In major golf tournaments, Saturday is often referred to on the circuit as "moving day”, as that’s when the leaders try to set themselves up so that they are ideally placed on the leaderboard to have a chance of being in contention for the final round push. And if there were such a thing as moving day in chess, we witnessed it not on Saturday but on Thursday's round six of the FIDE Grand Prix in Moscow, as the tournament heads into the final three rounds at the weekend.
Overnight leaders, China’s Ding Liren and Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, continue to hold on to their slender lead at the top - but just half a point behind them there lurks a now extended chasing pack that includes Hikaru Nakamura, as the four-time US champion makes his move not only on the tournament leaderboard but, more importantly, also the Grand Prix leaderboard.
After the first Grand Prix in Sharjah ended in a three-way tie for first, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Mamedyarov, and Alexander Grischuk topped the GP leaderboard on 140-points - but behind the leading trio on 70-points there’s a five-way tie, and now only Nakamura and Ding Liren are the only two who are realistically in serious contention to challenge the leaders in the year-long chase for the two coveted qualifying spots into the Candidates’ tournament.
Nakamura made his move on the leaderboard with a timely win over Ian Nepomniachtchi - and it turned out to be a double-whammy win for Nakamura, as the Russian is also one of the American’s GP leaderboard rivals. But surprised by his opponent playing the Poisoned Pawn, Nakamura wisely steered clear of this theoretical labyrinth by opting instead for the much simpler 8.a3.
1-2. Ding Liren (China), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 4/6; 3-8. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Peter Svidler (Russia), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Boris Gelfand (Israel), Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan) 3½; 9-11. Anish Giri (Netherlands), Evgeny Tomashevsky (Russia), Jon Ludvig Hammer (Norway) 3; 12-16. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Pentala Harikrishna (India), Francisco Vallejo Pons (Spain), Hou Yifan (China), Salem A.R. Saleh (UAE) 2½; 17. Michael Adams (England) 2; 18. Ernesto Inarkiev (Russia) 1½.
GM Hikaru Nakamura - GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
FIDE Moscow Grand Prix, (6)
Sicilian Najdorf, Poisoned Pawn
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qb6 Nakamura finds himself facing the fabled 'Poisoned Pawn' variation of the Sicilian Najdorf, made famous by another multi-time US champion, namely Bobby Fischer himself! 8.a3!? It looks a timid, irrelevant little move - but it adds more venom to the poisonous b2-pawn, as after 8...Qxb2?? 9.Na4 wins the queen! And on the plus side, for Nakamura it avoids any deep preparation by his opponent, as it avoids all the engine-crunched big main-lines. 8...Nc6 The character of the game is now a Classical Sicilian, as the usual Najdorf continuation is 8...Nbd7 - but at least with 8...Nc6, Nepo avoids Nakamura developing his bishop on the more aggressive c4 square. 9.Nb3 Be7 10.Qd2 Also an option was 10.Qf3 but after 10...Qc7 the game seems to fizzle out somewhat quickly to equality, after 11.0-0-0 h6 12.Bh4 g5 13.e5 gxh4 14.exf6 Bxf6 15.Ne4 Be7 16.Qc3 Rg8 17.Nf6+ Bxf6 18.Qxf6 ½-½ (64) Yu,Y (2652)-Zhao,J (2580) Xinghua Jiangsu 2011. 10...0-0 11.0-0-0 Rd8 12.Bd3 h6N A novelty from Nepo, as previously seen here has been the logical Sicilian development with 12...Bd7 13.Kb1 Rac8 14.Qe1 Qc7 15.g4 Be8 16.Bxf6 Bxf6 1-0 (30) Sjugirov,S (2444)-Stella,A (2120) Herceg Novi 2006. 13.h4! Not so much instant pyrotechnics from Nakamura, but a standard Sicilian sacrificial offering, as taking the bishop opens too many lines towards Black's king. Another strong possibility was 13.Bxf6!? Bxf6 14.Be2 with the plan of playing h4 and g4 and a pawn-storm to try to get to the Black king - but here, Black has his own resources on the queenside. 13...Bd7 It's just suicidal to take the bishop, as 13...hxg5? 14.hxg5 Nd7 (No better is 14...Ng4 15.Rh4! Nf2 16.Rf1 and Black is just lost here.) 15.g4! and there's wholesale carnage down the h-file with Qh2 coming next. 14.Qe2 Kf8 This is risky. Instead, Nepo could have gone for 14...h5 that would have kept the balance in the position where, at the very least, Black will make good use of g4 for a knight outpost that will thwart White's plans of bludgeoning open a path to his opponent's king. 15.e5 dxe5 16.fxe5 hxg5 17.exf6 Bxf6 18.hxg5! Bxg5+ 19.Kb1 Qe3 20.Qh5 Bh6 21.Rhf1! Be8 22.Rde1 Qg5 23.Qh3 Instead, more precise was the further retreat 23.Qh2! that would have avoided Black's next move. 23...Ne5 24.Nc5 Kg8 25.Nxe6! fxe6 26.Qxe6+ Nf7? Nepo cracks at the critical moment. His only hope was with 26...Bf7! forcing the ending of 27.Qxe5 Qxe5 28.Rxe5 Re8! where, despite being a pawn ahead, it is not so easy for White to convert this to a win, as Black has the bishop-pair and there's so few pawns now left on the board. 27.Bg6 Kh8 28.Bxf7 Bxf7 29.Qxf7 Qxg2 30.Rg1 Qd2 31.Rd1 Both this and 31.Rh1 'looked' the way to go - but Nakamura could have cut straight to the chase here with 31.Ne4! as 31...Qf4 (or similarly 31...Qd7) 32.Rxg7! would have left Black poleaxed; his only option to avoid mate now being: 32...Qxf7 33.Rxf7 Re8 (otherwise 34.Nf6 mates quickly) 34.Rxb7 and Black may as well resign here, rather than face the ignominy of a hopelessly lost endgame. 31...Qf4 32.Qxb7 Rdb8 It's a difficult position to be defending, but this just hastens Black's demise. Nepo could have stayed in the game longer with 32...Qc4 33.Rd7 Rab8 34.Rxd8+ Rxd8 35.Qe7 Rb8 where at least here, White isn't outright winning, and Black's queen, rook & bishop offers hope of resistance. 33.Qe4 Qf8? With two successive blunders now coming from Nepo, I can only assume he had time-pressure issues here, as the only hope was to exchange queens with 33...Qxe4 34.Nxe4 Rf8 as the resulting endgame is - in practical terms, with so few pawns left on the board - really not so easy to convert to a win. 34.Rg6! Ra7?? One blunder begets another - only this time it's an outright blunder in a difficult position, and in time-trouble too. But Black's game is lost anyway, even with best play, as after 34...Re8 35.Qh1! Ra7 as 36.Ne4! with Nf6 to follow, there's nothing Black can do about this. 35.Qd4 1-0 Nepo resigns, as he can't defend the double threat of 36.Qxa7 and 36.Rxh6+.