THERE IS STILL TIME TO START A SPRING PROGRAM!

John Henderson
By John Henderson

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s bid to finally break his candidates hoodoo has dramatically ended in heartbreak once again for the Frenchman, as he lost his crucial FIDE Grand Prix semifinal showdown in Jerusalem with standings rival Ian Nepomniachtchi, and now the Russian takes an almighty giant step towards qualifying to the eight-player Candidates Tournament next year in Ekaterinburg, Russia, that will determine Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger.

The drama unfolded as early as the opening game between Nepomniachtchi and ‘MVL’ as the Frenchman’s favourite Grünfeld defence was successfully targeted by Nepomniachtchi in a double-edged game, where a series of small slip-ups ultimately proved fatal. And faced with a ‘must-win’ scenario in game 2, MVL came out with all guns blazing and an uber-aggressive, AlphaZero-like very early 3.h4 attack, but the Russian held his nerve to successfully navigate his way through the complexities to the safety of a draw to win the match 1.5-0.5.

Nepomniachtchi is now through to the final, where he awaits the tiebreak decider between David Navara and Wei Yi to see whom he will face after both their semifinal games ended in draws – but the Russian still has work to do, because he needs to win the title to be certain of making it to the candidates. In a tightening race for the second candidates qualifying spot, currently in the (unoffical) standings, Alexander Grischuk leads on 20-points (and already qualified), with MVL in second place with 16-points, and Nepomniachtchi on 15-points. It all now comes down to this: If Nepomniachtchi wins the Grand Prix Final, he is in the candidates; if he loses, MVL is in the candidates – and this would mean that the organiser’s wildcard spot would go to a playoff between Nepomniachtchi and Kirill Alekseenko (who finished third in the FIDE Grand Swiss).

After trying so hard to finally reach his first candidates tournament appearance, MVL now has the long and agonising wait to see how his fate will ultimately be decided. “I will be watching the final match from home,” he said after being eliminated. “I will be rooting against Ian, there is nothing else I can do. But if Ian wins, it will be well-deserved.”

Many commentators, pundits and chess fans still can’t quite believe that MVL, one of the world’s top players – and with his own unique brand of exciting, seat-of-your pants play that makes him a big fan favourite – still hasn’t played in a candidates tournament, with many claiming him to be ‘candidates cursed’. He came so close to making it in the last cycle, and now he could just miss out by the narrowest of margins once again. MVL has put everything into making it this time, and he recently commented that, come the next cycle, at the age of 32, he may well be too old then to qualify.

While MVL might well be considered to be unlucky, he is not nearly as candidates cursed as the late great Leonid Stein thrice was. One of the world’s strongest players through the 1960s, Stein twice actually qualified for the Candidates in 1962 (Stockholm) and 1964 (Amsterdam) but fell victim at the time to a FIDE rule that limited Candidates Tournaments/Matches to having no more than five players from any one country.

The ‘five Russian rule’ was dropped by FIDE in 1965 – but at the next Interzonal, at Sousse, Tunisia, in 1967, Stein tied for the final candidates spot with Sammy Reshevsky and Vlastimil Hort. The trio then had to play a quadruple-round playoff tournament in early 1968 for the spot, held at the Steiner Chess Club in Los Angeles, California.

Stein began with the handicap of having the worst Sonneborn-Berger score tiebreaks (carried over from Sousse) in the event of a further tie. He led by a half-point with two rounds to go, but he refused a draw to Hort, only to go on to lose. All three finished tied on 4/8, but underdog Reshevsky was the one to qualify on tiebreaks after drawing all eight of his games – and Leonid Stein was candidates cursed again!

Photo: The stakes were high, but Nepomniachtchi claims a vital victory | © Niki Riga / World Chess

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Jerusalem FIDE Grand Prix semi-final, (1)
Grünfeld Defence, Russian System
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Qb3 The Russian System was honed into a potent weapon against the Grünfeld by Soviet Chess School ‘patriarch’ and world champion Mikhail Botvinnik. 5…dxc4 6.Qxc4 0-0 7.e4 Nc6 8.Be3!? An interesting idea that invites the next move and the coming complexities. 8…Ng4 9.e5 Nxe3 10.fxe3 Although the e-pawns are doubled, White has strengthened support of the all-important “Delroy the d-pawn”, as famously christened by Jonathan Rowson in his critically-acclaimed book, Understanding the Grünfeld. 10…Bg4 More in the Grünfeld style would have been 10…Na5 11.Qa4 c5! and the traditional theme of chipping away at White’s pawn center. 11.h3 Bxf3 Alternatively, 11…Na5 12.Qb4 Nc6 13.Qxb7 Bd7! looked an interesting Grünfeld-type try. 12.gxf3 e6 13.h4 Stopping …Qh4+ and also looking to attack on the kingside. 13…Ne7 14.f4! The unusual dynamics of the diamond pawn formation only serves to make White’s center all the more powerful. 14…b5?! It’s almost as if MVL has taken a sudden rush of blood to his head as he lashes out with this self-inflicting weakening move. In view of how the game now goes, the Frenchman would have faired better with the more practical try of 14…Nf5 15.Rh3 Nxe3!? (It’s too risky to try 15…Nxh4?! as now 16.0-0-0! and Black will be in serious trouble if White can exploit the h-file for his rooks.) 16.Rxe3 Qxh4+ 17.Kd1 Qxf4 18.Re4 Qf2 where after 19.Qe2 Qxe2+ 20.Bxe2 Rfd8 White is still better, but with the pawns (and …c5 coming to undermine d4 and e5) Black does have good compensation for the piece. 15.Qc5 Nf5 16.Kf2!? A radical solution to White’s problem of how to defend the e3-pawn, given that 16.Rh3, while stronger, again leads to a complex struggle after 16…Nxe3!? 17.Rxe3 Qxh4+ 18.Kd2 Qxf4 19.Rae1 Rfd8 20.Kc2 Qxd4 21.Qxd4 Rxd4 22.Nxb5 Rd7 – but in this scenario, White looks to have a more realistic chance of winning than the note above. 16…f6 This is the whole point behind MVL’s risky play, as the Frenchman seeks counterplay – but it does leave in its wake a big weakness on e6 and, indirectly, makes his own king vulnerable. 17.Rd1 Nepo’s slight hesitation with his safety-first move now allows MVL to generate genuine counterplay. Better looked 17.Ne4!? and White has the much better position and prospects. 17…b4! Here comes the counter-attack! 18.Qxb4 The trouble now is that 18.Ne4? backfires to 18…fxe5! and the pin on the Rd1 and play down the open f-file will be a big game-changer. 18…Rb8 19.Qa3 fxe5?! All the little inaccuracies are now beginning to mount up for MVL. The best try was 19…c5! 20.dxc5 Qc8! and Black has excellent prospects as the position begins to dramatically open up for his more active pieces to attack the White king. 20.dxe5 Qe8 21.Bg2 Bxe5!?! Nepo was in the throes of consolidating his position – and rather than that, MVL decides its time to press the gamble button with a speculative piece sacrifice.  Admittedly it does look promising, but looks can often be deceptive. 22.fxe5 Nxh4+ 23.Kg1 Nxg2 24.Ne4! [see diagram] With the …Ng2 not going anywhere anytime soon, the recapture can be delayed, with this zwischenzug all but winning by force now with there being no easy answer to the looming threat of Nf6+. 24…Rd8 25.Rc1! Trading rooks only offers relief for Black. 25…Qb5 26.Qe7! A true powerhouse move that soon snares the quarry of the Black king. 26…Rd7 27.Nf6+ Rxf6 28.Qxf6 Rf7 29.Qd8+ Rf8 MVL is in dire straits – and not in a good way with Mark Knopfler ripping the riffs on lead guitar! And the alternative was far worse: 29…Kg7 30.Rxc7 Qf1+ 31.Kh2 Qf3 32.Qf6+! and Black can resign. 30.Qxc7 Rf7 31.Qd8+ Rf8 32.Qe7 h5 Instead, 32…Rf7 falls into the trap of 33.Rc8+ Kg7 34.Qxf7+! Kxf7 35.Rxh7#. 33.Qxe6+ Kg7 34.Rc7+ Kh6 35.Rxh5+! Kxh5 36.Qh3+ 1-0 MVL resigns, faced with 36…Nh4 37.Rh7+ Kg5 38.Qxh4+ Kf5 39.Qf4+ Ke6 40.Qxf8 and a mate on the horizon.

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