The top Azeri, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov has always been, as Winston Churchill once famously quipped of the Soviets, "A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." From a very young age, he clearly showed he had the potential to be a world title challenger - but his progress was held back by the fact that he inexplicably always found a way to press the self-destruct button at a critical time in a tournament; sometimes even coming with very strange premature resignations in his games.
He’s the only player talented enough from such a young age to have twice captured the World Junior Championship title (2003 and 2005) but now, at 32, somewhat a little late in life, he’s back again on an upswing and looking to recapture the glory days of his youth that a decade ago witnessed his rise to world No.4 in the rankings.
Last year, “Shak” won the Vugar Gashimov Memorial - held in tribute to his friend and fellow countryman, Vugar Gashimov, who in early 2014 died aged just 27, following a long and very brave battle with brain cancer - and this year again, in the fourth edition of the Vugar Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, he dominated the tournament to repeat his success of last year.
The Azeri No.1 claimed victory by a clear half point margin ahead of Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and Wesley So, and along the way he ended the 67-game unbeaten streak of the US champion in the opening round - and ultimately with it, also ending So’s winning streak in super-tournaments and top team tournaments that’s lasted since late last summer - as he now shoots back into the world’s top-10 on the unofficial live rating list.
1. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), 5½/9; 2-4. V. Kramnik (Russia), W. So (USA), V. Topalov (Bulgaria), 5; 5-7. S. Karjakin (Russia), R. Wojtaszek (Poland), M. Adams (England) 4½; 8. T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan) 4; 9-10. P. Eljanov (Ukraine), P. Harikrishna (India), 3½.
Shak sometimes can get caught out with a sore loss, and often this can psychologically hit his confidence for the rest of the tournament. This happened when he was caught out in the opening by Radoslaw Wojtaszek, ex-World Champion Vishy Anand’s second, in a very topical line of the Anti-Grünfeld that ended with a ruthless kingside attack. But luckily for Shak, that dramatic loss came in the penultimate round, when he had a commanding lead and no chances of any lingering after-effects, as he secured the title with a comfortable last round draw against Veselin Topalov.
GM Radoslaw Wojtaszek - GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
4th Vugar Gashimov Memorial, (8)
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 This is arguably one of the most dangerous ways for Black to face the Grünfeld. The dilemma for Black Grünfeld players is that they would really like to play 3...Bg7 (and possibly even ...0-0) and only playing ...d5 after White has played d4 - but here, if 3...Bg7 is played, then White cuts across his Grünfeld plan with 4.e4 and we get a King's Indian Defence. 3...d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Qb3 This line has become a thorn in the side of dedicated Grünfeld aficionados. By delaying d4, White prevents the standard Grünfeld reply of ...Nxc3 and hones in on a direct attack on the Black king. 5...Nb6 The point behind White's 5.Qb3 is that now, if Black goes in automatic Grünfeld pilot with 5...Nxc3, then 6.Qxc3! and suddenly Black is in a mess, as he can't fianchetto his bishop, yet his rook is under attack and he has to play the very weakening 6...f6 7.e4! and already White has a big advantage. 6.d4 Bg7 7.e4 Bg4 It's far too dangerous to take the pawn, as White gets an easy and powerful attack with 7...Bxd4?! 8.Nxd4 Qxd4 9.Be3 Qf6 10.Bb5+ Bd7 11.a4! etc. 8.Bb5+ c6 Again, Black can't play 8...Bd7 as after 9.Bxd7+ N8xd7 10.0-0 0-0 11.Rd1! and White has more space, the center and the prospects of an easier game. 9.Ng5! A venomous little divergence, as f7 is not so much the target but an unlikely attack on Black's castled king. 9...0-0 10.Be2 Bxe2 11.Nxe2 Na6 Again the d-pawn is taboo, as now after 11...Bxd4? there comes the sudden switch in direction with the 'Caveman attack' of 12.Qh3! h5 13.g4! and Black is in deep trouble defending his king. And this sudden queen switch to h3, coupled with g4, soon becomes the theme of Wojtaszek's surprise attack. 12.Qh3 h6 13.Nf3 h5 Mamedyarov opts to go 'all in' by keeping the queens on the board and facing up to the direct Caveman attack. Alternatively, he could have gone passive with 13...Qd7 14.Qxd7 Nxd7 15.Be3 which would have avoided the direct assault on his king, but would have ensured that White had an easy game with no weaknesses, and will follow up by putting his rooks on d1 and c1. 14.Rg1 If this isn't a signal of intent, then I don't know what is! Left to his own devices, Wojtaszek is going to follow up with g4 and bludgeon his way through to Mamedyarov's king. 14...Nb4 15.g4! There's no turning back now with the rook already on g1 - White has to act swiftly now, else Black will be able to consolidate his position to defend the kingside attack. 15...Qd7 [There's no time to take the rook. If 15...Nc2+ 16.Kf1 Nxa1 17.gxh5 Qc8 18.Qh4 and it's hard to see a defense to the Black king being caught in the crossfire - one possible line being 18...Nd5 (If 18...Nd7 19.Nf4! Nf6 20.hxg6 is winning.) 19.Ne5! Bf6 20.Bg5! with an overwhelming attack on the Black king. 16.Qh4 Nc2+ 17.Kf1 Nxd4 There's no real difference. While 17...Bf6 looks better, after 18.Bg5! White has a very dangerous attack and he threatens to rapidly rip Black's kingside wide open. 18.Nexd4 Bxd4 19.gxh5 Bf6 20.Bg5! Bxb2 21.Re1 Qd3+ 22.Kg2 f6!? The die is well and truly cast now - but Mamedyarov at least gets full credit for setting up a nice trick that many White players focusing on the quick mating could easily have got carried away with. 23.Bh6! Avoiding the lure of the quick mate, which falls into the dastardly table-turner after 23.hxg6?? Qxf3+!! 24.Kxf3 fxg5+ and Black wins. 23...g5 24.Nxg5! Rf7 Taking the knight led to an even quicker debacle after 24...fxg5 25.Qxg5+ Kh8 26.Bxf8 Rxf8 27.Qh6+ Kg8 28.Kh1+ Kf7 29.Qg6#. 25.Nxf7 Kxf7 26.Re3! Stopping Black playing ...Rg8+, which would be easily met with Rg3. 26...Qc2 27.Rg3 The rest of the game needs no further comment; White has defused all the Black tricks and now moves in for the kill. 27...Bd4 28.Rg7+ Ke6 29.Qg4+ Kd6 30.Be3! Bxe3 31.Qg3+ 1-0