The final leg of the Fide Grand Prix in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, concluded at the weekend with a surprise outside winner – all a result of a desperate mad-dash to make it to next year’s Candidates Tournament. Levon Aronian had been the frontrunner since the fourth round, but in the final round, after the Armenian was held to a draw by Hikaru Nakamura, Dmitry Jakovenko took full advantage of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s predicament of needing a do-or-die win to make it to Berlin, as the Russian cashed-in for the full point to not only catch up with the leader but also take the title with the better tie-break score.
MVL and Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan desperately needed to score high in the final leg to have any chance of qualifying for the Candidates – but it all proved too much for both players, as the Grand Prix clubhouse leaders, Shakh Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan, 340 points) and Alexander Grischuk (Russia, 336.4 points) – both having already played their allotment of tournaments – had to nervously watch on from the wings, as they held on to their lead in the GP standings to capture the final two spots.
Somewhat unsporting and unsettling for the players still involved in the Candidates race was the wisdom of Fide announcing close to the eve of the final GP event that ex-champion Vladimir Kramnik was to receive the organiser’s wildcard spot. It was arguably one of the worst kept secrets with the Candidates having Russian sponsors – but it would have been more diplomatic for all concerned if the announcement had been made after and not before the final GP leg.
Although Kramnik is still well received and popular with his fellow professionals, you really have to feel sorry for renowned battler MVL, as by all sporting standards the Frenchman should have been the one to receive the wildcard spot. He came close to a Candidates spot by rating, then in the FIDE GP, and even closer still at the World Cup, losing out only in a very close semifinal match-up to eventual winner Aronian.
But nevertheless the race is now on to become World Champion Magnus Carlsen’s official challenger, with the eight vying for the spot in Berlin next March being: Sergey Karjakin, Russia (2016 defeated challenger); Levon Aronian, Armenia (World Cup winner); Ding Liren, China (World Cup runner-up); Fabiano Caruana, USA (rating); Wesley So, USA (rating); Shakh Mamedyarov, Azerbaijan (Grand Prix winner); Alexander Grischuk, Russia (Grand Prix runner-up).
(Photo) Palma de Mallorca GP winners | © Valeriy Belobeev Official site
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Teimour Radjabov
Palma de Mallorca Fide Grand Prix, (4)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 It’s not often we see Nakamura eschewing the cut and thrust of an Open Sicilian – but Radjabov is perhaps one of the few exceptions, with his mastery of the Sveshnikov Sicilian. 3…e6 4.0-0 Nge7 5.d4 cxd4 6.Nxd4 Ng6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Be2 0-0 9.Nc3 More usual here is 9.c4 and a Maroczy Bind set-up – but Nakamura has a cunning plan up his sleeve, and this is the reason he played the Rossolimo against Radjabov. 9…Qc7 10.f4 This is Nakamura’s idea, drawing Radjabov into a Scheveningen-type position that he’s on unfamiliar ground with. A further complication is somewhat obvious: in the Scheveningen Sicilian, the Black knight is on f6, and here Radjabov’s knight is on g6 – and this makes Black’s task all the harder. 10…Nxd4N Unfamiliar with the terrain, releasing the tension in the center was probably an unintentional novelty here from Radjabov. More usual has been 10…a6 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.e5 d6 13.exd6 Bxd6 14.Qd2 Rd8 with equal play. 11.Qxd4 b6 12.Qd2 Bb7 13.Rad1 Nakamura’s game-plan has turned out to be a success, with White having easy play developing his pieces on logical, Scheveningen-type squares, while Black’s knight on g6 is out of the game and not attacking e4. 13…Bc6 Perhaps 13…Rad8!? with the idea of following up with Be7-c5 to exchange the bishops and offer the knight a retreat square on e7 was better now. 14.a3 Bf6 This just provokes Nakamura to push his pawn to e5 – but in doing so, Radjabov hopes the opening of the a8-h1 diagonal will offer him some sort of hope. 15.g3 But before pushing on with e5, Nakamura want’s to see what Radjabov is going to do with his rooks. 15…Rac8 16.e5 Now he pushes. 16…Be7 17.h4 Radjabov isn’t losing per say, but it is just all a little awkward for him. And with 17.h4, Nakamura simply aims to grab some space on the kingside while looking to take advantage of the miss-placed knight on g6. 17…Rfd8 18.h5 Nf8 19.Ba6 Rb8 Kicking the rook off the half-open c-file while taking advantage of the fact that Black can’t play 19…Bb7 as 20.Nb5! Qb8 21.Bxb7 Qxb7 22.h6! gxh6 (Also risky is 22…g6 23.c3 and Black will always have to be ever-watchful of mating threats.) 23.c3 and White will soon be playing Qh2 with a strong attack on Black’s king. But in playing the more reserved 19…Rb8, Radjabov unwittingly falls into a typical piece of Nakamura “let’s-create-some-chaos-now” scenario. 20.Qd6!?! Well, what to make out of this bolt from the blue that was probably just too tempting for Nakamura not to resist playing! However, apart from being a psychological blow, it doesn’t seem to do anything for White’s position with accurate play from Black. But then again, the shock value of such spectacular moves cannot be underestimated, as often they can immediately unnerve an opponent and create a little doubt over their judgment of the position. 20…Bxd6 21.exd6 Qc8 22.Bxc8 Rbxc8 23.a4 Nakamura is attempting now to put the ‘big clamp’ down on Black’s queenside. 23…h6 At least now Black can get his knight back in the game with the hop Nf8-h7-f6. 24.Ra1 Ba8 25.a5 Rc6 26.Rfd1 b5? A difficult position, and perhaps in view of what now comes, then preferable was 26…bxa5 27.Rxa5 a6 and the ideal set-up being: …Rb8, …Bb7 (to retreat back with …Bb8), …Nh7 (and on to …Nf6) with a solid position. 27.a6! [see diagram] Nakamura wastes no time in separating and weakening Black’s queenside pawns. And from here, Radjabov faces a very difficult and awkward defence. 27…b4 28.Nb5 Rxc2 29.Rd2! A simple little move that leads to White getting a won game. And with it, perhaps Radjabov simply miss-assessed the position, and thought that the game would have continued with 29.Bxa7 where he likely intended 29…e5! 30.fxe5 Ne6 31.Bb6 Ng5! where the knight finally comes into the game with a timely save! 32.Bxd8 Nf3+ 33.Kf1 Nh2+ and a perpetual. But that’s all a pipe dream with two very simple successive moves from Nakamura. 29…Rdc8 30.Nc7! Again, White has to be careful, as 30.Nxa7 Rxd2 31.Bxd2 Rc2 32.Bxb4 Rxb2 33.Be1 e5! and we’re back to the same scenario of the previous note, with the Black knight again saving the day with …Nf8-e6-g5-f3+. 30…Rxd2 31.Bxd2 Bc6?! Perhaps the only hope again was with 31…e5!? – but with the Black rook prevented from getting to the seventh, now there’s less of a hope of a saving perpetual. 32.Be3 Nakamura ignores the b-pawn and cuts right to the chase by targeting the a-pawn – when a7 falls, that White a-pawn is going to be a huge headache. 32…Nh7 33.Bxa7 Nf6 34.Bc5 Ne4 The knight is finally footloose and fancy free – but it is all too little too late now. 35.Bxb4 Nxg3 36.a7 Ne2+ 37.Kh2 Nxf4 38.Ra6! Nakamura finds the clinical win, with the tempting 38.a8Q Bxa8 39.Rxa8 Rxa8 40.Nxa8 Nxh5 involving a bit more technical work to convert. 38…Be4 39.Rb6 The queenside passers are now too strong. 39…Nxh5 40.Rb8 Rf8 41.Bd2 Nf6 42.b4 1-0