So near yet so far - Nikita Vitiugov at the World Cup 2019
"This tournament is like life - eventually, it has a sad end. Lucky guys leave it quickly, stubborn ones, who fight on their limits - sometimes painfully. But what happened here also matters and I am proud of the level of chess I've showed in the tournament." In a couple of sentences Nikita Vitiugov's tweet at the end of the FIDE World Cup 2019 captured the essence of what had happened. The heartbreak of being losing from a completely winning position and the happiness of having played excellent chess to eliminate Sergey Karjakin and Wesley So without going into the tiebreaks! In this article IM Sagar Shah takes a look at two of Vitiugov's masterpieces and invites you to solve some very interesting positional decisions that were taken by the Russian GM.
"So what colour do you prefer for the first game of your match (at the World Cup)," asked Eteri Kublashvili to Ding Liren. After some thought Ding replied, "Normally it is better to play black first like in soccer games. For eg. in an event like European Championships the team that plays away first has some advantage." Grischuk who was standing next to Ding added, "But you know Vitiugov starts with white, wins with white every time and wins the match!" (laughter). And it's true! Vitiugov played some of the best chess of his life at the World Cup 2019 and in rounds three and four he eliminated Sergey Karjakin and Wesley So without going into the tiebreaks. In both the matches Vitiugov scored 1.5-0.5, showing tremendous chess with the white pieces. Let's have a look at both the games and learn from the Russian GM.
Nikita Vitiugov vs Sergey Karjakin, round 3 game 1
Definitely Karjakin's Qxd4 was incorrect. Better was to play exd4 attack the knight and push it back to f1. Yes, the bishop on b6 is slightly passive, but so is the knight on f1. And this would have been right way to continue the game.
Nikita Vitiugov vs Wesley So, round 4, game 1
In such positions the way one would understand what's going on is through Silman's method of Imbalance. But before we go there I would like to ask you whether the pawn on c2 and c3 look weak to you?
When you look at this 4 vs 3 rook endgame, the question that needs to be asked is - Which pawn structure do you think is better? It is natural to think that with the pawns on h7-g6-f7, Black's position is pretty good. However, having the pawns on f7 and f6 has its own benefits. If you look closely, one of the main ways in which White plays for a win in the left diagram is to try and extract a passed e-pawn, while this is very difficult in the first position, it is absolutely impossible in the second diagram because of the doubled f-pawns! If one black pawn exchanges itself with the e-pawn, there is another one still left and White doesn't get a passed pawn. Now let's come back to the Vitiugov vs Wesley So position:
Although this is a theoretical position, I would like to take a look at it in some detail. The main reason being the interesting imbalances in this position. Let's jot down the imbalances.
1. The first thing that strikes you is the pawn structure. Black clearly seems to have a better structure as he doesn't have any doubled pawns like White has on the c-file.
2. Thanks to the e5 pawn, White has some space advantage.
3. White has a majority on the kingside while Black has a majority on the queenside.
4. White has the semi open b-file which could prove useful.
After listing the imbalances you begin to understand a few things. The pawn structure is really not the main thing in the position. It would have been if Black had knights on the board. Imagine adding a knight on d7 and a white knight on f3. Suddenly things are not so clear, because the knight gets a very nice square on c5. As there are only bishops on the board, White doesn't have to worry about his pawn weaknesses for now. Also the pawns on c2-c3 prevent Black pawns from advancing. easily on the queenside. Imagine you had a pawn on b2 instead of c3. One can easily imagine the move c5 being more powerful as then Black wants to run down White with c4,d4 and so on. With the doubled pawns, it is not so easy for Black to push on. For White on the other hand, the pawn majority on the kingside is easier to expand with f4-f5. Black can stop White pawns after f4, by playing ...f5. However, that gives White a passed pawn on e5, as we see in the game. All in all I feel that the position is slightly better for White.
(If you too would like to learn the art of assessing positions with the help of imbalances, we recommend Reassess by Chess by Jeremy Silman.)
Vitiugov came up with a very nice plan. Playing against opponent's weaknesses is his strength. He figured that the pawn on d5 is weak and should be pressurized in a systematic manner.
Vitiugov realized the importance of shifting the pieces once again. The bishop has done its role on f3, it is now time to get it to e2 to attack b5. White began with...
Vitiugov managed to play accurately right until the very end and won the game!
Chess is often quite cruel!
The way Vitiugov was playing and as can be seen from the above two games, he should have made it to the finals and booked a spot for himself at the Candidates. However, look at how things turned around just within a couple of days. Vitiugov had to play a marathon encounter against Yu Yangyi in the 5th round that went all the way upto Armageddon.
Yu Yangyi vs Vitiugov, Armageddon
Can you believe that from the above position a player like Vitiugov, who was in such great form at the World Cup, couldn't win his position?
"This tournament is like life - eventually, it has a sad end. Lucky guys leave it quickly, stubborn ones, who fight on their limits - sometimes painfully. But what happened here also matters and I am proud of the level of chess I've showed in the tournament (not today:-)."
Vitiugov is a fine chess player. He has won the Gibraltar Masters in the past, recently competed at the Grenke Classic, won the Prague Masters in 2019 and has been in the top finishers at the Russian Super League for many years. He is right up there with the best, but has not received enough invitations to play at the absolute elite tournaments. For a player like him, finishing in top two of the World Cup would mean the biggest breakthrough of his chess career - an entry into the Candidates! And how close Vitiugov was! Well, that's how chess is! Unpredictable.