Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave continue to lead after another day dominated by draws.

The competitors in the Sharjah Grand Prix in the United Arab Emirates are proving to be risk-averse. The last several rounds have been dominated by draws and Round 7 on Saturday was the worst so far. Five games ended before 30 moves, often without much a fight.

That included the leaders, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France. Both had White and both drew after barely making it past the opening stages of their games. 

To some degree, their caution is understandable. There is a lot at stake.

The Grand Prix is 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. 

Despite all the draws on Saturday, there were some interesting battles lower in the standings. Salem Saleh of the host country won a brilliant attacking game against Alexander Riazentsev of Russia, while China’s Li Chao b played a very pretty positional move to beat Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine.

Mamedyarov played Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia and the players followed a well-known line in the Grunfeld Defense. At some point, Mamedyarov thought for a while, trying to find a way to diverge, but they essentially drew without making any original moves.

Vachier-Lagrave definitely made a better attempt to do something against another Russian, Dmitry Jakovenko. Vachier-Lagrave adopted a slightly unusual setup with White against the solid Berlin Defense. The Berlin has a justified reputation for leading to a lot of draws, but Vachier-Lagrave is one of the few players to have actually won instructive games on the White side, so he was clearly hoping for more.

The game quickly left known paths, and then Jakovenko came up with an extremely subtle setup against which Vachier-Lagrave could make no headway:

Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime vs. Jakovenko, Dmitry
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 | Sharjah UAE | Round 7.1 | 25 Feb 2017 | ECO: C67 | 1/2-1/2
Ng6 White's play has been fairly typical for the Berlin Defense, but this position is already not that common in the database. The big difference is putting the rook on d1, which is that popular. Vachier-Lagrave played that to force Black to move his king to e8, as opposed to c8, where it often ends up. Jakovenko chooses a surprisingly passive plan, ignoring what White is doing on the kingside.
12. Nd4 Bd7 13. f4 Be7 14. Be3 h5 15. Rd2 Rd8 16. Re1 This setup doesn't look very good for Black, but its surprisingly hard for White to do much on the kingside.
16... Bc8 17. Ne4 a6 18. Red1 It is not a good sign if a player has to shuffle his pieces back and forth.
18... Nh4 19. Bf2 Ng6 20. Be3 Nh4 21. Bf2 Ng6

It can often appear that all Berlin endgames are the same, but there was actually a lot going on the final position. But with Mamedyarov already having drawn, I assume Vachier-Lagrave did not feel any need to take undue risks with White.

Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine seems to be struggling to find his form in Sharjah. In Round 7, against Li Chao b of China, who had White, Eljanov seemed to be doing fine after the opening, but then he took his queen on a long trip across the board. The queen ended up cut off on the kingside, while Li expertly dismantled Black’s queenside. One move that particularly stood out for me was in the following position:

Li, Chao b vs. Eljanov, Pavel
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 | Sharjah UAE | Round 7.7 | 25 Feb 2017 | ECO: E12 | 1-0
Qh5 27. Bc7! I think this move incredibly pretty. It was certainly not the only way to continue, but it is really annoying for Black. Partly that is because if a player sees a piece in his territory, the natural urge is to expel it. But Black can do little about either the White queen or bishop. Black's queenside pawns are now quite weak. (27. b4 a5 $1 {Would have been annoying; playing Bc7 prevents this.
27... Qg6 Another move by the queen, which Eljanov had already moved at least 10 times. He has a plan to regroup, but it seems too artificial to work:
28. b4 Nh5 29. Ne2 Ndf6 30. Rc6! Going after the a-pawn.
30... Qg5 31. Be5
31. Rxa6 Seems good enough for White, but perhaps Li did not want to calculate too much. After:
31... Rxa6 32. Qxa6 Nd5 33. Nxd5 Qxd5 Followed by Ra8 does give Black some counterplay. The only way to fight for an advantage for White seems to be
34. Nc3 Ra8 35. Qxb5 Qb3!? 36. Qxh5 Qxc3 And White is clearly better, but the one pawn advantage might be hard to convert.  )
31... a5 32. Qxb5 axb4 33. axb4 Ra2 34. Rc2 White is up a pawn. It wasn't too hard to convert this advantage.
34... Rea8 35. Rxa2 Rxa2 36. Qc4 Rb2 37. b5 Nd5 38. Nxd5 exd5 39. Qd3 Qg6 40. Qxg6 fxg6 41. Nc3 Rb3 42. Rc1 Ba3 43. Rb1 Rxc3 44. b6 Nf6 45. b7 Nd7 46. Rb5

The other decisive game of the day was of a very different sort. Both players, Salem Saleh of the United Arab Emirates and Alexander Riazantsev of Russia were at the bottom of the standings (Riazantsev had also lost his previous two games), but they still played with a lot of enthusiasm. The game began with an interesting duel in the opening:

Salem, A.R. Saleh vs. Riazantsev, Alexander
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 | Sharjah UAE | Round 7.9 | 25 Feb 2017 | ECO: B12 | *
Be7 10. g4! While this move is often played against the Caro-Kann Defense, White's previous moves -- c3, Na3, b3 suggested that White was angling for activity on the queenside. So the move must have come as a bit of a shock to Riazentsev.
10... Nh4 11. Nxh4 Bxh4 12. f4 It is very difficult for Black to prevent f5.
12... O-O A brave move and perhaps also not a bad one, but Saleh is very good at blunt attacks.
12... f5 Would have been safer but White could then quickly reroute the knight on a3 to its perfect spot:
13. Nc2! O-O 14. Ne3  )
12... Qd7 Probably was the best move. I would not have castled facing f5.  )
13. f5 Bh7 14. Bd3
14. f6 gxf6 15. Bxh6 fxe5 16. Bxf8 Qxf8 17. Nc2 Nd7 And Black is doing great.  )
14... Nd7
14... f6! Had to be played if Black had any chance to equalize. It is possible that Riazentsev did not consider White's f6 as dangerous, or if he was trying to provoke White into taking risks. Surprisingly, Black is still fine, despite making a temporary pawn sacrifice on e6, because none of White's pieces are particularly well placed, and after opening up the position, White's kingside would be exposed, too.
15. fxe6 Bxd3 16. Qxd3 fxe5 17. dxe5 Rxf1+ 18. Qxf1 Qe8  )
15. f6! gxf6 16. Bxh6 Bg5! Another possibility would have been nearly a disaster
16... fxe5 17. Bxh7+ Kxh7 18. g5! The threat of Qh5 is crushing. The only way to not lose immediately is to play Kg6, but Black's position looks like it's about to collapse. In a practical game, nobody would consider playing this way.
18... Bxg5 19. Bxf8! Qxf8 20. Qh5+  )
17. Bxh7+ Kxh7 18. Bxf8 Qxf8 19. Nc2 Had to be played.
19... fxe5 It is really hard to assess this position. At first glance, I actually like Black's position because all those pawns look strong. Even the computer evaluates Black's position as okay.

At this point, it was probably wasn’t clear to either of the players who was better. But Saleh regrouped his pieces quite effectively and went on to win without any undue problems:

Salem, A.R. Saleh vs. Riazantsev, Alexander
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 | Sharjah UAE | Round 7.9 | 25 Feb 2017 | ECO: B12 | 1-0
fxe5 20. Ne1! An excellent regrouping of White's pieces. The move Nf3 is an annoying threat.
20... e4 Perhaps this wasn't the best move, but I think it is quite an understandable one. It doesn't look like the knight on g2 is that great a piece, but
20... exd4 21. Nf3 Be3+ 22. Kh1 The knight is well placed on f3 and is ready to jump to the kingside. The Black bishop will also soon be driven away. And
22... dxc3 23. Qd3+ loses a piece.  )
21. Ng2 Qe7 22. Qe1! Planning h4 and g5. White's pieces are working well together.
22... Bh6 23. Qf2 Rf8 24. Kh1 f5
24... f6 This may have been a better setup as Black' best hope was to try to keep his pawns solid. But it is clear that he has little activity and only White could play for an advantage.  )
25. gxf5 exf5 26. Qg3! Qf7 27. Rf2 Black can't play f4, so he is just down an exchange.
27... e3
27... f4 28. Nxf4! Bxf4 29. Qh3+! The key idea. The Black king is too exposed.
29... Kg8 30. Rg1+  )
28. Nxe3 f4 29. Qh3 It is all over.
29... Nb6 30. Rg1 Qe7 31. Ng4 Qe4+ 32. Rf3

Among the many other draws, the one that ended prematurely was between Francisco Vallejo of Spain and Hou Yifan of China, the reigning Women’s World Champion (for a few more days, until the championship tournament underway in Tehran finishes). Here is the final position, after 21 moves:

Vallejo Pons, Francisco vs. Hou, Yifan
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 | Sharjah UAE | Round 7.6 | 25 Feb 2017 | ECO: C65 | 1/2-1/2
Bf7 Too early for a draw!
21. Kh2

With opposite-colored bishops, I am tempted to suggest that White could have gone all in on the kingside (Nh4, Nf5, start pushing the pawns, etc.). With Kh2, Vallejo was signalling that he was getting ready to play on the kingside and he is known for his attacking skills. The attack would probably have been somewhat risky for White - Black has excellent defensive resources. So perhaps a draw offer was not a bad choice here, but from the point of view of the fans, it is slightly disappointing.

One draw that had some interesting moments was the the game between Ding Liren of China and Hikaru Nakamura of the United States:

Ding, Liren vs. Nakamura, Hikaru
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 | Sharjah UAE | Round 7.4 | 25 Feb 2017 | ECO: D37 | 1/2-1/2
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 Be7 5. Bf4 O-O 6. e3 c5 7. dxc5 Bxc5 8. a3 Nc6 9. Qc2 Qa5 10. Rd1 Re8 11. Nd2 e5 12. Bg5 Nd4 13. Qb1 Bf5 14. Bd3 Bxd3 15. Qxd3 Ne4 16. Ncxe4 dxe4 17. Qxe4 Qb6 18. Rb1
18. O-O Ne2+ 19. Kh1 Qxb2  )
18... h6 19. Bh4 g5 20. b4
20. Bg3 Rad8! The threat of f5 would trap the White queen in the center.  )
20... Bf8 21. Bg3 Rad8 Once again, f5 is a threat. White has to do something quickly.
22. exd4! exd4 23. Be5 The position looks extremely dangerous for White, but he is ready to give up the bishop on e5 to get his king to safety.
23... Bg7 24. O-O Rxe5 25. Qd3 Things have calmed down. White has a slightly better pawn structure, and if he could permanently blockade the Black d-pawn, preferably by putting his knight on d3 instead of his queen, then he would have a big advantage. White can get his knight there with Nb3...Nc1 or Nf3...Ne1, but Nakamura finds a nice way to stop that.
25... Qg6! 26. Rb3 Allowing Black to play d3 would create significant problems for White.
26... g4! Stopping both the routes for White's knight to get to d3.
27. c5
27. Qxg6 fxg6 28. Rd3 Would seems more natural to me, but I guess that Black's activity ensures he's fine.
28... Re2  )
27... b6 28. cxb6 After the exchanges, it will be even harder for White to gain an edge, so he offered a draw.

The game between Richard Rapport of Hungary (arguably, the most entertaining player in the tournament because his play is often so original) and Levon Aronian of Armenia was a slight letdown. Rapport stuck to a traditional opening and even though he tried to play it in an unusual way, the position never got too crazy.

The games between Alexander Grischuk of Russia and Michael Adams of England, and Evgeny Tomashevsky of Russia and Jon Ludwig Hammer of Norway, ended in draws after reaching opposite-colored bishop endgames with very similar structures. Here are their final positions:

Grischuk, Alexander vs. Adams, Michael
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 | Sharjah UAE | Round 7.3 | 25 Feb 2017 | ECO: A14 | 1/2-1/2
Rxd8 31. Rc7 With the rooks on the board, White has winning chances. Grischuk tried for a long time before conceding the draw. Adams basically kept his bishop planted on b4 until the last move.
Tomashevsky, Evgeny vs. Hammer, Jon Ludvig
Sharjah Grand Prix 2017 | Sharjah UAE | Round 7.8 | 25 Feb 2017 | ECO: E06 | 1/2-1/2
33. Rxb2 Bxb2 and the players agreed to a draw as clearly the extra Black pawn on the queenside is of no use.

In Round 8, Vachier-Lagrave and Mamedyarov will each play Black against Nepomniachtchi and Grischuk, respectively. Maybe this will be a chance to shake things up at the top of the standings.

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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.