The final leg of the gruelling, more than year-long FIDE Men’s Grand Prix got underway on Thursday in Palma de Mallorca, Spain – and with ex-champion Vladimir Kramnik recently receiving the organizer’s wildcard slot, this will be the last-gasp chance for a further two players battling to make the eight-player field for next year’s Berlin Candidates’ Tournament, the winner of which going forward to become World Champion Magnus Carlsen’s next official title-challenger.
In the clubhouse already are Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Alexander Grischuk who currently hold the lead, but they have already played their full complement of Grand Prix events, and now can only watch on and hope for the best. But Teimour Radjabov is in third place, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is in fifth – and they can determine their own future, as a good result from either or both could see them leap-frogging their way into the qualification stakes.
On a slightly complicated side note, Ding Liren is in fourth place and is also playing, but his qualification via the World Cup takes precedence, so even if he wound up the overall winner of the Grand Prix, the Candidates berths would go to the second- and third-place finishers.
To guarantee qualification, Radjabov needs to finish in clear first, clear second, clear third, or a two-way tie for third/fourth place. But the Azeri isn’t exactly the in-form player right now, and all expectations are that Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is the one to watch. MVL can only guarantee himself a spot by taking clear first, clear second, or tying for first and second – and he gave himself the ideal flying start with a very smooth opening round win over Boris Gelfand.
“It was quite an important game theoretically,” said MVL in his video interview opposite after beating the former title-challenger. “Fortunately my helpers found a good idea to answer Boris’ setup and the position is just quite unpleasant for him.”
1-3. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), A. Giri (Netherlands), E. Inarkiev (Russia) 1/1; 4-15. D. Jakovenko (Russia), L. Aronian (Armenia), P. Eljanov (Ukraine), H. Nakamura (USA), Ding Liren (China), F. Vallejo Pons (Spain), E. Tomoshevsky (Russia), P. Svidler (Russia), T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan), A. Riazantsev (Russia), J-L. Hammer (Norway), P. Harikrishna (India) 0.5; 16-18. B. Gelfand (Israel), R. Rapport (Hungary), Chao Li (China) 0.
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Boris Gelfand
Palma De Mallorca Fide Grand Prix, (1)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 There’s a degree of finesse going on here, because normally in the Open Sicilian, we would see 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 – but by playing 3.Nc3 first, MVL avoids the deep, theory-laden Sicilian Sveshnikov after 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 7.Bg5 a6 8.Na3 b5 9.Bxf6 gxf6 10.Nd5 f5. And in with it, MVL has a new plan worked out at home for Gelfand’s usual ploy of playing an Accelerated Dragon when his opponents avoid the Sveshnikov with 3.Nc3. 3…g6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Bc4 0-0 8.Bb3 d5 A particular favourite of Gelfand – and this predictability is what leads to his downfall. Alternatively, 8…d6 would have led to a normal Sicilian Dragon, which MVL has a lot of experience with. 9.exd5 Na5 10.0-0 Nxb3 11.Nxb3 b6 12.d6!? Eventually, Black will corral the d-pawn with …Bb7, …Qd7 and …Rfd8 etc with an easy game. Rather than that, White opts to return the pawn quickly, the hope being that if Black captures on d6, then the weak d-pawn will be a long-term handicap that White can easily target. 12…e6 13.Qf3 Rb8 So far, so theory – but MVL has come up with a very simple novelty that immediate has Gelfand in a fix trying to deal with. 14.Rfd1N In chess, as Fischer and many others have highlighted, the problem is exactly which rook to place on which square! Previously here, Gelfand had seen 14.Rad1 – but MVL and his team had seen a bit further with the homework they’d done on the new plan. 14…Bb7 15.Qh3 It was only now, as Gelfand sank into deep thought, that the Israeli former title-challenger began to realise there could well be a big difference between 14.Rfd1 and 14.Rad1, as we’ll soon see. 15…Rc8 One immediate big benefit with 14.Rfd1 can be seen in the line: 15…Nd5 16.Nxd5 Bxd5 17.Bd4 Bxd4 18.Rxd4 Rc8 19.Qd3! b5 20.c3! where the lurking threat of …Bc4 no longer skewers the queen on d3 and the rook on f1(!), meaning it is difficult for Black to safely recapture the d6-pawn. 16.Bd4 Nd5 It gets a bit random and messy if Gelfand attempts to round-up the d-pawn, as 16…Rc6 is hit with 17.Qf3! all but forcing 17…Qb8 18.Bxf6 Rxd6 19.Be7! Bxf3 20.Bxd6 Qd8 21.gxf3 Qg5+ 22.Kh1 Rd8 (No better is 22…Bxc3 23.bxc3 Re8 24.Rd3 with the advantage.) 23.Rd3 and White’s combined forces and material advantage is going to be problematic to defend against. So not liking this messy scenario, Gelfand opts for something simpler – but MVL has it all in hand. 17.Nxd5 Bxd5 18.Bxg7 Kxg7 19.Rac1! And now we see the ultimate benefit of MVL’s 14.Rfd1 as now, if 19…Qxd6, 20.c4! wins a piece! 19…b5 20.Qg3 So now the extra time-out with 19…b5, to prevent c4 after the capture of the d-pawn, has given MVL all the time he needed to consolidate his position and defend the d-pawn. 20…Qf6 Yet again, trying to gang-up on the d-pawn proves futile: 20…Rc6 21.Nd4! Rb6 (If 21…Rxd6 22.Nxb5 Rd7 23.c4 a6 (There’s no back-rank tricks, as 23…Bxc4? backfires to 24.Qc3+! Kg8 25.Rxd7 Qxd7 26.Qxc4 winning a piece.) ) 22.Nf5+! Kh8 23.Ne3 Qxd6 (If 23…Rxd6 24.b3 and again the threat of c4 is difficult for Black to meet.) 24.Qh4 and Black’s position is being stretched to its limits, with threats of checks on f6 and d4, as well as the simple capture on d5. 21.Nd4 b4 22.c4! MVL isn’t going to give Gelfand any respite whatsoever – he’s ready to move now into the endgame before his opponent has time to consolidate his rooks to recapture the d-pawn. 22…bxc3 23.Rxc3 The more material that comes off now, will just make the d-pawn all the more powerful. 23…Rxc3?! And this just helps White by seeing more pieces being exchanged. Gelfand is clearly in dire straits here, but he should have kept his options open by keeping pieces on the board with 23…Rb8 24.b3 Rb4 White has the extra pawn and a solid position, but at least Black has some sort of activity for his pieces to make converting the win for his opponent all the more difficult. 24.bxc3 Rd8 25.h4 This nice little dual-purpose move from MVL just shows how much he’s on top of this position, as he not only gives his king a little air (just in case of a back-rank trick), but he’s also looking, in the right position, to perhaps play Qg5 and a timely exchange of queens. 25…e5 26.Nf5+ Qxf5 27.Rxd5 Qe4 28.c4! [see diagram] Not only protecting the rook, but making an immediate problem of the c-pawn romping down the board to support the d-pawn – this is proving to be a very smooth win from MVL. 28…f6 What else can Gelfand do? If 28…Qxc4 29.Qxe5+ Kg8 30.d7 will win quickly. 29.Qc3 Qb1+ 30.Kh2 Qxa2 31.Rd2 MVL simply retreats his rook with tempo, knowing full well that the passed pawns are going to be his big game-winner here. The rest of the game needs no further explanation. 31…Qa4 32.g3 Qc6 33.c5 Rd7 34.Qc4 1-0 Gelfand resigns, as there’s no way to stop Qd5 unblocking the path of the c-pawn.