Richard Rapport barely edged out Wei Yi in a match of two of the world’s most exciting rising young stars.

Jeffery Xiong of the United States won the World Junior Championship last summer. While Xiong is certainly the official champion, I feel that such events are somewhat obsolete because the best players under age 21 are often among the best players in the world of all ages. Indeed, most of the top players eligible to play in the World Junior rarely do. 

It was for this reason that a match that ended Friday in China between two of the world’s top players under 21, Richard Rapport of Hungary, 20, and ranked No. 30 in the world, and Wei Yi of China, 17,  No. 38, served as an unofficial world junior championship. (Both of them had also skipped the official competition.) The match certainly attracted a lot of attention.  

The match format was for four classical games, and if tiebreaks were necessary, it was to be followed by two blitz games and then possibly an Armageddon game.

Part of what made the match compelling is that the players have very different styles.

Wei is extremely well prepared, is a brilliant student of the game, and calculates very precisely. He has a very professional approach for such a young player, and his results are reasonably consistent. He is willing to play risky variations, but never plays openings that are considered objectively poor according to the latest theory.

By contrast, Rapport is much more creative. He operates on a different wavelength than any player rated over 2700 that I have ever seen, often mixing things up in the openings with some bizarre ideas and then relying on his superior understanding of unusual middlegames.

Before the match, I thought Wei’s best chance to win was to punish any mistakes that Rapport made in the openings and then calculate extremely carefully. I thought that Rapport would do best if he could get out of the openings with playable and non-standard looking middle games. Game 1 of the match showed my prediction of success for each player was totally wrong as the game started exactly as Rapport wanted, but Wei won anyway.

Wei Yi vs. Rapport, Richard
Rapport-Wei Match | Yancheng, China | Round 1 | 23 Dec 2016 | 1-0
Nf8 11. Bb5?! I don't like this move. The bishop was fine on d3. Why not pay deal with his misplaced pieces?
11. Nf1! This move looks almost automatic to me. White would then have a very nice version of what almost resembles an Open Spanish.  )
11... Bd7 12. dxc5 bxc5 13. Nf1 Rb8! 14. Be2 Around this point, White might have been regretting playing Bb5.
14. a4 d4  )
14... Be6 I already prefer Black's position a bit. At this point, I really thought Rapport might win this game and grab an early lead, but Wei surpised me with his resourcefulness.
15. Qa4 Qb6 16. Ne3
16. b4!? The computer's recommendation is probably a better bet.  )
16... Nd7
16... Ng6 This move looks more natural to me.  )
17. Qf4 Qb4 18. Qg3 Now things quickly start to become less clear.
18... Nd4!
18... Ndxe5!? This move would also be fine but I prefer the move that Black played.
19. Rd1! Bf6! 20. Nxd5 Bxd5 21. Rxd5 O-O Black's pieces are very active and he should have some sort of edge even though White has the bishop pair.  )
19. Bd2! Offering a piece sacrifice.
19... Nxe2+!
19... Nxf3+? This would win the bishop on d2, but give White a ton of activity.
20. Bxf3 Qxd2 21. Qxg7 Rf8 22. Rad1 Qxb2 23. Nxd5 And Black will probably be checkmated.  )
20. Rxe2 Qxb2 21. Rae1 g6? This move significantly weakens Black's dark squares.
21... Kf8! This move looks very dangerous, but since White has no concrete threats, I think Black is basically winning.  )
22. Ng4! Qxa2 23. Nf6+! Kd8 24. Ng5! Black now has very real problems with his king safety. The position has become very unclear.
24... Rb6 25. Bc3 Qa3?
25... Qa6! This was the only move for some mysterious reason, according to the computer. It looks basically impossible for a human to find over the board without oceans of time on the clock.  )
26. Nxf7+! Bxf7 27. e6 Bxe6
27... Nxf6 28. exf7 and Black cannot save the bishop on e7.  )
27... Bxf6 28. Bxf6+ Nxf6 29. Qxa3  )
28. Rxe6 Black will not survive this onslaught.
28... Rxe6 29. Rxe6 Qa2
29... Qc1+ 30. Re1 Qxe1+ 31. Bxe1 Bxf6 This is the computer's recommendation, but it offers no salvation. After
32. Qd6 Black is also going to lose.  )
30. Nxd7! Kxd7 31. Rxe7+! Well calculated
31... Kxe7 32. Qc7+! Ke6 33. Qc6+ Ke7
33... Kf5 34. Qf6+ Ke4 35. Qf3#  )
33... Kf7 34. Qf6+ Wins the rook with check.  )
34. Qxc5+ Ke6 35. Qc6+ Ke7 36. Qb7+! The final finesse. White controls b1 to prevent checks and can grab the Black rook next, remaining up a piece.

Rapport struck back in Game 2 as Wei looked a little too eager to punish how Rapport played with the White pieces. Rapport did not play ambitiously, but he did not make any mistakes. Wei opened the position too early and soon suffered the consequences.

Rapport, Richard vs. Wei Yi
Rapport-Wei Match | Yancheng, China | Round 2 | 23 Dec 2016 | 1-0
5. Nd2 e5?! This move looks way too ambitious to me.
5... cxd4 My instinct would be to play this move.
6. exd4 Bf5 Simple and easy. Black should be fine.  )
6. dxe5 Nxe5 7. Ngf3 Nxf3+
7... Nc6! In hindsight, this looks like a better move, but I still would prefer to play White.  )
8. Nxf3 Black would be doing very well if he could castle and keep his pawn structure intact, but this is easier said than done.
8... Be7 9. Bb5+! Simple and strong.
9... Bd7
9... Kf8 The engine recommends this move, which is not a good sign for Black's position.  )
10. Bxd7+ Qxd7
10... Nxd7 11. Qxd5  )
11. Ne5! Now Qa4 is incoming
11... Qf5
11... Qb5? 12. Bxf6 Bxf6 13. Qxd5  )
12. Qa4+ Kf8 13. Bxf6 gxf6 A sad necessity.
13... Bxf6 14. Nd7+ Ke7 15. Nxc5 And White is up a pawn and Black's king is caught in the center.  )
14. Nf3 Rg8 15. Nh4 Qe6 16. Qc2?!
16. g3 I don't understand why White didn't play this. It looks very natural.
16... f5 17. Ng2 White is threatening to play Nf4 and Black has no counterplay and a ton of weaknesses.  )
16... d4
16... f5! 17. Nxf5 Rxg2 This position looks okay for Black.  )
17. g3 Qd5? Forcing White to make moves he wanted to make anyway.
17... dxe3 18. O-O And White has a lot of compensation for his pawn deficit.  )
17... Rd8! This was the way to proceed.
18. O-O-O Qxa2 And Black is fine.  )
18. e4!?
18. O-O-O This move looks more natural to me but I don't think that Rapport's choice is bad.  )
18... Qc4 19. b3 Qxc3+ 20. Qxc3 dxc3 21. O-O-O! The point. Black will soon lose the pawn on c3 and his pawn structure is in ruins. The knight will go to f5 where it will dominate the Black bishop.
21... f5 A desperate attempt to create space for the bishop, but it fails.
21... b5 22. Rd7 And White's rook decisively penetrates Black's position.  )
22. Nxf5 Rg6
22... Bf6 23. Rd7 b5 24. f4 White's pawns are much better than Black's. After he plays e5 and Rhd1, Black will not be able to resist much longer.  )
23. Rd7 Re6 24. Rxe7 Not really necessary, but definitely enough to win.
24... Rxe7 25. Nxe7 Kxe7 26. Kc2 After White takes The Black pawn on c3, he will be up a pawn and have a four-to-two pawn majority on the kingside, which should be enough to win.
26... Rd8 27. Kxc3 b5 28. Kc2! Preparing Rd1. Once White occupies the open file, further resistance will be futile.
28... Rd6
28... Rd4 29. f3 Kd6 The engine recommends this move for some reason, but after
30. Rd1 White has a huge edge in the endgame.  )
29. Rd1 Rh6 30. h4 Rf6 31. Rd2?!
31. f4 Why not this move? The move played by Rapport wins, too, of course.  )
31... Ra6?
31... Rf3 This move would have made White work a bit harder to win the game.
32. Kd1 Ke6 33. Ke2 Rc3  )
32. Kd3 The rest was easy for Rapport.
32... Ke6 33. Rc2 Kd6 34. g4 c4+ 35. bxc4 bxc4+ 36. Kd4 Ra4 37. Rxc4 Rxa2 38. e5+ Kd7 39. f3 Ra6 40. Rb4 Kc7 41. g5 Re6 42. Ra4 Kb6 43. f4 a5 44. f5 Re8 45. e6 fxe6 46. f6

Rapport held a draw with Black in Game 3 quite easily. It looked like he might get something going in Game 4, but accurate play from Wei shut him down.

Rapport, Richard vs. Wei Yi
Rapport-Wei Match | Yancheng, China | Round 4 | 23 Dec 2016 | 1/2-1/2
16. Nc3 With an extra pawn and a strong bishop on e5, White seems to have a clear edge. In addition, Black cannot castle. But accurate play from Wei neutralized any problems that he had.
16... Rc8!
16... O-O? 17. Qb3+  )
17. Rc1 Qxa2! And White cannot avoid mass exchanges that reduce his advantage.
18. O-O Bxc3! 19. bxc3 Qxc2 20. Rxc2 O-O 21. Ra1 e3 22. Rcc1 exf2+ 23. Kxf2 The rest of the game did not change the balance and the players headed for a draw.
23... a6 24. Ke3 Be6 25. Ra5 Rfd8 26. Kd2 Rc6 27. Rf1 Bc4 28. Rf3 b6 29. Ra1 a5 30. h4 Ra8 31. h5 a4 32. Rg3 Ra7 33. Bb8 Rb7 34. Be5 b5 35. Kc2 Bd5 36. Kb2 b4 37. Rxa4 bxc3+ 38. Kc1 h6 39. Ra8+ Kh7 40. Rb8 Ra7 41. Ra8 Rcc7 42. Rxa7 Rxa7 43. Rxc3 Bxg2 44. Kd2 Bd5 45. Ke3 Bf7 46. Rc7 Rxc7 47. Bxc7 Bxh5 48. Kf4 Kg6 49. d5 Be2 50. Be5 Bc4 51. d6 Be6 52. Kg3 Kh7 53. d7 Bxd7 54. Bd4 g5 55. Bf6 Kg6 56. Be7 h5 57. Bd8 h4+ 58. Kf2 Kh5 59. Be7 g4 60. Bd6 g3+ 61. Bxg3 hxg3+ 62. Kxg3

This left the match tied, 2-2, sending the players to the blitz games. Wei won the first game pretty easily, and with Black, when Rapport seriously overestimated his attacking chances with a piece sacrifice.

Rapport, Richard vs. Wei Yi
Rapport-Wei Match | Yancheng, China | Round 5 | 23 Dec 2016 | 0-1
hxg5 22. fxg5? I'm not sure what Rapport overlooked in this position.
22. Be4 After this move, chances are about equal.  )
22... Qxb7 23. Qh5 Nd5 24. Rf3 f5! Not the only winning move, but the simplest one.
25. g6
25. gxf6 Nxf6 And Black should win without difficulty.  )
25. Rh3 Nf4! 26. Qh7+ Kf8 White is out of steam  )
25... Nf6 26. Qh4 Qe4 27. Rf4 Qe2 28. Re1 Qh5 Black is up a piece and in no danger of being mated.
29. Qg3 Ne4 30. Qh4 Qxh4 31. Rxh4 Kf8 32. Rh7 Nf6 33. Rh3 Ke7 34. Re5 Rd5 35. Re1 Ne4 36. Rf3 Rh8 37. g4 Rh6 38. h4 Rxh4 39. Rf4 Rh6 40. Rexe4 fxe4 41. Rf7+ Kd6 42. Rxg7 Rg5

Wei then only needed a draw with White to clinch the match, but this is not nearly as easy to achieve in a blitz game. Rapport played a dubious opening, but one that required very precise play to punish. I think he would have lost if he did something like this in the classical games, but in blitz he took over the initiative very quickly.

Wei Yi vs. Rapport, Richard
Rapport-Wei Match | Yancheng, China | Round 6 | 23 Dec 2016 | 0-1
6. Bb5+ Nc6!? This is objectively a bad move, but given the match situation it was just what Rapport needed to play as he needed a way to unbalance the position.
7. e5? Not the best reply.
7. dxc5!?  )
7. d5! a6 8. Ba4 b5 9. dxc6 bxa4 10. e5! And White is much better. Try finding this in a five-minute game, however!  )
7... Nd7 8. d5 Nd4! 9. Nxd4 cxd4 10. Qxd4 O-O! The point. Black is down a pawn, but White's center is crumbling and he is lagging in development.
11. Bxd7 Qxd7 12. O-O Qf5! Winning the pawn on e5.
13. Qd1
13. Be3 Simple development was better. White would have been fine. For example:
13... dxe5 14. Qd2 And both players have chances.  )
13... dxe5 14. fxe5 Qxe5 After 14 moves, Black has a healthier pawn structure and an active bishop pair. Not what the doctor ordered for Wei!
15. Kh1 Qd6 16. Bf4 Qb6 17. Rb1 Bf5 18. Qe2 Rfe8 19. Be3 Qa6! Not fearing having doubled pawns.
20. Qd2
20. Qxa6 bxa6 21. Rf2 Red8 Black's piece activity will probably net him a pawn or two.  )
20... Rad8 21. Qf2 e6 Not the best way to continue, but Black is still much better.
21... Bxc3 22. bxc3 Rxd5 After this, Black would have an enormous advantage.  )
22. Bxa7 exd5 23. Bd4 Bxd4 24. Qxd4 Qc4 25. Rbd1 Bxc2 26. Nxd5?
26. Qf2! This was the last good chance for White to fight on.
26... Bf5 27. Rd4 Black would be a bit better but the game would continue.  )
26... Qxd4 27. Rxd4 Kg7?! With Nf6+ no longer a threat, Be4 is a major threat next move.
27... Kf8 This was even stronger but the text played by Rapport also leads to a win.  )
28. Nc7! With the king on f8 this would not be possible. Still Black will win easily.
28. h3 Re5  )
28... Rxd4 29. Nxe8+ Kf8 30. Nc7 Rd2 This doesn't offer White much hope of salvation. He rapidly loses his pawns.
31. Ne6+ Kg8 32. Ng5 Bd3 33. Re1 h6 34. Nf3 Rxb2 35. h3 Rxa2 The rest of the game was easy for Rapport.
36. Re8+ Kg7 37. Re7 Bf1 38. Nh4 g5 39. Kg1 Ra1 40. Nf3 Be2+ 41. Kf2 Bxf3 42. Kxf3 Rb1 43. Re8 b5 44. Rb8 Rb3+ 45. Kg4 Rb4+ 46. Kf3 Rf4+ 47. Ke3 b4 48. Rb6 h5 49. Kd3 Rf2 50. g4 Rf3+ 51. Ke4 hxg4 52. hxg4 Rf4+ 53. Ke5 f6+ 54. Ke6 Re4+

This sent the match to the Armageddon blitz game. Wei had White and had to win in order to win the match. (In Armageddon games, Black has draw odds, but White has an extra minute.) Wei reached a promising position, but lost the thread as his time was running out. Finally, he sacrificed a rook thinking that he had a forced mate, but overlooked a key defense, allowing Rapport to win the match.

Wei Yi vs. Rapport, Richard
Rapport-Wei Match | Yancheng, China | Round 7 | 23 Dec 2016 | 0-1
gxh5+ 35. Nxh5?
35. Rxh5! White needed to get the rook into the game. There was nothing to fear as
35... Bd1+ Fails to the simple
...  36. Bf3  )
35... Bc2! Now Black's pieces spring to life
36. Ra1 Bf5+ 37. Kg3 Rd3+ 38. Bf3 a3! The pawn on a3 is now a force to be reckoned with. Black threatens to play Bd4.
39. Nf6 Bd4 40. Rac1 c5 41. Rc4 Ra8! 42. Ra4 Rxa4! Well calculated.
43. Rh8 It looks like White can checkmate Black on e8, but...
43... Bxe5! Now Black can play Rd8.
43... Bf2+ This move would have led to a win as well.  )
44. fxe5 With the bishop on d4, mate looked unstoppable. But now the simple
44. Re8+ Kxf6  )
44... Rd8 Effectively puts an end to the game.
45. Ng8+ Kd7 46. Nxf7 Rxg8+ 47. Rxg8 a2

It was very interesting to watch Rapport and Wei play. I would have liked the match to be longer, but I’m sure this will be far from the last time they face each other.

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Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 4 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He was also a member of the team that won the gold medal at the 2016 Chess Olympiad. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.