The specific phrase ‘group of death’ was first coined at the 1970 World Cup by a Mexican journalist who dubbed Group Three – with eventual winners Brazil, reigning champions England, 1962 finalists Czechoslovakia and Romania – as the ‘Grupo de la Muerte’. Now no international football/soccer tournament is complete without its group of death, a sideshow which finds three or four well-matched heavyweights trying to knock one another out in the opening group stage.
The novel new format for the FIDE Grand Prix, with a World Cup-like 16-players split into four pools, is now also seeing the chess world coming to terms with the group of death footballing terminology creeping into the ancient game. In the Berlin FIDE Grand Prix, five-time US champion Hikaru Nakamura easily won through from his Pool B-dubbed group of death to win the overall title and take pole-position for a Candidates spot with his early GP lead.
And with the ongoing FIDE Grand Prix in Belgrade, the group of death is Pool D, which featured three ‘heavyweights’ in Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Yangyi Yu. The first three rounds proved to be extremely tight, with all the games ending in draws, but ‘MVL’ has now broke the deadlock with his fourth round win over Alexandr Predke on Friday, which also proved to be the only decisive game of the day. Now going into the rest-day and into the second half of the double-round robin, the Frenchman is favourite to go forward to the knockout phase.
Dmitry Andreikin – playing under the neutral flag of FIDE, like his fellow Russians, due to the international outcry following the Ukraine war crisis – shares the lead with the USA’s Sam Shankland in Pool A, while top seed Anish Giri takes a commanding lead in Pool B and the Dutchman is favourite to go through, and in Pool C, there’s a bit of battle going between India’s Santosh Vidit and Richard Rapport of Hungary, and a two-way tie at the top.
Pool A: 1-2. Dmitry Andreikin (FIDE), Sam Shankland (USA) 2½/4; 3. Etienne Bacrot (France) 2; 4. Alexander Grischuk (FIDE) 1.
Pool B: 1. Anish Giri (Netherlands) 3/4; 2. Nikita Vitiugov (FIDE) 2; 3-4. Pentala Harikrishna (India), Amin Tabatabaei (Iran) 1½.
Pool C: 1-2. Santosh Vidit (India), Richard Rapport (Hungary) 2½/4; 3. Vladimir Fedoseev (FIDE) 2; 4. Alexei Shirov (Spain) 1.
Pool D: 1. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 2½/4; 2-3. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Yangyi Yu (China) 2; 4. Alexandr Predke (FIDE) 1½
GM Alexandr Predke – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Belgrade FIDE Grand Prix ‘Pool D’, (4)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 Like Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Vishy Anand before him, MVL is the top elite star taking up the complexities that is the Sicilian Najdorf. To his advantage, MVL knows it inside out – but that can also put a target on the Frenchman’s back, as he always plays it, and his opponent’s can easily prepare for it coming. 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qf3 A rare sideline, just avoiding all the mayhem from the almost universal ‘big Najdorf classical mainline’ that follows after 7.f4 – but back in the very early days of the Najdorf 7.Qf3 was the popular reply; though not an especially dangerous one, as 7…h6 did not allow White to create any do-or-die attacks. 7…Be7 8.0-0-0 Qa5 9.h4 Bd7 10.Bc4 Nc6 11.Bb3 h6 12.Be3 Ne5 13.Qe2 Rc8 14.Kb1 b5 MVL has easily equalised from the opening – and as the old saying goes, if Black has equalised in the Sicilian Najdorf, then he stands better! 15.f4 Well, if White doesn’t “do anything”, then Black is going to castle and then perhaps threaten the thematic Sicilian positional exchange sacrifice with …Rxc3 followed by …Nxe4 etc. 15…Neg4 16.e5?! A tad too early. Better was playing 16.a3 first to try and stall the queenside attack, and also a good delaying tactic to see what Black does with his king. 16…dxe5 17.fxe5 Nxe5 18.Bxh6 Rxh6 Of course, with MVL not committed to castling yet, this tactical shot for White backfires – and if anything, it just helps the Frenchman activate his rook while his king is perfectly secure for now in the middle-of-the-board. 19.Qxe5 Qc7! A nice strategic retreat, as trading the queens only demonstrates how good Black’s position will be with his rooks very active. 20.Qe2 Qf4 MVL misses a beat with his attack – what’s the answer to the better 20…b4! which leaves White struggling? If 21.Na4 (No better is 21.Ne4 Nxe4 22.Qxe4 a5! and White has to figure out very soon what he’s going to do about the coming …a4.) 21…Rh5! and suddenly Black’s ‘heavy furniture’ of queen and rooks have become a potent attacking force. 21.Rh3 Rc5 22.Re3 Qg4 Once again, MVL cannily offers the trade of queens, safe in the knowledge that any endgame works in his favour with his active rooks, bishop-pair and a couple of weak White kingside pawns to target. 23.Nf3 Bc6 Now Black’s bishops start to come alive. 24.a4 Kf8 Pure prophylaxis: Just moving the king away from being caught in the centre of the board or a potential embarrassing capture on b5 with check. 25.axb5 axb5 26.g3 Perhaps better was 26.Red3 which at least gives Black something to think about with the back-rank threats. 26…b4 27.Na2 Rf5 Also 27…Bd5 looked good. The trouble for Predke here, is that he’s just allowing MVL to dominate the game – and that invariably leads to a disaster for any of the Frenchman’s opponent’s! 28.Nd4 Qxe2 29.Rxe2 Bf3! The queens are off, and now MVL finds a nice way to further liquidate down to a won endgame – and he’s not even won a pawn yet! 30.Rxe6? It’s hard to be critical here, but the reality is that Predke by now had to have realised he was busted, and as 30.Nxf3 Rxf3 31.Rg2 Ne4 32.Rdg1 Bc5 sees the kingside pawns systematically falling, so he decided he may as well go out with a crash and at least a few vague tricks. 30…Bxd1 31.Rxe7 Bxc2+! [see diagram] Now there’s no tricks – and no hopes! 32.Kxc2 Rc5+ 33.Kd3 Kxe7 Black has a heavy material advantage, and the only reason for Predke to play on was in the slim hope that MVL might go astray in his habitual time-trouble. But slim has long left the building. 34.Nxb4 Nd7 35.Nd5+ Kf8 36.Nf5 Rg6 37.Nde3 Rb6! And as the other rook swings over to the queenside, White is starting to flatline. 38.Nd4 Ne5+ 39.Ke4 Nc6 40.Bd5 Ne7 Just as good was 40…Nxd4 41.Kxd4 Rc1 42.b3 Re1 and White can resign. 41.b3 Rg6 42.b4 Rc3 43.Bc4 There’s no hope whatsoever for Predke. If 43.Kf4 the simply solution is the tactical hit with 43…Rxg3! 44.Kxg3 Rxe3+ 45.Kf4 Nxd5+ etc. 43…Rxg3 44.Ndc2 Rg4+! 0-1 A variation on the same tactical theme that now forces Predke’s resignation, as 45.Nxg4 Rxc4+ will pick up one of the knights.