‘Visky,’ said the man driving the taxi.
‘Ah… whisky! Or vodka.’ I grinned as I got out. ‘Maybe see you last year,’ I ventured in bungled Russian.
There was no bottle to hand, but my wounded ego was soothed by the prescription. I’d been freshly eliminated from the World Cup in Siberia in a blitz tiebreak by Daniil Yuffa, an amiable young Russian. Two years ago, Daniil appeared on a Russian talent show (and YouTube). He simultaneously played three games of chess — blindfolded — and accompanied his own spectacle with a classical piano medley. Two days after beating me, he was out too. So it goes.
The Tragic Hero award goes to Nikita Vitiugov, another Russian who is formidably strong but just outside the world elite. He slew two giants on his winding path to the quarter final (Sergey Karjakin and Wesley So) but his tragedy unfolded in the ‘Armageddon’ game of the tiebreak against China’s Yu Yangyi. I mean no disrespect in calling it one of the worst grandmaster games I’ve ever seen, but the psychology is captivating.
Both players are punch drunk from five hours of speed chess, on top of their fortnight’s exertions. Our hero has the black pieces, and a draw will decide the match in his favour. He’s ready to be attacked, but can’t believe his luck when his opponent slips on a banana skin. White’s 9 Be4 is a comically bad move at this level, leaving him hopelessly lost on the board, but Vitiugov is disarmed by the slapstick. Striving to draw from a won position is like sketching a circle with a pencil: the more effort you expend, the worse it will look. That’s how one comes to play 17 … Nd7, a cautious retreat when 17 … Qc5 would clinch victory instantly, since 18 Ke3 loses the queen to 18 … Nc4+. The position still favours Black, but the momentum is with White, and that carries the day.
Nobody said it better than Vitiugov himself, when asked how he would spend his prize:
‘I don’t even know what prize. The prize isn’t the main thing. The tournament is like life — it goes on and on, and then it ends, for everyone, and it ends the same way — bitterly.’
Yu Yangyi—Nikita Vitiugov: Fidé World Cup, Khanty-Mansiysk, 25 September 2019
1 e4 e6 2 f4 d5 3 e5 c5 4 Nf3 Nc6 5 c3 Nh6
6 Na3 Nf5 7 Nc2 d4 8 Bd3 Nh4 9 Be4
Nxg2+ 10 Kf2 Nxf4 11 d3 Ng6 12 cxd4 cxd4
13 Bg5 Be7 14 Bxe7 Qxe7 15 Ncxd4 Ncxe5
16 Nxe5 Nxe5 17 Qh5
17 … Nd7 18 Rhg1 Nf6 19 Qe5 Nxe4+
20 dxe4 f6 21 Qh5+ Qf7 22 Qc5 Qe7
23 Qxe7+ Kxe7 24 Rxg7+ Kf8 25 Rag1 e5
26 Nb5 a6 27 Nc7 Rb8 28 Nd5 f5 29 Nf6
fxe4 30 Rc7 Bf5 31 Rgg7 Bg6 32 Rgd7 b5
33 h4 h5 34 Rg7 Rc8 35 Rg8+ Rxg8
36 Rxc8+ Kf7 37 Nxg8 Ke6 38 Ke3 Kd7
39 Ra8 Bf5 40 Rxa6
It’s an honour to become The Spectator’s third chess columnist, after Raymond Keene and C.H.O’D. Alexander (who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Philidor’). I hope to prove as durable as my eminent predecessors.