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There’s a veritable logjam at the top of the FIDE Grand Swiss in Riga with a five-way tie between Alirezja Firouzja, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Evgeniy Najer, Krishnan Sasikiran and Alexei Shirov for first place on 4½/6, and hot on the quintuplets tail is a fifteen-strong chasing pack just a half point behind, as the players head into the first rest day of the competition.

However, there could well have been two-way tie at the top going into the break. First, rising teenage Top 10 star Firouzja couldn’t convert his good winning chances against former elite star and local Riga-born hero Shirov, which for the fans at least proved to be an intriguing generational clash, that was initially full of pyrotechnics but fizzled out to a draw.

“I feel I was clearly worse, maybe lost, so I’m happy to draw,” said a visibly relieved Shirov when interviewed after the game.

But the draw opened the way for France’s recently deposed #1, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, to cash in big-time on a blunder from his Russian opponent to also join the leaders, and then India’s Krishnan Sasikiran, who also won, joined them to make it a five-way tie.

Top seed Fabiano Caruana somehow managed to dodge yet another bullet in round 6, this time benefitting from a piece of good fortune, as Najer, clearly better, and pressing for the full point to take the sole lead, inadvertently allowed a draw on the board by walking into a threefold repetition, which the very alert US #1 successfully claimed.

In the women’s competition, China’s GM Lei Tingjie has regained the sole lead, unbeaten on 5/6 following her win over Poland’s WGM Jolanta Zawadzka. The seventh round will be played on Wednesday, November 3.

Standings:
1-5. A. Firouzja (France, M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), E. Najer (Russia), K. Sasikiran (India), A. Shirov (Spain); 6-20. Yu Yangyi (China), F, Caruana (USA), M. Petrosyan (Armenia), N. Sarin (India), A. Korobov (Ukraine), A. Tari (Norway), G. Sargissian (Armenia), D. Navara (Czech Rep.), S. Sjugirov (Russia), S. Sevian (USA), D. Anton (Spain), A. Espienko (Russia), B. Deac (Romania), A. Sarana (Russia), D. Dubov (Russia), 4.

Photo: A back-in-form MVL joins the leaders | © Mark Livshitz / FIDE Grand Swiss

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Pavel Ponkratov
FIDE Grand Swiss, (6)
French Advance, Improved Milner-Barry Gambit
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 The Advance French was pioneered by the likes of Aron Nimzowitsch in the 1920s, who believed this to be White’s best choice and enriched its theory with many ideas and strategies. We don’t see it so much in elite praxis, but it has become a popular choice at club level as it involves a simple, straightforward plan with attacking chances and extra space. 3…c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.Bd3!? It’s the new fashion, the so-called Improved Milner-Barry Gambit – named after the ‘last gentleman amateur’, as William Hartston famously dubbed the legendary Wartime codebreaker Sir Stuart Milner-Barry (1906-1995) — that has become popular of late, and an interesting new twist to fighting the French Defence. 6…cxd4 7.0-0 Bd7 8.Re1 Nge7 9.h4 h6 10.a3 Rc8 11.b4 a6 12.Bb2 g5 13.Nh2 Bg7 To be honest with you, it’s all rather unusual seeing the c3 pawn being offered up as a gambit for so many moves and declined. 14.Ng4 gxh4 15.cxd4 Releasing the tension now only looks good based on how quickly MVL wins this game – but it wasn’t the best way to proceed, as stronger looked 15.Qf3!? and leave it for another move or so for Black to figure out what to do with the c3 pawn. 15…h5? A game-deciding blunder, pure and simple – either that or Ponkratov got all his analysis mixed-up, which can and does happen at all levels of the game. He had to be brave, and finally take the gambitted pawn with 15…Nxd4! where now 16.Nd2 (It is no longer possible to play 16.Nf6+ as after 16…Bxf6 17.exf6 h3!! 18.fxe7 Rg8 and voila!, suddenly Black has a winning attack.) 16…h5 17.Nf6+ Bxf6 18.exf6 Nef5! and the knights defend themselves – curiously something Ponkratov seemed to miss/overlook in the game. 16.Nf6+! [see diagram] Vive la difference, as the French would say! I can only imagine the look of abject horror on Ponkratov’s face here, seeing that he had overlooked the fact that he can’t play 17…Nf5 due to the little matter of 18.Bxf5! winning a piece. 16…Bxf6 17.exf6 Ng8 18.Qf3 Rh6? Shell-shocked by what he had let happen on the board, Ponkratov continues in the long-established chess tradition of following a blunder with an even bigger blunder! It’s desperate times now, and he had to start running his king from the danger zone with 18…Kd8 19.Nd2 h3 20.Qxh3 h4 for any slim survival chances. 19.Qxd5! Nxf6 You know things are bad when the first choice of the engine is the equally desperate 19…Nce7!? 20.Qg5 Rxf6 21.Qxh4 Ng6 22.Qg5 Bb5 which at least has the benefit of offering some salvage chances for Black. 20.Qg5 Ng4 21.Nc3 Equally as good was 21.Re4! threatening Rxg4, forcing 21…Rg6 22.Qxh5 and Black firmly on the morphine drip. 21…Qd8 22.Qxd8+! The simplest solution is always the best way to win a won game. 22…Kxd8 23.Ne4 e5? A vain attempt to stop Nd6 – but even after the better solution with 23…Kc7 24.f3 f5 25.Nc5 Nf6 26.Nxe6+ White will easily win, having the bishop-pair and all of Black’s kingside pawns rendered weak and vulnerable. 24.f3 Nxd4 25.fxg4 hxg4 26.Ng5 1-0 And Ponkratov heads for an early bath having blundered away a whole piece.

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