He has won his first two games in the first Grand Prix of the year.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave can be satisfied with his start in the Grand Prix in Sharjah. He has won his first two games and is the sole leader. 

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan and Michael Adams of England are tied for second, a half point behind.

Sharjah is the first in a four-tournament series that will include competitions in Moscow, Geneva and Palma de Mallorca, Spain. There are 24 players in the Grand Prix with 18 in each tournament. The top two scorers at the end of the series will qualify for the Candidates tournament next year to select a challenger for the World Championship. 

Each Grand Prix has a prize fund of 130,000 euros, with 20,000 euros for first place. The series is being organized by Agon, the company that holds the commercial rights to the World Championship, under the auspices of the World Chess Federation.

Round 2 of the tournament produced three decisive results, just as in Round 1. 

The first decisive game was between Salem Saleh of the host country and Ding Liren of China. Both of them had gotten off to rough starts with losses on Day 1, but Ding managed to turn things around with a nice win, and he did with the Black pieces.

Saleh, Salem vs. Ding Liren
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 2 | 19 Feb 2017 | 0-1
Qf6 17. d5? Strategically, this is a very dubious move. With the center closed, Black can attack freely on the kingside with no worries about a counterattack by White. In addition, the bishop on a7 now has tremendous scope.
17. dxe5! This was a much better option. After
17... Qg6! 18. exd6 Qh5+ 19. Bh2 cxd6 Black has compensation for his material deficit, but a pawn is a pawn. At least White would have some counterplay.  )
17... Ne7 18. Bh4 Ng5 19. Nh2 Bc8! A really nice move. Black cannot avoid the exchange of bishops, but he can at least ensure it happens on his terms.
19... Bxe2 20. Qxe2 And White's pieces would have been a bit better coordinated than they were in the game.  )
20. Bg4 Qg6 21. Bh5? For better or worse, White really had to exchange c8.
21. Bxc8 Raxc8 And compared to playing Bxe2, Black has his rook on c8 and White would not have his queen on e2. This is not a huge change, but it clearly favors Black.  )
21... Qg7 Black is threatening f5 and it will cause significant problems for White.
22. g3 Bh3 This is the engine's choice, though it is not a natural move for a person.
22... f5 This looks more natural to me -- I would not bother taking the exchange.  )
23. Bxg5 hxg5 24. Bg4 Bxf1 25. Qxf1 White has great play on the light squares, but he is down an exchange and the Black rooks can use the h-file.
25... Qg6! 26. Kg2 Preparing Kg7 and Rh8, which will activate the Black rooks.
26... Kg7 27. Nhf3 Rh8 28. a5 Ng8! I like this move. Black improves the position of his worst-placed piece.
29. Qc4 Nf6 30. Bf5 The bishop looks nice on f5, but it doesn't accomplish much and White will soon play g4, attacking the piece.
30... Qh6 31. Qd3
31. Qxc7 g4 And Black should win because
32. Nh4 Fails to
32... Qxd2  )
31... Qh5! Simple and very effective. Black needs to activate his last piece for the attack, and after Rh6, the other rook can move to h8.
32. Rf1 Rh6 33. Re1 Ng4 34. Bxg4 Qxg4

Vachier-Lagrave beat Richard Rapport of Hungary by punishing his provocative play. Rapport often gets away with playing that way, but not against Vachier-Lagrave.

Rapport, Richard vs. Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 2 | 19 Feb 2017 | 0-1
Kf8 I don't like White's position, but his next move was really asking for trouble.
20. O-O? The king will not be safe on this square.
20. Ne5! This suggestion by the computer is very strong. White is preparing to castle queenside.  )
20. O-O-O? Bf4  )
20... Qc7! 21. Qd2 Re8 Black's pieces are springing to life and White's kingside is very vulnerable.
22. e3 Kg8 23. d4 Qc8! Another strong move. The pawn on h3 is not secure.
23... c4 This would have been my instinct with the idea of keeping the center closed to put pressure on the kingside without any significant concerns. But Vachier-Lagrave's move is stronger because after my suggestion, White could fight on with
24. Ne5! Nxe5 25. dxe5 Bxe5 26. Bxe5 Rxe5 27. h4 And White would have had better chances than in the game.  )
24. h4 Bh3! No mercy. Black is storming the gates.
25. Ne5 This is a pretty desperate move, but White's position was already pretty hopeless.
25. dxc5 Bxc5 26. Bd4 Bxg2 27. Qxg2 Re4! And that would be enough to win.  )
25... Bxe5 26. dxe5 Bxg2
26... Qg4 This move would have won the game a bit more quick0ly.  )
27. Qxg2 Qg4 Not the fastest way to win, but a very clean way to proceed. The ending is absolutely hopeless for White.
27... Nxh4  )
28. Rad1 Nxh4 29. Qxg4 hxg4 30. Rxd5 Nf3+ 31. Kg2 Rh2+ 32. Kg3 Rxc2 33. Rf2 Rxf2 34. Kxf2 Nxg5 I'm sure Vachier-Lagrave calculated to this point when he played Qg4. White cannot take the pawn on c5 and after the Black knight lands on e6 there will be no more hope for White.
35. Kg3
35. Rxc5? Ne4+  )
35... Ne6 36. Rd7 Rd8! The rest does not require any commentary.
37. Rxb7 Rd2 38. Ba3 Rxa2 39. Rxa7 Re2 40. Bc1 Rc2 41. Ra1 Rc3 42. Kxg4 Rxb3 43. Kf5 Rd3 44. Ra8+ Kh7 45. Ra7 Rd1 46. Rxf7 Nd8 47. Rc7 Rf1+ 48. Ke4 Rxc1 49. Rc8 Nf7 50. Rc6 Nh6 51. e6 Ng8 52. Rc7 Nf6+ 53. Ke5 Kg6 54. e7 Re1

For his part, Mamedyarov won a very nice game against Evgeny Tomashevsky of Russia.

Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar vs. Tomashevsky, Evgeny
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 2 | 19 Feb 2017 | 1-0
20. Nd3 Black is facing a somewhat unpleasant ending with the hanging pawns on the c and d files, but his next move did not help matters:
20... Rd7? White's pieces are now able to take up more active positions with a gain time of tempo by attacking Black's pieces.
21. Bh3
21. b4!? This might have been even stronger. After:
21... c4 22. Nc5 The Black rook would be forced to retreat to a7.
22... Ra7 23. g4!? And it would be hard for Black to protect the pawn on d5.  )
21... Rb7
21... Ra7 This was the best move, but it's very difficult to admit that the earlier move was an error.  )
22. b4! Not fearing that Black can create a protected passed pawn.
22... cxb4
22... c4 23. Nc5 Ra7 24. g4! The position to the situation after the 21st move; Black has real problems and White is threatening g5.  )
23. axb4 Now Black is left with an isolated and weak queen pawn and has basically no compensation for this disadvantage. In addition, the bishop on a8 is not very useful.
23... d4 24. exd4 Nbd5 25. Be5
25. Nxd5 Nxd5 26. Bd2 This would have been a little more precise.
26... Nxb4 27. Nc5! And White has a clear edge.  )
25... Nxc3 26. Rxc3 Nd5 27. Rc4 Nxb4 28. Nc5 Black has restored material equality, but White's pieces are much more active.
28... Bxc5? This is a mistake.
28... Rb6! 29. Nd7 Bf3! Tomashevsky may have overlooked this move. After:
30. Ra1 Rc6! 31. Rxc6 Nxc6 32. Rxa6 Bd6! Black would have good chances to draw.  )
29. dxc5! Not fearing the loss of the bishop.
29... Nc6
29... Rxe5 30. Rd8+ Kh7 31. Rxa8 The c-pawn will crash through and promote.  )
30. Bc3 Rbe7 31. Rd6 White's bishops dominate the board.
31... Rc7 32. Rg4! The Black kingside is an easy target.
32... f5 A sad necessity for Black.
32... g6 33. h5! g5 34. Rxh6  )
33. Rgg6 Now the pawn on f5 is also attacked. Black never gets a chance to breath.
33... Ne5 34. Bxe5! Rxe5 35. c6 The bishop on a8 will not be able to move for the rest of the game.
35... Kh7 36. h5 Rc5 37. Bg2 Black resigned as he would basically be playing the rest of the game down a piece.

Vachier-Lagrave faces Mamedyarov on Monday, which should be an interesting matchup.


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.