Baku Final: Svidler versus Karjakin!

by Sagar Shah
10/1/2015 – It’s an all-Russian finale in Baku which promises to be extremely well matched. In this article we try to dissect the two finalists with regards to their previous encounters, style of play and opening choices. An extra US $40,000 and the Word Cup title are at stake. We bring you analysis, predictions and, as an extra, a video of Peter Svidler trying out his second favourite sport!

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World Cup

10th September – 5th October

Baku, Azerbaijan


Watch it live on Playchess!

World Cup Final: Svidler versus Karjakin!

After making his 51st move, when Anish Giri offered a draw to Peter Svidler, the Russian heaved a sigh of relief. He had not only made it to the last round of the World Cup 2015 but also booked a seat in the Candidates 2016. Sergey Karjakin’s entry to the finals was much more dramatic, as he used his amazing presence of mind to claim a three-fold repetition in a position that was most probably lost against Pavel Eljanov. Both players confessed that they had achieved their aim of playing in the World Cup by qualifying for the Candidates. While Peter and Sergey must be content with their performance, with nothing to lose, both must be aiming for greater glory – World Cup 2015 champion. The winner takes home US $120,000 and the runner-up US $80,000. The finals will be a four game classical match. In case of a tie, we will witness the same format of tie-breaks as we have been seeing throughout this event. So let’s have a look at what we can expect in this finale.

This is the third consecutive time that we have an all-Russian final in World Cup. In 2011 it was Svidler vs Grischuk and in 2013 it was Kramnik against Andreikin.

Track record of Svidler vs Karjakin

  • Total number of games played against each other: 43
  • 27 classical games: five wins for Karjakin, two wins for Svidler, and 20 draws
  • Four rapid games: two wins for Karjakin, one win for Svidler and one draw
  • 12 blitz games: four wins for Svidler, three for Karjakin and five draws

As we have four long time control games for the finals of the World Cup 2015, let’s focus on their previous classical battles. Karjakin has a clear edge over Svidler with five wins to two. But the interesting point to note here is that while both of them have two wins each with the white pieces, Karjakin has three wins with black while Svidler has none!

Karjakin the brilliant defender

One of the recurring themes in the battles between Svidler and Karjakin is how the former builds brilliant sacrificial attacks and how the latter defends with great tenacity and resourcefulness. More often than not Svidler is unable to take the attack to its logical conclusion and Karjakin escapes. One of the prime examples is their most recent battle from the Russian Superfinals which happened just 40 odd days ago.

[Event "RUS-ch 68th"] [Site "Chita"] [Date "2015.08.18"] [Round "9"] [White "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Black "Svidler, Peter"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "C78"] [WhiteElo "2753"] [BlackElo "2739"] [Annotator "Sagar Shah/Mokal,A"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "1r3rk1/2pq1ppp/1b1p1nn1/1N1Pp3/2P1P1b1/5N2/1PB2PPP/R1BQ1RK1 w - - 0 16"] [PlyCount "39"] [EventDate "2015.08.09"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "11"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [EventCategory "18"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2015.09.14"] {The annotations to this game have been taken from the latest issue of ChessBase Magazine, i.e CBM 168.} 16. h3 {Karjakin knows that Svidler will sacrifice his bishop on h3 but he is up for the challenge.} Bxh3 $5 {One could say this is a brave move but on the other hand if you look at it closely, it is practically forced. The most interesting thing to note here is that this same sacrifice was played nine years ago by Radjabov against Karjakin, when he was just 16 years old with a rating of 2672!} 17. gxh3 Qxh3 {All these moves were made quickly by Svidler, which means he was still in his preparation.} 18. Ng5 $1 {The only defensive move available to White.} Qg3+ 19. Kh1 Qh4+ 20. Kg2 Nf4+ 21. Bxf4 exf4 22. Nf3 Qg4+ 23. Kh1 Rfe8 $1 {A very strong move by Svidler bringing a new piece into the game.} 24. Ra3 {This was played after 18 minutes of thought. The rook stands well on a3 and will help in the defence.} Nxe4 25. Bxe4 Rxe4 26. Rc3 Ba5 $6 {Moving the bishop away from the b6-square was a mistake as we shall see in the game. It is well placed on the a7-g1 diagonal and on the new one (a5-e1) it does nothing much.} ({The right way to continue would be} 26... Qh5+ 27. Nh2 (27. Kg2 Qg4+ 28. Kh1 Qh5+ $11) 27... Qxd1 28. Rxd1 Re2 $1 {Black has two pawns for a piece and now wins the third one.} 29. b4 Bxf2 $11 {Black should have excellent chances to hold this position.}) 27. Rc1 Rbe8 28. Nh2 Qh4 (28... Qxd1 29. Rfxd1 Re2 30. b4 $1 $16 {[%csl Rc7]}) 29. Nd4 {This move would not have been possible had the bishop been on b6.} h5 30. Qd3 Qf6 31. Nc6 Bb6 32. b4 $1 f3 33. Qxf3 Rf4 34. Qc3 {The threat of c4-c5 forces Black to exchange the queens.} Qxc3 (34... Qh4 35. c5 $18) 35. Rxc3 $16 {The queens have been exchanged and Karjakin managed to convert this into a win.} 1-0

Here is one more example of how an excellent attacking position was ruined by Svidler, with some insightful analysis by Evgeny Postny.

[Event "Baku FIDE Grand Prix"] [Site "Baku"] [Date "2014.10.13"] [Round "10"] [White "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Black "Svidler, Peter"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "C88"] [WhiteElo "2767"] [BlackElo "2732"] [Annotator "Postny,E"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r1b2rk1/2p2pp1/p1n2q1p/P1b1p3/1pQ1Pn2/1B2NN1P/1PP2PP1/R1B1R1K1 b - - 0 17"] [PlyCount "21"] [EventDate "2014.10.02"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "11"] [EventCountry "AZE"] [EventCategory "21"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2014.11.11"] 17... Nxg2 $1 {Of course Svidler was not going to miss this attractive sacrificial combination.} 18. Kxg2 (18. Qxc5 Qxf3 19. Nxg2 Bxh3 20. Ne3 Rad8 $1 21. Qxc6 Rd6 22. Qxd6 cxd6 $17) 18... Bxh3+ 19. Kxh3 (19. Kg3 Qf4+ 20. Kxh3 Qxf3+ {would lead to the same position.}) 19... Qxf3+ 20. Kh2 Nd4 $1 ({After} 20... Qxf2+ $2 21. Ng2 Nd4 22. Rf1 Nf3+ 23. Kh1 Qg3 24. Rxf3 Qxf3 25. Qxc5 { White eliminates all Black's minor pieces.}) 21. Rf1 {The only reasonable defence.} (21. Qxc5 $2 Qxf2+ {and Black wins either the rook, or the queen after} 22. Ng2 Nf3+ {[%csl Rc5]}) 21... Qh5+ 22. Kg2 Qf3+ 23. Kh2 Bd6 $2 {Too solid for such a position!} (23... Qf4+ $1 24. Kg2 Qxe4+ 25. f3 (25. Kg1 $2 Qg6+ 26. Kh1 Qh5+ 27. Kg2 Qf3+ 28. Kh2 Bd6 $19 {[%cal Ge5e4] That's why it was important to capture the Pe4.}) 25... Qg6+ 26. Kf2 (26. Kh1 Qh5+ 27. Kg2 e4 { is exactly the same as after 26.Kf2.}) 26... Qh5 27. Kg2 e4 28. Qd5 Qg6+ 29. Kh1 (29. Kf2 Ba7 $1 30. Qxe4 Qd6 $40 {[%cal Ga8e8,Gd6h2]}) 29... Nxb3 30. cxb3 Bxe3 31. Bxe3 Rad8 32. Qc5 (32. Qxe4 Qh5+ 33. Kg1 Rfe8 34. Qf4 Qg6+ 35. Kh1 Rd5 36. Rf2 Rf5 $1 37. Qd4 c5 38. Qd2 Rh5+ 39. Rh2 Rxh2+ 40. Kxh2 Re5 $19) 32... Rfe8 {It's clear that Black is nearly winning here. He has three pawns for the piece, but more importantly - a powerful initiative. The white king is in bad shape.} {An attempt to close some lines by} 33. f4 $2 {loses to} Qg3 {[%cal Gd8d3]}) 24. c3 {Now Black has to succumb to perpetual check.} Qh5+ (24... Nxb3 25. Qxb3 Qxe4 26. Rg1 {can be better only for White.}) 25. Kg2 Qf3+ 26. Kh2 Qh5+ 27. Kg2 Qf3+ 1/2-1/2

But sometimes it so turns out that the sacrifice is objectively unsound. Many players might fumble in the complications and give you good practical chances, but not Karjakin. He has excellent nerves. In this 2008 game against Svidler from Sochi Grand Prix, Svidler goes for a dubious sacrifice. Karjakin had to defend with great accuracy but he did so right until the end. The initiative was quenched and all that Svidler could do was to throw in the towel.

[Event "Sochi FIDE GP"] [Site "Sochi"] [Date "2008.08.11"] [Round "10"] [White "Svidler, Peter"] [Black "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E15"] [WhiteElo "2738"] [BlackElo "2727"] [Annotator "Sagar Shah"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r1q1k2r/pbnpb2p/1p3pp1/2pn4/4Q2N/6P1/PP2PPBP/RNBR2K1 w kq - 0 15"] [PlyCount "32"] [EventDate "2008.07.31"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "13"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [EventCategory "19"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2008.10.01"] {We are currently in one of the most topical positions of the Queen's Indian Defence 5.Qc2 variation. Svidler of course goes for the sacrificial attack.} 15. Nxg6 $5 {This same move had been tried by Radjabov in his game against Leko a few months ago.} hxg6 16. Qxg6+ {Computers prefer Black at this point, but in a practical game the second player's task is anything but easy. Look how Karjakin maintains his cool and refutes the sacrifice.} Kd8 17. a3 { Threatening to trap the knight in the center of the board with e4.} b5 18. e4 Nb6 19. Nc3 Ne6 (19... d6 {was played by Leko but after} 20. Bf4 $1 {White had excellent compensation.}) 20. b4 (20. Nxb5 Qc6 $17) 20... cxb4 (20... Nc4 $5) 21. Nd5 Nf8 22. Qg7 Rh7 23. Qg8 Nxd5 24. exd5 d6 25. axb4 {White's main compensation is the poor co-ordination of black pieces, but the fact that White cannot really create dangerous threats helps Black to unravel.} Qf5 26. Be3 a6 27. Rac1 Rc8 28. Bb6+ Ke8 29. h4 Qg6 30. Qxg6+ Nxg6 {Queens are exchanged and Black was able to make his extra piece count. Svidler must be wondering how he could have improved his play when the truth is that Karjakin played almost flawless chess.} 0-1

If Karjakin is an excellent defender, Svidler is not far behind. Here is one of his nice saves from the Tal Memorial 2011.

Sergey Karjakin – Peter Svidler, Tal Memorial 2011

Black to play. How should Black defend?

[Event "Moscow Tal Memorial 6th"] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "2011.11.20"] [Round "5"] [White "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Black "Svidler, Peter"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B42"] [WhiteElo "2763"] [BlackElo "2755"] [Annotator "Ramirez Alvarez"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r2q1r2/1p1n1pQ1/p2p4/2bbpP1k/8/2P5/PPB2PPP/R4RK1 b - - 0 22"] [PlyCount "9"] [EventDate "2011.11.16"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [EventCategory "22"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2012.01.18"] {With the deadly threat of Bd1+ followed by mate. Black actually only has one defensive resource!} 22... Bf3 $3 (22... Qf6 23. Bd1+ Kh4 24. Qg3#) 23. Qh7+ Kg5 24. Qg7+ Kh5 25. Qh7+ Kg5 26. Qg7+ Kh5 {Unfortunately there are no more winning attempts, and the perpetual seals the draw. Despite being so short it was definitely a crazy game.} 1/2-1/2

Opening ceremony: little did they know at this point that they would be soon be facing each other in the finals

Svidler the opening expert

When it comes to the first phase of the game Svidler has a definite edge over Karjakin. Before we discuss the specific openings of both the players let me show you a position that occurred in the 2014 Candidates which shows how deep a thinker Peter really is.

Peter Svidler – Sergey Karjakin, Candidates 2014

It’s Sergey’s (Black’s) turn to play. 5…c5 or 5…0-0 – what would you choose?

[Event "FIDE Candidates"] [Site "Khanty-Mansiysk"] [Date "2014.03.22"] [Round "8"] [White "Svidler, Peter"] [Black "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C00"] [WhiteElo "2758"] [BlackElo "2766"] [Annotator "Sagar Shah"] [PlyCount "13"] [EventDate "2014.03.13"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "14"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [EventCategory "21"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2014.05.15"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. g3 d5 3. Bg2 e6 4. O-O Be7 5. d3 c5 {Of the nearly 900 games that have reached this position 820 games have continued with Nbd2. But Svidler has seen worked out the imperceptible difference between these two moves and come to the conclusion that this is not accurate.} (5... O-O {is more accurate and in order to get in e4 White will have to play Nbd2. To Sergey's credit he learnt from this mistake and in their next encounter in Russian Team Championship he went 5...0-0.}) 6. e4 $1 {is more accurate and in order to get in e4 White will have to play Nbd2. To Sergey's credit he learnt from this mistake and in their next encounter in Russian Team Championship he went 5...0-0.} Nc6 (6... dxe4 7. dxe4 Qxd1 8. Rxd1 Nxe4 9. Ne5 Nd6 10. Na3 O-O 11. Nac4 Nxc4 12. Nxc4 $44 {[%cal Gc1f4] With excellent compensation was the deep point behind Peter's opening play.}) 7. Qe2 {White is able to do without the move Nbd2 which is an opening victory for the first player. He can later play e5 and get his bishop out to f4 without having to engage in tedious manoeuvres like Re1, Nd2-f1 and then Bf4. Svidler got an excellent position from the openng but later lost the game.} 0-1

Svidler as White

Svidler has the white pieces in games one and three. It seems highly unlikely that he will go for 1.e4. The reason is that out of six classical games, in five of them Karjakin has gone for the Berlin Variation in the Ruy Lopez with 3…Nf6. Svidler has always declined the invitation to enter the Berlin endgame and has played either 4.d3 or 4.Nc3. Karjakin equalized in all the games without any difficulties. Hence in their last four classical encounters Svidler began with 1.Nf3. There are high chances that Svidler would start the finals with either 1.Nf3 or 1.c4. Against 1.d4 Karjakin has quite a rigid repertoire with the Nimzo Indian/Queen’s Indian. It could be possible that Svidler might try to find some new ideas in those systems. If Peter is able to get a lead in the first two games then we could expect 1.e4 from him in the third encounter, just like he did against Giri in the semifinals when he was leading the match. For a solid game Peter goes 1.e4 while for a creative and unconventional one he begins with 1.Nf3 or 1.c4.

Peter is quite unpredictable when he has the white pieces

Karjakin as White

Karjakin is a principled player when it comes to his openings. Out of his eleven white games against Svidler he chose 1.e4 in nine of them and 1.d4 in the remaining two. It could be safe to assume that Karjakin would not want to try out Svidler’s preparation in the Grunfeld. Besides, in this tournament he played 1.e4 in four out of the six classical games. When he played 1.d4 against Mamedyarov and 1.c4 against Eljanov, both the games ended in a draw within 15 moves. Karjakin might not want to risk that in the finals. That leaves 1.e4 on the table. Svidler has two main openings against that - 1….e5 and 1…c5. It seems that Peter is much more comfortable playing 1…e5 than get into the complications of the Taimanov or Paulsen. He has also preferred 1…e5 to Sicilian in this World Cup. One position that the two of them have reached on six out of seven occasions is the following:

Svidler (Black) has opted for two moves in the above position - 7…0-0 and 7…d6

If Svidler plays 7…0-0, Karjakin doesn’t like to allow the Marshall, and has always preferred 8.a4. The tabiya after 8…b4 9.d4 d6 10.dxe5 dxe5 is something that we might witness in this match.

There are two main moves for White in this position. One is to take the queen on d8, which has not scored so well. The other one which Karjakin has preferred is 11.Nbd2. The main idea is to get the queen to e2, knight to c4, or bishop to c4 and knight to b3, and push the pawn to a5. The interesting point is that apart from Karjakin playing this against Svidler, Dominguez beat Peter in this line with white in May 2015. Wei Yi tried to repeat the Cuban’s success in July 2015, but was given a positional endgame lesson by the Russian. It will be interesting to see if Karjakin has any new ideas up his sleeve over here.

There are also chances of Svidler trying his idea in the 7…d6 variation which brought him the very important victory against Anish Giri.

This variation with …exd4 followed by …Nd7, …Na5, …c5, …Bf6 is hardly played, but Svidler seems to have made a deep study of it. He has used it against three strong players: Motylev, Yu Yangyi and Anish Giri and scored 2.0/3. Maybe we can call this the Svidler Variation!

Classical versus concrete approach

Great players like Svidler and Karjakin are well rounded in their play. It is difficult to categorize them as a positional player or a tactical one because a 2750+ player is usually good at everything. Yet there are some traits which are more visible than the others. Svidler’s approach to the game is tending more towards a classical style of thinking than a concrete one. From his commentary we understand that many times he has things to say like these pieces should be kept on the board or if we removed everything then the a5 pawn would be weak or this sacrifice has to work. This is not to say that he doesn’t calculate well, but he usually calculates after choosing the candidate moves based on his understanding and likes in the position. On the other hand, Karjakin is a product of the modern computer era: he doesn’t really have any prejudices and tries to calculate in the most concrete and objective manner as possible. That is one of the reasons why he is such a good defender. Thus, in this finals we can see this difference in approach.

World Cup title

Svidler was the World Cup winner in the year 2011, while Karjakin has not achieved this distinction. Naturally Sergey would be hungrier for this victory than Peter.

Svidler beat Grischuk in the World Cup 2011 final with a score of 2.5-1.5.
In their encounter only the first game was decisive followed by three draws.

Rapid and blitz

If the match does go to the rapid and blitz tiebreaks, everything seems to be quite well matched. Even in terms of their previous scores against each other, they are pretty much neck and neck. In this event Karjakin has impressed everyone with his tenacity, especially the comeback in his match against Pavel Eljanov being 1-0 down in the rapids. I would say that Karjakin has an edge over Svidler if the games did go into the tiebreaks.

With or without the suit, Karjakin is a tremendous blitz and rapid player

Final Predictions

It goes without saying that the finals are going to be close. Both the players have overcome stiff opposition to reach this last hurdle. In the 27 classical games that they have played in the past only two of them have lasted for less than 25 moves. This means we are surely going to see some fighting chess. Svidler has the edge when it comes to the openings. He is unpredictable with the white pieces and would have new ideas up his sleeve. Karjakin on the other hand has his own favourite systems which he has deep knowledge in. Age is also a factor in this contest. Svidler is 39 years old while Karjakin is 25. These 14 years will definitely count in this grueling event which has been going on since the last 20 days now. Taking in to consideration all the factors mentioned in this article we could come to the conclusion that the match will be close, but Karjakin seems to be the mild favourite.

On a parting note we would like to treat our readers to a hardly-known video of Peter Svidler. After his match against Anish Giri ended, Peter came to commentary room and spoke with Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam. In this interview he revealed how he once had a net session when he was in Gibraltar in 2009. There is no doubt about Svidler’s love and knowledge for the game of cricket, but with regards to his technique… we will let the readers decide!

Final results

Player Rtg
G3 G4 G5 G6 G7 G8 G9 G10 G11 Pts
Peter Svidler (RUS) 2727
Sergey Karjakin (RUS) 2762

Photos and information from the official website and their Facebook page


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Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India, the biggest chess news portal in the country. His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, and to date close to a billion views. ChessBase India is the sole distributor of ChessBase products in India and seven adjoining countries, where the software is available at a 60% discount. compared to International prices.


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