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

John Henderson
By John Henderson

It went all the way to the wire in the Riga FIDE Grand Prix Final between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, with the lead in the match dramatically swinging one way and then the other. But in the end, there has to be a winner, and by winning the final tiebreak-decider, Mamedyarov went from zero in Moscow to now the hero in Riga, as the Azeri won the match 5-4 to take the title, €24,000 ($27,000) first prize, and 10 Grand Prix points.

After an emphatic opening game win over “MVL”, Mamedyarov looked set to ease his way to victory – but with a typically pugnacious performance in a must-win game, the Frenchman hit back with an equally emphatic win (see below) to take the match into overtime. After six rapid and blitz games, the players were still tied, so the match had to be settled in a single sudden-death Armageddon game with Mamedyarov having Black and draw odds (though with less time) going on to win to secure victory.

There are four Grand Prix tournaments – Moscow then Riga with Hamburg and Tel Aviv still to come – each with a €130,000 ($145,000) prize fund and additional prizes for the overall standings of €280,000 ($312,000). Each player nominates to participate in 3 of the four tournaments in the cycle, and the leading two players after the last leg in Tel Aviv (in late December) will qualify for the eight-player Candidates tournament in 2020 that will decide Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger.

Yet despite the big comeback victory in Riga for Mamedyarov – who now joins Russia’s Alexander Grischuk at the top of the GP standings on 10-points – after his Moscow failure, his chances of winning one of the two coveted qualifying spots, in what has now effectively become a four-horse race, looks to be somewhat slim.

Like co-leader Grischuk, Mamedyarov – handicapped by his Moscow failure, where he crashed out in the opening round with zero points – only has one remaining GP event left to play, while nearest rivals Ian Nepomniatchi and Vachier-Lagrave, on 9- and 8-points respectively, have two remaining, so they are the big favourites now to qualify.

Photo: What a difference a Grand Prix makes, as Mamedyarov goes from zero to hero with victory in Riga! |© Niki Riga / World Chess

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
Riga FIDE Grand Prix Final, (2)
Giuoco Piano
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The name Giuoco Piano means ‘quiet game’ in Italian – it is also the name for one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, first recorded in the annals in the 16th century. Like its literal name, this opening system is initially very quiet, with a slow build-up as both sides patiently position their pieces for the middlegame battle. 3…Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d3 d6 6.0-0 h6 7.Re1 0-0 8.h3 a5 9.Nbd2 Be6 10.Bb5 Qb8 The sort of developing move with the queen that might-well have many club players scratching their heads, but there is a deep logic behind this move, as the threat of …Qa7 – to put added pressure on f2 – has to be met. 11.Nf1 Qa7 12.Be3 The most sensible move to challenge Black’s dominance of the a7-g1 diagonal. Here, I felt Shakh’s game plan looked good, as he’s beginning to trade off pieces, which will get him ever-closer to securing the draw needed to win the match outright – but it is amazing how, after just a little inaccuracy, his position rapidly goes downhill not far from here. 12…Bxe3 13.Nxe3 Ne7 14.a4 Rad8 15.Bc4 Bxc4 Shakh trades off another bishop, but maybe this just helps MVL to get his knights to their best squares? A logical alternative looked like 15…Ng6!? going for the f4 outpost, and not fearing 16.Bxe6 fxe6 as the doubled e-pawns will at least control the central squares and guard against White’s knights finding good outposts. 16.Nxc4 Nd7 17.d4! Not just taking the centre, and threatening to win a pawn on e5, but also denying Black the vital c5-square either for his knight (to re-route it with …Nd7-c5-e6-f4 etc) or perhaps even to bring his queen out of the wilderness. 17…Qa6 Hindsight could well determine that this move only puts the queen further offside, and perhaps Shakh should have tried instead 17…exd4!? 18.Nxd4 Qc5 with the idea of following up with …Ne5 and …d5. 18.Ne3 Rfe8 19.Qc2 exd4 Not a losing move per se, but by voluntarily giving up the centre, Shakh’s position seems to lack any form of cohesion. 20.Nxd4 c6?! Covering d5 – but it comes at the cost of making a target of the d6-pawn that gifts MVL a couple of free tempos to bring his pieces rapidly into the game. More accurate was 20…Nf6 as now 21.Ndf5 Nxf5 22.Nxf5 Re5! and Black has consolidated his position, threatens to double rooks on the e-file, and now, for example, if 23.f3 Rde8 Black can try for …Qc6 and …d5 that seems to force the exchanges needed for full equality for Black. 21.Ndf5! Awkward, as now the …Nxf5 and …Re5 idea is ruled out due to the d6-pawn hanging. 21…Nf6 22.Rad1 Nc8? The position has become very awkward, very quickly for Shakh. He really had to try 22…Nxf5 23.Nxf5 d5!? 24.e5 Nd7 25.f4 Qb6+ 26.Kh1 Nf8 and the knight coming to g6, even although it gifts White the d6 square for his knight. But understandably, Shakh wants to avoid seeing his opponent establishing an Nd6 outpost – but in preventing this, he leaves further weaknesses on his kingside that MVL quickly hones in on now. 23.f3! A very clever move. Not only does it defend e4, but more importantly it clears a path for the queen to quickly swing over to the kingside with Qc2-f2-g3 to attack the Black king. 23…d5 24.Qf2 Re6? Black’s position is totally compromised now, and MVL moves in for the kill. The engines will tell you that Black needed to play 24…Ne7 to hang on – but after 25.Nxe7+ Rxe7 26.Nf5 Re6 27.e5 Ne8 28.f4 this is a position a human wouldn’t like to defend against. 25.Qg3! [see diagram] The parallels between the two positions are quite remarkable here: Shakh’s queen and knights are out-of-play, while MVL’s queen and knights are actively placed and ready to wreak havoc on his opponent’s king. 25…Ne8 With the Black knights in full retreat now, and his queen still offside on a6, it is not unsurprising that Shakh’s position soon implodes. 26.exd5 cxd5 27.Nxd5 Kf8 28.Qh4 Rd7 29.Nde3 There may well have been more forcing ways for MVL to finish the game, but this is by far the simplest way to win. 29…Ncd6 I suppose Black can struggle on a bit longer with 29…Rxd1 30.Rxd1 Ncd6 31.Nxd6 Nxd6 32.Qd8+ Ne8 but after 33.Nf5 Qe2 34.Qd2! not only is Black a pawn down with no compensation to show for it, but also all the endings look doomed. 30.Nd4! MVL’s knights are now swinging in for the kill. 30…Re5 31.Ng4 Rd5 If 31…Ree7 in a vain attempt to try and buckle down to defend, White simply plays 32.Kh2 just to get out of any danger from a check on b6, and is now threatening to crash through with Nxh6. 32.Ne5 1-0

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