A powerful and distinctly Russian-flavored bracket provided the kind of scenario and excitement that is becoming familiar in the FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship. For the fourth successive time the top two seeds faced each other in the final knockout round, and yet again there was a thrilling Cinderella story that didn't quite have a happy ending.
Alexander Grischuk and Peter Svidler were the favorites and the household chess names in the fourth World FischerRandom KO qualifier, and the latter arguably had a historical advantage. Svidler became FR world champion by defeating titleholder Peter Leko, in the first 'official' match for the crown. This was at the 2003 Mainz Chess Classic, which was the showcase for FischerRandom in the first decade of the 21st century. Peter defended his title twice, until dethroned by Levon Aronian in Mainz 2006.
The new FischerRandom revival means a new title shot for the FR 'veteran', and in the preliminary rounds Svidler eliminated all resistance in the first pair of 15-minute games, with only Jorden van Foreest nicking him for a draw along the way.
However, there were many tense moments en route to his final showdown with friend and rival Grischuk. Young Dutchman van Foreest faltered after being presented with a long sequence of subtle problems to solve in a remarkably 'normal' looking game.
Svidler swept through his semi-final meeting with Andrey Esipenko, who had impressed with a 4-0 march over Anatoly Bykhovskyand third seed Nikita Vitiugov. The match was tense however, with this exciting moment in the second game, which Esipenko had to win to force overtime.
In this position a sacrifice on f7 seemed in order, but White hesitated, and things went steadily downhill from there.
While there were a lot of lopsided matches in the 'Svidler' half of the knockout table, things were considerably more exciting in the Grischuk half. For one thing, there was an amazing amount of giant-killing going on from Siberian IM Badmatsyrenov. For another, the delays faced by Grischuk - waiting for quarterfinal opponent Oleksander Bortnyk's overtime match, and then dueling with the surprise Siberian - in reaching the final could mean a better rested Svidler. That's assuming Peter was resting, and not stewing.
Mr. Badmatsyrenov, or 'Batman' as a sizeable segment of the audience began to call him, started his heroics with a 2-0 win over Alexey Dreev, which included this lovely bit of sustained violence.
Whether this result was a big upset or not was debatable. While 'Batman' appeared to be sporting a 2397 FIDE rating, his live FR rating hit 2793 and appeared to be a scrambled typo. It would quickly become clear that FR suits him.
In the quarterfinals Badmatsyrenov eliminated another highly rated opponent, knocking 4th seed Paco Vallejo out in a very finely played queen ending. The Siberian wielded a very potent combination of speed and more sustained opening weirdness, which allowed him a bit of extra time to produce tricky resources later in the game. His semifinal battle with Grischuk was the dramatic highlight of the event.
The first four games were split, following the rough scenario of Grischuk winning when being able to force classical normality, and with Badmatsyrenov striking when the favorite's time trouble meant he was unable to cope with the upstart's pressure. The 3-minute game tiebreaks were absurdly dramatic. First, this happened:
Black played the obvious 60...f2 which looks good, but ... A truly miraculous escape from a visibly doomed and hope-free endgame, topped by actually winning it despite playing roughly half the game on the brink of forfeiting on time.
Somehow, the underdog managed to brush himself off and pull this off to force Armageddon:
Some resourceful prodding around Grischuk's kingside produced a grave error that the Siberian master exploited with some flashy and accurate tactics - not to mention impressive nerves.
In the Armageddon, Badmatsyrenov chose white, but went out quietly when an equal ending resulted in a three-time repetition. The fairy tale was over, and the standard finale took the stage.
As live commentator Aman Hambleton mentioned (jinxed?), the finals have often not measured up to the kind of excitement provided by the Cinderellas in this event, and sure enough, the clash of giants did not go into tiebreaks. The decisive game saw some dynamic and ambitious play from Grischuk, but in the critical phase Svidler was the one who demonstrated tactical control.
So FR specialist Peter Svidler books his spot in the quarterfinals, joining qualifiers Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alireza Firouzja and Vidit Gujrathi. The next weekend will determine the remaining two spots, with the last knockouts on August 31 and September 1.
In addition to the notable grandmasters participating in the knockout qualifiers, four players have qualified all the way from the initial phase, the open qualifier. These four underdogs, including August 31 participant 14-year-old untitled Singaporean Ethan Poh, will look to keep their Cinderella stories alive as they now face the daunting task of taking on multiple grandmasters—some of whom are ranked in the top-50 players in the world.
Poh's first-round opponent for August 31, Leinier Dominguez-Perez, recently accepted an invitation to play in the qualifiers as the top-10 FIDE Cuban-American looks to avoid an upset at the hands of Norwegian GM Frode Urkedal. After today's qualifier, the knockout tournaments continue on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 in a weekend full of Fischer Random action.
The next knockout qualifier is this Saturday, August 31 at 8 a.m. PDT.
For more in-depth information on the FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship, including all titled player qualifiers, visit the official Chess.com guide here.
For the official rules of the FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship, see this PDF.
Remember to watch all upcoming FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship coverage on Twitch.tv/Chess starting this Saturday, Aug. 31, and concluding the knockout phase on Sept. 1.