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On Chess: World Cup works its way from 128 players to two

Screen shot from the Baku World Chess Cup
Provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis
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The World Cup was “demoted” some years ago. It used to be called the World Championship and was the sole way FIDE determined its top title holder. However, since there was a divide between FIDE and what most chess players considered to be the true World Championship cycle, the winners of FIDE's monstrous 128 player knock-out event were never fully recognized as World Champions by many.

Now that we have one and only one World Chess Champion, the World Cup is sitting in a much better place. This event brings together some of the top players from around the globe. Qualifier matches are held in Europe (which is subdivided), the United States and East Asia, with some elimination – for fewer spots – in Latin America, Oceania and Africa. For a player who has not yet broken into the elite, it is certainly a time to shine.

The format of the event is what made it so unsuited to determine the World Champion: a knock-out system in which the players face each other twice, once with black and once with white. In case of a tie, they repeat the process with faster time controls until one of them is knocked out. And then, it happens all over again. One bad day is enough to send a deserving and elite player home.

In some ways it feels that, even though the winner is guaranteed to be a strong player, this tournament still has a higher luck factor than what most people would be comfortable with in a World Championship. Now, the World Cup qualifies two people into the Candidates Tournament, the winner of which gets to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the title.

This year's World Cup is underway in Baku, Azerbaijan. The rich oil city plans to host the Chess Olympiad next year, and this is an excellent way to test the resources for doing that. The Azerbaijanis are incredibly strong chess players, and they are showing a great amount of love to the game with excellent organization.

Even their ongoing conflict with Armenia was put aside for this sport: For the first time in many, many years Armenians were invited to Azerbaijan, including the winner of the Sinquefield Cup, Levon Aronian. After being eliminated this year in Baku, Aronian said he would be happy to return next year for the Olympiad.

The matches in Baku were difficult to predict. Some of the favorites were knocked out as early as round one or two, and by round four most of the favorites had been sent home. Some players have certainly shined: Pavel Eljanov, who started the tournament ranked 32 in the world, smashed his competition to the semi-finals and is now 13th in the world! He was finally stopped by Sergey Karjakin.

Born in Ukraine but now playing for Russia, Karjakin is the record-holder as the youngest GM in history at the tender age of 12. He will be facing another Russian in the finals, Peter Svidler, a veteran of top tournaments. If he were to win in Baku, it would be his second World Cup triumph (the first coming in Khanty-Mansiysk, 2011).

Two years of qualifiers, months of preparation and sweat and, after more than three weeks of playing chess in Baku, a Russian will be crowned champion of the World Cup. The excitement is still not over. The matches still have four more days (or more if there is a tie) to determine who will claim the title.

You can follow along with the final games on www.bakuworldcup2015.com

Alejandro Ramirez is a frequent guest of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, through roles as both the Club’s Resident Grandmaster rotation and as a player in the nation’s elite events. He will coach the Saint Louis University chess team. On Chess is provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.

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