Without much of a rest after the opening leg of the Grand Chess Tour season and the “Your Next Move” rapid/blitz in Leuven, Belgium, the tour circus swiftly moved across the border for the Paris GCT with – more or less – all the same elite stars back in action again, as another five-day rapid/blitz marathon got underway on Wednesday in a television studio in Boulogne, a suburb of the French capital.
Again the prize fund is $150,000, the format is the same as in Leuven, and the cast of characters is mostly the same, with the notable exception being that ex-world champion Vladimir Kramnik now joins the fray with the Paris wildcard spot. The full line-up (with tour points accrued in Leuven) being: Wesley So (USA) 13; Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 9; Sergey Karjakin (Russia) 9; Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 7; Levon Aronian (Armenia) 6; Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 5; Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 4; Vishwanathan Anand (India) 3; Fabiano Caruana (USA) 2.
And in a further boost for the tour’s credentials, the Paris leg is held in the studios of the French television station Canal+, with their dedicated sports channel, Canal+ Sports broadcasting eight one-hour programmes with highlights of the day’s play each evening in France and in French territories abroad.
Yet despite the country change and the inclusion of Kramnik, things in Paris look very much the same for the American contingent as it was in Leuven: Wesley So is playing well and in first place, Nakamura is mid-table, and title-challenger Caruana – who never plays well in speed events; not his forte – is again left trailing at the end of the standings.
1-3. L. Aronian (Armenia), V. Anand (India), W. So (USA) 4/6; 4-8. V. Kramnik (Russia), H. Nakamura (USA), S. Karjakin (Russia), A. Grischuk (Russia), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 3; 9. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 2; 10. F. Caruana (USA) 1. (In the rapid, a win counts for 2 points and a draw 1 point; the scoring system reverts to normal in the blitz)
Photo: The Paris GCT gets underway in the Canal+ studios | © Lennart Ootes
GM Wesley So – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Paris Grand Chess Tour Rapid, (3)
1.Nf3 c5 2.b3 b6 3.Bb2 Bb7 4.c4 Nf6 5.g3 g6 6.Bxf6 You will be hard-pressed to find this in the databases, as its all a bit of a ‘strange brew’ from Wesley So. Although So has strategically crippled MVL’s pawns (doubled f-pawns and the backward d-pawn), Black has plenty of compensation with the bishop-pair in return – so swings and roundabouts there. 6…exf6 7.Nc3 Bxf3 Now we are really going off the edge, as MVL cedes the bishop-pair and takes us back into a truly symmetrical position again, with both sides having the same pawn weaknesses. 8.exf3 Nc6 9.Bg2 Bg7 10.Qe2+ Kf8 Another somewhat strange move – better was to continue the mirroring for now with 10…Qe7 11.Qxe7+ Kxe7 12.0-0 Rhe8 and there’s not much in the position. But with So having a move in hand, MVL clearly thinks there may well be an element of danger continuing with the symmetry. 11.0-0 f5 Played not so much to bring his bishop into the game, but more to accommodate ‘castling by hand’ in order to unravel with …Bf6, …Kg7 and …Rhe8 etc. But to do so takes time, and this gives So a bit of an edge. 12.f4 Bf6 13.Rae1 Kg7 14.Qd3 Rc8 15.Re3 Nd4 16.Nb5?! Another strange move in a very strange game. The most obvious way to go was with 16.Rfe1 to dominate the e-file and then follow-up with Nd5, leaving White somewhat better, though nothing Black shouldn’t be able to easily deal with. 16…a6?! The strangeness continues. Crying out to be played here was the obvious 16…Nxb5 17.cxb5 and 17…d5! and Black can claim to be a little better after 18.Qxd5 (Not 18.Bxd5? Bd4! and White loses the exchange.) 18…Qxd5 19.Bxd5 Rhd8 20.Bb7 Rc7 21.Bf3 Rxd2 22.Re2 Rd4 because, long-term, he has the better pawn structure, more activity for his rook(s), and, crucially, a big, unmovable and potentially awkward outpost for his bishop on d4. 17.Nxd4 Bxd4 18.Re2 Re8 19.Rfe1 Rxe2 20.Qxe2 The only little thing White has here is full control of the e-file – if that can be addressed, the game should easily now be a draw. However…. 20…d6?! After 20…Kf8, neither side can claim to be making any progress here. But with the inaccurate of 20…d6?!, MVL gives So something he never had: a way for his pieces to infiltrate behind enemy lines and into the heart of the Black camp. 21.Qe7! It’s not much, but So has something to bite on. 21…Bf6 It could well be that MVL originally intended here 21…Qc7, only to realise at the last moment that after 22.Re6! suddenly the position is getting more and more awkward for Black, who is now forced into 22…b5 (Black has to start eliminating as many pawns and major pieces as he can here, and this is the best way to start to go about it. Instead, if 22…Qxe7 23.Rxe7 Kf8 24.Ra7 there’s no way to counter the threat of Bd5 and the white rook picking off some queenside pawns.) 23.Qxc7 Rxc7 24.Rxd6 Re7 25.Kf1 bxc4 26.bxc4 Re6 27.Rd7 Rb6 and try his best to hold this position. 22.Qb7! [see diagram] If it wasn’t for this move, the game would be a draw – but now Black’s queenside pawns are vulnerable, and there’s still the major threat lurking of Bd5. 22…a5 23.Bd5 Rc7 24.Qxb6 Re7 MVL was relying on this trick, but truth told, although the engines only initially give White +0.50 here, the position is just so damned awkward for Black to defend, as the White rook and bishop are far better than the Black queen. 25.Rxe7 Qxb6 26.Rxf7+ Kh8 27.Rf8+ Kg7 28.Rf7+ Kh8 The problem with 28…Kh6 is the fear of walking into a mating net. 29.Rxf6 Qb4 30.Rxd6 Qxd2 31.Rc6 The rook and bishop dominate – and an added factor for White is that, with the bishop also covering the long h1-a8 diagonal, it will be impossible forBlack’s queen to try to check its way to a potential game-saving perpetual. 31…Qd4 32.Kg2 There’s no rush, and simply taking the time now to move the king away from a queen check on the back-rank is the best prophylactic move in the circumstances. 32…Kg7 33.Rc7+ Kh8 If the h-pawn drops by moving the king away, then it’s an easy win for White; and if 33…Kh6 34.h4! forces 34…Qh8 (otherwise Rc8 and Bg8 will mate the king) and now 35.Rxc5 easily wins the ending. 34.h4 h5 35.a4 1-0 With no checks for the queen, his king stuck on his own back-rank and his pawns vulnerable to attack, MVL has seen enough and calls it a day, not wishing to play-out something like 35…Qc3 36.Rxc5 Qxb3 37.Rxa5 and the a-pawn running up the board.