There was high drama at the end of the World Rapid Championship in Doha, Qatar, as Ukraine’s Vassily Ivanchuk, one of the game’s living legends and legendary under-achievers, finally found his mettle and his genius mode to snatch the title on tiebreak ahead of reigning champion Magnus Carlsen and Russia’s Alexander Grishuk, after the top trio finished tied for first place on 11/15.
Going into the final round, there was a five-way tie for first place, but Ivanchuk - after dominating day two of the 15-round contest, that also included a big confidence-boosting win over Carlsen - held the advantage with the better tiebreak scores. And with Ivanchuk, Grischuk and Carlsen all winning their games, they finished equal first, but the title and first prize of $40,000 went to Ivanchuk, with Grischuk taking silver and Carlsen having to settle for bronze.
But 47-year-old Ivanchuk admitted in his first media interview after winning the title that he had luck on his side throughout, none more so than in the final round, as his Armenian opponent, Hrant Melkumyan blunder in an equal position to gift the popular Ukrainian an unlikely world title late in life. And although disappointed at losing his world rapid title, Carlsen - who was badly handicapped in the tiebreak scores following his horrific start of 0.5/2 - was nevertheless magnanimous in defeat: "I can only congratulate Ivanchuk. If there's anyone I want to be successful, it's him. He's been class for 30 years.”
Vassily Ivanchuk’s victory though will prove to be a sentimental one and an equally a popular one for the masses. He is loved and adored by his fellow professionals and chess fans everywhere, and of all the top players I’ve had the privilege of witnessing at first hand from the press room on the elite tour, he was the one that had the greatest amount of sheer raw talent: more even than any of his world championship-challenging contemporaries, such as Kasparov, Karpov, Kramnik and Anand.
But no matter how much talent he had, Ivanchuk was cruelly cursed by being equally beset by bad nerves that gave him a reputation of being a choker at crucial and decisive moments, and he never quite fulfilled his stellar early potential - a potential that once made Garry Kasparov predict that he would be World Champion one day. Although Ivanchuk is not THE World Champion, he is at least a World Champion now, and the title will go along with the World Blitz title he won in 2007.
Ivanchuk’s most famous trait is inconsistency. I well remember at the 1997 Linares tournament, he finished in the bottom half but defeated Kasparov. Angry, the then world champion cast aspersions upon the Ukrainian’s play against the other competitors, concluding: “But then, against me, he played like [searching around for a superlative]…like Ivanchuk.”
Truth told, Ivanchuk, out of reverence for the title, would alway raise his game when he played the World Champion, just as Magnus Carlsen discovered to his cost when both met in round seven in Doha.
GM Vassily Ivanchuk - GM Magnus Carlsen
World Rapid Ch., (7)
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Qc2 Ivanchuk doesn't want to get into any sort of big mainline battle with Carlsen, preferring instead an unassuming little sideline that doesn't promise anything more than simply preventing Black from playing the standard ...Bf5 here. 4...e6 5.Nbd2 dxc4 6.Nxc4 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.a3 0-0 9.b4 Be7 10.Bb2 From his unassuming opening, Ivanchuk has now got a serious edge in the position with his better-developed pieces and central control. And from here, Carlsen goes dangerously astray. 10...Qc7 11.Rc1 Nbd7 12.e4 b5?! Black's position was difficult, but this strategical error from Carlsen makes the position even more difficult, as all of Ivanchuk's pieces easily find entry squares for the ensuing middlegame/endgame. 13.Na5! From here, Ivanchuk rapidly completes his development whilst simultaneously hindering Carlsen from easily developing his queenside bishop - and with the queens also being exchanged, suddenly Black's position reaches breaking point. 13...Qxc2 14.Rxc2 Nxe4 If 14...a6 15.Bd3 Ivanchuk has harmonious development and already threatening Nc6, Ke2 and Rd1 or c1 with strong threats of breaking Black's queenside. 15.Bxb5 Nd6 16.Bc6 Rb8 Carlsen's ugly clump of pieces is awkward, to say the least - but he is being resilient and resourceful by staying in the game this way. 17.0-0 Nb6 18.Rd1 Rd8?! This increases the difficulty factor in Carlsen's awkward position. A better try would have been 18...Ba6!? and then follow-up with putting his rooks on the d- and c-files before looking to create an outpost on c4 for one of his knights. 19.Ne5! f6 20.Bf3! Ivanchuk is eyeing up a knight intrusion into c6 with many tactical traps that soon reclaims the sacrificed material and then some. 20...fxe5 21.Nc6 Bb7 22.Nxe7+ Kf8 23.Bxe5 Nbc4 All the tactics favor Ivanchuk. If 23...Bxf3 24.Rxd6 Kxe7 25.Rc7+ Nd7 (25...Kf8 26.gxf3 Rxd6 27.Bxd6+ Kg8 28.Be5! winning.) 26.gxf3 Rb5 27.f4 a5 28.Ra6! axb4 29.axb4 Kf7 30.Bc3! and the looming threat of Raa7 doubling rooks on the seventh will paralyze Black's game completely. 24.Bxd6 Nxd6 25.Nc6 Bxc6 26.Rxc6 Nb5 27.Rxd8+ Rxd8 28.Ra6! With the Bf3 stopping the back-rank mating threats, Ivanchuk coolly puts his rook on its best square to target Carlsen's pawn weaknesses on a7 and e6. And being a pawn down already, if one of these two pawns also falls, then Black is doomed to losing. 28...Rc8 29.h4 Rc7 30.Bg4 e5 31.Ra5 Nd6 What else? If 31...Rb7 32.Bf5 g6 33.Bd3 and White will pick up a second pawn. 32.Rxe5 Nc4 33.Rf5+ Ke7 34.Rf3 Ne5 35.Re3 Kd6 36.Be2 For once, Ivanchuk holds his nerve in the time pressure to emerge with an easily won game - and the rest of the game is a mere technicality, as he squeezes Carlsen's knight out of the game to push home his big material and positional advantage for a deserved win. 36...h6 37.f4 Rc1+ 38.Kf2 Nd7 39.Bf3 Rc2+ 40.Kg3 Ra2 41.Rd3+ Ke7 42.Rc3 Kd8 43.Kg4 Rd2 44.Rc6 Rd3 45.Ra6 Nf6+ 46.Kf5 Rd7 47.g4 Ne8 48.g5 hxg5 49.hxg5 Nd6+ 50.Kg6 Nb5 51.Ra5 Nd4 52.Bg4 1-0 Carlsen resigns, as he's set to now lose both the a- and g-pawns.