Upsets Galore at the World Cup

Midway through the quarterfinals at the World Cup in Tbilisi, only three of the world’s top ten players remain in the circuit, and Magnus Carlsen isn’t even one of them.  Did we want it to happen like this? No, not really.  Did we predict such a thing?  Never.  Was something like this bound to happen?  You could say that.

So why do we always believe that all of the top players will have a deep run and that the last few rounds will provide more fireworks than a July 4th celebration?  Moreover, why do we dismiss the possibility that some (or even most) of the top seeds will be knocked out relatively early?  Now, this won’t be an article about the psychology of such predictions, but we can look at some of the reasons for why the World Cup has played out the way that it has this year.

  1. Schedule

The World Cup circuit is arguably the toughest tournament in the modern era.  In order to reach the finals, a player has to play a minimum of 12 games over a span of 18 days, which is already tiresome – and that’s only if you’re extremely lucky.  If you’re on the opposite side of the spectrum, you might have to play 54 games over a span of 18 days.  Overall, it is a lot of games to play at one time, and players would not have as much time to rest and prepare in between games.  And, of course, the entire event is about 2.5 times longer than most supertournaments these days.  Put it all together, and you have one of the toughest schedules on the planet.

  1. Stress

If you’re one of the top seeds in a tournament, especially a knockout tournament where you play relatively easy competition at first, you’re supposed to do well.  It’s as simple as that.  You’re supposed to win most of your games and keep moving on to the next round.  So, what happens when you try to force the issue too much and end up losing as a result?  You risk being closed out prematurely.  Depending on the color situation, it may be even harder to come back from a loss – just ask Anand in round 2 or Carlsen in round 3.  The stress to play well and not make mistakes can be overwhelming when combined with the fact that a top-seeded player must face it every day of the tournament.

On top of that, there are the added stakes to the entire event.  Finishing at the very top would guarantee a spot in the upcoming Candidates tournament, taking participants one step closer to the chance of playing current World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the World Championship Match.  Obviously, all players want to try and gain that opportunity, so the competitiveness in regards to the stakes definitely adds to the pressure on the top seeds.

  1. Time Control

The last point examined how trying to win too early in a match can just as quickly backfire.  However, there’s also the flip side to that – not winning enough early can lead to muddied waters in tiebreaks.  The lower-rated opponent may play exceptionally well in faster time controls, or perhaps the top-seeded player may not play as well in the faster time controls.  In general, games in faster time controls are much more “up in the air” in terms of possible results, and one blunder in a blitz game may be enough to knock someone out.

We looked at a few possible explanations for the struggles of some of the top seeded players in this year’s edition of the World Cup.  While there are much more possible reasons, especially, “it just happened,” these were some that definitely could have played a factor.  Looking forward, we have the chance of seeing an Aronian-MVL or Aronian-Svidler semifinal matchup on one side of the bracket, and a possible So-Liren semifinal matchup on the other side.  While anything could happen, the chess world can be excited for the fireworks to come, no matter who moves on.  And, as always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.

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