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John Henderson
By John Henderson

There’s no shortage of top-flight chess action going on right now, with not one but two big tournaments rivalling each other, and with it, both events set to split the loyalties of the loyal chess fans for the battle for the online live coverage: the FIDE Grand Prix in Hamburg, Germany, and the Grand Chess Tour’s Superbet Bucharest Rapid & Blitz in Romania.

While there’s no Magnus Carlsen in Bucharest, the world champion will return for the final tour event of the regular season later this month by heading the field for the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid & Blitz in Kolkata. Despite his absence, there’s still an impressive line-up, with tour regulars Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, Levon Aronian, Vishy Anand, Wesley So, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Sergey Karjakin being joined by wildcards Vladislav Artemiev, Le Quang Liem and Anton Korobov.

Carlsen is already safely into the four-player GCT final – the marquee event of the London Chess Classic in December – and the battle in Bucharest will be to see who will gain tour points to also join the world champion in the final. Tour standings: 1. Carlsen, 54.5; 2. Ding Liren, 37.8; 3. Vachier-Lagrave, 36.8; 4-6. Aronian, Caruana and Karjakin, 25.5; 7. Nepomniachtchi, 24.5; 8. Anand, 24; 9. So, 23.5; 10. Nakamura, 17.5; 11. Giri, 14.5; 12. Mamedyarov, 13.5.

Meanwhile in Hamburg, the battle is on to see who will gain the most GP points to one of the two spots into the candidates that will decide Carlsen’s next title challenger. There was a major setback for Russian front-runner Ian Nepomniachtchi when was knocked out in the first round by the ever-enterprising young Pole Jan-Krzysztof Duda – and Nepo’s agony looks to have opened the way for Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to now move into pole position going into the final GP in Tel Aviv.

MVL has the nominal advantage in the four-way chase for the two spots by still having the last two legs left to play. In Hamburg, he comfortably beat China’s Wei Yi to gain invaluable GP points by making it into the quarter-finals – and the Frenchman now looks set to gain even more points to jump into the lead after beating Veselin Topalov in the opening rubber of their quarter-final match.

Quarter-finals (game 1):
Topalov 0-1 MVL; Grischuk ½-½ Navara; Dubov ½-½ Svidler; Yu Yangyi ½-½ Duda

Grand Prix standings:
1. Alexander Grischuk, 11-points; 2-3. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, 10; 4. Ian Nepomniachtchi, 9.

Photo: MVL is both winning the battles and gaining the points! | © Valeria Gordienko/World Chess.

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Wei Yi
Hamburg FIDE Grand Prix, (1.1)
Sicilian Najdorf, Zagreb variation
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.g3 The Zagreb Variation, not the most aggressive against the famously-feared Bobby Fischer favourite of the Sicilian Najdorf – and also it is something of a rarity of a Najdorf sideline, though it has become more popular in the past few years with Magnus Carlsen briefly adopting it. Fischer himself famously faced this a couple of times – and I vividly remember Fischer himself playing it once against Svetzar Gligoric, and Gligo out-playing the American in a little gem of a game that featured in Edmar Mednis’ very entertaining and instructive little book, How to Beat Bobby Fischer. 6…e5 7.Nb3 The more popular move, and Carlsen’s preference, is 7.Nde2 but MVL’s opts for a more positional choice. 7…Be7 8.Bg5 Nbd7 9.a4 h6N A novelty from Wei Yi – but it is not a big thundering novelty that changes anything. More usual is 9…b6, but there’s not much of a difference between that and how Wei plays – but the only drawback is that it allows MVL to hit the queenside quickly. 10.Be3 b6 11.Bc4 This is a nice move, as MVL deftly avoids the fianchetto, and instead piles the pressure on Wei’s weakened queenside pawns – and the Chinese youngster just doesn’t get the right piece set-up to counter the weaknesses. 11…Bb7 12.Nd2 0-0 13.0-0 Qc7 14.Qe2 Another nice little spoiling move from MVL, who put the kibosh on Wei perhaps playing the more natural …Rac8. 14…Rfc8 15.Rad1 Nc5 16.Bxc5 Qxc5 17.Rfe1 MVL has his pieces centralised, his position is secure, and, long-term, he wants to play Nc4 to hit the pawn weaknesses on b6 and d6. 17…g6 18.Bb3 Kg7? Wei Yi has totally missed the point behind MVL’s play – and with it, his position begins to go downhill. With hindsight, Wei would have seen that he really had to play 18…Qb4 now, and try to build-up counterplay by following up with …Rc7 and …Rac8 and play down the semi-open c-file; perhaps even with a thematic exchange sacrifice on c3. 19.Qc4! I can only presume that Wei must have missed this excellent move that hits f7 and threatens to trade the queens – and with the queens off the board, Wei will have trouble defending his weak pawns on d6 and b6. 19…Qxc4 It was either this or 19…Rf8 20.Qxc5 bxc5 21.Nc4 Rfd8 22.Na5 Rab8 23.Bc4 and Black is in a bad way with the pawn weaknesses and the active White pieces. 20.Nxc4 Rc6 It is just all awkward moves Wei now has to play to avoids the loss of either the d- or b-pawns. 21.Nd5 Equally good was 21.Ne3 and bossing the d5-square. 21…Nxd5 22.exd5 Rc7 23.Nxe5 I think the better choice was 23.Nxb6 Rb8 24.a5 but after 24…Bc8 MVL probably was worried that Wei might have “some” hopes of survival with his active rooks on the queenside. 23…dxe5 24.d6 Rd7 25.dxe7 Rxe7 26.Rd6 b5 27.a5 Rc8 28.c3 Bf3?! Strange. It looks as if Wei has just “cracked” by giving up the a6-pawn for some spurious back-rank mating threats – just exactly what was wrong with 28…Rc6 29.Rd8 Rc8? White is slightly better, and Black looks to be set for long-term passivity, but I don’t see any clear winning chances. Sure, the back-rank mating threats are a nuisance to have to deal with, but with careful play, White is just left with the better endgame. 29.Rxa6 Rd8 30.Rb6 Rd2 31.Rxb5 Rxb2 32.a6 Unless there’s a rock-solid back-rank threat, the a-pawn is just a game-winner. 32…Rc7 33.Bc4! The more material that’s traded, the easier it will be to push the problematic a-pawn up the board. 33…Rxb5 34.Bxb5 Rxc3 35.Bf1! Ideally, Black would like to put his rook behind the a-pawn – but MVL avoids this, as there’s no no back-rank tricks, the a-pawn is defended by the bishop, and the e5-pawn is under attack. 35…Rc5 36.Ra1 It is just going to be a matter of time and technique now. 36…Ba8 37.Be2 Covering f3 and making way for the king shuffle to safety with Kf1-e1-d2 etc. 37…e4 38.Kf1 Kf6 39.Ke1 Ke5 40.Kd2 f5 41.Rb1 g5? The best practical saving chance Wei has is to push his kingside pawns up the board, looking to exchange them all off, and then, if the worst comes to the worst, sacrifice the bishop for the a-pawn to try to get to a R+B v R ending – but he’s a bit too hasty in doing so! Wei first had to play 41…Bd5 42.Rb5 Rc7 43.Bd1 Kd4 44.Rb4+ Kc5 45.Rb8 and try to make his stand here. 42.Rb5! [see diagram] The bishop of same colour ending is a win; the key being the a-pawn being used as a distant decoy. 42…Kd4 43.Rxc5 Kxc5 44.Ke3 Bc6 45.Bh5! Kd5 The point to MVL’s play is that if Wei goes for the a-pawn with 45…Kb6 46.Bg6 Bd7 then 47.Kd4 and the king comes to e5 to win the pawns on f5 and e5 with an easily won ending. 46.a7 Now the Wei’s bishop must stay on the a8-h1 diagonal. 46…Ke5 47.f4+ 1-0 Wei resigns, faced with the likely losing endgame scenario of 47…Ke6 48.g4! Kf6 [If 48…gxf4+ 49.Kxf4 fxg4 50.Bg6! e3 51.Kxe3 Ke5 52.Bh5 Kf5 53.Kd4 and now the king isn’t heading over to the queenside to directly win the bishop by promoting the pawn, as that could lead to a potential draw with the h8 square being the wrong colour, but rather to engineer Bf7-d5! trading the bishop.] 49.Be8! Bd5 50.Bd7 fxg4 51.Bxg4 Bc6 52.h3 Bd5 53.fxg5+ Kxg5 54.Kd4 Ba8 55.Ke5 Kh4 56.Kf4! that leaves Black in Zugszwang and now 56…h5 57.Bf5 the bishop will soon successfully challenge for the a8-h1 diagonal.

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