It’s ‘squeaky bum time’, as Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary Manchester United manager famously coined the classic must-win scenario, as the tensions and frayed nerves intensifies with the final FIDE Grand Prix leg now underway in Jerusalem, Israel, and where the race is on to decided two spots into the 2020 Candidates’ Tournament in Ekaterinburg, Russia, that will decide Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger.
Going into the final GP leg of the season, there was a four-way race at the top of the standing for the two spots on offer. In the opening round, early frontrunner Shakriyar Mamedyarov saw his Candidates qualification chances disappearing at the end of what has proved to be a difficult year for the Azeri, especially as it started so full of promise with a renewed sharpness to his game that took him to a rating of 2817 and ranked world #3. But Mamedyarov’s bad run throughout 2019 continued, as he was sensationally knocked out by Russia’s Dmitry Jakovenko in a tiebreak-decider – but two other leading contenders, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi are still very much in the hunt after they survived the ordeal of the tiebreaks with crucial victories over Veselin Topalov (see game below) and Boris Gelfand respectively.
There’s still a theoretical outside chance that Wesley So – the only player to go forward to the quarter-final without the need of a tiebreak decider – can still qualify for the Candidates’, according to the unofficial GP standings, but the maths is firmly stacked against the US #2, as he will now need to win all of his matches in the Jerusalem GP leg without having to go to the tiebreak, then win the title, and along the way, hope all of MVL’s matches do go to a tiebreak.
Having to play in such a pressure-cooker environment is not an easy one, and ironically the biggest winner of the opening round proved to be the one not playing! With MVL and Mamedyarov’s matches’ both going to a tiebreak-decider (and therefore no win bonus), Grischuk – who won the Hamburg Grand Prix last month to take an almost unassailable lead in the year-long race – cannot be caught now for one of the two spots, and he now goes to Ekaterinburg next March.
Grischuk also becomes the first Russian player to qualify for the Candidates’ Tournament, and he now joins the growing list of potential title contenders that includes: Fabiano Caruana (2018 defeated title challenger), Teimour Radjabov and Ding Liren (both World Cup finalists), Wang Hao (FIDE Grand Swiss) and Anish Giri (Rating). With Grischuk now the sixth player in the candidates’, there’s still two spots up for grabs – one by the end of the Jerusalem Grand Prix, and another, the organiser’s wildcard, that will involve an all-Russian playoff match that will involve Kirill Alekseenko (who came third in the FIDE Grand Swiss in the Isle of Man), and most likely Nepomniachtchi, should he miss out on a Grand Prix spot.
V. Topalov 1-3 M. Vachier-Lagrave*; R. Wojtaszek 1½-2½ D. Andreikin*; Yu Yangyi ½-1½ W. So*; I. Nepomniachtchi* 3-1 B. Gelfand; Wei Yi* 2½-1½ A. Giri; P. Harikrishna 4½-4½ S. Karjakin*; D. Navara* 4½-3½Wang Hao; S. Mamedyarov 2½-3½ D. Jakovenko*
Vachier-Lagrave v Andreikin; So v Nepomniachtchi; Karjakin v Wei Yi; Jakovenko v Navara.
Photo: MVL leads the pack for the final Candidates Grand Prix spot | © Niki Raga / World Chess
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Veselin Topalov
Jerusalem FIDE Grand Prix (Rapid TB, 1)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Wall
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 The so-called “Berlin Wall” Endgame that famously proved to be Garry Kasparov’s psychological downfall against successful title challenger Vladimir Kramnik during their World Championship match in London in 2000 – not that he lost any games playing against it, it was just that he became so frustrated in the match because he just couldn’t break it down. 9.h3 Bd7 10.Rd1 Be7 11.g4 Nh4 12.Nxh4 Bxh4 Black has the bishop-pair – but White has a big space advantage and his rook dominating the d-file. 13.Nd2 Kc8 14.Nf3 Be7 15.Bg5 It’s remarkable what you can learn from previous encounters with an opponent, as MVL comes up with the logical idea to lessen the potential of Topalov’s bishop-pair with a timely trade. Previously, 15.Rd3 has been tried by the Frenchman, but after 15…h6 16.Kg2 c5 Black was fine in MVL-Topalov, Stavanger 2016. 15…Bc5 If 15…Bxg5 16.Nxg5 h6 17.Ne4 (Fine for Black is 17.Nxf7 Rf8 18.e6 Bxe6 19.Ne5 with a roughly equal position.) 17…b6 Black has to stop Nc5. 18.Ng3 and White has a big space advantage on the kingside. 16.Rd3 b6 Another popular option for Black here is 16…Be6 17.Be3 Bxe3 18.Rxe3 Kd7! 19.Rd1+ Ke7 which has led to a number of draws, as Black has everything better co-ordinated with his king better placed on e7. The idea now will be try to trade rooks on the open d-file. 17.Be3 Bxe3 Also an option is 17…Be7!?. 18.Rxe3 h6 Also a theme in the Berlin Wall endgame is going for 18…h5 where, after 19.Ng5 Be6 20.Nxe6 fxe6 21.f4 hxg4 22.hxg4 Rh4 23.Rg3 Kd7 and despite the advanced kingside pawns, Black stands no worse as he threatens to double rooks on the h-file and has a central king. 19.Rd1 These Berlin Wall endgames are notoriously difficult for Black, what with White’s central rooks and big space advantage with the kingside pawns rolling – but in general, if Black is extremely careful, he can hold the position. Of course, a lot easier said than done, as one small slip and White will be close to having a clear winning advantage. 19…c5 20.Nh4 g5 The trouble with 20…g6 is that after 21.e6! Bxe6 22.Nxg6 fxg6 23.Rxe6 g5 24.f4 gxf4 25.Rf1 those White rooks make for a potent pair. 21.Nf5 Bxf5?! Remember that one small slip I was talking about earlier? Well, this falls into that category, as all it achieves is to gift White excellent winning chances with the king supporting the mobile pawns. A better try was 21…Bc6 22.Ne7+ Kb7 23.Nxc6 Kxc6 24.Rf3 where White has an annoying edge, but not winning per se, and with careful play, Black should be able to hold for a draw. 22.gxf5 Kb7 This just moves the king further away from where it needs to be, that being on the kingside to help block the progress of the e- and f-pawns. And with that in mind, better was 22…Rd8!? 23.Ree1 (Trading a set of rooks only eases the pressure on Black, with 23.Rxd8+?! Kxd8 24.Kg2 Ke7 25.Kg3 h5 and Black should be able to hold this with careful play.) 23…Rd4 24.c3 Rd7 and despite it the defence being a bit awkward, again, with care, Black should hold this ending. 23.Kg2 Rad8? Tough as it was, Black last try to hold was 23…Rae8 24.Rd7 Rhf8 25.Kg3 Kc6 26.Rd1 h5 with a difficult, though not necessarily losing position. Certainly White has the advantage, but there is still a lot of work needs doing to be able to convert it to a win. 24.Rxd8 Rxd8 25.Kf3 [see diagram] With Topalov’s king cut off on the queenside, the trade of a set of rooks has suddenly gifted MVL a very winnable endgame, as his king has designs on Kf3-g4-h5. 25…c4 No better is 25…h5 26.Rd3! Re8 as the K+P ending is lost, hence the need to keep the rooks on the board. 27.Ke4 and following up with f6 wins easily. 26.Re4 b5 27.Kg4! The threat of Kh5 is difficult enough to meet, but the even bigger threat is e6 and the passed pawn, protected by the rook and king, is a game-winner. 27…Kc8 28.e6! MVL cuts straight to the chase. 28…fxe6 29.fxe6 Rh8 Topalov is caught between a rock and a hard place. If 29…Re8 30.Kh5 Kd8 31.Kxh6 Ke7 32.Kxg5 is easily winning also. 30.Kf5 Kd8 31.e7+ Ke8 32.Kg6 1-0 Topalov resigns, as there’s no way to successfully stop Kg7 winning the rook.