With a late run in the first leg of the Fide Sharjah Grand Prix in the UAE, Russia’s Alexander Grischuk not only came from behind to catch up with tournament frontrunners Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, but he also succeeded to somewhat controversially take the title without the need for a playoff, although the prize-purse and GP points were at least equally shared between the top trio.
The problem was caused because Fide changed the format for the 2017 Grand Prix cycle from a traditional all-play-all to a Swiss System, thus allowing the governing body to expand the field whilst at the same time reducing their costs with less prize-money and cutting the number of rounds. But to confuse things a little further, the local organisers determined that the medal-placings would be decided by tiebreak scores, and Grischuk’s penultimate round win over Mamedyarov ultimately proved decisive for the Russian.
And the Swiss open element reduced the final round to being something of a damp squib; and indeed, several players and chess media outlets had criticised the format for the high percentage of draws and turning it into a boring, sedate tournament, with the winning score being a lowly 5.5/9 - and that’s definetly not the sort of score that will win you one of the traditionally big Swiss opens!
Swiss-styled open tournaments are so-called — according to my ever-present copy of The Oxford Companion to Chess - because it was suggested by Dr Julius Müller of Brugg, Switzerland, and first used at a Zurich tournament in 1895 as chess started to take off with an interest in ordinary players competing competatively. However, they are far from perfect, but are a necessity because they can cater for a large numbers of players over multiple rounds, thus making the whole economics of large-scale chess tournament self-financing.
And while Swiss opens can work in big tournaments where you would have hundreds of entries - such as we’re more used to here in the US, such as Bill Goichberg’s World Open etc. - it is a far from convincing nor reliable system and something of a ‘Swiss miss’ when you have a field of just 18 very strong players - and even more so when it is part of a cycle that will see who goes forward to the Candidates tournament that will ultimately determine Magnus Carlsen’s next title-challenger.
1-3. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Shakhryiar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 5.5/9; 4-8. Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Ding Liren (China), Michael Adams (England), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Dmitry Jakovenko (Russia) 5; 9-12. Pavel Eljanov (Ukraine), Li Chao (China), Francisco Vallejo Pons (Spain), Richard Rapport (Hungary) 4.5; 13-14. Levon Aronian (Armenia), Hou Yifan (China) 4; 15-17. Evgeny Tomashevsky (Russia), Saleh Salem (UAE), Jon Ludvig Hammer (Norway) 3.5; 18. Alexander Riazantsev (Russia) 3.
GM Alexander Grischuk - GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
Fide Sharjah Grand Prix, (8)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c5 5.e3 Nc6 6.cxd5 Nxd5 In the Semi-Tarrasch Defence, unlike the Tarrasch Defence, Black does not accept an isolated pawn with the recapture with the knight - all Black want's to do, is simplify at an early stage and complete his development, looking for a solid position. 7.Bd3 cxd4 8.exd4 Bb4 9.0-0! Two more common options here have been 9.Qc2and 9.Bd2 - but Grischuk is playing adventurously, and this is the sort of spirit you need to win Swiss Opens. 9...0-0 In such a critical game, with much riding on it, Mamedyarov obviously didn't fancy taking a big 'leap in the dark' by taking on Grischuk's home preparation after 9...Bxc3 10.bxc3 Nxc3 11.Qb3 Nd5 12.Ba3 where White has excellent compensation for the pawn with his rampant bishops and open lines, not to mention the Black king caught in the middle of the board. 10.Bc2 Indirectly defending the pawn on c3, as White will have a timely Qd3 winning a piece due to the mate on h7. 10...Bd7 11.a3 Bxc3 It's horses for courses here, but an another option was the solid 11...Be7 bolstering the dark square weakness. However, with the ...Bd7 also on the board, Black would look a little passive here. 12.Qd3 f5!? Mamedyarov may well have dark square issues, but with this move he secures his defences and bolsters his own control over the white squares. 13.bxc3 b5! Again, Mamedyarov expands his influence over the white squares. 14.a4! Grischuk rightly challenges Mamedyarov's white square control and his influence on the queenside. 14...a6 15.Re1 Qc7 16.Ng5 In order to win Swiss opens, you have to take risks and play as actively as you can - and this is Grischuk's most spirited move here, avoiding reaching a sterile position with the almost automatic move here at this level of 16.Bb3 Na5 17.Bxd5 exd5 18.Ba3 Rfe8 19.axb5 axb5 20.Bb4 Nc4 where White doesn't look to have enough here to try and play for the win. However, with Grischuk's 16.Ng5 the ace poker player is keeping the tension in order to find a position where he can go 'all-in'. 16...Qd6 17.Qd2 A little strange, as with ...f5 played, White really should be looking to redeploy his white-squared bishop, and perhaps now was the time for 17.Bb3!? - but Grischuk's move at least finds a future for his dark-square bishop with Ba3 now a direct threat, as Black can't play ...b4 now with the queen on d2. 17...h6 18.Nf3 Rfc8 19.Ba3 Qf4! This forces the exchange of queens, as it's doubtful whether White can play 21.Qd3, as Black's queen has a nice grip on the kingside, and I could foresee a scenario of a draw by repition with Bc1 Qd6 Ba3 Qf4 etc. 20.Qxf4 Nxf4 21.Bc5! The queens may well be exchanged, but Grischuk at least has secured a wonderful outpost for his bishop, and can now look at creating pawn weaknesses on the queenside. 21...Na5 22.Ne5 Be8 23.g3 Nd5 24.Ra3! Nicely defending c3 whilst at the same time having aspirations of doubling rooks on the a-file for a potential hit on a6 at a later stage. And with a little bit here and there, Grishcuk manages to make the most of his active pieces now. 24...bxa4 This had to be Mamedyarov's best option here - there's no time to sit on this position and let Grischuk build up further by doubling rooks on the a-file. 25.c4 Nf6 26.Bxa4 Bxa4 27.Rxa4 Nc6 28.Nd3?! This is the only inaccurate move Grischuk makes in the whole game - and one that lets Mamedyarov back in the game. He had to play 28.Nxc6! Rxc6 29.Ba3 where White retains some advantage, but you feel Black should be able to manage this position with accurate play. 28...Ne4 29.Bb6 Rcb8?![Now Mamedyarov takes a wrong turn at a critical moment. He should have gone for 29...a5! with the idea of playing ...Rab8 and activating his pieces to counter White's pawns. One likely scenario being: 30.f3 Rab8! 31.fxe4 (Not 31.Bxa5 Ng5 32.Rf1 Nxd4 and it's Black now with the advantage.) 31...Rxb6 32.c5 Rb3 33.Nc1 Rc3 34.Ne2 Rc2 35.exf5 exf5 36.d5 Nb4 and White's hanging pawns become a liability, as they come under pressure from all of Black's (now) active pieces. Certainly can't see this ending in anything other than a draw. 30.c5! This changes the complex of the game now, as the pawn not only pushes forward but also vacates the c4 square, which comes in useful in certain lines. 30...Kf7 Mamedyarov defends e6 and gets his king active for the endgame, as the c4 square now becomes a reality for White as it prevents 30...Nc3? 31.Rc4! Nb5 32.Rxe6 Ncxd4 33.Re3 and White has an obvious advantage here with the passed c-pawn and the more active rooks; it will not be easy for Black to hold this in the long-run. 31.Rea1 Nc3 32.Rxa6 Rxa6 33.Rxa6 Ne2+ 34.Kg2 Nexd4 To his credit, Mamedyarov has managed to keep Grischuk's advantage down to a minimal - and with accurate play, he could well hold this. 35.Bc7! Forcing Black's passive reply. 35...Rc8 There was no other option. If 35...Rb5 36.Ne5+! Nxe5 37.Bxe5 Nb3 38.Ra7+ pushes home the c-pawn, as after 38...Ke8 39.c6! Rxe5 40.Ra8+ Ke7 41.c7 wins the rook, leaving Black with a lost ending. 36.Bd6 g5! Mamedyarov at least isn't going to go down without a fight here! In such positions where you are worse off in the ending, especially with a passed pawn on the opposite wing, your best hope is to throw up your pawns on the opposite wing to try and exchange off as many pawns as possible - and if you achieve this, then there's hope of saving the game by sacrificing a piece for the passed pawn. 37.f4 [Perhaps better was 37.f3 - but Grischuk sees a plan he's comfortable with to play for the win. 37...gxf4 38.gxf4 Ke8 39.Rb6! Aiming for Rb7, where from there Grischuk can mobilise his pieces for a potential mating attack, or at the very least picking off Black's weak h-pawn. 39...Ra8 40.Ne5! Grischuk is moving in for the kill. 40...Ra2+ 41.Kg3 Ra3+ 42.Kg2 Ra2+ 43.Kg3 Ra3+ 44.Kh4 Nxe5 45.Bxe5! White has to be accurate, as 45.fxe5? Rc3! and White's c-pawn is under control and Black's f-pawn now also threatens to become a potent force. 45...Nf3+ There's no choice, Black has to head for the rook and pawn ending, even if White's king is very activly placed here. 46.Kh5 Nxe5 47.fxe5 Kd7 48.Kg6 f4 49.Rd6+ Ke7?? Ultimately the losing move, as Black's king becomes cut-off from the dangerous passed c-pawn. After 49...Kc7 50.Rxe6 Re3! White still has good chances of winning, but it is not so clear here, and certainly with Black having his king controlling the c-pawn, his rook ideally placed on e3, and a potentially dangerous f-pawn, it's very possible he could salvage a draw here. 50.c6 f3 51.Rd7+ Ke8 52.Rf7! Rc3 53.c7 h5 54.Rxf3 Rxc7 55.Rh3 White now has a technically won rook and pawn ending: the deciding factor being how active White's king is here, and the vulnerability of Black's e6 pawn. 55...Kd7 56.Rxh5 Rc4 57.Rh7+ Kc6 58.Kf6 Kd5 59.Rd7+ Ke4 60.Rd1 Rc2 1-0 Black resigns, as after 61.h4 Rh2 62.Kxe6 Rxh4 we'll reach the Lucena position, one of the most famous endings of all, where White will 'build a bridge' to safely pass his pawn. Ironically, if the king position were reversed, we'd reach the equally famous Philidor position which is a draw. These are the two endings that every chess player should know by heart!