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. 

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. Kg2 Nexd4 It 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. Bc7 Rc8 36. Bd6 g5 37. 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. gxf4 Ke8 39. Rb6 Ra8 40. 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. Kg3 Ra3+ 42. Kg2 Ra2+ 43. Kg3 Ra3+ 44. Kh4 Nxe5 45. Bxe5 Nf3+ 46. Kh5 Nxe5 47. fxe5 Kd7 48. 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+ Ke7 49. c6 Re3! And the pawn on e5 can't be defended. If White tries to promote the c-pawn, then after
50. c7 Rc3! The c-pawn can't be defended.  )
48... f4 49. Rd6+ Ke7 50. c6 f3
50... Ra7 51. h4 f3 52. Rd3 Would be similar to the game, or perhaps even worse for Black.  )
50... Rc3 51. Rd7+ Ke8 52. Rf7 Rxc6 53. Rxf4 And Black would suffer in the same manner as in the game.  )
51. Rd7+ Ke8 52. Rf7 Rc3 53. c7 h5
53... f2 Seems like a better fdefense, at least at first, because after
54. Rxf2 Rxc7 White can't play Rh3 and collect the h-pawn and defend the e-pawn. After
55. Kxh6 Rc3! Black is already threatening to play Re3.
56. Kg6 Rh3 Keeps the h-pawn blocked. It seems very hard to improve White's position. But White had another resource after f2.  )
53... f2 54. Rxf2 Rxc7 White 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. Rxf3 Rxc7 55. Rh3 It 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... Kd7 56. Rxh5 Rc4
56... Rc8 57. Rh7+ Kc6 58. Kf6  )
57. Rh7+ Kc6 58. Kf6 Kd5 59. Rd7+ Ke4 60. Rd1 Rc2

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.

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. Rc2 It 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. Nxc7 Bb3 25. Ra1 Bxc2 26. Rxa3 Bb3 27. Nxa8 Rxa8 28. Bxb7 Rb8 29. Bc6 Kf8 30. b6 Rxb6 31. Bxa4 Bxa4 32. Rxa4 This 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
b6 It'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... Nxg4 13. Rg1 Nf6 14. Bh6! Ne8 Perhaps Nh5 would be a better move, but Be2 would then be a problem for Black.
15. Bb5! Bb7 16. Rd7 And Black's position is falling apart.  )
13. g5 Nh5 14. Bd6 Nd4! The most critical line, which Nakamura obviously considered, but I think wisely rejected, was
14... Bxd6 15. Rxd6 Ne5 16. Nxe5 Bxh1 17. 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... Bxd6 15. Rxd6 Rfd8 Was a safe way to play but after
16. Rxd8+ Rxd8 17. Rg1 Avoiding 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... g6 18. Rg4 Ng7 19. Bb5! Nf5 20. Bxc6 Bxc6 21. Ne5! Bb7 22. Ra4 a5 23. b4  )
15. Nxd4 Bxd6 16. O-O Black's problem is the knight on h5. Not surprisingly, Nakamura finds a tactical solution for it:
16... Rfc8 17. Be2 g6 18. 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. Bxh5 gxh5 Doesn'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... Bb8 19. Nd6 Bxd6 20. Rxd6  )
18... Bxa3! 19. bxa3 Rxc3 20. Nd8 This 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. Rd4 Rc5
21... Bf5 Would also probably be ok.  )
22. Nxf7 Kxf7 23. Rxe4 Rxg5+ 24. Kh1 Rc8 Now 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. Rc3 The position looks pretty equal. But from this point on, Eljanov outmaneuvers Hammer.
26... h5! 27. h3 Rh8 Activating one rook.
28. f3 Rbc8 29. Nc2 hxg4 30. hxg4 Rh6 Now Black is threatening Rch8 and infiltrating along the h-file. This forces White to trade off one set of rooks.
31. Rh1 Rxh1 32. Kxh1 Rc6!! A nice idea. The Black rook finds a way to enter White's position along the d-file.
33. Kg2 Rd6 34. Kf2 Rd1 It's now almost impossible to defend the White pawns. Hammer tries to give up his pawns in the best way possible:
35. b4 axb4 36. Nxb4 Ra1 37. Nd3 Rxa4 38. Nxc5 bxc5 This 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. Ke3 Kd6 40. Rc1 g5 41. Ke4 f6 42. f4 gxf4 43. Kxf4 Ke7 44. Kf3 e5 45. e3 Ke6 46. Rh1? Why? White had to continue waiting with Rc2, although his defensive job was no fun at all.
46... Rxc4 47. Rh6 Rc1 48. Kf2 Rc2+ 49. Kf3 d5 50. g5 e4+ 51. Kg3 Re2 52. 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. g4 Black 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. Qxf5 Qxf5 21. Bxf5 Bxf5 22. gxf5 Rb5! 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. Bd6 Was the critical line as the bishop will have an escape square after White plays a4. But Black can focus on the center with:
23... d4 24. a4 Rd5 Rb2 is interesting as well.
25. Ba3 e4! 26. Nh4 Kf7 Black has impressive compensation for his material deficit. He will follow up with Rhd8 and then d3.  )
23... d4 24. Rd1 Kf7 25. Rg1 a5 26. Bxc3 After 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. bxc3 Qa5!? 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. Ba3 This was obviously the crucial line that Ding had to calculate properly:
13... Qxc3 14. Bxe7 Qxd4! Black is just in time because of the threat of Qxa1.
15. Rc1
15. Bxf8 Qxa1 16. Qxa1 Bxa1 17. Rxa1 Kxf8 And Black should hold.  )
15... Re8 16. Bc5 Qe5 17. e4 Nd7 18. Ba3 Nf6 Now 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. exd5 Bg4 20. Qc2 Bf5 21. Nc4 Bxc2 22. Nxe5 Be4 23. Bxe4 Nxe4 24. f4 Rad8 25. Rfd1 Nd6 26. Bb2 a3 27. Bxa3 Bxe5 28. fxe5 Rxe5 29. Bb4 Rd7 30. Bc3 Re2 31. a4 f5 32. Bb4 Kf7

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
Nxe5 Black 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. Bxb7 Rab8 16. Be4 Nc4 17. Qe2 Nd6 18. Bc6 Nb7! 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. Qa6 Na5 20. Bf3 c5 Black 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.