What we learned in 2021, the trends for 2022

by Thorsten Cmiel
1/13/2022 – After the World Championship in classical chess finished in mid-December, three tournaments attracted the attention of chess enthusiasts: the Sunway Festival in Sitges, and the Rapid and Blitz World Championships in Warsaw. A chess review by Thorsten Cmiel. | Photos: FIDE

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What is left of 2021

The most important trends for the new year are usually set by three tournaments: one is a tournament near Barcelona, in Sitges, and the others are traditionally the Rapid and Blitz World Championships.

In Sitges, the tournament is played according to the Sofia rules, which means that a draw only occurs in the case of a triple repetition of the position or after an offer is made past the 30th move. The Sofia rules were not the only reason for longer games in the event, though, as the large rating differences between players were also significant in this regard. In any case, a winner was often found in the last phases of the game.

Tiebreak criteria or playoffs?

The first prizes in Sitges were awarded after playoffs, which consisted of a series of blitz games (5 minutes + 3-second increments). One can approve of this trend of the organizers towards drama, or find it excessive. The question is whether playoffs award prizes according to merit, since the players had already determined an order according to tiebreak criteria, and systems such as Buchholz, Sonneborn-Berger or others are recognized rules that have their inner logic — however, apparently these metrics lose their meaning in open tournaments that receive plenty of media attention. Moreover, the trend is moving away from the ‘Hort rule’, which provides for at least partial prize sharing, towards the motto: the winner takes it all. In Sitges, at any rate, the first (Kollars) and second, the new Rapid World Champion (Abdusattorov), the third (Abhimanyu) and fourth (Cheparinov) swapped places and prize money after the playoffs. The players in fifth to eighth places also fought for prize money after the classical tournament had ended.

This discussion continued in the Rapid and Blitz World Championships. There, only the top two by tiebreak criteria were included in the playoffs. While a discussion arose at the World Rapid Championship because Magnus Carlsen was affected and made critical comments about it on Norwegian television afterwards, the second tournament seemed to end more harmoniously. In the World Blitz Championship, Alireza Firozja made an impressive final spurt to catch up with the two leaders, but had a much inferior tiebreak score.

Openings

Of course, exciting opening duels were seen all around. The blitz game between Alireza Firouzja and his former compatriot Parham Maghsoodloo should serve as an example. Parham quickly played a now familiar knight sacrifice on f7. Vincent Keymer and Jonas Buhl Bjerre had played this ‘draw variation’ recently. It is crucial to know the move 17...c4! after 16....Kxf7 17.Qb3, when the game should end in a draw. However, things are not so simple after all, as Vincent had to discover later in his game.

Alireza refrained from accepting the knight sacrifice and immediately got into a worse position. His opponent gave him a chance, but the visibly dismayed Frenchman was unable to take it.

Maghsoodloo vs. Firouzja

 

Everyone is sure to find some interesting games for their favourite openings, but the trend towards ever shorter thinking times — only recently two players with enviably ample time still played for the World Championship title — makes another phase of the game more important. The endgame. A few examples are intended to illustrate practical questions in tournament games and to refresh existing knowledge. In addition to theoretical discussions in endgames, many exciting endgames were played both in Sitges and in Warsaw.

Calculation

A surprising accident occurred in the seventh round in Sitges. The 17-year-old Indian Nihal Sarin initially played a pawn endgame excellently and seemed to be on his way to a victory. In the decisive position, however, he moved too quickly and almost lost the resulting endgame, as his opponent was able to get an unstoppable passed pawn. After his mistake, however, Nihal managed to hold the game in a remarkable way. The endgame is certainly suitable for calculation training — and it also serves as a warning.

Nihal vs. Kacharava

 

Deciding endgames

The eventual tournament winner and man of the hour, Nodirbek Abdusattorov (17), showcased a convincing performance in an endgame during his final-round game against India’s Pranav — it was an endgame with rooks and same-coloured bishops. However, that was just the beginning of the struggle.

Nodirbek Abdusattorov

Abdusattorov vs. Pranav

 

A rook ending between Nodirbek Abdusattorov and Dmitrij Kollars proved decisive for the outcome of the tournament. The endgame was not without mistakes as the contenders were playing with little time on the clock, and contained some instructive moments — not only for amateurs. The fact that prize money in a 10-day tournament is awarded based upon the results in another discipline (blitz) is not very fortunate, at least from my point of view.

Abdusattorov vs. Kollars

 

Selection of rook games

Even talented young masters can make mistakes under time pressure. In a theoretically well-known position, 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja and his opponent, who is one year older, made several mistakes in the Rapid World Championship. In the critical position, White has to transfer his king to h6 to support his g-pawn. If you are interested in this topical endgame with the king cut off, you can have a look at the games Vallejo Pons vs. Ganguly (Bangkok 2016) and Sasikiran vs. Aronian (Bursa 2010).

Alireza Firouzja

Firouzja vs. Shevchenko

 

In another game in Sitges, the attacker managed to win a rook ending with four pawns against three on one wing. Fatigue played an important role. The 16-year-old defender from Azerbaijan acted confidently for a long time, but he made a gross mistake on move 99.

His compatriot Mahammad Muradli (18) lost a few days later against Timur Gareyev in the World Rapid Chess Championship after a completely unsuccessful attempt to go for a win. Another endgame that was decided due to the quick-thinking time was also seen at the World Rapid Championship. Incidentally, in each of these three games, the older player won.

Suleymanli vs. Dionisi

 

Muradli vs. Gareyev

 

Bartosz Socko

Socko vs. Costachi

 

Pawn chains in the endgame

Rook endgames with passed pawns on one side often end in exciting races. The side that is materially weak sacrifices its rook for the last passed pawn and relies on its pawns on the other side. The task of the player with the extra rook is then to move his king as quickly as possible and prevent the opponent’s pawns from advancing.

Details frequently matter. Murali Karthikeyan failed to win against two connected pawns in Sitges. Recently, Jorden Van Foreest played an important endgame with a rook against three connected pawns and eventually won. The third game, this time with two pawns against the rook, is also from the World Rapid Chess Championship.

Rios vs. Karthikeyan

 

Van Foreest vs. Borisek

 

Szpar vs. Vakhidov

 

The endgames considered show how difficult it is to master the last phase of the game without mistakes. The mixture of knowledge and the necessity of calculating long variations under time pressure should motivate the writer of these lines and probably many readers to pay more attention to endgames. Karsten Müller will certainly be pleased.

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Thorsten Cmiel is FIDE Master, lives in Cologne and Milano and works as a freelance finance journalist.
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