The World Rapid and Blitz Championship kicked off at the Apex Convention Centre in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh on Tuesday. Although most of the top players are present for the event, some big names like Hikaru Nakamura and reigning women’s world rapid and blitz champion, Anna Muzychuk have chosen not to participate due to the event’s location. Nakamura in a recent tweet wrote it was horrible that a chess tournament is being organized in a country where basic human rights aren’t valued. Muzychuk, on the other hand, stated in a Facebook post that she did not want to wear the Abaya or feel like a secondary creature.
Also, seven Israeli players were not granted visas by the Saudi authorities. As per a report by FIDE vice president Israel Gelfer told a group of reporters that the visas for the Israeli players “have not been issued and will not be issued,” and yet the tournament would go ahead as planned.
Responding to this, Lion Aizenberg, the spokesperson for Israel Chess Federation told Reuters that the Riyadh meet cannot be counted as a world championship since “players from other countries are not allowed.” Further, the Israeli Chess Federation, in an open letter, has pointed out that the contract between FIDE and Saudi Arabia is illegal and that it contradicts the FIDE statutes.
However, despite the controversy regarding the venue, the event has attracted the participation of 237 players from 55 different nationalities. Some of the top names in the fray include world champion, Magnus Carlsen; world rapid champion, Vassily Ivanchuk, French No 2, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and the Indian chess legend Viswanathan Anand.
Part of the reason for this high attendance might be the record prize fund of $2 million ($ 1.5 million for the open group and $0.5 million for the women’s group). Also, many of the participating players praised the organization of the event. “The organization is simply superlative; it’s outstanding,” said Viswanathan Anand in his interview after the first day of the event.
More importantly, abaya or hijab has not been enforced on women in this tournament. “I don’t feel I am in Saudi or I am under some restrictions. This is really nice that they are doing their best to give us comfortable stay and I think it’s a good change for them also. I wouldn’t complain about hijab because I have played in Iran for 25 days but this is definitely better,” said Harika Dronavalli, the highest rated Indian female at the event.
For Indians, the first outing was quite a successful one. Five rounds were played on the first day and after the dust of the battles had settled, three Indians – two in the women’s group and one in the open – found themselves on the joint second spot on the leaderboard. In the open group, it was the Indian number one Anand, who emerged with an unscathed 4.0/5, winning three games and drawing two. Most notable were his games against Peter Leko in round two and Anton Demchenko in round four.
Anand and Leko have met each other several times over the chess board. This time, Anand went for the Giuco Piano with the white pieces. After some ambitious play in the centre by Leko, Anand generated a spectacular attack on Leko’s king. Sacrificing two minor pieces, Anand succeeded in prying open Leko’s king. In order to survive the onslaught, Leko sacrificed his queen in return for three of Anand’s minor pieces, an exchange which would have been a sound one had Anand not had extra pawns all over the board. Mopping up didn’t take Anand too long.
After his splendid show, Anand is tied for second behind Baadur Jobava and Vladimir Fedoseev who are half-a-point ahead at 4.5/5.
Indian number two, P Harikrishna also had a fantastic first day in Riyadh. Having scored 3.5/5, he is in the joint third place on the leaderboard, half point behind Anand. His biggest win of the day came in the third round when he beat the reigning world rapid champion Vassily Ivanchuk in the Zaitsev variation of the Ruy Lopez.
Youngsters, Vidit Gujrathi and Adhiban Baskaran also scored big upsets on day one. While Vidit got the better of Ian Nepomniachtchi in the fourth round, Baskaran outplayed tournament’s second seed, Grandmaster (GM) Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in a Sicilian defence. After five rounds they are both on 3.0/5.
In the last round of the day, Gujrathi could have forced repetition and drawn against the Ukrainian GM Martyn Kravtsiv. Whether it was overambitious play or time trouble is hard to tell but he let Kravtsiv’s king escape and ended up losing. Had he drawn, Gujrathi would have been much higher on the leaderboard.
Unlike Anand, most of the top seeds struggled on the first day. Both Magnus Carlsen and Vachier Lagrave lost their first round games. Chinese GM Bu Xiangzhi proved that his win against Carlsen at the World Cup was no fluke by beating the Norwegian for the second time in four months, and this time, with the black pieces. Vachier-Lagrave also lost his first game against Georgian GM Levan Pantsulaia who is rated approximately 200 points lower to the Frenchman.
Just like in the open group, the top seeded Indian female, Harika Dronavalli, also remained unbeaten in the women’s category. Although unlike Anand, Harika’s play seemed shaky. In the second round, Harika was in a totally lost position against Anita Gara but the Hungarian international master failed to find the right continuation and the position went downhill for her eventually. In the fourth round again, Harika was in a fairly balanced position against GM Natalia Zhukova when the latter blundered mate in one and threw away the point.
Five rounds into the tournament, Anand seems to be in a great form and might turn out to be a strong contender for the title prize. He is only half-a-point behind the current leaders and in a faster time control with 10 more rounds to go, it won’t be a difficult task to overcome this lead if he continues his form. Harikrishna, Gujrathi and Adhiban also have played extremely well on day one and they too retain good chances of making a podium finish.
In the women’s group, Chinese GM Ju Wenjun won all her games and is leading the women’s group with a perfect score of 5.0/5. Harika Dronavali and Padmini Rout are in joint second place along with nine other players. It will be interesting to see how the chase unfolds.
Standings after five rounds:
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Updated Date: Dec 27, 2017 17:30:36 IST