GM Ronen Har-Zvi
The 2021 World Rapid Championship (15 min +10 seconds increment per move) has made history and become a retelling of Cinderella! When planning to write this article, I had already prepared to write about Carlsen's wins over Alireza and Duda as key games to win the World Rapid title again, but the last tournament day changed everything. One of the youngest players in the tournament, the only 17 Nodirbek Abdusattorov, shocked World Champion Magnus Carlsen and the entire chess world by becoming the youngest ever player to win a major adult world championship! Beating Carlsen on his way to the title, having made several heroic defenses in the last rounds with luck, and Fortuna on his side easily made history, producing the biggest upset in all chess history. Let me be clear, Nodirbek fully deserved the win; he has played against all the top players in the tournament, beating both Magnus during the rapid section and Nepomniatchi in the blitz tiebreak. Beating the World Chess Champion and the rapid runner-up in one tournament is something no 17-year-old has ever done in rapid or regular chess.
The tournament itself was a shorter 13 rounds with 5 on the first day and 4 on days 2 and 3, as opposed to the usual format of 15 rounds. Carlsen has been the undisputed best player in the world for the last 12 years and led the tournament alone with 7.5 out of 9. It looked like he was on his way for another title. At the start of the third tournament's day was round 10: Carlsen playing the already surprising and upcoming Nodirbek. Carlsen reached a better position and was pushing quite too much, leading to a worse endgame for him; if there was enough time, he would have defended the endgame and finished with a draw, but with seconds left, Magnus made an error and lost—a true shocker! For the next 3 rounds, Nodirbek was terribly losing each game, but with fortune, luck, and a valiant defense, he secured 3 draws from completely lost positions against strong Grandmasters! Carlsen drew Nepo in round 11, then beat Aronian in round 12, and drew Nakamura in round 13. Before the last round, there were 4 players with 9 points: World Champion Magnus, Nepo, who would be the runner-up for this World Rapid Championship; Caruana, the 2018 World Chess runner-up; and Nodirbek yet to win. Two World Championship runners-ups and a 17-year-old strong grandmaster fighting uphill. The pairing for the last round had Carlsen playing black against Nakamura. Carlsen earned a foothold during the midgame, but not enough to capitalize on.
Then, for one short moment in the endgame, he could win—a win would give him the title! Magnus let it slip by, and the game ended in a draw. The Caruana–Nepo game - somewhat surprisingly - ended in a hasty draw, mainly lending to Caruana being white and having a worse tiebreak. Nodirbek's game saw him playing white against the winner of the 2021 World Cup, Jan-Krzysztof Duda. Duda had the upper hand over Nodirbek for almost the whole game, which, as you know, he miraculously saved! This had 4 players finishing with 9.5 points; rules dictated the top 2 players by tiebreak play the playoff for the title, and math dictated Nodirbek and Nepo finished 1st and 2nd respectively by tie break with Magnus finishing 3rd. The playoff consists of 2 blitz games, the winner winning the tournament, and if it draws the 2 games, they simply play more until there is a winner. Game 1 of the playoff ended in a draw, and then Nodirbek won game two of the tie break! Making history and indeed rewriting several Cinderella stories!
I will be closely watching what is to come, to see if this was just a miraculous one-time event, or if this is a major step for Nodirbek to join the very top elite players and maybe one day fight for the world championship title itself. Time will tell. For now, Nodirbek can enjoy making history true history!
Fun Facts: Sergei Karjakin, the world Blitz champion in 2016 and the runner-up for the 2016 world championship, started with an unbelievably horrible 1 out of 4 – 2 draw and 2 loses, showing how intense this tournament was, and then scored 8 of his next games!! Truly amazing performance.
Completely undefeated through the event – unless I missed a player, there were only 2 players in the rapid tournament: Nakamura and Nepo. But Nepo lost a blitz game. Therefore, the player that truly has not lost any game in this entire event was Nakamura! Finishing with 9 points and sharing places 5-11.
Nepo ended with more time than he started beating Duda in round 6 – woo!
Let's together see a few of the critical tournament games and moments – there were so many! I chose a few that I thought were key for this tournament.
You can download the games with my annotations in the PGN file HERE.
And now preparing for the Blitz – let see what that tournament will bring!