Who needs speed tiebreaks in a major knockout tournament when you have the likes of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the mix? The two big in-form players in the Riga FIDE Grand Prix in Latvia turned in a pair of sublime semifinal performances to beat Alexander Grischuk and Wesley So respectively, and they will now go forward to contest the two-game mini-match final (and tiebreaks, if needed!) that gets underway on Monday.
Mamedyarov made it all look ridiculously easy against So in their opening game, especially after the American erred badly in the opening by misplaying the Black side of a Catalan, missing a critical move and found himself being hopelessly lost. There was no return from there, and in the second game, Mamedyarov very effectively closed So down to force a draw to win the match and the first player into the final.
Everyone loves ‘Shakh’ in this sort of form, especially as he’s suffered a prolonged period of stuttering performances over the past year – and it will come as a big Grand Prix relief for the Azeri, especially after he sensationally crashed out of the opening GP in Moscow back in May to a shock first-round loss to Radoslaw Wojtaszek; an early exit that effectively cut his GP tournaments down to two rather than three, as he gained no points in the process.
The Frenchman, better known to all by his initials of “MVL”, skipped Moscow by choice, opting instead to play in the remaining three GP tournaments of the cycle in Riga, Hamburg and Tel Aviv – and he’s now setting a frantic pace to emerge as the favourite to win the overall GP title and one of the two coveted qualifying spots for the 2020 Candidates tournament that will determine Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger.
After drawing their opening game, MVL’s epic win in game two against Grischuk even led to the Russian being magnanimous in defeat with his compliment in the post-match interview of “I think Maxime played a fantastic game!” – and he wasn’t far off the mark. Not only was it a superbly sublime win, but this was also MVL’s third straight mini-match victory without going to the speed tiebreaks, and he’s rewarded with maximum bonus points that now puts him on course to win the overall GP.
The Frenchman has become the first player in the GP to pick up a maximum of 3 bonus points – and although Grischuk nominally still leads the race with 10-points (from two events) in the overall standings, just ahead of Ian Nepomniachtchi on 9 points, MVL is in third place with 8 points, in front of Mamedyarov with 7 points (also having played two events). So with his upcoming Riga FIDE Grand Prix Final against Mamedyarov still to come, MVL has become the big fan-favourite to win the title and move into the top spot in the overall standings.
Not only that but if the Frenchman – now rightfully back in the world’s top five on the back of his Riga performance – does win the title, he will now also have the added advantage of being in the lead in the standings while still having the last two GP events in Hamburg and Tel Aviv later in the year left to play.
GM Alexander Grischuk – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Riga FIDE Grand Prix S/final, (2)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.h4!? A very radical approach from Grischuk – and all to avoid MVL’s Grunfeld Defence! 3…c5 4.d5 b5!? A timely time to play the Benko Gambit, as this past week the living legend that is US Chess Hall of Famer Pal Benko celebrated his 91st birthday! In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Benko was the first to acquire the sobriquet in America chess of being the “Swiss king”, and he did it on the back of re-inventing the old Volga Gambit to what’s now become known as the Benko Gambit. At club-level, the Benko Gambit is still hugely popular; though not so much at elite-level due to some very critical lines – however, with Grischuk’s early push of Harry the h-pawn, those critical lines are not so critical anymore! 5.cxb5 a6 6.e3 Bg7 7.Nc3 0-0 8.Nf3 d6 9.a4 Bg4 10.Ra3 axb5 11.Bxb5 Na6 This is all standard fare in the Benko Gambit: White has an extra pawn, but Black has good compensation with lasting pressure on the queenside pawns and excellent outposts for his pieces. The big anomaly here, though, is the early punt of h4. 12.e4 Nb4 13.Be2 Nd7 14.0-0 Qb6 15.Re1 Qb7 16.Bg5 Bxf3 17.gxf3 Ne5 18.Rf1 c4 19.b3 Rfc8 20.Bd2 Nbd3 The position has reached critical mass with MVL’s knight coming to d3 – and after this, Grischuk seems to miss some key responses and is forever on the back-foot. 21.f4 Qb4!? Typically, MVL likes to live on the edge, and here he continues to push the envelope as the game now gets very complicated, very quickly. 22.Nb1 A very strange reaction in many ways from Grischuk, as the commentators, online punters and engines felt the obvious move was 22.Nb5!? that makes the position even more complicated with 22…c3 23.fxe5 cxd2 24.Bxd3 Rc1 25.Qf3 Bxe5 and any of three results were certainly possible. 22…c3! After this, Grischuk misses a crucial tactic and unwittingly gets himself all tied up – and not helped by the fact that he burns up even more time on his clock. 23.fxe5 Nb2 24.Qc2 cxd2 25.Qxb2 Qxe4 Well, this is all about as clear as mud! 26.Qxd2 Rc2 27.Qd3? Just at the wrong moment, Grischuk blinks. He had to meet the tactics with his own tactics to survive all the mayhem swirling around his position, and 27.Bf3! forces Black into the bailout option now of 27…Qxf3 28.Qxc2 Qg4+ 29.Kh1 Qh3+ 30.Kg1 Qg4+ 31.Kh1 Qh3+ and a draw by repetition. 27…Rxe2 28.Qxe4 Rxe4 MVL is a pawn down and White’s a- and b-pawns are looking long-term dangers – but this position is not as simple as it looks, as Black has superb active pieces whilst White’s pieces are all awkwardly placed, his pawns are weak, and his king is in grave danger. And MVL now makes the most of all his pluses to cause Grischuk great grief at the board. 29.exd6 exd6 30.Nd2 Rg4+ 31.Kh1 Rxh4+ 32.Kg2 Rd4 33.Nf3 Rg4+! [see diagram] The d-pawn is a red herring and not the real target – but MVL wants the knight to move to f3. Taking the d-pawn, in fact, just helps White to unravel from this miserable position. After 33…Rxd5 34.b4! Rb5 35.Rb1 d5 36.Ne1 and, with Nd3 coming next, White has excellent saving chances thanks to a- and b-pawns being mobile. 34.Kh3 There’s no easy answer here. If 34.Kh1 Rf4 35.Kg2 h5! 36.Rb1 g5! 37.b4 g4 38.Ne1 Bd4 39.Nd3 Rf3! the threat of …Bxf2 and pushing …h4-h3+ and …f5-f4 etc is difficult to meet. 34…Rb4 35.Rb1 Rc8 MVL strikes while Grischuk’s pieces are all discombobulated. 36.Kg2 There’s no salvation in frantically pushing the a-pawn up the board. If 36.a5 Rc3! 37.a6 Rxf3+ 38.Kg2 Rbf4 39.Ra2 Bd4 40.Rf1 Ba7! 41.b4 Rb3 and Black will start picking off the weak pawns. 36…Rc3 The simple threat is …Rg4+! and …h5 winning the knight. 37.Ng1 Rc2 Also strong was 37…Rg4+ 38.Kh1 Bd4 39.Ra2 Rc5! picking off the d-pawn and threatening …Rh5 with mating threats. 38.Nf3?! With two minutes left on his clock to reach move 40, Grischuk’s best shot now was again pushing the a-pawn, although even here, after 38.a5 Rg4+ 39.Kf1 Bd4 40.Nh3 Bc5! 41.Raa1 Rc3 42.Ng1 Rb4 43.a6 Ba7 Black will pick-off the weak pawns for a won ending. 38…Rg4+ 39.Kf1 Rf4 40.Kg2 Rg4+ 41.Kf1 Rf4 42.Kg2 g5! 43.Rf1? Exhausted after being pummelled by MVL, Grischuk collapses now. The logical conclusion now would have been: 43.b4 g4 44.Kg3 (There’s no ‘Hail Mary’ save with 44.b5 gxf3+ 45.Rxf3 Rxa4 46.b6 Ra8 47.b7 Rb8 48.Ra3 Re2 and the rook trails back just in time to e8.) 44…Rxf3+ 45.Rxf3 gxf3 although winning is not so easy as it looks here, even with an extra piece! 46.b5 Rb2 47.Rxb2 Bxb2 48.b6 Bd4 49.b7 Ba7 and an easily won ending. 43…Rg4+ 44.Kh1 Rc3 45.Rg1 Rf4 46.Nh2 Rxf2 47.Rxg5 Rcc2 0-1