On Thursday, Indian super grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi survived one of the strongest brackets of the Knockout Qualifier stage to reach the quarterfinals of the 2019 FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship.
In a bracket which featured four players rated north of 2700 FIDE in the quarterfinal stage, Vidit defeated non-titled qualifier Deniz Tasdelen, and grandmasters Sergey Grigoriants, Matthias Bluebaum and former world championship challenger Sergey Karjakin in a field which saw stars like Le Quang Liem and Jeffery Xiong crash out in the final eight.
After brushing aside Tasdelen and disposing of the talented Grigoriants in straight games, Vidit was in for a stern test in his semifinal match against Bluebaum, who had just defeated world top-50 player Le in the previous round through a bit of industriousness mixed with a touch of good fortune.
Vidit had been waiting for his opponent to finish a nail-biting two-tiebreak match which lasted over an hour-and-a-half. To make matters worse, The local time in India was approaching midnight and Vidit was seen on camera drinking copious amounts of coffee to stay focused.
After drawing both 15+2 games, game one of the 10+2 tiebreaks saw Vidit allow a winning position to deteriorate in the middle game as he chose to exchange queens, but recovered, eventually penetrating the seventh rank and using his rook as custodian for his trio of kingside pawns:
In game two, Vidit got into rare time trouble in a complex game featuring numerous mistakes and inaccuracies by both players. Eventually, Bluebaum was able to take advantage of a Vidit's 39...Bd5?? to force the king away from protection which would have handed Bluebaum a full piece and two pawn advantage heading into an easily-winning endgame:
After the vicious 10+2 tiebreak which saw each player win with the white pieces, the tiebreaks moved on the 3+2, the German Bluebaum seemed to become frustrated in game one of this time control, losing in just 18 moves and visibly shaking his head on the broadcast, disgusted with himself after a questionable 9...c6? caused him to go down a center pawn in unnecessary fashion early on, eventually leading way to a premature king walk. The game was already out of reach once 14...Ra5?? revealed a mate in 5 which prompted Bluebaum to resign within a few moves:
Bluebaum may have been suffering from some fatigue by game two of the 3+2 portion. He had required 3+2 tiebreaks to defeat the dangerous Le in the previous round. But, despite having clear chances to force what would have been the second Armageddon tiebreak of the day, he wasn't able to play accurately enough to pull one back and eventually settled for a draw, sending Vidit to the finals to meet the victor of the other semifinal.
On the other side of the bracket, the semifinal between top-seeded Sergey Karjakin and GM Evgeny Najer was overshadowed by the quarterfinal match Karjakin had just survived. GM Robert Hess of Chess.com commentary fame entered the tournament as the nine seed and had just finished a grueling battle with GM Tigran Petrosyan which featured the first Armageddon tiebreak of the Knockout Qualifiers. Despite getting into time trouble on numerous occasions, Hess was able to hold his nerve and defeat the Armenian Petrosyan with the black pieces, ironically flagging his opponentdespite beginning the game with one-minute less on his clock.
Few would have given Hess a chance against the stellar defensive play of Karjakin and it appeared as though the doubters would be proven right. Karjakin held a relatively even position with a seven-minute advantage on the clock until suddenly. However, fate seemed to intervene in Hess' favor once again as Karjakin played an inexplicable 26. gxf4, handing Hess a lifeline and a clear path to put pressure on Karjakin with a sequence of moves that Hess spent little time to recognize. The American commentary and chess talent eventually set up an intricate knight-and-rook mating net to stun Karjakin and send the Twitch chat into raptures:
Game two of the quarterfinal more closely followed the narrative fans would have been expecting at the offset of this encounter. Karjakin constructed a beautiful seventh-to-third rank pawn chain and managed to force Hess once again into serious time trouble. This time, Hess was not able to pull a rabbit out of his hat and would succumb to the Russian's pressure once Karjakin had infiltrated the second-rank, preparing to snatch Hess' remaining pawns and enter a winning endgame:
In the first game of the 10+2 tiebreaks, Hess looked to be improving his position as his clock wound down, maneuvering his knight but eventually running out of ideas to breakthrough and settling for a draw by repetition:
The second game looked to be Hess' moment as he was miraculously playing on what amounted to increment deep into the endgame. Hikaru Nakamura, who like Karjakin was spending part of his Sinquefield Cup rest day deep in the Fischer Random action, noted in Twitch chat that Hess was displaying great technique under time pressure. Hess held a knight-for-two-pawns advantage but with just three seconds on his clock played 50. Rd2+ instead of Rxe5 which may have led to victory and a berth in the semifinal. With that misstep, Karjakin escaped with a draw and let out an audible exhale, while sweat began to bead on Hess' face as he held his head in disappointment.
In the 3+2 tiebreak portion, Hess refused to wake his fans up from their fever dream as he outplayed Karjakin in game one and looked to be pushing his opponent to the brink of elimination in game two. However, after spending nearly 35 seconds to play 15. Re1 Hess wasn't able to hold a worse position and eventually resigned, sending him into his second Armageddon tiebreak of the day:
Karjakin has been dubbed "The Minister of Defense" for good reason, and after winning the drawing of lots, it surprised no one that Karjakin chose to play with black and the draw odds. Hess had one last chance to break down Karjakin's defense and continue his CInderella run, but it wasn't to be, and Hess eventually went down to Karjakin's outstanding positional play, losing the game and the match with it.
Karjakin moved on to his semifinal match with Najer both relieved and exhausted, taking only a five-minute break between matches. Najer put up a valiant effort, playing an exciting and chaotic first game which became complex and quite sharp after 30. Kc3 which led to Karjakin simply outplaying his opponent. With the black pieces in the second 15+2 game, Karjakin once again showed off his defensive prowess, trading down to a nicely-calculated endgame which saw both players promote pawns:
Vidit came into the bracket and the final as the top-rated Fischer Random player on Chess.com, just ahead of both Hikaru Nakamura and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. His skill was on full display in the final against Karjakin as both players had outlasted a couple close calls. After spending nearly six-and-a-half hours reaching this critical juncture, both Vidit and Karjakin entered the final with a minimum prize of $10,000 and a spot in the FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship Quarterfinals on the line.
Game one analysis will be provided by IM Rakesh Kulkarni who will dive deep into the intricacies of a resounding victory for Vidit, who showed off his 3100 Fischer Random rating throughout the day:
Game two featured an interesting configuration, with knights and bishops sitting side-by-side to their counterparts with the bishops isolated on the a and b-files. This configuration may have led to the sharp game that we saw which once again featured errors by both players. Either by good fortune or ample preparation, Vidit was on the receiving end of Karjakin errors throughout, gaining an advantage that he solidified after Karjakin's 39...Ne3 sealed his fate and all but guaranteed victory for the 24-year-old Indian star:
At the end of this chaotic and potentially historic Knockout Qualifier, both finalists joined commentator GM Aman Hambleton to offer their thoughts. On Hess, Karjakin offered praise, "I decided to play with the black pieces (in Armageddon) because he was outplaying me with any color and I thought at least if the draw suits me at least I will have chances."
Vidit reflected on his run to being crowned champion, "It was a really long day, right now it's 3:30 a.m. so every time I was trying to keep myself awake and I had like four liters of coffee. I think the most difficult match for me was against Matthias. I kept getting good positions but he kept fighting and he was playing incredibly well. I got a bit lucky in the last game to draw the position."
On his final against Karjakin, Vidit continued, "There wasn't so much time to think but after he played Ke8 (in the last game) I knew he would try to complicate the game and flash open the center. I wanted to bring all my pieces near the king and it worked out." Vidit reflected on qualifying for the quarterfinal, "It's very exciting, I mean Chess 960 itself is very exciting. Today, before the first tournament I played my first tournament game of Chess 960 and it was addicting. There isn't a lot of time to prepare, which you don't normally get in the standard game, so it was a lot of fun."
With his win, Vidit has secured himself a place in the quarterfinals along with a minimum guaranteed prize of $10,000. He will join Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alireza FIrouzja and the other three winners of each knockout qualifier group. The next knockout qualifier is this Sunday, August 25 at 8 a.m. PDT.