There was only one decisive game in Round 7 and the top of the leader board in the London Classic remained unchanged.

Wesley So is inching closer to the title at the London Chess Classic. After a draw in Round 7 with Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, So, who now plays for the United States, held on to his slim half-point lead with only two rounds to go.

So remained in first place because most of the games in Round 7 were drawn. Indeed, just as Rounds 3 and 4, there was only one decisive game, and just as in those earlier rounds, it was a win by Hikaru Nakamura of the United States. 

After an opening disaster in Round 6 on the Black side of the Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defense, Nakamura got to play the opening from the White side against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, who also often plays the Najdorf. Nakamura employed the same line as White (beginning with 6 Bg5) that he had faced in Round 6.

It’s possible that while preparing the defense for Black, Nakamura believed he had found a good to way to equalize. After losing in Round 6, Nakamura may have changed his opinion and then, fortuitously, was presented with a chance to test it out from the White side the very next day. Vachier-Lagrave has had a lot of success with Black against Bg5 Najdorf, but in Round 7 he suffered the same fate that Nakamura had in Round 6.

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime
London Classic | London | Round 7 | 16 Dec 2016 | 1-0
g5 16. Qh3! Computer engines initially do not evaluate this move very highly, but once they have time to calculate, they come around. White is much better.
16... Nc5?! This was probably not the best move, but the position was already difficult for Black.
16... Rg8 The computer engines initially thinks Black in this position, but after
17. e5! dxe5 18. fxe5 Nxe5 19. Bg3 White has a very strong initiative  )
16... Nh7 At high depths of calculation, the computer recommends this move, but just looking at it, no human who likes the Najdorf would ever want to play it.  )
17. Rhe1! h5
17... gxf4 18. g5 Nfd7 19. g6 And White has a massive attack.  )
18. Nf5!?
18. fxg5 Nxg4 19. Bg3 This was simpler and also good for White, but I like the move played by Nakamura even more. He is playing with a lot of energy.  )
18... Ncxe4
18... exf5 19. exf5 Bxg2 20. Qxg2 Black is losing badly and fxg5 is going to make his position even worse.  )
18... gxf4 Would have been my choice, trying to at least create a strong passed pawn, but after the engine's suggestion of:
19. Bxc5! Qxc5 20. Nxe7 Kxe7 21. e5! White wins material.  )
19. Bxe4! Nxe4 20. Bd4! A very accurate move from Nakamura. Black's position is falling apart at the seams.
20... Rg8 21. Nxe7 Kxe7 22. gxh5! gxf4 23. Qh4+ Kf8 24. Ka1
24. h6 This was even stronger. For example:
24... e5 25. h7 Rh8 26. Ka1!! And White is winning easily. It's possible Nakamura missed this quiet move, which is difficult to find.  )
24... b4
24... e5  )
24... Qe7! 25. Qxf4 Qg5 26. Rxe4 Qxf4 27. Rxf4 e5 This would have offered Black some chances to save the game, but after:
28. Rf2 exd4 29. Rxd4 I think White would still win.  )
25. Nxe4 Bxe4 26. Rxe4 Qxc2 27. Ree1
27. Rde1 This was a little more direct but the move played by Nakamura is also fine.  )
27... bxa3 28. Qxf4! The only winning move. White needed to guard the a4 square.
28... axb2+ 29. Bxb2 If Black could play Qa4+, he could draw.
29... Rg5 The best practical try in a lost position. Black threatens mate with Ra5 and the rook cannot be taken without allowing a draw.
30. Qxd6+!
30. Qxg5 Qa4+ With a draw by perpetual check.
31. Kb1 Qc2+  )
30... Kg8
30... Ke8 31. Rxe6+ fxe6 32. Qxe6+ Kf8 33. Rf1+ Mating.  )
31. Rg1 Qa4+ 32. Ba3 Rxg1
32... Kh7! This move offered a bit more resistance, but it's pretty inhuman and White will probably win anyway.
33. Rxg5 Rd8 34. Rg7+! Kh6 35. Rd4! Qxd4+ 36. Qxd4 Rxd4 37. Rxf7 Black cannot win both h-pawns, and the White bishop is the right color to support the promotion of one of them, so White should win.  )
33. Rxg1+ Kh7 34. Qd3+! Kh6
34... f5 35. Qd6! White returns to d6 now that the f7 pawn is gone and threatens Qe7.  )
35. Rg6+ Kxh5 36. Rg1 f5 37. Qf3+

With Bg5 notching two top-level victories in the last two rounds, as well as a win by Kramnik over Boris Gelfand of Israel earlier this year, it’s possible that this ultra-sharp system largely thought of as a forced draw among top players will make some kind of comeback.

The other games were pretty uneventful draws. The only missed chance Anish Giri of the Netherlands, who could have dealt Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria his sixth loss in seven games. 

Giri, Anish vs. Topalov, Veselin
London Classic | London | Round 7 | 16 Dec 2016 | 1/2-1/2
Qa4 White has had a slight edge for a long time, but Black's position is very solid. This was the only moment when Giri could have given himself real winning chances.
51. Nf2
51. g5! fxg5 52. fxg5 hxg5 53. f4! g4 54. f5! And with the queen sidelined on a4, Black is ill-equipped to deal with the opening of lines on the kingside.
54... exf5 55. Qf4 Nf8 56. Qxf5+ Kg8 57. Qxg4 White is winning.  )
51... Qa8 White missed his chance. From this point forward, Topalov defended well enough to hold on for a draw.
52. Nh3 Qc8 53. Qc2 Nf8 54. Nc1 Kg8 55. Nd3 Nh7 56. Qe2 Nf8 57. Qe3 Qd7 58. Ng1 Qe8 59. Ne2 Bc7 60. Nec1 Kf7 61. Nb3 Ke7 62. Qe1 Kd7 63. Nbc1 Kc8 64. Ne2 Nd7 65. Ng3 Qf7 66. Qe3 Kb7 67. Ne2

While the Classic is capturing most of the attention, there’s also been some pretty decent chess played in the concurrent British Knockout Championship, which ended Friday with a victory by Nigel Short. The final match was between Short and David Howell and was tied going into the final game at 2.5-2.5 points apiece. Short then clinched the match with a victory in the final game.

Short, Nigel vs. Howell, David
British Knockout Ch. | Lodon | Round 10 | 16 Dec 2016 | ECO: A35 | 1-0
18. c5 Nc4?!
18... Kd7 I'm not sure why Howell chose to put his knight on c4. One drawback is that it blocks the c-file.
19. h4 Rhc8  )
19. h4! Black is unable to prevent h5, opening lines on the kingside. White's rook on h1 will spring to life.
19... Rc8 20. h5! Rg8 21. hxg6 hxg6
21... Rxg6 This would be my choice in this position, though after
22. Rgh5 Black is still in serious trouble.  )
22. Rh4 Nxe3 23. Bxe3 Bb7 24. cxb6 axb6 25. Rb5 Bd5
25... Rxc3 26. Rxb6  )
26. Rxb6 Kd7 White is up a pawn and Black's pawn structure is in ruins. But the opposite-colored bishops give Black some chances to hold a draw.
27. Rh7
27. Bd4 There was nothing wrong with hanging on to the extra pawn, but Short is looking for more active play.  )
27... Rxc3 28. Bg5 Re8 29. Ra6 Material is equal for the moment, but Black's structure is horrendous, the pawn on e7 is liable to be lost at any moment, and White has an unopposed, passed a-pawn.
29... Rc2?!
29... Rc7 In hindsight, this move offered more resistance, but Black would definitely have to suffer a long time if he managed to draw.  )
30. Bxe7 Rxe7? I don't understand this move.
30... Rxe2+ 31. Kxe2 Bc4+ 32. Ke3 Bxa6 33. Bb4+ Kc6 34. Kxe4 Black still has some drawing chances, but it will be an uphill battle.  )
31. Ra7+ Kd6 32. Rhxe7 White is up an exchange and Black has no compensation for his material deficit.
32... Bc4 This seems to win the pawn on e2, but White has more than enough ways to maintain a winning edge.
33. Red7+ Ke5 34. f4+! I prefer this move for its simplicity.
34. Kd1 This also move would also lead to a winning advantage.
34... Rxe2 35. Rd2!  )
34... exf3 35. exf3 Bxa2 36. Rd2 Rc1+ 37. Kf2 Bd5 38. Rf7 Rh1 39. Re2+ Kd4 40. Rf4+ Kd3 41. Re3+ Kc2 42. g4 g5 43. Rf6 Rh8 44. Rg6 Kd2 45. Ra3 Rh2+ 46. Kg3 Rh1 47. Rxg5 Bc4 48. Re5 Rg1+ 49. Kf2 Rf1+ 50. Kg2 Rb1 51. Rae3 A deserved victory for Short.

In Round 8, So will face Fabiano Caruana, who, like So, recently switched federations to the United States (and helped the team win the gold medal at the 2016 Chess Olympiad). Caruana is in second place, so the game may decide the fight for first place. 


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 and is also on Facebook.