Grischuk Replaces Mamedyarov Atop Leaderboard in Sharjah
ByParimarjan NegiFeb 27 — 9:00 AM
Image by Max Avdeev for World Chess by Agon Ltd
Grischuk and Vachier-Lagrave are now tied going into the last round.
After four rounds of stasis at the top of the leaderboard of the Sharjah Grand Prix in the United Arab Emirates, there was finally a change in the penultimate round. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov Azerbaijan was beaten by Alexander Grischuk of Russia, who replaced him as co-leader of the tournament with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France.
Grischuk and Vachier-Lagrave have five points heading into the last round on Monday, followed by Mamedyarov, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Dmitry Jakovenko of Russia, Hikaru Nakamura of the United States, and Michael Adams of England, who each have 4.5 points.
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.
Max Avdeev for World Chess by Agon Ltd
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov was squeezed by Alexander Grischuk and finally lost, dropping out of a tie for the lead.
Grischuk played an inspired game to beat Mamedyarov. For a while, it looked like Mamedyarov was doing fine. But Grischuk gained the slightest edge in the endgame, and converted it to a full point:
Grischuk, Alexander vs. Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 |Sharjah UAE |Round 8.2 |26 Feb 2017 |ECO: D42 |1-0
34. Kg2Nexd4It doesn't look like Black is doing too badly. His knights seem very solid and the blockade of the c-pawn seems stable. But Grischuk has a plan. 35. Bc7Rc836. Bd6g537. f4!gxf4
( 37... g4!Might have been a better move. It would have kept the kingside closed and, in hindsight, that would have been best for Black because the White king would not be able to penetrate so easily. )
38. gxf4Ke839. Rb6Ra840. Ne5!A crucial move at the first time control. There have been many games spoiled on the last move before the time control (the players get extra time after the 40th move). Grischuk though is an expert in playing under extreme time pressure he is the only three-time winner of the World Blitz Championship and in this position he finds the best path forward with almost no time on his clock. 40... Ra2+41. Kg3Ra3+42. Kg2Ra2+43. Kg3Ra3+44. Kh4Nxe545. Bxe5Nf3+46. Kh5Nxe547. fxe5Kd748. Kg6!!A very subtle move. Going after the pawn on h6 was never White's intention. Instead, he wants to go after the e6 pawn. Grischuk is also just in time to protect his pawn on e5 as well by hiding behind the advancing Black f-pawn. Grischuk probably had to foresee all of this before he played Kh4 a few moves earlier.
( 48. Rd6+Ke749. c6Re3!And the pawn on e5 can't be defended. If White tries to promote the c-pawn, then after 50. c7Rc3!The c-pawn can't be defended. )
48... f449. Rd6+Ke750. c6f3
( 50... Ra751. h4f352. Rd3Would be similar to the game, or perhaps even worse for Black. )
( 50... Rc351. Rd7+Ke852. Rf7Rxc653. Rxf4And Black would suffer in the same manner as in the game. )
51. Rd7+Ke852. Rf7Rc353. c7h5
( 53... f2Seems like a better fdefense, at least at first, because after 54. Rxf2Rxc7White can't play Rh3 and collect the h-pawn and defend the e-pawn.
After 55. Kxh6Rc3!Black is already threatening to play Re3. 56. Kg6Rh3Keeps the h-pawn blocked. It seems very hard to improve White's position. But White had another resource after f2. )
( 53... f254. Rxf2Rxc7White cannot play Rh3, which seems better for Black, but White can continue adding pressure with: 55. h4!Once again, taking the h6 pawn is not important! The crucial thing is for the White king to be placed well. If Black does nothing, then White will continue h5 and only then play Kxh6. At that point, the h-pawn would be too strong. And if Black attacks the e-pawn, then the White King will be perfectly placed on f6. )
54. Rxf3Rxc755. Rh3It is very hard for Black to defend. The White king is far too active, and there isn't much that Black can do to deal with it. 55... Kd756. Rxh5Rc4
It was really hard to see how the position went from being drawish to lost for Black, which showed just how excellent Grischuk’s technique was.
Max Avdeev for World Chess by Agon Ltd
Ian Nepomniachtchi, left, tried and tried, but he could not break the defenses of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
Vachier-Lagrave had to defend against Nepomniachtchi for 96 moves. But Vachier-Lagrave never seemed to be in danger, and when he needed to, he was able to exchange down to a theoretically drawn endgame:
Nepomniachtchi, Ian vs. Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 |Sharjah UAE |Round 8.1 |26 Feb 2017 |ECO: A29 |1/2-1/2
23. Rc2It looks like Black is under a great deal of pressure, but Vachier-Lagrave comes up with a fairly airtight plan to simplify down to a drawish endgame: 23... Be6!?24. Nxc7Bb325. Ra1Bxc226. Rxa3Bb327. Nxa8Rxa828. Bxb7Rb829. Bc6Kf830. b6Rxb631. Bxa4Bxa432. Rxa4This is a well-known position that should end in a draw with best play. Nepomniachtchi tried for a long time to win, but he never came close.
Among all the other games, I was most impressed by a stunning novelty by Levon Aronian of Armenia in his game against Nakamura. It came in a Queen’s Gambit Declined. It appeared like the game was headed for a standard, symmetrical endgame, which usually leads to a draw, when Aronian, who was White, unleashed his new move:
Aronian, Levon vs. Nakamura, Hikaru
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 |Sharjah UAE |Round 8.4 |26 Feb 2017 |ECO: D37 |1/2-1/2
b6It's been a slow and typical Queen's Gambit opening. The position looks like it is too symmetrical for White to cause Black any problems, but Aronian came up with: 12. g4!?Bb7
( 12... Nxg413. Rg1Nf614. Bh6!Ne8Perhaps Nh5 would be a better move, but Be2 would then be a problem for Black. 15. Bb5!Bb716. Rd7And Black's position is falling apart. )
13. g5Nh514. Bd6Nd4!The most critical line, which Nakamura obviously considered, but I think wisely rejected, was
( 14... Bxd615. Rxd6Ne516. Nxe5Bxh117. Rd7!This position is hard to assess. Obviously, Aronian had prepared it prior to the game because Black's moves have been very natural after g4 and therefore easy to anticipate. Though the computer doesn't immediately agree, this position actually feels very dangerous for Black. Part of the problem is that it isn't clear what he should do next. )
( 14... Bxd615. Rxd6Rfd8Was a safe way to play but after 16. Rxd8+Rxd817. Rg1Avoiding threats from Ne5. Now the knight on h5 is out of the game and White seems to be have slightly better chances. Black's plan should be to try to bring the knight back into the game, while White will reposition the rook on g1: 17... g618. Rg4Ng719. Bb5!Nf520. Bxc6Bxc621. Ne5!Bb722. Ra4a523. b4 )
15. Nxd4Bxd616. O-OBlack's problem is the knight on h5. Not surprisingly, Nakamura finds a tactical solution for it: 16... Rfc817. Be2g618. Nxe6?I think that Aronian played this because he couldn't resist playing the pretty move Nd8 that happens after two moves. But there was no need for White to force things.
( 18. Bxh5gxh5Doesn't give White much of an edge as the Black pawn weaknesses on the kingside will be very hard to exploit. )
( 18. Ndb5!Was the best way to keep a slight edge without allowing Black much counterplay. White could then follow up with Rd7, which would be pretty annoying. 18... Bb819. Nd6Bxd620. Rxd6 )
18... Bxa3!19. bxa3Rxc320. Nd8This feels like a very cool idea and no doubt Aronian played Nxe6 with this in mind. Despite its aesthetic quality, the knight is stuck there after: 20... Be4!21. Rd4Rc5
( 21... Bf5Would also probably be ok. )
22. Nxf7Kxf723. Rxe4Rxg5+24. Kh1Rc8Now the position is fine for Black. The game eventually ended in a draw after a long rook-and-pawn endgame in which White had slightly better chances but was never close to being winning.
The move,g4, is a typical idea in the middlegame, but using it like this in the endgame was surprising and impressive.
Aside from the game between Grischuk and Mamedyarov, there was one other decisive game in the round. Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine bounced back from a loss in Round 7 to score a pretty win against Norway’s Jon Ludwig Hammer. The players reached a fairly drawish endgame after the opening, but Hammer created too many weaknesses and Eljanov exploited them with some perfect and pretty rook maneuvers:
Hammer, Jon Ludvig vs. Eljanov, Pavel
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 |Sharjah UAE |Round 8.8 |26 Feb 2017 |ECO: E18 |0-1
26. Rc3The position looks pretty equal. But from this point on, Eljanov outmaneuvers Hammer. 26... h5!27. h3Rh8Activating one rook. 28. f3Rbc829. Nc2hxg430. hxg4Rh6Now Black is threatening Rch8 and infiltrating along the h-file. This forces White to trade off one set of rooks. 31. Rh1Rxh132. Kxh1Rc6!!A nice idea. The Black rook finds a way to enter White's position along the d-file. 33. Kg2Rd634. Kf2Rd1It's now almost impossible to defend the White pawns. Hammer tries to give up his pawns in the best way possible: 35. b4axb436. Nxb4Ra137. Nd3Rxa438. Nxc5bxc5This endgame might have been hard to win for Black if White hunkered down to defense. But Hammer does not do that and his position collapses soon afterward. 39. Ke3Kd640. Rc1g541. Ke4f642. f4gxf443. Kxf4Ke744. Kf3e545. e3Ke646. Rh1?Why? White had to continue waiting with Rc2, although his defensive job was no fun at all. 46... Rxc447. Rh6Rc148. Kf2Rc2+49. Kf3d550. g5e4+51. Kg3Re252. Rxf6+Ke5
The game between Salem Saleh of the United Arab Emirates and Francisco Vallejo of Spain was also quite interesting. Vallejo played a rare variation in the French Defense. It did not seem like it worked out too well, indeed, Vallejo seemed to be in trouble, but he came up with an excellent piece sacrifice that turned things around:
Salem, A.R. Saleh vs. Vallejo Pons, Francisco
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 |Sharjah UAE |Round 8.7 |26 Feb 2017 |ECO: C17 |1/2-1/2
19. g4Black seems to be in serious trouble. If he moves the knight, his kingside will collapse, and not moving the knight doesn't seem to be an option. 19... e5!A very pretty piece sacrifice! Despite being down a piece down, Black will actually have great compensation in the endgame. 20. Qxf5Qxf521. Bxf5Bxf522. gxf5Rb5!It is difficult to find good squares for the bishop. 23. Bb4!I think this was a smart practical decision. White doesn't harbor illusions about having an advantage. He plans to give up the bishop by taking the pawn on c3. This might seem weird, but if he played Bd6, Black's pawns would quickly become very menacing as they advanced.
( 23. Bd6Was the critical line as the bishop will have an escape square after White plays a4. But Black can focus on the center with: 23... d424. a4Rd5Rb2 is interesting as well. 25. Ba3e4!26. Nh4Kf7Black has impressive compensation for his material deficit. He will follow up with Rhd8 and then d3. )
23... d424. Rd1Kf725. Rg1a526. Bxc3After the Black pawns are neutralized, White's pieces are well positioned for the endgame, so the players agreed to a draw.
The other games weren’t as exciting, but there were still a few interesting moments.
In the game between Li Chao b and Ding Liren, both of China, Ding came up with a very precise sequence of moves to equalize after the opening:
Li, Chao b vs. Ding, Liren
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 |Sharjah UAE |Round 8.5 |26 Feb 2017 |ECO: D78 |1/2-1/2
12. bxc3Qa5!?An aggressive way to play such a symmetric position. The Black pawn on a4 makes it difficult for White to defend the pawn on c3. 13. Ba3This was obviously the crucial line that Ding had to calculate properly: 13... Qxc314. Bxe7Qxd4!Black is just in time because of the threat of Qxa1. 15. Rc1
( 15. Bxf8Qxa116. Qxa1Bxa117. Rxa1Kxf8And Black should hold. )
15... Re816. Bc5Qe517. e4Nd718. Ba3Nf6Now Black is clearly doing well. He could have probably aimed for more than a draw at some point, but Ding did not try to be particularly ambitious. 19. exd5Bg420. Qc2Bf521. Nc4Bxc222. Nxe5Be423. Bxe4Nxe424. f4Rad825. Rfd1Nd626. Bb2a327. Bxa3Bxe528. fxe5Rxe529. Bb4Rd730. Bc3Re231. a4f532. Bb4Kf7
In another game between compatriots, Alexander Riazentsev and Evgeny Tomashevsky of Russia, Tomashevsky came up with a sweet little knight maneuver that helped him equalize rather easily:
Riazantsev, Alexander vs. Tomashevsky, Evgeny
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 |Sharjah UAE |Round 8.9 |26 Feb 2017 |ECO: D38 |1/2-1/2
Nxe5Black has just taken the White knight on e5. It wasn't the easiest decision, but I think he already saw the knight gymnastics he was going to pull off later: 15. Bxb7Rab816. Be4Nc417. Qe2Nd618. Bc6Nb7!A nice way to deal with the bishop on c6, which otherwise would have prevented any sort of activity by Black. The knight will actually be pretty comfortable on a5, and in conjunction with c5, will give Black reasonable play. 19. Qa6Na520. Bf3c5Black is just doing fine, so White simply offered a draw after one more move. 21. dxc5
The stage is set for a perfect finish. The leaders, Vachier-Lagrave and Grischuk face off in the final round, with Vachier having White. With five other players battling it out only a half point behind them, the last round should be anything but boring.
Parimarjan Negi is an Indian grandmaster who is the second-youngest ever to earn the title (at 13 years 4 months and 22 days). Ranked No. 77 in the world, he is a junior at Stanford University. He can be found on Twitter at @parimarjan.