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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Two rivalling elite-level tours/cycles are drawing to a close, with Magnus Carlsen being the common denominator in both events – the penultimate event of the FIDE Hamburg Grand Prix will play a large part in deciding two spots into the eight-player candidates’ next year to become Carlsen’s title-challenger, and the other, the Grand Chess Tour Superbet Bucharest Rapid & Blitz that will play a big part in just who will join Carlsen in the marquee four-player final at the London Chess Classic in December.

In Hamburg, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Alexander Grischuk easily qualified for the semi-finals – and as the frontrunners went manu et manu by meeting in the final four, the scenario was that the winner of the match was almost certain to gain enough points to take one of the two available candidates spots. And in an enthralling endgame masterclass, Grischuk won game two to take the match, and now the Russian has what could well be a a decisive lead and pole position in the year-long Grand Prix race.

The Hamburg GP leg also sees Grischuk play his final event, as he’s now played his allocated three tournaments. With the final still to come, and Grischuk’s opponent being either Daniil Dubov or Jan-Krzysztof Duda from the newer generation of stars, the Russian could further add to his lead by winning the final. It’s a four-horse race in the standings for the two spots on offer, with Grischuk currently leading on 17-points (and counting) at the end of his cycle; second is MVL with 13-points, with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov 10-points and Ian Nepomniachtchi 9-points – but crucially, they still all have something to play for, as they all compete in what’s now set to be an intriguing final leg in Jerusalem in mid December.

For MVL, it is now literally a do-or-die mission as the wildcard route for the Frenchman into the candidates has been closed off to him by the Russian hosts in Ekaterinburg. Recently, they announced that it will involve an all-Russian playoff match between either Alexander Grischuk, Ian Nepomniachtchi (whomever fails to get a GP spot) and Kirill Alekseenko, who finished third in the FIDE Grand Swiss in the Isle of Man.

And in other candidates’ news this week, it was also officially confirmed that Dutchman Anish Giri had taken the year-long rating spot. The Ekaterinburg organisers also announced that dates for the Candidates would be March 15 till April 5 2020. Candidates confirmed so far: Fabiano Caruana (defeated title challenger), Teimour Radjabov and Ding Liren (World Cup finalists), Wang Hao (FIDE Grand Swiss) and Anish Giri (Rating).

Meanwhile in the Grand Chess Tour, one of the wildcard entrants almost turned in a stunning performance in the Superbet Bucharest Rapid & Blitz in Romania. Ukrainian dark horse Alexander Korobov caused a sensation by storming into the sole lead and then going on to win the rapid tournament, and he held the overall lead in the competition by the end of the first day of the blitz.

But on the final day, the natural order of things was soon restored as Korobov suffered a dramatic collapse with five straight loses that allowed Levon Aronian and Sergey Karjakin to both go on to win the blitz tournament. And with both having the same rapid and blitz scores, while they shared 11 GCT points and $31,250 each in prize money, they had to play a tiebreak decider for the bragging rights to the title, that was won by Aronian.

The final tour event of the season will be the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid & Blitz later this month in Kolkata. Leaders Carlsen and Ding Liren return to the fray – but MVL and Karjakin have now played their allocated GCT events for the season, and that leaves the way open for Aronian, and possibly Vishy Anand, playing in his homeland, to find a route into the final.

GCT Standings:
1. M. Carlsen ($205,000), 54.5; 2. Ding Liren ($132,333), 37.8; 3. M. Vachier-Lagrave ($100,000), 36.8; 4-5. L. Aronian ($113,750), Sergey Karjakin ($99,250) both 36.5; 6. V. Anand ($90,000), 32; 7. F. Caruana ($76,250), 26.5; 8. W. So ($92,500), 26; 9. I. Nepomniachtchi ($58,583), 24.5; 10. A. Giri ($49,833), 19; 11. H. Nakamura ($50,000), 17.5; 12. S. Mamedyarov ($48,750), 16.

Photo: A pleased Levon Aronian captures the GCT Superbet Bucharest Rapid & Blitz title | © Lennart Ootes / GCT

GM Levon Aronian – GM Sergey Karjakin
Superbet TB Playoff, (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. And like its literal name, things start off initially very quiet with a slow build-up – but things can often change dramatically, as happens in this game. 3…Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.e5 d5 7.Bb5 Ne4 8.cxd4 Bb6 9.Nc3 0-0 10.Be3 Bg4 11.h3 Bh5 12.Qc2 Nxc3 13.bxc3 f6 Rightly, Karjakin wants to open the game up, feeling his pieces may well be the more active. 14.exf6 Qxf6 15.Be2 Rae8 Karjakin is making all the running here, and it is hard to imagine that shortly, within a few moves, his position simply implodes. 16.0-0 h6 17.Rae1 Qd6 18.Bc1 A strategic retreat, the reason for which we’ll soon see. 18…Ba5 19.Qd2 Re4 20.Bd1 Aronian simply wants to trade some pieces to ease his position. Conversely, Karjakin has a small edge, but he now overplays his hand with devastating consequences. 20…Bxf3 21.Bxf3 Rxd4 22.Qc2 Rc4 There’s nothing in the position, though Karjakin may well have been seduced by the fact that his pieces look to be the more threatening – but the reality is that Black has to be wary of a counter-punch on d5. 23.Ba3! [see diagram] And this was the reason for 18.Bc1 in the first place – we’ve now reached the critical position in an all-deciding title-playoff game, and Karjakin now fails to grasp the right tactics needed to stay in the game. 23…Bb4? Right square, wrong piece! Karjakin can only survive with 23…Nb4! 24.Bxb4 Bxb4 25.Qd1 Rxc3 26.Re6! Qf4 27.Bxd5 Kh8 28.Re4 Qd6 29.Re6 Qf4 30.Re4 Qd6 and the game would have ended in a repetition, as any divergence from either side will be bad. But now it is game over with one very simple little move. 24.Qd3! Not only removing the queen from the pin, but also piling on the pressure on d5, and indirectly targeting the …Rc4 – and with it, something has to give now. 24…Rxf3 Realising he was in a bad way, Karjakin opts now to hang for a sheep. The (full) point is that 24…Rxc3 25.Bxd5+ Kh8 26.Qxc3! Bxc3 27.Bxd6 cxd6 28.Rb1 and White has emerged with a big material advantage, and will go on to win. 25.Qxf3 Bxa3 26.Re8+ Kh7 27.Qf5+ 1-0 Karjakin resigns, as now 27…Qg6 28.Rh8+ wins the queen with an easy win.

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