Teimour Radjabov is fully back, wins the 2019 World Cup

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
10/5/2019 – Azerbaijani Grandmaster Teimour Radjabov defeated rating favourite Ding Liren in tiebreaks at the final match of the FIDE World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk. After draws in all four rapid games, Radjabov got victories in both blitz encounters to take home the title and USD 110,000. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave prevailed in the match for third place with a commanding 2:0 victory over Yu Yangyi. IM LAWRENCE TRENT sent a video recap of the play-offs. | Photo: FIDE

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Can we call this a surprise?

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.

Despite the fact that he arrived as the tenth seed, few could have predicted that Teimour Radjabov would end up winning the 2019 World Cup. The 32-year-old from Baku — his father attended the same school as Garry Kasparov — plays scarcely in comparison with his colleagues of the elite. Nonetheless, he never stopped being competent when facing the strongest players in the world, albeit by means of using a safety-first strategy, frequently choosing forced theoretical lines to avoid messy struggles.

In hindsight, the strategy served him well, as he kept receiving invitations to first-rate tournaments like the Tata Steel Masters, while maintaining a rating that enabled him to qualify to World Championship cycle events like the Grand Prix series and the World Cup. Radjabov also achieved good results while representing Azerbaijan, as he earned an individual bronze medal on board two at the 2018 Chess Olympiad and helped his team take gold at the 2017 European Team Championship — the Azerbaijanis, with Radjabov on board two, will try to defend their title later this month in Batumi.

In Khanty-Mansiysk, the former child prodigy had a strong performance from start to finish, losing one out of twenty-eight games in the month-long competition. Before reaching the final against Ding Liren, Radjabov defeated long-lasting members of the elite Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and managed to stop Daniil Yuffa and Jeffery Xiong, two 'outsiders' that were having strong runs before meeting the Azerbaijani. 

After the ordeal had concluded, a still bewildered and naturally exhausted Radjabov mentioned that his plans for the future include preparing for the Candidates. He added that he will do it in a relaxing manner though, and quipped that this announcement should not come as a worrying disclosure for Magnus Carlsen.  

Teimour Radjabov, Ding Liren

Teimour Radjabov and Ding Liren receiving their prizes | Photo: FIDE

Ding Liren

A smiling Ding Liren got silver in the World Cup for a second time in a row | Photo: FIDE

Radjabov 6:4 Ding Liren

The players kicked off the tiebreaks with all guns blazing, as both missed big chances to take an early lead that could have easily changed the course of the match-up. Ding had the black pieces but did not shy away from going for the kill, keeping his king uncastled after noticing White's setup was passive enough to justify some aggression from his side. The Chinese had a large advantage by move 32:


Ding played 32...e5, perhaps failing to notice his opponent could respond with 33.c5, when after 33...e7 (33...bxc5 allows 34.♖b7, which is also playable but really messy) his bishop is not as active as it could have been had he gone for 32...♝f4 in the previous move. 

The sharp skirmish continued and, as it happens, White emerged with a superior position. But the tactical lines were too difficult to calculate with so much on the line — and after such a long event. Eventually, a draw was signed in an opposite-coloured bishops endgame.

Game two of the play-off was a quiet affair that ended peacefully after 40 moves. It was time to move on to the 10-minute set of games.

Radjabov vs. Ding Liren - 25'+10" games


Ding Liren

Rating favourite Ding Liren was defeated by Radjabov | Photo: FIDE

The 10-minute section saw both games favouring the player with the black pieces. First, Radjabov bravely captured White's queenside pawns despite his king being vulnerable to attacks on the other flank of the board. When Ding felt he could end up finding himself in a losing endgame, however, he started looking for simplifications, until eventually reaching a balanced four-rook ending.

In the next encounter, Radjabov once again seemed to be doing well out of the opening, with a strong outpost on c4 for either his rook or bishop. Later on, however, Ding got control of the only open file in the position. Cautious, correct play by both finalists led to a triple repetition by move 30. The tension was rising, as the blitz phase was about to begin.

Radjabov vs. Ding Liren - 10'+10" games


Teimour Radjabov

Teimour Radjabov, the man of the hour | Photo: FIDE

Following the trend of the day, Black — in this case, Radjabov — had no major problems out of the opening in the first 5-minute game. The players had delved into a Catalan in which Black gives up the bishop pair in order to get a difficult-to-penetrate pawn structure. While Ding had been keeping more time on his clock in the previous encounters, things were more balanced at this stage. An endgame with queen and bishop versus queen and knight appeared on the board:


Radjabov's decision to play 31...e3 was well-timed — if White had put a pawn on that square later on, Black would have been pushed to deal with a long-term weakness on e4. After 32.fxe3, on the other hand, the Azerbaijani could create threat after threat against a disjointed white army.

Given these circumstances, it was surprising that Ding rejected a triple repetition soon afterwards, and when the queens left the board it was Black who seemed to have the better chances. Ding transferred his king to the queenside, but failed to foresee a crucial tactical trick:


White's previous 52.b5 loses the g-pawn after 52...f5, as 53.g4 — probably what Ding had planned — runs into a fork with 53...♞e6, winning the bishop. The Chinese star thus continued with 53xa5, but now his king was too far from the action. Radjabov showed precise technique with little time on the clock and went on to get the first victory of the play-offs after 76 moves.

Ding Liren, Teimour Radjabov

The final hurdle | Photo: FIDE

The Azerbaijani GM only needed a draw with White in the second blitz encounter, and later confessed that he did not know whether to open the game with 1.d4 or 1.e4. He ended up choosing the latter, and Ding responded with a Sicilian. The ensuing battle, which was the last one of the competition, saw Radjabov showing nerves of steel to keep Ding's threats at bay. Moreover, the eventual champion also managed to create a position in which his rival had close to zero chances of creating havoc on the board. Ding resigned after White's 46th move, thus crowning Radjabov as the winner of the 2019 FIDE World Cup.

Radjabov vs. Ding Liren - 5'+3" games


Interview with World Cup winner Teimour Radjabov

Vachier-Lagrave takes the bronze

The contenders for third place allowed followers and commentators to fully focus on the exciting tiebreaks for the championship, as their match-up was decided in the first set of rapid games. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had the white pieces first, and saw Yu Yangyi replacing the Petroff Defence he had used in the classical phase for a more ambitious Sicilian structure.

The Frenchman, a strong theoretician, showed he knew exactly how to handle the setup that appeared on the board, and slowly but surely confined his opponent's pieces in their own camp. 'MVL' showed his class by increasing the pressure unhurriedly, accumulating small advantages on both flanks. White's domination over the position can be easily illustrated with the following sequence:  


At this point, Black was actually a pawn to the good, but his rook and knight are completely restricted on the back rank. There followed 35...a6 36.xa5 b8 (coming back, as there was nothing better) 37.xc5

When he was already two pawns up, Vachier-Lagrave exchanged into a rook endgame, which he duly converted into an all-important win.

Yu Yangyi

Yu Yangyi had a great performance in Khanty-Mansiysk nonetheless | Photo: FIDE

A third Grünfeld Defence of the match was seen in game two of the play-offs. Unlike the classical discussions in which Yu was White, however, Black managed to show his superb preparation to get a superior position by move 15. The Chinese was forced to look for winning chances, which only derived in him getting quickly in trouble. Vachier-Lagrave was merciless and forced his opponent to resign on move 24.

In the post-tiebreaks interview with Eteri Kublashvili, Vachier-Lagrave explained that he will not be playing the Grand Swiss in Isle of Man, as he will focus his energy in trying to get a spot in the Candidates via the Grand Prix. The Frenchman also mentioned that he needed a break, as he has been pretty much playing non-stop since the end of June.

Ding Liren, Teimour Radjabov, Yu Yangyi, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

The final four | Photo: FIDE

Vachier-Lagrave vs. Yu Yangyi - Tiebreak games


Post-tiebreaks interview with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Round-up show

IM Lawrence Trent recapped the action of the day

Commentary webcast (two parts)

Commentary by IM Anna Rudolf and GM Evgeny Miroshnichenko

All results


All games from the 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.