The French grandmaster only drew, but it was enough to hold on to the lead as his nearest rivals also did not win.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was in some trouble on Monday in Round 3 of the Sharjah Grand Prix. But the French grandmaster managed to draw and to hold on to his half-point lead in the tournament.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, Vachier-Lagrave’s opponent in Round 3, Michael Adams of England, and Hikaru Nakamura of the United States, who recorded the sole victory on Monday, trail by half a point.

The Grand Prix in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, is the first in a series of four tournaments to select two qualifiers for next year’s Candidates tournament. In addition to Sharjah, competitions will be held in Moscow, Geneva and Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Twenty-four of the world’s best players are competing in the Grand Prix – 18 in each tournament. 

Each Grand Prix has a 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, the game’s governing body. 

After winning his first game of the event, Richard Rapport of Hungary has struggled. Monday, he lost to Nakamura, and in a very surprising way.

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Rapport, Richard
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 3 | 20 Feb 2017 | 1-0
44. Bh5 It had been a very topsy-turvy game for quite a while, but Rapport had survived the worst of it. At this point, however, he must have had an hallucination I can't come up with any other explanation for his next move, especially given that he had over an hour on his clock.
44... Nxf2+? This loses a piece.
44... Nhg5 And Black would not have been worse in the ending, though the position would have been very clear.  )
45. Bxf2 Rxa2 46. Bxf3 Rxf2 47. Rd3 After just a couple moves, White has consolidated and is completely winning. Black has no way to even try to stop the e-pawn, as his king is cut off and his rook cannot reach the e-file.
47... Kc4
47... a5 48. Kg1! And the e-pawn will soon promote. Perhaps this is what Rapport overlooked?
...  Ra2 49. e5 I don't know if Black can even trade the rook for the pawn.  )
48. Re3 There is nothing that can be done to stop the White e-pawn.
48... Rd2
48... a5 49. e5 a4 50. e6 a3 51. e7 a2 52. Re1! And White will win.  )
49. e5 Rd7 50. e6 Re7 51. Bxc6 a5 52. Re4+ Kxc3 53. Bb5! Simple and elegant. Black's pawns can no longer advance and his king cannot harass White's rook. White will continue Kh2-h3-xh4-h5-xh6-g6-f6, and Black can do nothing about it.
53... a4 54. Bxa4 Kd3 55. Re1

Vachier-Lagrave, who had White against Mamedyarov, nearly lost. Mamedyarov had a sizeable edge throughout much of the game, but Vachier-Lagrave always had an opportunity for counterplay and when he saw his chance, he grabbed it.

Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime vs. Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 3 | 20 Feb 2017 | 1/2-1/2
42. h5 Mamedyarov had played a fine game up to this point and has an edge that should be sufficient to win, but this is much easier to say at home working with a computer rather than sitting at the board. Accurate play is needed and White's kingside pawns offer a fair amount of counterplay.
42... Nc3? Not a good move, though even right after the time control, it is very hard to play a position like this one accurately.
42... Nd4! This move was much stronger. After
43. g6+ Kg8 44. Ra6 Rf3 45. Bc1 Ne6! Black's knight is much closer to the defense.  )
43. Rc2 Nd5 44. g6+ Kg8 45. Bg5! It turns out the knight on d5 is pretty badly misplaced. It is dominated by the bishop on g5 and does not contribute anything toward stopping the passed White kingside pawns.
45... Rf3 46. h6 Nf4+ 47. Bxf4 Rxf4 48. Rc8! Rxc8 49. Rxc8+ Rf8 50. Rc7 Black has to make a draw before it is too late.
50... Rf6 51. Rc8+

Adams, who played Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine, could have joined Nakamura in the winners circle on Monday, but he faltered at the last moment.

Adams, Michael vs. Eljanov, Pavel
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 3 | 20 Feb 2017 | 1/2-1/2
Qf7 Both kings are exposed, but White has the chance to force an endgame where he would be up a pawn.
38. Qh4? I'm sure Adams saw Qxf7+ but thought this was an easier win. After all, he threatens Rxh6 and then Black's king will not survive. But...
38. Qxf7+! Kxf7 39. Rxh6! And I think White's edge should be enough to win. He has an extra outside passed pawn, and a knight vs. bishop, which is an advantage in this endgame as most of the pawns are on one side of the board. His king is also closer to the queenside action. For example:
...  Bd7 40. Nc3! Re8 41. Kc1! White's king is in no danger, and Black has no counterplay. I would expect White to win.  )
38... Qf3! Very accurate. Suddenly, White has to play precisely to avoid losing! His own king is not in the best of spots.
38... Qf1 39. Kc1 And White should win.  )
39. Nf2!
39. Kc1 Adams may have been counting on this resource (which does work against Qf1), but here it fails.
39... Bg4 And Black wins  )
39... Qe2 40. Kc1 Qe1+ 41. Nd1 Qxh4 42. Rxh4 hxg5 Black is fine.
43. Rh5

On Nakamura will have White against Vachier-Lagrave. That should be a very 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.