by Ian Rogers
*Cover and top photo – McClymont v Illingworth*
Max Illingworth will be Oceania’s representative at the World Cup in Baku in September following his nail-biting playoff victory at the Zonal tournament in North Sydney last week.
Since being excluded from the Asian Zone in 1998, Australia’s only viable path into the World Championship cycle has been through the Oceania Zonal, with just one place in the World Cup available. (The single qualifying place is not unreasonable given that the Oceania Zonal tends to be one of the world’s weakest zonal tournaments.)
At the 2015 Oceania Zonal top seed Illingworth seemed to be progressing smoothly to the World Cup with a dominating performance; winning his first seven games and then shutting down his main rival Anton Smirnov in the penultimate round.
However in the final game Illingworth faltered against lowly ranked Brodie McClymont and was forced into a playoff against the mercurial but inconsistent Queenslander.
The first game of the rapid (25 minutes per player) playoff was decisive, Illingworth surviving from a position where many would have folded and eventually winning a tough endgame in 68 moves.
The second game was something of an anti-climax, Illingworth surviving a dubious opening and setting up a position where he could wait for McClymont to accept the inevitable and offer the draw which would hand Illingworth the qualifying place. (McClymont’s consolation came in the form of an IM title, awarded for his tie for first place in a World Championship qualifier.)
That Illingworth could recover from his defeat and just a few hours later hold off McClymont in a playoff match for the World Cup place showed great mental toughness, a feature which Illingworth has only recently added to his game and which will hold him in good stead in Baku.
“He deserved it – he works harder” said a gracious McClymont after leading the crowd in a round of applause for the Australian Champion who is within one GM level performance of becoming Australia’s fifth Grandmaster.
Yet, no sooner had Illingworth (below) won his tiebreaker against McClymont to qualify for the World Cup than he had a decision to make.
The 22-year-old from Dee Why qualified on the same day that the world body FIDE had set as the deadline for players to confirm their entry for the 128 player World Cup.
FIDE’s World Cup contract was devised in the days when the FIDE KO World Championship was the poor cousin to Garry Kasparov’s breakaway World Championship and bans a World Cup competitor from competing in another World Championship cycle for four years.
Other clauses included agreeing to anti-doping tests and wearing any branded clothing chosen by the FIDE President.
The sweetener is the prize fund; $US4,800 for a player eliminated in the first round, almost doubling for each round survived.
In any case Illingworth had only hours after his Oceania Zonal victory in North Sydney to sign the document which provided his first entry into the rarefied air of World Championship qualifiers.
Illingworth will attempt to become the first Australian, male or female, to win a match at a World Cup (though Gary Lane was lucky enough to receive a first-round forfeit in 2005). In Khanty Mansiysk in 2009 David Smerdon – whom Illingworth is now close to overtaking as Australian number two – ran Cuban star Lenier Dominguez to multiple tiebreakers. However one error in the fourth tiebreak game had the Australian on the plane home from Siberia with 63 other first round losers.
Illingworth will have an equally tough task at the World Cup, likely paired against a top 20 opponent in the first round of a knock-out competition where only the top two progress to the Candidates tournament.
Illingworth has continued to improve despite relatively limited exposure to top international opposition. The following game, against the Zonal tournament’s most impressive overachiever, was Illingworth at his best.
North Sydney Zonal 2015
Opening: Sicilian Defence
In the Oceania Women’s Zonal, youth was also served as Canberra’s 20-year-old Emma Guo took the qualifying place in the 2016 Women’s Knock-out World Championship.
Guo (below) was the class player in the field and the only undefeated player, though her main prize is rather nebulous given the neglect with which the world body FIDE has treated the event in recent times.
The next Women’s KO Championship is scheduled for October 2016, but FIDE delayed the last event for almost six months and moved it to Sochi, the rescheduling causing the defending Champion Hou Yifan to skip the tournament.
Prize money for the women’s event is also barely enough to cover costs if Guo is knocked out early. (Guo’s current ranking would see her paired with a top 10 opponent first up.) Yet the possibility of playing alongside the world elite should be enough to motivate Guo to raise her level to, like Illingworth, try to avoid the early exit which has befallen all Oceania’s previous qualifiers.
2015 Oceania Open Zonal
Leading final scores:
=1.Illingworth(N), McClymont(Q) 7.5/9
=3.A.Smirnov(N), Stephens(N) 7;
=5.Loh(V), Goldenberg(V), G.Lane(N), Chen(N), Nakauchi(Q) 6.5.
2015 Oceania Women’s Zonal
Leading final scores:
2.N.Lane (N) 6.5;
=3.Quek(N), Dekic(N) 6;