The first round of the first Grand Prix produced three decisive games.

The road to the World Championship began in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on Saturday and three players took a good first step by winning their first game of the first Grand Prix tournament.

The Grand Prix is a series of four tournaments that will eventually determine two players in next year’s Candidates tournament to select a challenger for the World Championship. The first Grand Prix is being held in Sharjah.

The tournaments are being broadcast live exclusively on this site,, which is the official site of the World Championship cycle.

The Grand Prix is not a new idea — there have been three previous Grands Prix.  But this year the format has been changed. The number of players has been expanded to 24 and each tournament, which has 18 of the 24 players, instead of being a round robin, in which each player faces all of the others, is now a nine-round swiss. It’s definitely unusual and time will tell if it works better than the old format or not. One thing is certain - it opens up the field and creates opportunities for more players. 

The first round was relatively quiet, despite several substantial rating mismatches. There were three decisive games out of the nine total and two of those games were won by the higher rated player. One of those was a victory by Michael Adams of England, ranked No. 16 in the world, over Saleh Salem of the host country, who is ranked No. 99, and the other was by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, No. 5, over Li Chao,  b of China, No. 30.

Adams, Michael vs. Salem, Saleh
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 1 | 18 Feb 2017 | 1-0
29. Be4 Black has a difficult (and probably losing) position, but his next move did not do him any favors.
29... Qh5?
29... Qe6! 30. Bc3 Qxd5 31. Bxd5 Bf6 Black would only be down one pawn and he would have some chances to fight for a draw if he could reach a rook-and-pawn ending. Still, it would be a pretty miserable position.  )
30. Rc5
30. Rc8! This move was even stronger. The point is:
30... Bxc8 Fails to
31. Bxg7+  )
30... Rh6 31. h4 b6 32. Rb5 Material is equal and the structure is symmetrical, but White's piece activity gives him a huge advantage. Black cannot survive.
32... Re6 33. Qd4! Now the Black queen is in trouble; Bxg7 is hard to stop.
33... f6 34. Bxf6! Well calculated
34... Bxf6
34... Qe8 35. Be5 This is not worth playing for Black  )
35. Rxh5 and Black does not have time to take White's queen:
35... Bxh5
35... Bxd4 36. Rxh7#  )
36. Qc4 The rest was simple for Adams.
36... Rge8 37. Re3 Bxb2 38. Qb5 Rxe4 39. Rxe4 Rxe4 40. Qxh5 Bf6 41. Qd5 Rd4 42. Qc6 h6 43. Kg2 Rb4 44. Kh3 b5 45. axb5 a4 46. Qa8+ Kh7 47. Qa5 Be7 48. Kg2 Kg8 49. b6 Bf8 50. Qd5+ Kh7 51. b7 a3 52. Qd8 Rxb7 53. Qxf8 Ra7 54. Qc5 Ra8 55. Qd5 Ra7 56. Qa2 h5 57. Kf3 Ra5 58. Ke3 Kh8 59. Kd2 Ra7 60. Kc1
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime vs. Li Chao b
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 1 | 18 Feb 2017 | 1-0
27. Qg5 Qe7?! This allows White to obtain a pleasant ending with a small edge
27... Kh8 After this move, the position would definitely have been dangerous for Black (he's probably worse) but at least he has a pawn on b2 that Whit has to worry about.  )
28. Qxe7 Rxe7 29. Re2! Now the pawn on b2 will be lost and White will have the bishop pair, giving a clear edge.
29... Ree8 30. Rexb2 Rxb2 31. Rxb2 Nxe5 32. Be2 gxh5 33. f3! White does not bother with taking the pawn on h5.
33. Bxh5? Bg4! And not only is Black able to exchange off a pair of bishops, he is able to chase the other bishop away from its perch on h6.  )
33... Nd7 34. Rb7! Black's pieces are dreadfully passive and White can start targeting the weak pawns on a5 and c6.
34... Nc5 35. Ra7! Nb3
35... Nxa4 Exchanges do not help:
36. Rxa5 Nxc3 37. Rg5+! And Black is cooked.
37... Kh8 38. Bg7+ Kg8 39. Bxc3+ Kf8 40. Bb4+  )
36. g3 Black is basically in zugzwang. The knight on b3 cannot leave the defense of a5, the rook cannot leave the back rank, the bishop barely has a good square, and the king cannot get out of the corner.
36... Bd5 37. Kf2 Rb8 38. Bf1 Be6 39. Bd3 Bd5 40. Bf5 Re8 41. Bc2! After the first time control, Vachier-Lagrave finds the best way to increase the pressure on Black's defenses. Now the knight on b3 has to be continually defended.
41... c5 42. Rc7! c4 Otherwise the c-pawn would have been lost.
42... Be6 43. Bxb3 Bxb3 44. Rxc5 This position is probably winning for White.  )
43. Bf5! Rb8 44. Bd7! Coming around to b5 to attack the c-pawn again.
44... f6 45. Bb5 Bf7 46. Rc6! Now f6 is a target. Black's position is hopeless.
46... Na1 47. Ra6
47. Rxf6 This would have been my choice though the move played by White obviously wins, too.  )
47... Nc2
47... Nb3 48. Rxf6  )
48. Rxa5 Na3 49. Bc6 Nb1 50. Rb5 A fine technical effort by Vachier-Lagrave.

The other decisive game was an upset, as the ever-unpredictable Richard Rapport of Hungary, No. 50, defeated Ding Liren of China, No. 12, with the Black pieces.

Ding Liren vs. Rapport, Richard
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 1 | 18 Feb 2017 | 0-1
Nf6 I have never really understood these positions, but it looks like White should be happy enough. His center is very solid and Black can't engineer counterplay against c4 by playing c5, a typical plan in the Nimzo-Indian Defense, because then the Black pawn on b6 pawn would be weak. But Ding now started to go astray.
19. d5!? If Ding weren't so much better than me, I would say that this move is dubious, but maybe he is right and I am wrong. Still, it seems to me that ceding control of the c5 square to Black reduces the flexibility of White's position.
19. a3 I think it is worth stopping a3. I don't like allowing Black to occupy the a4 square with his rook.  )
19... Bf8 20. Ne3 a3! I like this move. Black wants to play Ra4.
21. f4 Ra4 22. e5 Nd7 As impressive as the White center looks, it is falling apart at the seams.
23. h5 Nc5! Simple and strong.
23... dxe5? This does not quite work.
24. dxe6! And the knight on d7 is attacked.  )
24. Qf1 h6! Stopping White from playing h6. White's center is still under pressure and he has no good way to make further progress.
25. Rd4 Qa5
25... exd5! This move was even stronger, taking advantage of the fact that 26. cxd5 would lose a pawn after 26... Rd4 27. cd4 Bd5.
26. cxd5? dxe5 27. fxe5 Rxe5  )
26. Bd2 exd5!? I'm not sure about this move. Now the bishop on b7 will be blocked, but the path of the game suggests that Rapport was right.
27. Nxd5
27. exd6!? Bxd6 28. Nxd5 This was not a bad alternative.  )
27... c6 Not a happy move to make, the pawn on c7 was hard to defend.
27... Ne6? 28. exd6! Bxd6? 29. f5  )
27... Rc8 28. Bh3  )
28. Nb4 Qa8 29. exd6 White has won a pawn, but his position has serious positional defects. If Black can restore material equality, he will be doing great.
29... Rd8! Targeting the weak pawn on d6.
30. f5! White gets his kingside play going
30... Nd7 Of course, Black should not allow f6.
30... Rxd6 31. Rxd6 Bxd6 32. f6 And White has a vicious attack.  )
31. Rd3? Now Black takes over for good.
31. f6! Anyway! This would have given White a decisive edge.
31... Nxf6 32. Bxh6 Nxh5 33. Bf3! Nf6 34. Bg5 Rxd6 35. Rh4 And Black cannot survive. This is very hard to find with little time left to make all the moves before the first time control.  )
31... Nf6 32. Bf4 Ra5! 33. Qf3 Rxf5 Material balance has been restored and White still has all of the same old positional problems.
34. Nxc6
34. g4 This move offered more resistance, though after:
34... c5! 35. Nd5 Bxd5 36. cxd5 Rxf4! 37. Qxf4 Bxd6 And White would not have had an easy position to defend.  )
34... Rxd6! White is losing now.
35. Rxd6 Bxd6 36. Ne7+ Bxe7 37. Qxb7 Bc5+! Black gives the check before White can move his king to g2.
37... Qxb7 38. Bxb7 Bc5+ 39. Kg2 And White would have had more chances to draw.  )
38. Kf1 Qxb7 39. Bxb7 Nxh5 40. Re8+ Bf8 Ding threw in the towel instead of fight against three connected passed pawns on the kingside.

Sunday, Rapport and Vachier-Lagrave will face off, while Adams will have Black against Levon Aronian of Armenia, No. 7. It should be an interesting day.


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, has his own site, and is also on Facebook.