Final impressions of the Qatar Masters

The recently concluded Qatar Masters 2014 was surprisingly won by Chinese GM Yu Yangyi. I say surprisingly because when there are players like Kramnik and Giri playing, one seems to forget about everyone else. As the tournament drew to a close, Yangyi upped his level of play and skillfully composed a symphony of wins in the final three games. He finished the tournament with an incredible score of 7.5/9 (+6, =3, -0), +21 in rating, and a 2905 performance! In this one tournament, which was the strongest Open ever, he surged on the World Rankings list to number 22, with a LIVE rating of 2730. This makes him China’s new highest rated player, eclipsing Ding Liren, who is at 2727.

After the last round, Yangyi was gracious enough to sit down with me for an interview, which was uniquely done through the use of Google’s online translator. The reason for this was because neither he, nor his group of friends, were comfortable with English. My Chinese was completely nonexistent as well, beyond Xie-Xie or Syeh-Syeh (Thank You). The online translations were not so accurate, and were quite nonsensical at times. But I kind of knew we were on the right track when our faces would light up occasionally, as we read the translations on the computer. I tried my best to piece together the fragments of his responses that made sense, and have also paraphrased at certain points.

Akshat Chandra: First of all, congratulations on winning the strongest Open tournament ever! What was your mindset going into the last round; was your plan to go all out for a win, or just play solidly and see what happens?

Yu Yangyi: Thank you (smiles)! I am very happy to have won this tournament. For the last round, I didn’t think too much about winning, and just wanted to play a normal game.

Akshat: How was your game today? It looks like you won quite smoothly against such a strong opponent.

Yangyi: I played this game well, and it was a high-quality game for which I was glad. In the game against the American GM (Aleksandr Lenderman), I made some mistakes, which could have cost me dearly and thrown me out of the race.

Akshat: You managed to break Kramnik’s Berlin, something Kasparov could not do.

Yangyi: (smiles) obviously my opponent is well respected and known for his knowledge in the Berlin.

Akshat: Where are you from in China, and what age did you start playing chess?

Yangyi: My hometown is the city of Huangshi, which is in the province of Hubei. I started playing chess at the age of seven years.

Akshat: This is probably the biggest win, and result of your career. China is doing well in chess recently – your team won the Olympiad earlier, and now you have won the Qatar Masters! We are waiting for a Chinese player to become world champion.

Yangyi: Recently, for me and my teammates, it has been going very well. This is definitely the biggest achievement of my career so far. With regards to future a world champion, I personally feel that there is a gap still between me and the world super-class players, and I need to continue the effort. The achievements of a single event does not mean anything.

After our talk, I got the impression from his responses that Yangyi is a very modest and humble person. He is not looking too far ahead, and recognizes the fact that the effort and work must still continue. Like he said, the achievement of one tournament does not mean anything, and that he must continue to get even better! Winning the Qatar Masters 2014 was the biggest achievement of Yangyi’s young, promising career, but he has had many other notable results. Here is a compilation of some of them, which my ChessBase colleague Sagar Shah neatly put together:

  • Won the 2014 Chinese Championship (on tiebreak) with a score of 7/11 and a 2679 performance
  • Won the 2014 Asian Continental Championship with a score of 7/9 and 2789 performance
  • Won the 2013 World Junior Championship with a score of 11/13 and a 2792 performance
  • Won the Danzhou tournament in 2011 at the age of 16, with a score of 7/9 and a 2878 performance

The emergence of players like Yangyi certainly bodes well for the future of chess in China, and I for one expect to see him firmly established among the world’s elite shortly.

Former World Champion GM Vladimir Kramnik, who was leading the tournament going into the final round before losing to Yangyi, gave a press conference after his seventh round win against top seed GM Anish Giri. I was fortunate enough to be present, and was able to ask him a couple of questions.

Akshat: Vladimir, when was the last time you played an open tournament? The Qatar Masters must be very special to attract a player like you, and also, do you plan on playing more open tournaments in the future?

Vladimir: I never mind playing open tournaments. Actually I haven’t played for more than 20 years I think, but I played Olympiads for example, which have a similar atmosphere. I always enjoy that, and here in Qatar I know this gentleman well (referring to GM Mohamed Al-Medaihki), and I know that the organization will be perfect. Also, it’s a very strong open tournament. I wouldn’t play an average open, but here it’s more interesting, so I don’t mind playing at all. I don’t think I will play lots of open tournaments because I have enough of top tournaments also. But for instance next year, I would be happy to come back again!

Akshat: Vladimir, was it due to nerves that you drew the first two games? You know, trying to settle down into the open tournament format. Also, what has sparked your turnaround over the last five rounds?

Vladimir: Well, I don’t know, all these years it happens often with players that you get into the tournament slowly. I just was a little bit slow in the beginning, but I also have to admit that my opponents played very well first two rounds (GMs Halikas Stelios from Greece, and Shyam Sundar from India). They were playing much above their rating, and I don’t feel like I played badly. I was a bit disappointed; not with my play, but more with the result. Usually, when you play well, if you keep on playing well, at some point you start winning. I was not worrying about winning many games, I was just focusing on playing well after this negative start. I managed, and victories came even more than I expected so far.

I soaked in his words, his detailed and informative responses, and stored the answers in my brain: as long you keep on playing well, the results will eventually come; and a slow start can be overcome, as long as your game is strong.

I also had a chance during the tournament to have engaging conversations with Khalifa Al-Hitmi, President of the Qatar Chess Association. He was a very charming and affable person. When he saw me wondering when Vladimir Kramnik last played an Open tournament, he laughed heartily and said that it was well before I was born. Even Kramnik was not sure. But Mr. Hitmi knew! The last open tournament Kramnik played in was 22 years ago – the Alekhine Open in 1992.

During one of our after-round evening conversations, Mr. Hitmi told me that they had to refuse 200 players, which included 30 GMs, because there was no capacity. He believes that for the 2015 edition, they will try to accommodate a few more – perhaps about 20 to 30 strong players – as they want the elite nature of the tournament to be preserved. They have already started the process of selecting venues, and are reviewing four such locations in and around Doha. The dates are expected to be around the same time as this year.

On a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and opportunity to play in Qatar. The organization was flawless, and the playing conditions were just marvelous. My feelings are captured succinctly in the three words made famous by the Terminator: I’ll be back.

Doha is a city where the drill never stops. During the day, there is the constant noise of construction, as you walk around the city. There are cultural landmarks being built, and of course the preparation for the 2022 Football World Cup. Things are fairly easygoing for a tourist, but the roads are quite stressful, as drivers don’t stop for pedestrians!

I had an opportunity to visit one of the iconic cultural symbols of the city, The Museum of Islamic Arts (above). It was quite a captivating experience, and I was particularly impressed with the special exhibit on Tipu Sultan, a famous Indian warrior and ruler of Southern India.

I wrote this article for Chessbase and it can be viewed here.

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