This week, my attention was drawn to a very dramatic conclusion to a Grand Prix. And no, despite all the chess connotations in the press, it had nothing to do with what was universally described by the media as Lewis Hamilton’s “chess match with Sebastian Vettel” in his ongoing F1 battle with the Ferrari driver in the U.S. Grand Prix on Sunday in Austin, Texas.
It also had nothing to do with the FIDE Grand Prix, with the last leg and two Candidates’ spots being decided in next month’s final leg in Las Palmas, Spain – however, that said, it did involve not one but two of the key players involved in that year-long Grand Prix race, namely Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Russia’s Alexander Grischuk!
On Monday evening, I watched live online as MVL played Grischuk in the first quarterfinal match of the 2017 Chess.com Master Class Speed Chess Championship. Grischuk built on an early lead and then went on to secure an upset 16-13 win – and now the Russian will play the winner of the quarterfinal match-up later next month between Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So.
In blitz chess, Grischuk can’t really be described as the “underdog”, because, just like Hikaru Nakamura, the Russian is one of the game’s top speed merchants – and there was one game in particular with a brilliant finale in a Grand Prix Attack that left the fans and even Nakamura equally drooling over!
The moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 d6 3.f4 are known as the Grand Prix Attack and has a popular following among club players – and it comes with a very British history to it. The opening got its name almost exclusively due to the late great FM David Rumens, who deployed the then little-known Grand Prix Attack as his main weapon against the omnipresent Sicilian Defence, as he won the UK-based Cutty Sark Grand Prix series of open tournaments back in the 1970’s and 80’s.
It was soon coined the “Grand Prix Attack” by the veteran English chess journalist Leonard Barden (who also played a vital role as the administrator of the Grand Prix series of tournaments held throughout the UK), and in the mid-1980’s, another leading English player, GM Mark Hebden, continued the trend by using a refined version of the Grand Prix Attack (with Bb5), as he followed in the Grand Prix-winning footsteps of Rumens.
GM Alexander Grischuk – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Chess.com Speed Championship, (3m+2spm)
Sicilian Defence, Grand Prix Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Bent Larsen was the first elite player to experiment with the Grand Prix Attack – but the great Dane favoured it with an early 2.f4. However, it didn’t take long to find an excellent gambit continuation, as Mikhail Tal uncorked his “Tal Gambit” with 2…d5!? (see Hartston-Tal, Tallinn 1979) that soon put 2.f4 out of commission. 2…d6 3.f4 Nc6 4.Nf3 g6 5.Bc4 Thanks to Mark Hebden’s Grand Prix conquest, the English GM preferred to play 5.Bb5 – but 5.Bc4 was in the spirit of Rumens, who would follow-up with the pawn sacrifice 6.f5 in an attempt to bludgeon his way through to Black’s king. While Grischuk doesn’t quite display those caveman attributes, his way ends up being just as ferocious! 5…Bg7 6.0-0 e6 7.d4! This is the present-day twist to playing the Grand Prix Attack, as White now takes the game back into Open Sicilian territory. 7…Nxd4 If 7…cxd4 then White will comfortably recapture the pawn after 8.Nb5 Nge7 9.Bb3 – and at the same time, White will have a better Open Sicilian set-up with Black’s knight on e7 rather than f6. 8.Be3 Nxf3+ 9.Qxf3 Ne7 10.Rad1 0-0 Grischuk has excellent compensation for the pawn with full development and lots of attacking possibilities – and MVL opted to castle rather than risk a further attacking onslaught with the likes of 10…Qb6 11.f5! gxf5 12.Nb5 d5 13.b4! d4 14.Qg3! and Black is in dire straits – and not in a good way by being a band member with Mark Knopfler on lead guitar! 11.Bxc5 Qc7 12.Bxd6 Qxc4 13.Bxe7 Re8 14.e5?!? This is all purely speculative stuff from Grischuk – but in a blitz-match scenario, it’s enough to throw MVL into a blind panic! White should simply have played 14.Bg5! h6 15.Bh4 with a big advantage with the better pieces, dark-square control and excellent attacking possibilities. 14…Rxe7 15.Rd8+ Bf8 16.Ne4 Kg7 17.Nf6 Qxc2? MVL pays the price for his greed. Admittedly this was a blitz game, but his gut instinct should have told him that this was a dangerous position to be in, especially with that wonderful White knight fixed on f6! Instead, the cold and very unbeating heart of the silicon beast keeps a cool head and finds the correct way forward with 17…Rd7!! 18.Nxd7 Be7! 19.Rxc8 (Not 19.Re8? Bxd7 20.Rxe7 Qc5+ winning the rook.) 19…Rxc8 20.c3 Qb5 21.Nf6 Qb6+ 22.Kh1 Qxb2 23.Ne4 Qxa2 and White has a tough time trying to save this, as Black will soon be quickly pushing his passed a-pawn up the board. 18.Qh3 h5 19.Qg3 Qf5 20.Rfd1! [see diagram] With the …Rd7 trick no longer available, MVL is now left paralysed and simply has to watch on in agony as Grischuk finds the mating attack. 20…b6 21.Rxf8! Kxf8 22.Rd8+ Kg7 23.Rg8+ Kh6 24.h4! 1-0 MVL resigns, as there’s simply no defence to Qg5 mating – a wonderful finale!