As I write this, the Fide World Cup is underway in Sochi, the Black Sea resort in Russia which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. It’s a thrilling event for spectators, who get to watch high-stakes chess in all its forms — fast, slow, wonderful and blunderful. The main knockout event began with a field of 206 players (with 50 seeded into the second round), while the women’s event had half that number. Each match sees two classical games on consecutive days, followed by a day of tiebreaks at fast-paced time limits. It is a brutal competitive environment, and those who reach the final stages have spent almost a month in fear of that one mistake which would put them on the next flight home. But the prize money is a major draw; between the two events, players take home more than $2 million, though many bear significant costs to participate.
For assorted reasons, several top English grandmasters (alas, including me) passed up the chance to play this year. That left an opportunity for 22-year-old international master Ravi Haria, who has recently finished reading history at UCL. Haria performed impressively at the European Individual Hybrid Chess tournament, beating Falko Bindrich, a strong German grandmaster, 2-0 in the first round. But in the first round of the World Cup, he was paired against Vadim Zvjaginsev, an even stronger and more experienced Russian grandmaster. Zvjaginsev is particularly noted for some imaginative ideas in the opening, including 1 e4 c5 2 Na3!?
Haria rose to the occasion, winning the first game with a stylish strategical squeeze. Zvjaginsev struck back to take the game into tiebreaks, but Haria proved that his initial win was no fluke. His steady play brought another win with White and a gritty draw with Black, which saw him through to the next round against the French grandmaster Etienne Bacrot. When Bacrot won the first game, Haria had to win ‘on demand’ with Black — a formidable task against a player of Bacrot’s calibre. Haria’s approach was exemplary — patient but assertive (see below) — and his win took the match into another tiebreak. Though Bacrot went through, it was an outstanding performance from Haria, who must now sense that the grandmaster title is well within reach.
Etienne Bacrot–Ravi Haria
Fide World Cup, Sochi July 2021
1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 exd5 The Exchange variation is a cautious choice against Black’s French defence. But with just two pawns exchanged, its drawish reputation is much exaggerated. 3…exd5 4 Nf3 Bd6 5 Bd3 Ne7 6 O-O Nbc6 7 Nc3 Bg4 8 Nb5 f6 9 c3 Qd7 10 b4 O-O 11 Nxd6 Qxd6 12 a4 Rfe8 13 Ba3 Qd7 14 h3 Bf5 15 Re1 Bxd3 16 Qxd3 Ng6 17 b5 Na5 18 Nd2 Nf4 The pawn sacrifice which follows will secure a bright future for this knight. Less inspiring would be 18…Qf7 19 Bb4 Nc4 20 Nxc4 dxc4 21 Qf3 b6 22 g3, as the knight on g6 is poorly placed. 19 Qf3 g5 20 Bb4 Nc4 21 Nxc4 dxc4 22 Qxb7 Qd5 23 Qxd5+ Nxd5 24 Kf1 Kf7 25 Rxe8 Rxe8 26 Re1 Rd8 (see diagram) The Nd5 has an ideal post, guarding e7 and pressuring c3. 27 Rb1 Re8 28 g3 h5 29 Re1 Rd8 30 Re4 c6! Improving the queenside pawn structure. 31 bxc6 Rc8 32 h4 g4 33 Re2 Rxc6 34 a5 a6 35 Rb2 Rc7 36 Bd6 Rd7 37 Bc5 After 37 Bb4 White would be completely passive, despite his extra pawn. Facing ideas of Rd7-b7 and Kf7-e6-f5-e4, this is a miserable prospect. 37…Nxc3 38 Rc2 Much better was 38 Rb6 when White should still survive. 38…Ne4! A nasty surprise. 39 Rxc4? Nd2+ wins the rook. 39 Ke2 c3 40 Ke3 f5 41 Rc1 Rb7 42 Bb6 Ke6 43 Kd3 Kd5 44 Kc2 f4 Black’s rook will enter along the f-file, so White resigns
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