Ah, good old FIDE, eh? Even when doing the right thing, the governing body of world chess still manages to make a wrong move somewhere along the line. So it was with their novel concept of the players being put into football-like pools in the three-leg Grand Prix series to fight for the two spots into the Candidates Tournament, rather than the much-criticised and maligned past policy of going to the rating list.
Initially, it was seen as a positive move as it only encouraged more fighting chess for the two spots with a gladiatorial contest – but now, with the crucial third and final FIDE Grand Prix coming next week in Berlin, it quickly became evident that there was no planning nor understanding whatsoever behind the process.
When the pools were announced last week, it must have come as a really big shock for Hikaru Nakamura and Levon Aronian, who dominated the opening Berlin leg in February, and duked it out in the final, with the former winning to take the early lead in the standings. Now the two Americans find themselves both in Pool A alongside Russia’s Dmitry Andreikin, the recent Belgrade Grand Prix runner-up – and only one of the trio can go forward!
Pool A has now turned into the mother of all ‘groups of death’, whereas none of the other three pools has more than one potential qualifier. As it stands, Nakamura, Aronian and Andreikin – second, third and fourth respectively in the overall standings behind Belgrade Grand Prix-victor Richard Rapport – cannot all go forward now to the ‘business end’ of the knockout phase.
In football, FIFA and UEFA would have avoided such a wild scenario in the World Cup/Champions League with seeded pots for each group to take into account the best qualifying performances etc. But in their infinite wisdom, FIDE/World Chess seem to have approached this in a cack-handed way with a random pool selection that has not only caused an outcry but has now called into question the very sporting integrity of the competition.
This is what led the chess statistician group “Chess by the Numbers” to install Rapport as favourite to win, as their tweeted-modelling showed that – with the Berlin third leg pools announcement – the Hungarian now had a big 90%-plus chance of getting one of the two spots to go forward to the Candidates Tournament in Madrid in the summer.
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Richard Rapport
FIDE Belgrade Grand Prix | S/final, (2)
Ruy Lopez, Modern Steinitz Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6 The Modern Steinitz is a very reliable and underrated way of battling the Ruy Lopez. 5.0-0 Bg4 6.h3 h5 7.d4 It’s an old trick more commonly seen in the Exchange Variation “Fishing Pole Trap”, with the bishop being taboo. After 7.hxg4?? hxg4 8.Nh2 Qh4 and Black wins material or mates. 7…b5 8.Bb3 Nxd4 9.hxg4 hxg4 10.Ng5 Nh6! The only move, defending both f7 and g4, and also keeping alive hopes on the d8-h4 diagonal, a …Qh4 mating threat and a long-term threat to the vulnerable knight on g5. And with Black also two pawns ahead now, White has to move swiftly. 11.g3 Be7 12.f4 Qd7 13.f5 c6 14.Nc3 Qd8 More direct was 14…a5! 15.a4 b4 16.Ne2 Nxb3 17.cxb3 Qd8! 18.Qd2 where White is left in a bit of a tangle trying to support the knight on g5 that is somewhat short of squares. 15.Nxf7! Desperate times calls for desperate measures! The trouble is that supporting the knight with 15.Qd2? Nxb3 16.axb3 the strategic retreat with 16…Ng8!! leaves White in dire straits with no way to stop …Rh5 picking off the errant knight. 15…Nxf7 16.Qxg4 Nxb3 Maybe just consolidating with 16…Bf6 and following up with …d5 was the way to go for Black? 17.axb3 Bg5 18.Kg2 Qf6 19.Nd1 Bxc1 20.Rxc1 Qg5 21.Nf2 Qxg4 22.Nxg4 Exchanging queens would have come as something of a relief for Rapport – but it is far from being an easy endgame to draw. 22…Ng5 23.Nf2 0-0-0 24.c4 Kc7 Better was 24…Kb7 as this would have saved a little time defending a6. 25.Rh1 bxc4?! This is a wrong ‘un – all it does is straightens White’s queenside pawns and leaves Black’s a-pawn vulnerable. 26.bxc4 a5 27.Ra1 Kb6 28.Rhd1 Rh7 29.Rd3! Suddenly the rook lift threatening Rb3+ and Rba3 will pick-off the a5-pawn. The only thing Rapport can do now is complicate life for his opponent. 29…Rdh8 30.Rb3+ Ka6 31.Rba3 Rh2+ 32.Kf1 Kb6 33.Rxa5 Nf3 Also a plan was 33…Nh3!? 34.Nd3 (Not 34.Nxh3? R8xh3 35.b4 Rh1+ 36.Kf2 R3h2+ 37.Kf3 Rxa1 38.Rxa1 Rc2! and the R+P ending looks to be heading for a draw.) 34…Rh1+ 35.Ke2 Rxa1 36.Rxa1 c5 37.Ra3 (If 37.Rh1? Nf4+! 38.gxf4 Rxh1 39.fxe5 Rh2+ 40.Ke3 dxe5 41.Nxe5 Rxb2 should lead to a draw.) 37…Ng5 White is clearly better, but it is going to take a lot of work to convert for a win here. 34.c5+! Suddenly Rapport is in trouble, as his king has to start wandering around in no man’s land. 34…dxc5 35.Ra6+ Kb5 36.R1a5+ Your gut tells you that that there has to win here – and there likely is, though not by mating the Black king but threatening to! 36…Kb4 37.Ra4+ Kb5 38.R6a5+ Kb6 39.Ra6+ Kb5 40.R4a5+ Kb4 41.Ra3! After a little bit of convenient repeating moves to reach the time-control, MVL comes in with the key move and should be winning now. But it is still a difficult position to covert – and not helped by the pressures the players were under with so much at stake. 41…Nd2+ 42.Kg1 Nc4 43.Rd3 R2h6 44.Ra7 Rb8 45.b3 Na5 46.Ng4 Nxb3!? [see diagram] If Rapport is going to go down, he is at least going to do so fighting, making life as difficult as he can for MVL. It was either this or 46…Rh5 47.Rxg7 Nxb3 48.Nxe5 Rh6 49.g4 c4 50.Rg3 c3 51.Rc7 c5 52.Rg2! which seems the easier position to convert, given that Black’s c-pawn is well covered and White’s kingside pawns are rocketing up the board. 47.Rxg7 I can see the “cleanness” behind MVL’s rationale for capturing on g7, but, alas, this is where the win starts to slip through the Frenchman’s fingers. Admittedly, it is a difficult position to assess, but our silicon overlords cuts through the fear-factor with 47.Nxh6! that appears cleaner than MVL might have thought, and after 47…c4 48.Rd6 gxh6 49.Rxc6 Nd4 50.Rxh6 c3 51.Kf2 c2 It just would not be easy to calculate all this in your head with the pressures of the match scenario, knowing that you needed to win to take it to a tiebreak-decider. But the unbeating heart of the engine cuts through the fear-factor. 52.Rc7 Kb3 53.Rh1 Kb2 54.g4 Nb5 55.Rc6 Nc3 56.Re1 Nd1+ 57.Kg2 c1Q 58.Rxc1 Kxc1 59.f6! and White easily wins now after 59…Kd2 60.Rxd1+ Kxd1 61.g5 etc. 47…c4! 48.Rd1 Rhh8 49.Nxe5 Rhc8 Suddenly the engine evaluation starts to rapidly go down for White, with the realisation that Black’s c-pawn is just a big a threat as White’s kingside passed pawns. 50.Rg6 c5 51.Nc6+ Rxc6! 52.Rxc6 c3 The difference with the note above is that here, Rapport can save the game, as MVL can’t unite his rooks to stop two passed c-pawns! 53.f6 c2 54.Rf1 c1Q 55.Rxc1 Nxc1 56.e5 Ne2+ The check gains a valuable tempo, making the difference between drawing and losing here, as the knight blocks paths for the rook to return to the c-file. 57.Kf2 Nd4 58.Rd6 Nb5 59.Rd7 c4 Now the running, second c-pawn saves the game for Rapport. 60.e6 c3 61.e7 c2 62.f7 c1Q 63.e8Q Qc5+ 64.Kg2 Qc6+ 65.Kh3 Qh6+ 66.Kg2 ½-½ There’s no escape from the queen checks; and with it, a truly epic match-up between to dynamic players ends with Rapport winning the match 1.5-0.5.