FIDE World Cup: Blunders abound as Aronian and Vitiugov are knocked out

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
9/26/2019 – The play-offs of the quarter-finals at the FIDE World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk showed how much knock-out events are about keeping one's head together, as Levon Aronian and Nikita Vitiugov were eliminated after blundering horribly from completely winning positions. While Maxime Vachier-Lagrave knocked Aronian out in the second rapid game, Yu Yangyi and Vitiugov decided their match-up in Armageddon. GM YANNICK PELLETIER reviewed the highlights of the day. | Photo: FIDE

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Nerves, nerves, nerves

The FIDE World Cup is taking place in Khanty-Mansiysk. It is a seven-round knock-out event for 128 players, with a total prize fund of US$ 1.6 million and a first prize of US$ 110,000. The matches consist of two classical games with a time control of 90 minutes for 40 moves plus 30 minutes for the rest of the game, with an increment of 30 seconds per move. The finals consist of four classical games. Full schedule.

The stakes are high as can be for professional chess players in the World Cup, as the difference between qualifying to the Candidates and being knocked out one or two rounds before reaching that goal is massive. If we add the fact that rapid and blitz chess are used as deciders, it makes total sense that nerves become the single most important deciding factor in each duel. 

The prime event of the day was the first one to finish. After having lost a golden chance to participate in the previous Candidates by dramatically losing against Levon Aronian in the semi-finals of the 2017 World Cup, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave advanced to this year's semis by taking down his Armenian friend in the second 25-minute tiebreaker. Aronian had played a clean-cut exchange sacrifice to get a winning position, but missed a couple of chances to convert his large advantage. Moreover, the tables completely turned when the Armenian blundered on move 38. Aronian will now put all his hopes to get a spot in the Candidates on the Grand Swiss Tournament that starts in just over two weeks.

It was a much longer day at the office for Nikita Vitiugov and Yu Yangyi. First, the contenders drew both 25-minute games; in the 10-minute section, Vitiugov blundered in a drawn rook endgame but bounced back with a win in the next encounter; while two draws were seen in the 5-minute blitz phase. Thus, Armageddon was the only recourse left to put an end to the match. Vitiugov had the black pieces and saw how his opponent inexplicably gave away two pawns as early as move 9. The Russian had a winning position by move 17, but his timid play allowed Yu Yangyi to recover and get an unlikely 40-move victory. Vitiugov could not believe what had just happened — dismayed, he stayed in the playing hall processing the staggering developments of the day. 

FIDE World Cup 2019

Arbiters — witnessing the tension | Photo: FIDE

Vachier-Lagrave 2½:1½ Aronian

Levon Aronian has been a constant feature amongst the potential aspirants to take the World Championship crown away from Magnus Carlsen. He participated in every single Candidates Tournament since 2007, but somehow has not managed to keep up his usual top-notch level at the last hurdles. The biggest example of this phenomenon was seen a couple of years ago, when he had a brilliant 2017 (winning the GRENKE Chess Classic, the Norway Chess Tournament, the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz and the World Cup) only to go on and finish dead last at the 2018 Candidates. We can never rule him out though, as he is totally capable of winning the upcoming Grand Swiss to get a spot in the 2020 Candidates event.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, on the other hand, has never played the Candidates despite having crossed the 2700 rating mark in 2012, and having reached a 2800+ rating in no less than eight official monthly lists. The Frenchman now only needs to defeat Teimour Radjabov in the semi-finals to get a spot at the deciding tournament for the first time.

Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian gained 2.8 rating points in Khanty-Mansiysk | Photo: FIDE

Aronian did not get much out of his white game at the start of the play-offs, as a draw was signed in a balanced position after 31 moves. In game two, however, the Armenian got the upper hand in the early middlegame — he correctly decided to give up an exchange to open up some lines in the centre:


Black continued 26...f6 27.f1 xf5 and went on to coordinate an attack with his queen and knight. Aronian missed a big shot a couple of moves later though:


Black opted for 31...e2+, when 31...♞e4 was more forcing. There followed 32.g1 xd3 and Aronian's task only became tougher. He still had the initiative though...until disaster struck on move 38:


38...h4 is the kind of blunder that can easily haunt a chess player's dreams for quite a while. White has the simple 39.f3, simplifying into a winning endgame an exchange to the good. The game continued 39...b2 40.xe3 xd1 41.d3 b2 42.xd4, and Vachier-Lagrave converted his advantage seamlessly.   

Vachier-Lagrave vs. Aronian - All games


Post-tiebreak interview with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Yu Yangyi 5:4 Vitiugov

As mentioned in a previous report, getting a ticket to the Candidates would be a huge career enhancer for either contender of this match-up. After drawing both classical encounters, the players split the point twice in the 25-minute phase of the play-offs, with Nikita Vitiugov failing to make the most of his positional edge in his game with White. Then came the 10-minute stage, and the first game seemed to be heading to a draw in a rook endgame:


In a less pressure-packed situation, Vitiugov would surely find the correct 59...♚f6 here. But the Russian opted for 59...g8, losing all chances of survival after the simple sequence 60.hxg5 hxg5 61.e5. Vitiugov resigned and now needed to win on demand to keep the match going.

Russia's number seven showed his strength in seemingly equal positions by overpowering Yu Yangyi in the next encounter. Out of a Petroff Defence, Vitiugov got the upper hand in a position with symmetrical pawn structures, and never looked back — Yu Yangyi was lost by move 40, but made his opponent work extra for the full point, only resigning with mate-in-eight on the board after 75 moves.

Yu Yangyi

Yu Yangyi will face Ding Liren in the semi-finals | Photo: FIDE

The 5-minute games finished drawn after 39 and 90 moves respectively, with both players admirably avoiding blunders despite the quicker time control. The sudden-death decider was all that was left to find a winner. Yu Yangyi was given the chance to choose which colour he wanted to play with, and the Chinese opted for the white pieces. A draw would be enough for Vitiugov to reach the semi-finals.

Vitiugov played the French Defence, and a big shocker was seen as early as move 9:


Yu played the inexplicable 9.♗e4, allowing Black to capture two pawns with 9...xg2+ 10.f2 xf4. Vitiugov had shown good technique to win under pressure in the second 10-minute encounter, but perhaps lost his composure here due to the fact that the coveted victory was so unbelievably simple at this point. Just to give an example, he missed a straightforward chance to gain a piece on move 17:


17...♛c5 pins the knight and threatens to win the queen with a discovered check. White's best alternative is the sad-looking 18.♔g3, but resigning here would also be completely justified. Vitiugov played 17...d7 instead and allowed his opponent to get counterplay along the g-file soon after.

What followed was painful to see. Yu Yangyi took over and forced his opponent to resign while a rook down on move 40:


Vitiugov could not believe what had just happened and remained seated long after the match was over. If divine justice exists, he will have another chance to prove his strength in the future. 

Nikita Vitiugov

Nikita Vitiugov is a gentleman on and off the board | Photo: FIDE

Yu Yangyi vs. Vitiugov - All games


Round-up show

GM Yannick Pelletier reviewed the highlights of the day's action

Commentary webcast

Commentary by IM Anna Rudolf and GM Evgeny Miroshnichenko

All results


All games from the quarter-finals



Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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