Much like the plot out of Agatha Christie’s acclaimed 1939 thriller – that sees just about everyone being systematically killed off – the “murderous” schedule of the Riga FIDE Grand Prix in Latvia has seen the original starting field of 16-players now quickly whittled down to the final four – and with it, one of the semifinal matchups could have a direct bearing on just who does and who doesn’t go forward into next year’s all-important Candidates tournament.
The first player to book his spot into the semifinals was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who very comfortably beat Veselin Topalov without having to take his mini-match into the speed tiebreaks for the second successive round – and with it, the very much in-form Frenchman has seen his positive play being rewarded with a bonus 2-points, to now move into third place in the overall GP standings.
Each player nominates to play in three of the four GP tournaments (Moscow, Riga, Hamburg and Tel Aviv), with the top two going forward to the 2020 Candidates tournament; the winner of which will then become Magnus Carlsen’s next title-challenger. In late May, the Moscow GP produced an all-Russian final as Ian Nempomniachtchi beat Alexander Grischuk to take the early GP lead – but with Nepo playing now in the clashing Dortmund Sparkassen Chess-Meeting, Grischuk has seized his chance to move into the GP lead after beating China’s Yu Yangyi in the speed tiebreaks.
And Grischuk’s win also sets up the intriguing prospects of a dramatic semifinal showdown with MVL that will be eagerly followed, move-by-move, by all the chess fans during the live online coverage, as the winner of that big match-up will go forward to the final, gain more points in the standings, and likely become the favourite in the race for one of the two automatic candidates’ spots.
In the other half of the draw, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov went through on the speed tiebreak after his swashbuckling young Polish opponent, Jan-Krysztof Duda played one adventurous move too many, allowing the Azeri to easily win the match. He will now play America’s Wesley So in the semifinal, after a crazy, blunder-filled blitz game – that gives hope for us all! – finally broke the deadlock in his match with Russia’s Sergey Karjakin that at one stage looked set to go all the way to a deciding Armageddon clash, after six draws.
Karjakin 3½-4½ So
Duda 1½-2½ Mamedyarov
Grischuk 2½-1½ Yu
Topalov ½-1½ Vachier-Lagrave
So vs Mamedyarov
Grischuk vs Vachier-Lagrave
Video: At the end of two blunder-fuelled blitz games, comes the post-match interview with Wesley So and Sergey Karjakin.
GM Wesley So – GM Sergey Karjakin
Riga FIDE Grand Prix, Q/final tiebreak blitz
1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3 Bb4 5.Bg2 0-0 6.Nd5 Bc5 7.0-0 d6 8.e3 Re8 9.d4 Bg4 10.dxc5 e4 11.Nc3? This is just a bad blitz blunder – and from here, So was on the backfoot and lucky to go on to win this game! Perhaps So was seeing ‘ghosts’ in the position and decided it was better to just press the ‘gamble button’? The reality, though, is there’s nothing to fear and should have played 11.cxd6! Qxd6 and only now 12.Nc3 Qxd1 13.Rxd1 exf3 14.Bh1 (Stronger than 14.Bf1 Rad8 as the hit on the f3-pawn comes in handy) 14…Rad8 15.Rxd8 Rxd8 16.h3 Bxh3 17.Bxf3 Ng4! 18.Be2 and despite White being a little tied up, he should be able to unravel soon enough with an equal position. 11…Ne5! Piling on the agony for the pinned Nf3 – and with it, Karjakin unexpectedly finds himself with a big advantage, forcing So into desperate measures now. 12.Nxe5?! With 12.h3 Bxf3 13.Bxf3 Nxf3+ 14.Kg2 dxc5 15.Nxe4 Nh4+! 16.gxh4 Nxe4 not looking an appealing prospect for So, he opts the speculative move – and anything other than blitz, he would likely be considering resigning by this stage. 12…Bxd1 13.Nxf7 Qe7 14.Nxd6 cxd6 15.cxd6 Qxd6 16.Rxd1 Qe5 Karjakin really needs to cut to the chase with 16…Qb4! forcing 17.Rd4 Rad8 and it is hard to see how White avoids losing. 17.Bd2 Rad8 18.Be1 b6 19.b3 Rd3 20.Rxd3 exd3 21.Rd1 The dust has settled, and the body count shows that So has two bishops and two pawns (soon to be three, with the d3-pawn vulnerable) for the queen – but the big difference here is that his pieces are now on better squares to make Karjakin’s task of winning impractical. 21…Rd8 22.Bf1 Also possible was 22.Bd5+!? Nxd5 23.Rxd3 Nxc3 24.Rxd8+ Kf7 25.Rd7+ Kf6 26.Bxc3 Qxc3 27.Rxa7 Qd2 28.h4 and White certainly has material equality with the rook and 4-pawns for the queen, but this is not so easy, as the Black queen is strategically and powerfully well-placed on d2. 22…Qf5 Karjakin makes another little miss-step. The logical way to proceed was with 22…Ne4! 23.Nxe4 Qxe4 24.Bg2 Qg4 25.Rd2 Qf5 and Black has a big winning advantage, as 26.Bd5+ isn’t as good as it looks at first sight, as he has 26…Rxd5! 27.cxd5 Qxd5 28.Rd1 a5 29.Bc3 a4! making the crucial breakthrough. 23.Nd5! [see diagram] So has done well to cling on the wreckage of his position, and now gets his reward as Karjakin slips up to allow the American to save the game – and So doesn’t waste his moment. 23…Nxd5 24.Rxd3 Kf8?! By now it was clear that Karjakin didn’t feel comfortable here, what with the material imbalance, his clock frantically ticking down, not to mention the looming possibility of a Bc4 pin. The engine, on the other hand, shows no fears and comes up with the original plan of 24…b5! 25.a4 a6 26.axb5 axb5 27.Be2 (It is dangerous to recapture twice on b5. After 27.cxb5? Rc8! and with the rook out of the pin on the d-file, White’s backrank is looking vulnerable.) 27…Rd7 28.cxd5 Rxd5 29.Rxd5 Qxd5 30.b4 g5 and Black will still hold all the winning cards – though, in reality, it is going to be difficult to stop White setting up a formidable fortress with his two bishops and his extra kingside pawns. This is the sort of ending that takes a lot of care, patience and time to formulate winning chances – but not here, in the vagaries of the first blitz game of the tiebreaks, with well under a minute now left on the clocks. 25.cxd5 a5 26.Rd4 Qb1 The winning chances have by now all but evaporated for Karjakin – but there’s an added dramatic twist coming, as the Russian blunders the game away during the time scramble to gift So the most unlikely of unlikeliest wins. 27.Bc3 Qxa2 28.Bc4 Qc2 29.Rf4+ Ke7 30.Bxg7 Rd6? Karjakin has missed his last bailout chance to save the game. After 30…Rxd5! 31.e4! (Clever, as 31.Bxd5? Qd1+ 32.Kg2 Qxd5+ is winning for Black as the b3-pawn falls.) 31…Rd1+ 32.Kg2 Qb1 33.e5 Re1 34.Rf7+ Kd8 35.Be6 Ke8 36.Bf6 Qc1! (Black needs to be careful here, as 36…Rg1+? 37.Kh3 Qf1+ 38.Kg4 Qe2+ 39.Kg5 Qd2+ 40.Kh5 and the White king marches up the board to safety, and the Black king doomed to fall in its mating net.) 37.Re7+ Kf8 38.Rf7+ it’s a repetition, as White has to be careful to avoid falling into …Qc6+ etc. Of course, all easy to say when the engine is chugging away in the background for you, and you don’t have a digital clock with a flag that is metaphorically hanging by this stage! 31.Bf8+ Kd7 32.Bb5+! Calamity for Karjakin! It’s not just the Russian’s queen but also his rook that’s lost. 32…Kc7 33.Rc4+ 1-0 Karjakin throws in the towel, as 33…Qxc4 34.Bxd6+! Kxd6 35.bxc4 is easily winning.