Back in the more warmer environs of early summer at the Grenke Chess Classic in Germany, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave went out of his way to emphasis during a ChessBase interview that all of his efforts this year would be singularly focused on making it to what could be a potentially career-defining Candidates Tournament – set for Ekaterinburg, Russia in early March – appearance above all else, as he heavily hinted that he could well be too old by the time another chance comes his way again.
Hard to believe, but the Frenchman – more commonly known by the moniker of his initials of ‘MVL’ – who is regarded as one of the world’s best and hardest-working players, has never reached the pinnacle for all potential title challengers of the eight-player candidates that will officially decide who will play Magnus Carlsen for the Norwegian’s world crown.
“It is extremely crucial,” declared MVL, when asked by the interviewer if it was important for him to qualify for the candidates’. “If I don’t qualify this year, I will be 32 before I can even think of playing a Candidates event. In order to achieve my objectives, I need to improve my play and try to qualify for next year’s event.”
And after beating Russian Dmitry Andreikin in their FIDE Grand Prix quarterfinal match-up in Jerusalem, that went to a tiebreak-decider (see today’s game), MVL now faces a huge semifinal crunch clash with his closest GP rival, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi – who similarly beat the USA #2, Wesley So, also on tiebreak – that will see the eventual victor moving into pole position for the coveted second candidates qualifying spot.
Currently, the (unofficial) GP standings show another Russian, Alexander Grischuk, leading the near year-long race on 20-points, though he’s already safely into the Candidates now. Not far behind is Jerusalem hopefuls MVL, with 16-points, and Nepomniachtchi, four points adrift on 12-points – for MVL, just making it to the final will be enough for him to qualify for Ekaterinburg; for Nepomniachtchi, he will need to not only beat MVL, but also go on to win the final to take second place in the GP standings.
But unlike MVL, should Nepomniachtchi fail, then there’s yet another lifeline – a Russian lifeline. There’s one last remaining Candidates spot yet to be decided, the organiser’s wildcard, that will involve an all-Russian playoff match featuring Kirill Alekseenko (who came third in the FIDE Grand Swiss in the Isle of Man) and Nepomniachtchi, should he miss out on the second Grand Prix spot.
M. Vachier-Lagrave* 2½-1½ D. Andreikin; W. So 1½-2½ I. Nepomniachtchi*; S. Karjakin 2½-3½ Wei Yi*; D. Jakovenko ½-1½ D. Navara*.
Vachier-Lagrave v Nepomniachtchi
Wei Yi v Navara
Photo: Could it finally be MVL’s Candidates’ moment? | © Niki Riga / World Chess
GM Dmitry Andreikin – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Jerusalem FIDE Grand Prix QF (TB, 1)
1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 d6 3.Nge2 A tricky move order, as White retains his options of playing d4 and an Open Sicilian or g3 and a Closed Sicilian – and depending on what Black does, he could well be walking into an Open Sicilian he may not be prepared for. 3…Nf6 4.h3 Andreikin is still keeping his options open of d4 and an Open Sicilian – but soon MVL stops this. 4…e5 Ruling out any ideas of an Open Sicilian. 5.d3 Nc6 With h3 added in the mix, a Closed Sicilian would now be a bit risky, as Black can quickly get in …Be6 and …Qd7 putting pressure on the h-pawn – so Andreikin goes freestyle. 6.g4 Be7 7.Bg2 h5! MVL cuts straight to the chase of showing up the problems with Andreikin’s freestyle approach in the opening – a decision that the Russian soon regrets. 8.g5 Nh7 9.h4 f6 There is an element of risk with this move, but then again, risk is MVL’s trademark. 10.Nd5 Andreikin has no option now than to go ‘all-in’ with a dubious pawn sacrifice to try to complicate things, as 10.gxf6 Nxf6 11.Bg5 Be6 offers Black a comfortable game with free and easy development. All of which begs the question why not 10.g6? Admittedly at first site, after 10…Nf8 11.Ng3 it looks good for white as 11…Nxg6 12.Nd5! manages to win the h5-pawn – but rather than that, Black has good play with 11…Nd4! where 12.Nd5 Bg4! 13.f3 Be6 and a double-edged position with chances for both sides 10…fxg5 11.hxg5 Nxg5 12.Nec3 Andreikin is hoping the Nd5 and play against the h5-pawn will be good compensation for the pawn – but MVL soon consolidates, to be just a pawn up for nothing. 12…g6 13.Nxe7 Qxe7 14.Nd5 Qd8 15.f4! Nf7 The best move, as White looks to burst the game open for his bishop-pair. 16.f5 gxf5 17.exf5 Nd4 18.Be3?! The only hope was with 18.Be4! (If 18.Qd2 Bg4! prevents the White king castling to safety on the queenside) 18…Bxf5 19.Bxf5 Nxf5 20.c3 and with the big Nd5 outpost and both kings somewhat lacking cover, both sides have to tread carefully. But Andreikin’s 18.Be3?! just allows MVL to consolidate his position with some rapid development. 18…Bxf5 19.Bxd4 Bg4! Perhaps Andreikin simply overlooked this nice little zwischenzug that solves the problem of the h-pawn? 20.Bf3?! Despite being two pawns down, the position remains somewhat double-edged, but Andreikin misses his best chance to stay competitive with 20.Qd2 cxd4 21.0-0!? where Nf6+ will leave both kings exposed to attacks. 20…cxd4 The threat of …Qa5+ is difficult to counter. 21.c4 dxc3 22.bxc3 Qa5! 23.Rb1 The only move to stay in the game. 23…Ng5! The point of Andreikin’s last move is that after 23…Qxd5?! 24.Bxd5 Bxd1 25.Rxb7! Nd8 26.Rc7 and White will hold the draw now, as it forces 26…Rb8 27.Kxd1 Rb1+ 28.Ke2 Rxh1 29.Bxh1 a5 30.Ra7 h4 31.Rxa5 h3 32.a4 where with the h-pawn blockaded, White’s a-pawn will quickly run up the board. 24.Nf6+ Kf7 Despite the precarious state of the king wandering in the wilderness, MVL can protect it. 25.0-0 Nh3+ 26.Kh1 Kxf6 27.Bxg4+ Nf4 28.Bf3 The threat of …Qd5+ has to be defended against. 28…Rag8 29.Rxb7 Rg3 MVL piles on the pressure now; the White king is doomed amidst the storm of Black pieces swirling around his king. 30.Qb3 Rf8 31.d4 Qa6 32.c4 Rh3+ 33.Kg1 Rg8+ 34.Kf2 Rg2+! [see diagram] MVL goes for the spectacular finale, but just as clinical was 34…Qa5!. 35.Ke1 Qa5+ 36.Rb4 Rxa2 0-1