IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO SIGN UP FOR FALL 2019!

John Henderson
By John Henderson

The global hit “Mack the Knife” – first written for Bertolt Brecht and Karl Weill’s The Threepenny Opera in 1928 – only shot to fame with recordings from swing/jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The opening line describes the cold killer, with “Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear” – but in a dramatic start to the Riga FIDE Grand Prix Final, the ruthless killer showing the pearly whites turned out not to be a shark but a “Shakh”!

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov got off to a sensational start to the two-game final, scoring what could well be a very dramatic and crucial win over Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who yet again was left dead in the water after his favourite Grünfeld Defence was demolished by a clever novelty, and eerily his downfall proving to be a near carbon-copy bad beat – even down to the grim knight on the rim …Na5 – he received earlier this month to Magnus Carlsen in the Croatia Grand Chess Tour in Zagreb.

The tour de force win now makes the Azeri the odds-on favourite to claim the Riga FIDE Grand Prix title, the first prize of €24,000 (roughly $27,000) and maximum GP points, as “MVL” has the tough task now of having to come out with all-guns-blazing in game two in a do-or-die attempt to try to take the match into overtime and the speed tiebreaks. If Mamedyarov does win, his return to form will come as a welcomed relief after what’s proved to be a bad past year or so.

But even victory in Riga could come too late now to guarantee him one of the two Candidate qualifying spots from the Grand Prix. In the first GP in Moscow in May, Mamedyarov surprisingly was knocked out in the first round and gained no GP points – and that means effectively he’s handicapped his own qualifying chances, as he can only score points now in two events rather than the three for all the other top contenders in the overall standings.

Many have speculated on the reasons for Mamedyarov’s dramatic return to form after a series of dismal performances. It seems the simple answer is that following his shock result in the Moscow GP, the Azeri has rumoured to have cleared out his backroom team and brought in a new one with fresh ideas – and the new team have worked wonders with impressive opening novelties in Riga.

One of MVL’s greatest strengths is that his two main defences throughout his career have been the Sicilian Najdorf and the Grunfeld Defence. Yet despite knowing all the nuances of these sharp, tactical defences, some would argue that this also makes the Frenchman a big “sitting target” – and this looks to be the case with Mamedyarov’s well-worked novelty in the Exchange Grünfeld that quickly had MVL in deep trouble.

Photo: Shakhriyar Mamedyarov shows his pearly whites! | © Niki Riga / World Chess

GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Riga FIDE Grand Prix Final, (1)
Grünfeld Defence, Exchange Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Qa4+ An innocent sideline, but one which Shakh and his team seem to have worked on for his final against MVL, as he goes on to cut through his opponent with almost laser-like precision. 7…Qd7 Some might wonder what’s the point of 7.Qa4+ and why doesn’t Black simply not reply with 7…Bd7? The reason is that after 8.Qa3 it is now difficult for Black to breakdown White’s central pawns with …c5; and also from a3, if 8…Bc6 9.d5! and the queen covers any embarrassing …Bxc3+ episode. So yes, a simple sideline, but one with a clear purpose. But we do reach a crossroads here, as the two popular moves are 7…Nd7 and …Qd7 – and with MVL being a creature of habit, his preference has always been for the latter, and this proves to be his downfall, as he falls hook, line and sinker into Shakh’s dangerous novelty. 8.Qa3 b6 Now we start to see why …Qd7 was played – MVL intends playing …Bb7 and …c5 to attempt to breakdown White’s center. 9.Nf3 Bb7 10.Bd3 0-0 11.0-0 c5 12.Bf4!?N Now comes the big reveal: Shakh and his team have concocted a very dangerous pawn sacrifice. Previously, this line was considered “safe” for Black, with ideas like 12.Bg5 e6, where the games have tended to end in draws. 12…cxd4 13.cxd4 Nc6?! For a second crucial Exchange Grünfeld in less than a month – Carlsen-MVL, Zagreb 2019 – MVL ends up with a “knightmare position” with a marooned …Na5. Unless I’m missing something – and I wouldn’t rule that out! – the critical line had to be what happens when you take Shakh’s new TN head-on with 13…Bxd4 14.Rad1 (Also to ponder was 14.Nxd4!? Qxd4 15.Bh6 Rc8 16.Qxe7 Nc6 17.Qxb7 Qxd3 where, again, it looks as if Black has secured equality.) 14…Bg7 15.Bc4 where White has very active pieces at the cost of a pawn – but that said, I could see the game now continuing in typical Grünfeld fashion with 15…Qc8 16.Qxe7 Qxc4 17.Qxb7 Qc6! 18.Qe7 where, with the reliable assistance of my trusty playing engine, as far as I can see, Black appears to be near to equality. 14.d5 There’s many club-players and amateurs out there who can never understand how Black can be fine in the Grunfeld when White establishes such a strong center, such as this. 14…Na5 For those that remember Carlsen’s powerful win over MVL last month in Zagreb, it all came about by the Frenchman’s knight being marooned on a5 – and likewise here, in an almost carbon-copy strategy from Shakh, the Na5 misery returns to haunt MVL. 15.Rac1 Rfc8 16.h3 Not just giving a little air for his king, as this move also stops any potential awkwardness with a …Qg4. 16…e6 When all is said and done, Black really had to accept just how bad his position was and try to grovel on with 16…Rxc1 17.Rxc1 Rc8 18.Rxc8+ Bxc8 19.Ne5 Qd8 20.Bb5 but somewhere soon anyway, Black is going to have to try …e6 – so I guess MVL decided now rather than later, and hang the consequences. 17.d6! It all becomes very uncomfortable, very quickly for MVL. This move doesn’t win per se, but it only takes a little inaccuracy for MVL for his position to soon becoming almost untenable. 17…f6 18.e5 Bxf3 19.exf6! A nice little zwischenzug that leaves Shakh with a serious initiative. 19…Bxf6 Worse was 19…Bxg2 20.Kxg2 Bxf6 21.Ba6! Rxc1 22.Rxc1 e5 23.Qf3! Re8 24.Bd2 and Black’s position is on the verge of collapse, as 24…Qxd6? 25.Bxa5 bxa5 26.Rc6 wins a piece. 20.gxf3 e5 21.Bd2! [see diagram] MVL is now struggling, trying to hang on in a difficult position – but it takes a very obscure, un-human like move to stay in the game. 21…Rxc1? Only a playing engine can find a possible save that will leave you scratching your head over the logic behind it, as it suggests 21…Kh8! – a move that you just don’t find over the board. Now comes 22.Bxa5 (So why not the strong-looking 22.Be4 as happens in the game, you might well be asking? Well, it appears that with the king tucked safely in the corner, Black now has the remarkable saving resource of 22…Nc4!! (If the king were still on g8, this would have lost on the spot to Bd5+, hence the reason for 21…Kh8!) 23.Rxc4 Rxc4 24.Bxa8 Qxh3 25.Qxa7 (Also no better is 25.Be4 Rxe4! taking advantage of Qa3 hanging saves the day, and now 26.Qxa7 Rh4 27.Qb8+ Kg7 28.Qb7+ Kh8 29.Qb8+ and to avoid the Black mate on h1, White has to take the draw by repetition.) 25…Rh4 26.Qb8+ Kg7 27.Qc7+ Kh8 28.Qb8+ Kg7 29.Qc7+ and again, to avoid mate, a draw by repetition.) 22…bxa5 23.Be4 Rab8 24.Kg2 Bd8! and although still a little uncomfortable, Black has consolidated somewhat, and the ubiquitous engine assesses that, with …Bb6 coming, there’s enough to hold this position – certainly more holdable than now in the game! 22.Rxc1 Rc8 23.Rxc8+ Qxc8 24.Kg2 Bd8 25.Be4 Qe6 It is no comfort for MVL in this very difficult position, but perhaps a better chance to try to hang on was 25…Qc5!? 26.Bb4 Qd4 27.Bc3 Qc5 28.Qxc5 bxc5 29.Bd5+! Kf8 30.Bxe5 but this ending looks doomed also, especially with the knight still on a5 and effectively locked out of the game. 26.Qd3! Shakh’s central control is impressive – and powerful! 26…Kg7 27.Bc3 Qf6 28.Kf1! 1-0 A classy move that somewhat surprisingly ends the game! With MVL all tied up, his …Na5 marooned, Shakh is in no hurry to move in for the kill. Instead, he just goes about avoiding threats of …Qg5+ and …Qc1+ with his king heading to e2 to better ready itself for the endgame. And perhaps angry and frustrated his position is in total ruins, MVL, decided to throw the towel in a little prematurely – something we normally associate Shakh in the past of doing!

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