Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave continue to lead, but the group just behind them includes five players after Ian Nepomniachtchi won in Round 6.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, the two leaders of the Grand Prix in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, drew their games in Round 6 on Friday, which was enough to keep them in the lead. But the group chasing them grew as Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia won.

There are now five players – Nepomniachtchi, Alexander Grischuk and Dmitry Jakovenko, who are also Russian, Hikaru Nakamura of the United States, and Michael Adams of England – who each have 3.5 points and are half a point behind the leaders.

The Sharjah Grand Prix is the first in a series of four tournaments that will be held throughout the year. The other locations are Moscow, Geneva and Palma de Mallorca, Spain. The series includes 24 of the world’s best players, 18 in each tournament, who are competing for one of two slots in 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 for first place. The series is being organized by Agon, the company that holds the commercial rights to the World Championship cycle, under the auspices of the World Chess Federation, also known as FIDE, which is the game’s governing body. 

Nepomniachtchi’s victory, his first of the tournament, was over Li Chao b of China. It was a short, brutal game. Nepomniachtchi had White and opened with 1. e4 and Li chose the Petroff Defense. The Petroff has a justified reputation for producing a lot of draws, but when something goes wrong, it can unravel quickly. The players followed known ideas until move 12, when Nepomniachtchi played a new move that seemed to help Li as it drove his queen to a square where she wanted to go. But Nepomniachtchi was clearly well prepared as he continued to move quickly and, three moves later, he sacrificed a bishop, ripping open Li’s kingside defense. Li, clearly caught off-guard, responded well at first, but he quickly went wrong. Nepomniachtchi’s attack proceeded fast and furious, not even slowed when Li managed to exchange queens. Facing mate, Li resigned after only 29 moves.

There was one other decisive game on the day: A victory by Richard Rapport of Hungary over Alexander Riazantsev of Russia. It was Rapport’s second win of the tournament and, coupled with two losses, brought him back to even score at three points. For Riazantsev, it was his second consecutive loss, coming one round after he lost in just 19 moves to Jakovenko. This time, he lasted 78 moves, most of it in a long endgame where he was always on the defensive. That is almost a worse way to lose – to have expended all that time and energy and still come up short.  

Though it ended in a draw, there was a remarkable game on Friday between Nakamura and Grischuk. It was a wild game arising out of the Sicilian Defense in which neither king was able to castle and spent the entire game exposed and constantly on the run. At one point, Nakamura, who had White, had exchanged both his rooks for three pieces. Grischuk then sacrificed one of his rooks for one of Nakamura’s pieces, but Nakamura then sacrificed one of his pieces so that his king could find shelter. That proved to be a smart decision as he was able to begin to push his kingside pawns, supported by his remaining bishop, which had taken up a commanding post on e5. Grischuk was definitely in trouble, but Nakamura misplayed the position, giving up a pawn in the evidently mistaken belief that his other pawns could then move forward more easily. In the end, neither player could escape a possible perpetual check and the game was drawn.

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Dylan Loeb McClain is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014. He is now editor-in-chief of WorldChess.com. He is a FIDE master as well.