There are several memorial events held each year, but the 5th Vugar Gashimov Memorial, currently running in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, is a very poignant one. The young, exciting and very talented Azeri GM Vugar Gashimov (1986-2014) was not only one of the best players in the world but he was also a much-loved player, with many friends/rivals from across the world.
Along with Teimour Radjabov and Shakhriyar Mamedaryov, Gashimov was one of the three young musketeers who made Azerbaijan a very formidable force in chess. That top trio formed the nucleus of a very young team that somewhat surprisingly – and very proudly – won the European gold medal in 2009 in Novi Sad, Serbia, against the odds.
Gashimov died very young following complications from a brain tumor just over four years later. His family commemorated his life with a beautiful mausoleum that paid tribute to his proudest moment in chess, with the wall having an inlaid chess position – the final position from the game he won to clinch the European gold in 2009 for his nation.
At his peak, Gashimov was one of the more fearless and exciting players in the world – and heaven knows how he would have reacted to four rounds full of mainly tepid draws that started the fifth edition of his memorial tournament! Thankfully, the draw streak was finally halted in round five, with the tournament mildly heating up as Veselin Topalov outplayed and beat the two-time defending champion Mamedyarov, with the Bulgarian veteran taking the sole lead.
And the wins continue to come in Shamkir now. Clearly frustrated by the draw glut, Magnus Carlsen – who won the first two editions of his friend’s memorial – upped the ante in the tournament, with the world champion adopting a somewhat risky, ‘home-brew’ to beat Radoslaw Wojtaszek. But Topalov held on to the sole lead, as his talent to imbalance positions worked in his favor against a confused David Navara, as he notched up a second successive win.
Meanwhile, across the continent at the U.S. Championship also ongoing at the Saint Louis Chess Club, returning home-town hero Fabiano Caruana, Carlsen’s world championship challenger, came crashing back down to earth with a bang with a shock loss from an equal endgame to tail-ender GM Zviad Izoria. It proved to be only a temporary setback for Caruana, who once again os back among the chasing pack – and back to world #2, ahead of Mamedyarov – with a standout round six win over GM Ray Robson.
But the big surprise package in Saint Louis is GM Sam Shankland, who seems to be playing the tournament of his life. In round four, Shankland beat Robson to join the leaders, then had Caruana on the ropes in round five, only to let him escape with a draw – and now he rode his luck somewhat to take the sole lead in the tournament, with a big round six win over his co-leader, Varuzhan Akobian.
U.S. Championship standings:
1. S. Shankland 4.5/6; 2-3. F. Caruana, W. So 4; 4. V. Akobian 3.5; 5-6. H. Nakamura, Y. Zherebukh 3; 7-10. Z. Izoria, J. Xiong, A. Lenderman, A. Liang 2.5; 11-12. R. Robson, A. Onischuk 2.
Gashimov Memorial standings:
1. V. Topalov (Bulgaria) 3.5/5; 2. M. Carlsen (Norway) 3; 3-7. T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan), A. Giri (Netherlands), Ding Liren (China), R. Mamedov (Azerbaijan), S. Karjakin (Russia) 2.5; 8-10. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), D. Navara (Czech Rep.), R .Wojtaszek (Poland) 2
Photo: Carlsen opts to up the ante | © Shamkir Chess
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Radoslaw Wojtaszek
5th Vugar Gashimov Memorial, (5)
1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Is Magnus playing a Sicilian Closed, once a big favourite of another world champion, Boris Spassky? The short answer is no – what Magnus is doing is finding yet another inventive way to frustrate his opening theory-maven Polish opponent, by steering him away from his big speciality of Sicilian main-lines. 2…d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Qxd4 Nc6 5.Qd2 Nf6 6.b3 e6 7.Bb2 a6 8.0-0-0 b5 9.f3 h5 This move has the merits of denying Magnus the possibility of playing an early g4 – but it has its drawbacks, too, as we will soon see. And with hindsight, perhaps Wojtaszek would have been better first playing 9…Be7 to see whether Magnus does play g4. 10.Nh3 Magnus’ Sicilian ‘home-brew’ looks risky – but that’s what he wants to do, just create a little chaos, in order to play more aggressively, having been frustrated in the previous four games by opponents who had carefully worked hard on their opening choices to deny the world champion any sort of tenuous advantage to go for a win. 10…Be7 11.Ng5 The unusual Sicilian knight-hop of Ng1-h3-g5 was a byproduct of Wojtaszek’s early 9…h5. Black’s Sicilian position is OK, with no obvious weaknesses, but it takes just one slip for the Black position to become dangerous. 11…h4 12.f4 Bb7 13.Kb1 Rc8 14.Be2 Qc7 15.Rhe1 Carlsen’s opening ploy has worked. He has all his pieces developed, and his rooks centralised, while Black now has an issue with his king safety due to his early 9…h5 plan. 15…Nh7? Wojtaszek starts to drift – and with it, Black’s position borders on becoming critical. Instead, a more cautious approach was ‘walking his king to safety’ with 15…Kf8!? and leave Magnus pondering whether to risk the speculative 16.Bxb5!? axb5 17.Nxb5 Qd7 18.Nxd6 Qxd6 19.Qxd6 Bxd6 20.Rxd6 – and my hunch here is that Magnus – clearly frustrated by being held to a draw in his first four round – might well have seriously considered this option. 16.Nxh7 Rxh7 17.g4 This is certainly a good punt by Magnus – but he did miss the big Tal-like, thematic Sicilian knight sacrifice in the middle of the board with 17.Nd5! that catches Black cold. You can’t simply move the queen and allow 18.Nxe7, as the chronic weakness on d6 and g7 will see Black’s position rapidly collapse. So instead, he has to ‘walk the plank’ with 17…exd5 18.exd5 Kf8 (Black can’t save the knight. If 18…Nd8 19.Bd3! Rh5 20.Rxe7+! is even better for White, as 20…Qxe7 21.Re1 Ne6 22.dxe6 Kf8 23.exf7 Qxf7 24.Qe2 with the idea of Qg4 followed by Bg6 leaves White with a winning attack.) 19.dxc6 Bxc6 20.Bg4! and White clearly has a big advantage with his active pieces, safer king and better pawn structure. 17…hxg3 18.hxg3 Wojtaszek has dodged a bullet – but his position is looking just a little shaky and vulnerable. 18…Bf6 19.Bd3 Rh8 20.g4 More precise was 20.Rh1! leaving Black in a quandary of whether to risk trading rooks on the h-file or even play …Rg8, as after 20…Ke7 21.e5! and again Black’s king is caught stranded in the middle of the board; as apropos 21…dxe5 22.Bxb5! crashes through to win, with no way to prevent Ba3+ winning. 20…Nd4 21.Re3 Kf8 The engines may well say that there’s nothing in this position, but the truth is that long-term, Black has several weaknesses that will be difficult to defend. 22.Ne2 Nxe2 23.Rxe2 Bc3 24.Bxc3 Qxc3 25.Qe3 Rc5? Wojtaszek cracks now under the mounting pressure. He simply had to play 25…Qc5! 26.Qg3 Qd4 27.e5! and look to hold this position. 26.e5! [see diagram] Magnus cuts straight to the chase! The big threat that now needs to be defended against, is the possibility of Qg5 (after the exchange of pawns on e5), or even the queen infiltrating to a7 if the …Rc5 moves. Either way, Black is in a bad way. 26…dxe5 Black could try 26…Rd5 but after 27.Rf1! Bc8 28.Qb6! Black’s position seems to be hanging by the barest of bare threads. 27.fxe5 Rh1 Black tries to find relief by trading pieces – but his king gets caught in the crossfire. 28.Rxh1 Bxh1 29.Rh2 Rxe5 There’s no salvation with the threat of …Re1+, as Carlsen gets his attack in first. 30.Rh8+ Ke7 31.Qa7+ 1-0 Wojtaszek resigns, as after the king ‘escapes’ with 31…Kf6, there comes the lurking 32.g5+ winning the Bh1. If Black captures with the rook, simply 33.Rxh1, and 32…Kxg5 allows 33.Qg1+ also winning the bishop.