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03 Oct

Finding Nepo

After arguably one of the most exciting days of a chess super-tournament in recent years, the 10th Tal Memorial in Moscow sprang dramatically to life with the bloodbath of four wins in round six that would even have made Mikhail Tal himself proud - and with it now also comes the distinct possibility of a Russian winning a chess super-tournament for the first time in over two years.

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After 37.Qd7!

Anish Giri, the Dutch front-runner, held the lead in the tournament with a third successive win, but in round six, he was involved in his fourth successive decisive game, though only this time, he was the one on the receiving end of the punishment as Levon Aronian turned in a true masterclass to win the game and perhaps deny Giri that elusive first super-tournament victory that he craves.

The new leader is former Russian champion Ian Nepomniachtchi who, after an impressive powerhouse win over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, now finds himself being in the sole lead by a half point over Giri going into the home straight of the final three rounds. And should Nepomniachtchi hold his nerve and go on to win, he will be the first Russian to win a super-tournament - not counting World Cups, Candidates' and the Grand Prix - since Sergey Karjakin at Norway Chess 2014.

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Ian Nepomniachtchi | © Eteri Kublashvili

Nepomniachtchi, 26, was born in what’s been dubbed “the golden year” of 1990, the same year as World Champion Magnus Carlsen and his upcoming title challenger Karjakin.  But unlike Carlsen and Karjakin, Nepo - as he’s affectionately called - never fulfilled his early promise, the highlight of his career (so far) being the capture of the Russian and European championship titles in 2010.

Now, he’s on the cusp of not only a first super-tournament victory, but also his debut into the World’s Top-10.

But for every high there’s a low - so spare a thought for Boris Gelfand, the former world championship challenger. Gelfand was regarded once as the hardest player to beat in elite chess, but now, at 48 - the oldest player still competing on the elite circuit - he’s in a death spiral as he slumped to a fifth successive loss. His rating is now in virtual free-fall, dropping 22-points as he plummets twelve places in the unofficial live rankings.

Round 6 standings: 1. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 4.5/6; 2. Anish Giri (Netherlands) 4; 3-5. Levon Aronian (Armenia), Vladimir Kramnik (Russia), Vishy Anand (India) 3.5; 6-7. Peter Svidler (Russia), Li Chao (China) 3; 8. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 2.5; 9. Evgeny Tomashevsky (Russia) 2; 10. Boris Gelfand (Israel) 0.5.

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi - GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
10th Tal Memorial, (6)
Giuoco Piano
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 d6 6.c3 h6 7.a4 The name Giuoco Piano - one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, played in the 16th century - means 'quiet game' in Italian. And like its name, it is initially very quiet with a slow build-up as both sides position their pieces for the middlegame battle. 7...a6 8.h3 Another idea here, favoured by Magnus Carlsen, is 8.Na3 with the idea of Na-c2 and Be3 to challenge Black's dark-squared bishop. 8...0-0 9.Re1 Re8 10.Nbd2 Be6 11.Bxe6 Rxe6 12.b4 Ba7 13.Qc2 d5 14.Nb3 Ne7 15.exd5 Qxd5 16.c4 Qd6 17.Nc5! Forcing Black to exchange off his powerful bishop that dominates the a7-f2 diagonal - and despite Mamedyarov winning a pawn, it is only short-term, as Nepo builds up the pressure on the e-file, simultaneously hitting e5, e6 and e7. 17...Bxc5 18.bxc5 Qxc5 19.Ba3 Qa5 20.d4 Ng6 21.Bb2! Rae8 The bishop going to b2 wins back the pawn with a better position, as after 21...e4? 22.d5 Ree8 23.Nd2 will win back the pawn with a much superior position for White. 22.Bc3 Qb6 23.Rab1 Qa7 Nepo has all the play now, especially as Mamedyarov's queen is now out of the game. 24.dxe5 Nd7 25.Rbd1 It's all becoming difficult for Black, especially with his pieces being awkwardly hemmed in and short of good squares.. 25...Ndf8 There's a tactical reason why Black can't play what he'd really like to, namely Nc5: 25...Nc5 26.Nd4! Rxe5 (26...R6e7? 27.e6! Nxe6 (27...fxe6?? 28.Qxg6) 28.Nf5 winning material.) 27.Rxe5 Nxe5 28.Nf5 and White has a dangerous attack, not only hitting g7 but the immediate threat being Ne7+ winning the knight on e5, as there's a back-rank mate. Black's best option now is 28...Qb6 29.Ne7+ Kf8 30.Bxe5 Qb3 31.Bxg7+ Kxg7 32.Qxb3 Nxb3 33.Rd7 and White's dominant rook and knight will soon hoover up Black's queenside pawns. 26.h4 Squeezing the knight on g6 to gain an even bigger space advantage. 26...Qc5 27.h5 Ne7 28.Re4! Not just defending c4, but also threatening the doubling of rooks on the e- or d-files, or even more dangerous, the sudden switch of Rg4 and attacking Black's kingside. Either way, Nepo has all the aces in his hand. 28...Rc6 The obvious option of 28...Nc6 allows 29.Rg4! with an instant and irresistible kingside attack. So instead of waiting to be rolled-over, Mamedyarov opts to sacrifice the exchange in an effort to generate some play. 29.Nd4 Qxc4 30.Nxc6 Qxc6 31.Qd3 b5 32.axb5 axb5 If Mamedyarov can quickly activate his passed queenside pawns, he'd have some hope of saving the game - but Nepo's powerplay prevents this. 33.Bb4 Qb7 34.Bxe7 Rxe7 35.Rd4 Rxe5 If 35...c5 36.Rd8 followed by Qd6 and Black may as well resign. 36.Rd8 Qc6 37.Qd7! (See Diagram) Forcing the win of Black's queen, as f8 is still vulnerable. 37...Qc5 No better  is 37...Qxd7 38.R1xd7 g6 39.hxg6 fxg6 40.Rxc7 h5 41.Rb8 and White's rooks dominate the position, and will soon clear up. 38.Qc8 Rxh5 A good practical try from Mamedyarov, who almost comes close to achieving a fortress. 39.Rxf8+ Qxf8 40.Rd8 Qxd8 41.Qxd8+ Kh7 42.Qd7! Stronger than the immediate capture on c7, as it forces a weakening pawn move. 42...f6 If Black had the same position with either White's f- or g-pawn exchanged for the b-pawn, then the rook can set up a fortress position stopping White's king coming up the board. Black can try keeping the passed queenside pawns, but in the end Nepo's queen will pick off further material, for example: 42...Rc5 43.Qxf7 b4 44.Qf4! b3 45.Qe4+ Kh8 46.Qb4 Rc1+ 47.Kh2 Rb1 48.Qf8+ Kh7 49.Qf5+  winning. 43.Qxc7 b4 44.Qc2+ Kh8 45.Qc4 Re5 46.g3 Black's b-pawn isn't going anywhere anytime soon. 46...Kh7 47.Kg2 b3 48.Qxb3 Kh8 49.Kh3 Rh5+ 50.Kg4 Rg5+ 51.Kh4 Re5 52.f4! This pawn makes all the difference between winning and drawing. If it were off the board for either of Black's f- or h-pawns, then Black could plant his rook on g5 with a drawing fortress. 52...Ra5 53.Qc3 Rd5 If 53...g5+ 54.Kh5! and White is soon mating Black's king. 54.Qb4 1-0 Mamedyarov resigns, as with his best defence of 54...h5 55.Qe7 Rf5 56.Qd7 Rc5 57.Qd3! he can't stop White from winning with f5 followed by Kxh5. 

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