Some Episodes from Khanty-Mansiysk

While completing this article, I saw that the two games from the finals of the World Cup – Radjabov against Ding Liren for first place and Yu Yangyi against Vachier-Lagrave, the “consolation final” for third place – had been drawn. Both results had been clearly on the horizon already right after the openings, which had been played at high speed. The games had been mutual examinations of opening knowledge, no more.

Like many observers, I had been more interested in the semi-finals, in which it was decided which two players would get a place in the candidates tournament that will be played in Yekaterinenburg next year.

For Dutch chess fans, the semi-final between Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi had a special importance, because the fate of Anish Giri was involved. If Ding would win and qualify for the final of the World Cup, he would be assured of his place in the candidates and in that case Giri would have a very good chance to go to the candidates on rating. If Yu would beat Ding, Yu would have gained his place in the candidates and Ding wouldn’t be too badly hurt, as he would go to the candidates anyway on rating, being far ahead of Giri. A victory by Yu would be good for China – two players in the candidates – and bad for the Netherlands.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I was by far not the only one who feared that the general interest of Chinese chess would prevail over fair sportsmanship. In the past there have been cases where Chinese players shamelessly colluded to help each other at the cost of foreigners. But maybe shameless is not the right word, because I am not sure if the players involved could decide for themselves how to act when the national interest was at stake.

Anyway, these events happened long ago and no one of the stature of Ding Liren was involved. Ding duly won his semi-final, putting conspiracy theories at rest, or so you might think.

But not quite. Hardened cynics now wondered if the Dutch might have bought Ding off with promises of rewards in the future. What to think of them? Last weekend in my hometown, Amsterdam, there was an international conference of flat-earthers, who before and after their lectures went out on the streets, distributing flyers, all eager to convert the naive believers in the orthodoxy of a round earth. It was a reminder that there are skeptics who are willing to believe anything, except the obvious.

Winning with 1.a3
Back a few rounds. In the fourth tie-break game of the fourth round, the Polish Jan-Krzysztof Duda had to beat the American Jeffery Xiong to keep a chance to proceed to the next round, as he had lost the previous game. What opening should he chose when he had to win at all cost?

Duda opened with 1.a3. This may seem amazing, but it is a very modern decision. Top players know that that their opponents have such a detailed knowledge of the tabiyas of modern opening theory that it is extremely difficult to obtain an opening advantage as White. It might be advantageous to go out of the book, especially in a quick game. Magnus Carlsen has shown the way.

The game started 1.a3 c5 2.e4, reaching the position that is known in the Netherlands as the Van Duijn Gambit, named after Roel van Duijn, well known in our country as a lifelong leftist politician, an organic farmer for some time, and lately as a consultant for cases of love sickness.

After moves as 2...e6 or 2...Nc6, Roel gambits a pawn by 3.b4, but after 2...g6 he prefers a completely different set-up with Nc3 and Bc4, where the move a3 might come in handy as an escape square for the bishop. This is what happened in Duda’s game.

Recently, when love sickness had driven him to Germany, my friend Roel became a member of a German chess club. He was pleasantly surprised when a club member asked him if he was the man of the Van Duijn gambit. Then another member told him that his father had played against Hans Ree.

This reminded me of a story told by the English grandmaster Simon Williams. He had collaborated in the making of a chess video, at a London studio, and afterwards, talking with Nigel Short in a pub, he was addressed by a boy who said:

“Are you talking about chess? My mother used to date a chess player.”
“And who would that be?” asked Short.
“A Dutch guy, Jan Timman,” said the boy.

Of course having a father who had played Hans Ree is a much more modest claim to fame.

In Duda’s game against Xiong he got what he wanted, a sharp struggle. He won an interesting game that is shown in the viewer. Later in that tie-break he was eliminated anyway.

Lucky Guys Quickly Leave
It is not often that I mourn for players who lose after spoiling a winning position. It happens to all of us, get over it, next time better. But what happened in the tie-breaks of the quarter-finals might move even the most hardened observer to tears.

First there was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave against Levon Aronian. Aronian played a fine game, sacrificing an exchange to reach a winning position. Then a few inaccuracies which made the win more and more difficult. And then finally, in a position that should have been drawn, a blunder that lost immediately.

But this was nothing compared to what happened in the Armageddon game between Yu Yangyi and Nikita Vitiugov. Vitiugov as Black needed only a draw to go on to the next round. Inexplicably in an early stage he had two important pawns thrown to him, after which he was completely winning. And then, after White’s 17th move, the following position was reached.


Vitiugov could win a piece and force immediate resignation by 17...Qc5, as after 18.Ke3 White would lose his queen after 18...Nc4+. Instead Black played 17...Nd7 and still two pawns ahead, he managed to lose the game.

After the game he said, “This tournament is like life – eventually it has a sad end. Lucky guys leave it quickly, stubborn ones, who fight to their limits – sometimes painfully.”

Does he really think that those who leave life quickly, or players who are eliminated at an early stage, are the lucky ones? After such a game the sentiment is understandable.

Click here for Duda-Xiong, Khanty-Mansiysk 2019