A powerful and distinctly Russian-flavored bracket provided the kind of 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 Fischer Random knockout qualifier, and the latter arguably had a historical advantage. In 2003, Svidler became the Fischer Random world champion by defeating titleholder Peter Leko, in the first “official” match for the crown.
Svidler won the title at the 2003 Mainz Chess Classic, which was the showcase for Fischer Random in the first decade of the 21st century. Peter defended his title twice, until dethroned by Levon Aronian in Mainz 2006.
The new Fischer Random revival means a new title shot for the game’s 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.
There were many tense moments en route to his final showdown with friend and rival Grischuk. The 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 semifinal meeting with Andrey Esipenko, who had impressed with a 4-0 march over Anatoly Bykhovsky and 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 Svidler’s 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 high-rated opponent, knocking fourth seed Paco Vallejo out in a 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 three-minute game tiebreaks were dramatic. First, this happened:
Somehow, the underdog managed to brush himself off and pull this off to force Armageddon:
In the Armageddon, Badmatsyrenov chose White, but went out quietly when an equal ending resulted in a three-time repetition. The fairytale was over, and the standard finale took the stage.
As live commentator Aman Hambleton mentioned, 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 Fischer Random 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 an August 31 participant, the 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 who 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.
Thursday’s broadcast with commentary from GM Aman Hambleton:
You can catch all the knockout qualifier action live at Twitch.tv/Chess and Chess.com/TV on August 31, with the last qualifier on September 1.