An unexpected loss in Round 8 by the leader of the Gashimov Memorial leaves first place up for grabs heading into the finale on Saturday.

A loss in the penultimate round of the Gashimov Memorial by Fabiano Caruana of the United States, the long-time leader of the tournament, has opened the door for two other players to possibly win the tournament. One is the player who beat Caruana, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan. The other is Anish Giri of the Netherlands, who is now tied for the lead with Caruana, a half point ahead of Mamedyarov.

After jumping out to the lead in the first half of the tournament, Caruana really seems to have lost a bit of strength. He failed to capitalize on winning chances in Rounds 6 and 7, and in Round 8 he stumbled badly against Mamedyarov, even though Caruana had White. 

Caruana, Fabiano vs. Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar
Gashimov Memorial | Shamkir, Azerbaijan | Round 8 | 03 Jun 2016 | 0-1
29. Ree3?!
29. Qg4+ It seems like an appropriate time to force a draw because Black's pieces are active and he has targets to attack on the queenside, which gives enough him compensation for his loosened kingside.
29... Kh7 30. Qh5 And the threat of Rxb3 compels Kg7
30... Kg7  )
29... a4 30. Qe2 White retreats to try to hold down the queenside, but he is actually in big trouble.
30... d5 31. Qf3
31. cxd5 Rcxd5 This also looks very dangerous for White.  )
31... Rdc8 32. cxd5 Rxc3 33. Rxc3 Rxc3 34. Qxc3 Qxd5 The ending looks symmetrical and equal, but it's not. The b2 and f5 pawns are very weak and should eventually fall. White is completely lost.
35. Qb4 h5?! Time pressure really worsened the quality of play in the following moves.
35... e4 According to the engine this would have given Black a big advantage.
36. Qxa4 Qd1+ 37. Kg2 Qf3+ 38. Kg1 e3  )
36. Qxa4 Qd3
36... e4! Again, this was a strong move.  )
37. g4! Qb1+ 38. Kg2 Qxb2 39. gxh5 Qc2 40. Qg4+?!
40. Qb4! This move would have held the draw as h6+ is a problem for Black.
40... b2 41. h6+ Kh7 42. Qf8  )
40... Kh7 41. h6? Even with more time on his clock because he had passed the first time control, Caruana is not able to find the best path.
41. Qa4! This would have held, but only a silicon mind can come up with such a move.  )
41... Kxh6 42. Qg8 Qxf5! and Black won without much trouble.

Caruana’s loss opened the door for Giri to take the lead if he could beat the tail-ender of the event, Hou Yifan of China. But, as has happened in every previous game between the two of them, Giri failed to win. I really thought this time he was making it happen as he got a very pleasant endgame, but somehow his advantage evaporated without him making many obvious inaccuracies. Hou can be very pleased with her strong defensive play; she definitely earned her half point.

Giri, Anish vs. Hou Yifan
Gashimov Memorial | Shamkir, Azerbaijan | Round 8 | 03 Jun 2016 | 1/2-1/2
31. h3?! This is the point at which White's problems began. It was very important to activate the king.
31. Kg2!  )
31... Bxd7! Hou bravely sacrifices a pawn for some activity.
32. Rxd7 Ne4 33. Nc6? Taking the wrong pawn
33. Rxd5! Ra8 34. Re5! This was the way for White to play. Black's knight has to leave the center, after which White would have good winning chances.  )
33... Ra8 34. Ne5 Ra1+ 35. Kg2 Ra2 36. Rxf7+ Kg8 White has won a pawn, but his pieces are tangled up and he has no good way to keep f2 defended. In the meantime, Black will collect the pawn on b4.
37. h4 Rb2 38. Rf4 Kg7! Patience is important; the pawn on b4 is not going anywhere.
38... Rxb4 39. Nxg6  )
39. Nc6 b5 40. Nd8 It's annoying to have to give up the pawn on b4, but what else could White do? His pieces were stuck.
40... Rxb4 And Black has reached a position in which she should have few remaining problems.
41. Ne6+ Kg8 42. Rf8+ Kh7 43. Rf7+ Kh8 44. Rf8+ Kh7 45. Rf7+ Kh8 46. f3 Rb2+! The last accurate move
47. Kh3 Re2! 48. Rf8+ Kh7 49. Rf7+ Kh8 50. Rf8+ Kh7 51. fxe4 Rxe3+ 52. Kh2 Rxe4 White cannot keep any of his pawns so the game should end in a draw.

The other games were pretty uneventful. Sergey Karjakin of Russia rolled out a nice opening idea and even got an edge with Black against his opponent, Eltaj Safarli of Azerbaijan, but the position was complicated and one inaccuracy was all it took for Karjakin to lose his advantage. The players then repeated and agreed to a draw:

Safarli, Eltaj vs. Karjakin, Sergey
Gashimov Memorial | Shamkir, Azerbaijan | Round 8 | 03 Jun 2016 | 1/2-1/2
dxc4! A good decision by Karjakin
9. d5 O-O-O! 10. Bd2 It looks like Black is losing material, but...
10... Nxd5! 11. Nxd5 Rxd5! 12. Bxd5
12. Bxa5 Rxd1+ 13. Rxd1 Nxa5 Black should be better  )
12... Qxd5 13. Nf3 Bf5 Black's position looks very pleasant to me.
14. O-O e6? Too timid
14... e5  )
14... Bd3! 15. Re1 e5 Would have put Black in the driver's seat.  )
15. b3! Bd3 16. bxc4 Qf5 17. Re1 Bc5 18. Be3 Bb4 19. Bd2 Bc5 20. Be3 Bb4 21. Bd2 Bc5 22. Be3

The final round is shaping up to be exciting. Caruana and Giri will each have Black, respectively, against Karjakin and Mamedyarov. Karjakin, though he is only a point behind, cannot win, but he can ruin Caruana’s chances to capture first place, just as he did in the Candidates tournament in Moscow in March.

Mamedyarov has  more to play for because if he wins, and Caruana loses, Mamedyarov would win the tournament. He has already shown he is up the task by beating Caruana.


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 7 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 is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.