Tournament report

Two Americans Win Playoffs to Advance in Moscow


The two American representatives in the Moscow Grand Prix advanced to the next round on Sunday after dispatching their opponents in sudden-death playoffs.

By Dylan Loeb McClain

Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, the two Americans, beat Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan and Jan-Krzysztof Duda of Poland, respectively, in two-game rapid playoffs after their first-round matches had been tied in regulation. In both playoffs, Nakamura and So had White in the first games and won and then drew the second games in order to advance.

They now join the other six players who had already qualified for the second round in mini-matches that will begin on Monday.

The Moscow Grand Prix is the first in a series of four tournaments to select two players for next year’s Candidates tournament. The winner of that tournament will become the challenger for the 2020 World Championship match to be held in November.

There are 21 players in the Grand Prix, with each playing three of the four tournaments. There are 16 players in each tournament.

The prize fund for each competition is 130,000 euros with an additional 280,000 euros allocated among the top 10 finishers in the series, for a total of 800,000 euros.

The principal sponsors of the series are PhosAgro, a giant Russian fertilizer company, and Kaspersky Lab, a worldwide leader in data security. The series is being organized and broadcast by Worldchess on its Web site under the auspices of the World Chess Federation, which is better known as FIDE, the game’s governing body.

For the first time, the Grand Prix is using a knockout format. Each player faces another one in two classic, or slow games over two days, going to a series of faster tie-breaker games on a third day if the match is tied.

The match between Nakamura and Radjabov had fizzled in the first two slow games – neither game had gone beyond 14 moves or lasted more than 90 minutes. The rapid games unfolded quite differently.

In Game 1, arising out of a Queen’s Gambit Declined, Nakamura was able to push his e pawn to the fifth rank, giving him a permanent space advantage. Radjabov defended well for a while, but, as often happens when the games are faster, he began battling the clock as well as his opponent and began to make some small errors. His critical error came at Move 32, when he pushed f6, weakening his g6 square. He fatally compounded his mistake on Move 35, allowing Nakamura to infiltrate his position with 36 Qd5. He resigned a few moves later as he faced checkmate.

Game 2 seemed fairly placid, but Nakamura and Radjabov said afterward in an interview that there was a point, on Move 22, when Radjabov could have given himself some real chances to create pressure by playing 22 Bf4. (The interview can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnxE66LLidw). Nakamura was able to stabilize the position after that and the position rapidly simplified, after which the players agreed to a draw.

The match between So and Duda picked up where it had left off. The players had exchanged victories in the first two games and the fierceness and aggression spilled over to the rapid games.

Game 1 was a classic Ruy Lopez in which So established some nagging pressure. The first critical moment came at Move 20, when Duda decided to exchange his light-squared bishop for So’s knight, which had just dropped into f5. That gave So an edge, but with the time winding down for both players, they began to exchange pieces, simplifying the position, but also reducing So’s advantage. The game might have ended in a draw, but on Move 35, Duda made a gross tactical miscalculation, costing him a piece. He resigned a few moves later.

Game 2 was a replay of the opening from Game 1, which So had lost. Once again, Duda got some pressure and an edge. So began to complicate and the game became extremely tense and unclear with myriad tactical possibilities. Given the limited amount of time for both players, it was inevitable that both missed opportunities. Gradually, however, Duda began to take control and it seemed that he might be heading for victory when he blundered with 42 Rg3. After So played 42 … Nc1, Duda has to lose an exchange, though he had compensation. It was not enough to win and after the game simplified to an endgame of king and rook vs. knight and two pawns, Duda’s chances had evaporated completely. The players agreed to a draw on Move 72 after repeating the position several times. The interview with the two players is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spV4jF-P978

Nakamura and So will have little time to prepare for the next round, which begins tomorrow. Nakamura will face Daniil Dubov of Russia, who beat Anish Giri of the Netherlands in the first round, while So will play Alexander Grischuk, also of Russia, who beat his compatriot, Sergey Karjakin, in Round 1.

The other quarterfinalists are Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia vs. Wei Yi of China and Radoslaw Wojtaszek of Poland vs. Peter Svidler of Russia.

The games begin at 3 PM local time on Monday. The broadcast can be viewed free and live at worldchess.com.

Photos for media use are available in the event’s archive.