And then you're eliminated. I'm writing this as I fire up an appropriately atrocious and bombastic cinematic accompaniment, The Expendables. (What's up with Jet Li slumming with this crowd?) Every third day in Khanty-Mansiysk, with metronomic reliability, the field is chopped in half. The only real interest in these KOs before the quarterfinals start pairing top players and deciding world championship candidates spots are the upsets. Nerves fray, time controls accelerate, and a single slip sends you packing. It makes for enjoyable theater, though using these chaotic messes for world championships was always ridiculous. Using one to determine a few candidates isn't nearly as bad, though it's harsh that there is no second chance other than rating. The Grand Prix was that alternative, but apart from some bright chess, it was an organizational and commercial failure with cancelled and relocated events.
The fact that the winners of these KO events are almost always among the top seeds mitigates many strikes against them. Swiss, round-robin, KO, rapid, or blitz, the highest rated players rise to the top, and we got a vivid demonstration of that today. We should distinguish between real upsets and the technical ones between closely matched players. Current standings aside, Polgar beating Movsesian is hardly an upset when she's been rated higher than him for most of the past fifteen years. But stalwarts like Adams and Shirov going out indicates a little more, perhaps, that age can't be ignored forever and that their low seeding were not undeserved. Former top tenners will always have the potential to surprise, of course, no matter how far down the list they fall. Generally though, Elo rules. The last two World Cup winners, Kamsky and Gelfand, were veterans. Gelfand was the oldest contender in the field and also the top seed. (Local invitee Obodchuk was in his 50s and was eliminated by... Gelfand in the first round.)
Calling Bruzon's defeat of Vallejo-Pons, Bu's of Vachier-Lagrave or Parligras taking out Almasi upsets abuses the term a bit. These were all close matches that were virtual toss-ups when things moved to rapids. Of the Frenchman we've been expecting more for the past year or two, but he's on a steady plateau and young enough to still have a big move into the top 10 in him. I'd never heard of Mircea Parligras of Romania before, and he must have done something right to move up to a career rating high after 30 and now to take out the steady Almasi without tiebreaks.
For the most part though, to get back to the title brought into chess vogue by Jen Shahade, the higher-rated players made math look fun. Old chess culture beat new chess culture in the only matches to go to a second set of speed games. Svidler took out Nguyen and Ponomariov finally beat Ni Hua in a very strange match. The Chinese had a winning theoretical R vs B endgame with rook pawns in their second rapid game but couldn't put it away, allowing a 114-move draw. As far as I remember my Keres, the only way for the stronger side to win these positions is to keep the enemy king on the same side of the board as the pawn so you can use fork threats. Maybe tablebases know better these days. The brain melts in these matches playing on increment. This, to me, is the other big strike against KOs. The chess tends to be horrible. Then in the next game Ponomariov loaded up for a cliche Bxh7+ sac against Ni Hua's French only not to play it when the opportunity arose. He won anyway in 25 moves when Black blundered and then held the second game only when Ni Hua missed a winning shot. 37.Rf4! is an unusual tactical them, an attraction tactic that wins a piece or the exchange with an easy win. Very hard to see that the knight can suddenly be a dominating octopus. The French again showed its dark, masochistic side in the Svidler match win over Nguyen.
We shouldn't ignore the top guys who went through relatively smoothly. The upset hero of the last World Cup, teen Wesley So of the Philippines, couldn't hang with the confident top seed Karjakin in rapids. Pretty finishing move there. Ivanchuk's redoubtable technique ground down Alekseev, who was a tough second-round pairing. Morozevich, who does things with the French that would make Baudelaire blush, sweated little against Fier. Grischuk went to tiebreaks against Feller but had no trouble there. Nice to see the back of Feller, whose infamous cheating exploits at the Olympiad must be on the mind of every opponent he faces. Kamsky outplayed Kasimdzhanov in good style in another tough pairing. Avoiding rapids against the wily Uzbekistani was a worthwhile achievement. Taking a pass with white in the first game hoping for rapids can pay off, but Kamsky didn't return the favor. The inconsistent Le Quang Liem showed his power side, taking a novel opening approach into a superior endgame and grinding down Grachev, who is no slouch. Playing ..Bf5 before the usual ..Nb4 keeps the white queen off b1 and a quick e4 is dubious for White in most of these lines, with ..Bg4 and the usual Grunfeld pressure on the expanded center. That said, Black was doing okay in the deep main line too from what I can tell.
Kasparov complimented Radjabov's handling of Negi in their first game. It's refreshing to see Radjabov playing with such brio with white. The Indian seemed to be putting up decent resistance to White's knights and a-file invasion in their first game but eventually the pressure was too much and he threw the game away in one atrocious move. Negi's countryman Harikrishna tried an interesting piece sac against Jakovenko, but the Russian showed calm and class defusing the tactics reaching a pawn-up endgame. Vitiugov and Korobov dueled in the ever-crazy Semi-Slav Anti-Moscow and Korobov's prep came up badly lacking. They followed Anand-Shirov from this year's Leon event, which also came out well for White. European champ Potkin (not the mouth-harp luthier) was very impressive in beating Shirov in a slashing game with white. Wojtaszek missed a chance to win with black in his first game with Jobava. 27..Nxf1 wins, as both 28.Nxe8 and 28.Nxh5 lose to 28..Rc1! 29.Nxf6+ Qxf6! 30.Qxf6 Nd2+ 31.Kf2 Ne4+ gets the queen back. Instead the Polish #1 lost with white in the second game with the Georgian. Two rooks are usually more than a match for a queen, but not when the lady is accompanied by two knights and your king is open.
The heavyweights are circling as the round of 32 begins. Those who have avoided tiebreaks start to see some benefits from their extra rest days. Grischuk-Morozevich is the unfortunately early meeting between two of the favorites. Asian fans are hardly a bloc, but seeing two of their small remaining number meeting is a bit of a shame. The last Indian player, Gupta, faces the last of the original nine Chinese players, Bu Xiangzhi. 10 of the 32 are Russian and only four of them face off. The Big Three from Azerbaijan are all still going strong as well. Zherebukh of Ukraine, who just turned 18, is the youngest player left in the field. His countryman Ivanchuk is the oldest at 42. Note that the top three finishers make it to the candidates, not just the winner.