested by the top seed from each side of the KO tree. Qualifier Five was very different indeed.
There were two slightly different ingredients in the mix this time: The second invitee was Norway's reigning Nordic Champion, GM Frode Urkedal, who despite also having qualified for the upcoming World Cup, was nearly 200 Elo points lower than other number two seeds in the event. Of course, this is a Fischer Random event, so the street value of a standard rating is up for debate. Taking a look at the specialist scale, there was a strong argument to be made for placing wagers on acknowledged speed demon and FR beast, GM Daniel Naroditsky, whose live Fischer Random rating was bobbing over 2900.
The early action didn't hint at anything terribly unusual; 14-year-old untitled Singaporean Ethan Poh had no surprises for top seed Leinier Dominguez-Perez, and the only upset to mention was the exit of GM Pavel Ponkratov, but he was fatally handicapped by forfeiting his first round game by appearing roughly 40 minutes too late. Indonesian IM Yoseph Taher kept Ponkratov at arm's length in the second game, and advanced to face third seed Vladimir Fedoseev.
Things started to happen in the second round. Favorite Dominguez-Perez made an oversight and, apparently rattled, walked into a long flurry of recurring tactical tricks from GM Elshan Moradiabadi.
Leinier really worked his opponent over in the second game, but Moradiabadi soaked up an immense amount of pressure and scored a shut out when the clock finally became a decisive extra weight on the scales.
Second seed Urkedal found Naroditsky was worth his hefty FR rating, and also could not recover from a first game loss with the white pieces, the American GM closing out the match by forcing the Norwegian to settle for a perpetual in game two.
Fedoseev was taken to overtime by Taher in a bizarre second game where the Russian GM played most of it with just a few seconds on his clock. Once again time was on Taher's side, as Fedoseev suffered a massive connection problem, which derailed his promotion and delayed the start of their tiebreak games. Vlad shook off this irritating obstacle and advanced when his opponent completely collapsed with white in game 4, after a very tense game 3 had been drawn.
In the semis, Dominguez-killer Moradiabadi faced GM Grigoriy Oparin, the 4th seed, while a rested Naroditsky took on Fedoseev. I haven't said much about Oparin so far, because of a psychological block - whenever I looked at his games, they looked just like regular chess. To be fair, this tends to be the case sooner or later in FR, but Oparin seemed to be an extreme case.
In fact, this qualifier was quite chessy. Naroditsky had had to suffer through and survive a well known theoretical ending of B vs R+P in the first bracket, against GM Eldar Gasanov,
and Oparin would continue to wield classical knowledge. But there was some brawling to do first.
Elshan was the closest thing Qualifier Five had to a Cinderella story, and the duel with Oparin was full of riveting moments. Moradiabadi fell behind with white in game one, but not without mussing up his opponent's hair on the way down.
Oparin didn't shy away from complications in game two, and was eventually taken into overtime as Moradiabadi came out on top in a hugely entertaining slugfest.
Sadly, for the entertainment-hungry neutral spectator, the tiebreak section was not as exciting. In game three Moradiabadi just blundered a piece in the opening. Needing to win with black again to prolong the match, Elshan got a depressingly 'normal' position out of the hat, and Oparin played a majestic game of something that looked very much like 'regular chess'.
The other semifinal was a bit of an anti-climax; the first game was very sensible and ended in a solid draw. Game two was one of those nightmares where one of the players finds a deadly nuance very early in the game. Fedoseev spotted it, and had a decisive superiority after just 9 moves. Naroditsky did his best, but just could not thrash his way back into the game.
So, while the top two seeds could not make it to the final, things were still not exactly crazy with #3 and 4 facing off for the coveted quarterfinal berth. The first two games were tense, and finely balanced. With white in game one, Oparin pursued what looked like a very dangerous lead in development - but the edge was very much optical. At the crucial moment Fedoseev finally castled to safety and coordination, and the game fizzled out.
In game two, Oparin was the one who had a full-time job neutralizing, and displayed technical skill and nerve with a neatly calculated transition to a pawn ending that was even neater considering how quickly it had to be done.
In the 10-minute games that make up the first tiebreak-pair, Fedoseev simply produced some sparkling chess - active, dynamic and cruelly efficient. Both games were won in fine style and are worth examining, but the final one is probably more attractive, because it was a swashbuckling way not to protect his lead.
Fedoseev books his spot in the quarterfinals, joining qualifiers Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alireza Firouzja, Vidit Gujrathi and Peter Svidler.
A weekend full of Fischer Random action climaxes with the final knockout qualifier this Sunday, September 1 at 8 a.m. PDT.
Saturday's broadcast with commentary from NM James Canty: