He took first on tiebreaks over Vachier-Lagrave and Mamedyarov, who finished second and third, respectively.

Alexander Grischuk of Russia has won the Sharjah Grand Prix in the United Arab Emirates. He did it on tiebreakers over Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, who finished second and third, respectively.

Grischuk and Vachier-Lagrave were tied for first before the last round and faced each other. Their game had the potential to produce an outright winner. Instead, they played a rather short draw. 

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. 

Mamedyarov, who had lost to Grischuk in the penultimate round, came back by winning his last round game against Hou Yifan of China, the current Women’s World Champion (whose reign will end in a few days when a new winner is crowned at the World Championship tournament in Tehran). Almost right from the start, it looked like Yifan had confused her preparation, and she quickly found herself in a bad position.

Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar vs. Hou Yifan
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 9 | 27 Feb 2017 | 1-0
Nc7 11. a4! According to my database, this is the first time this move has been played in a live tournament at the elite level. It has been played a number of times in correspondence chess and is the computer's top choice even from a pretty low depth, so it is hard to miss in preparation.
11... Bb7 Hou spent half an hour at this point, a clear sign she was not too comfortable with the position. Still, this is the best move.
12. Bd3 h6? And now a mistake. Black cannot allow the b1-h7 diagonal to remain open.
12... g6 This is the computer's move, and it's probably fine for Black.  )
12... Nxd5!? I remembered liking this when I analyzed the line about a year ago. After
13. Bxh7+ Kxh7 14. Ng5+ Kg8 15. Qh5 Qxg5! 16. fxg5 Nxc3 The computer thinks White is better, but I am not sure. It looks very unclear to me.  )
13. O-O Bxc3
13... dxe5 Probably this was more resilient, though White would still be better after:
14. axb5  )
14. bxc3 dxe5 It's unfortunate for Black that she has to allow axb5 but she had no choice in the matter.
14... bxa4? 15. c4  )
15. axb5 e4 Hou desparately pitches a pawn to try to keep the center closed, but to no avail.
15... Qxd5 16. c4 Qd7 17. Bb2!? And White's bishops are terrifying. For example:
...  e4 18. Ne5 Qe7 19. Bc2 And Black's pieces are unbelievably badly positioned. Look at the knight on b8 and White is going to follow up with Qg4, Rad1, f5, etc.  )
16. Bxe4 Bxd5 17. Bb1! A very classy move. Normally a player doesn't want to block the rook on a1 rook, but in this case it is already on an open file! White wants to play Qc2.
17... Nd7
17... Bc4 18. Qc2 g6 19. f5! And White should win.  )
18. c4! Always tactically aware, Mamedyarov drives the bishop back.
18... Bb7
18... Bxc4 19. Qc2 Both h7 and c4 are attacked.  )
19. Ra3 Ne6 20. Qc2 Nf6 21. Bb2 And Black gets massacred. The threat of Bxf6 is tough to handle.
21... Ne4
21... Be4 This would lead to some exchanges, but it would not change the result:
22. Bxf6! Bxc2 23. Bxd8 Bxb1 24. Rxb1 Rfxd8 25. g3 Even trading into an endgame is not helpful. White will be able to play Rba1 and Ne5-c6, after which the pawn on a7 will be lost and the White b-pawn will be able to advance.  )
22. Rd3 Qc7 23. f5 Nd4 24. Nxd4 cxd4 25. Bxd4 Now in addition to his incredible piece activity, better attacking chances, and having the bishop pair, White is up a pawn. The rest requires no comment.
25... a6 26. b6 Qc6 27. f6 Rfd8 28. fxg7 Rd6 29. c5 Rg6 30. Ba2 Ng5 31. Rg3 Nh3+ 32. Kh1

Two other games ended decisively. Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine had a tournament to forget, but he showed great psychological toughness by winning his final two games. He ended up with a score of 50 percent. In Round 9, his victim was Salem Saleh of the host country of the United Arab Emirates.

Eljanov, Pavel vs. Saleh, Salem
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 9 | 27 Feb 2017 | 1-0
17. a4 Black has a good position, but as the center is opened, tactical possibilities arise. In the ensuing complications, Eljanov ended up on top.
17... d5? This was too rash
17... Qb6! Simple and strong. Black develops a new piece and keeps d4 protected.
18. axb5 d5! And White is much worse, since the game continuation would not work here:
19. exd5 Bb4 20. Rxe5 Rxe5 And d4 is defended.  )
18. exd5! Bb4 Black defends the knight on e5 while gaining a tempo tempo and is ready to take on d5 next. But...
19. Rxe5! Anyway!
19... Rxe5 20. Qxd4 And now in addition to having a pawn for the exchange, White has extremely active pieces, while two of Black's pieces are attacked.
20... Bd6 21. Nf3 Qb6?
21... Re8! This was stronger. Saleh may have overlooked that after:
22. Bg5 Be7 23. d6 He has
23... Bxf3! 24. gxf3 Rc6! And Black just barely holds everything together. This kind of continuation is very hard to find during a game.  )
22. Qh4! Material will be equal again but White will retain his superior activity.
22... Nxd5 23. Nxe5 Bxe5 Not all symmetrical positions are equal.
24. Qe4! Cold blooded and strong. White does not fear any discovered attacks by the bishop on b7. It is more important to chase the knight on d5 so that the White bishop on b3 can have more scope.
24... Qe6 25. axb5 Bxb2 26. Qxe6 fxe6 27. Rxa7 White has emerged from all the complications with an extra pawn and a big advantage. Eljanov converted that into a win with no trouble.
27... Rc3 28. Rxb7 Rxb3 29. Ne4 Bd4 30. g3 Rb2 31. Kh1 Rb1+ 32. Kg2 Rb2 33. Ng5 Rxf2+ 34. Kh3 Be5 35. Ra7 Nb6 36. Re7 Bd6 37. Re8+ Bf8 38. Nxe6

The other win by Ding Liren of China, who beat Levon Aronian of Armenia in a very nice game. Ding has proved to be quite a difficult opponent for Aronian in the past and Round 9 was no exception.

Ding Liren vs. Aronian, Levon
Grand Prix | Sharjah, UAE | Round 9 | 27 Feb 2017 | 1-0
28. Qb3 Black has a very unpleasant position. White has the bishop pair, a space advantage in the center, and has made progress toward a kingside attack. Aronian understandably did not want to wait for a slow death as White maneuvered his rooks to the h-file, but opening the center did not offer any salvation.
28... c5?
28... Bh6 The computer suggests this waiting move, but this is beyond depressing. But it would offer better chances to hold a draw.
29. Re2 Bg7 30. Bg4! White will follow up with f4.  )
29. dxc5 Rxd2 30. Rxd2 Qxc5 Now Ding's pieces infiltrate rapidly.
31. Rd7! b5
31... Qc6 32. Qd1!  )
32. axb5 Qxb5 33. Qd1! Nc6 34. Be2
34. Rc7 This move may have been even stronger.  )
34... Qb6 35. Bc4 White's bishops are glaring down on the kingside. Black is in big trouble.
35... Rb7
35... Rd8 This forces a rook trade but doesn't help much. After
36. Rxd8 Black must take with the knight on d8.
36... Nxd8 37. Qd7 And the invasion continues.  )
36. b3! A great move. Calmly and patiently, White protects everything in his position and makes room for the bishop on c3 to retreat.
36... Qa7 37. Rd6! A fine move that quickly settles the game.
37... Bxd6 This is forced, but now the dark squares will be weakened decisively.
37... Rb6 38. Rxe6!  )
37... Qb6 38. Rxc6! Qxc6 39. Qd4  )
37... Rc7 I guess Black could have tried this.
38. hxg6 hxg6 39. Qh1 Bg7 40. Qa1 Bxc3 41. Qxc3 White is winning rather easily.  )
38. Qxd6 Qb6 39. Qf4 The threat is Qf6.
39... Kf8 40. Bxe6 With time control reached, any practical hope that Black can draw is gone. Ding and his bishops easily finished off the Black king.
40... Nb4 41. Qf6 Nd3 42. Bd4 Qd6
42... Qxe6 43. Qd8+ Qe8 44. Bg7+  )
43. Be3 Ne1+ 44. Kf1

When all was said and done, it was a pretty quiet tournament with a lot of draws. It was a bit of surprise that 5.5/9 was enough for a share of first despite having nearly twice as many players as in a standard round robin, but one cannot draw any conclusions from just one tournament. I look forward to seeing how the next Grand Prix in Moscow in May will play out.


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.