Shakhriyar Mamedyarov is the Riga FIDE Grand Prix winner after a spectacular final against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave went all the way to Armageddon. Maxime twice managed to win on demand to prolong the match, but it was third time lucky for Shakh in Armageddon as he emerged victorious with the black pieces. Mamedyarov joins Alexander Grischuk in the Grand Prix lead, but MVL is perfectly placed to fight for a Candidates Tournament place in his next two events.
You can replay all the games from the 2019 Riga FIDE Grand Prix using the selector below:
And here’s the live commentary on the final day’s action:
Maxime described the tiebreak as, “a long ordeal, and of course it’s difficult to play at the highest level after two weeks of nervous tension and fight”. Even the bare results alone give a good idea of the drama:
Let’s take it one time control at a time, starting with the 25-minute games:
Both players took turns getting crushed out of the opening in the classical games, but the rapid games immediately showed that their teams had done the work needed to repair the holes. Maxime’s 9…c5 was a novelty in the Grünfeld line where he’d lost two days earlier, and he went on to equalise with the greatest of ease. In fact he might have considered playing on:
After 23…Red8 Black is winning the d5-pawn, and it’s just a
question of whether the compensation will be enough.
Mamedyarov had also done his homework, and after collapsing the day before in the Giuoco Piano he also equalised without any trouble. He would later comment:
I played very badly these Italian lines in classical chess, but in rapid and blitz I played, for myself, very good. I played good, but in classical I played very, very bad.
Just when Shak seemed ready to take over in the second rapid game, however, Maxime came up with a clever idea to change the course of the play:
27.h4!? gxh4 28.f4! Bd5 29.Nf6+ Kh8 30.f5
Here Shakhriyar sank into a 6-minute think before coming up with the flawed brilliancy 30…Nd7? (30…Nh7! leads to similar lines, but is objectively ok for Black). After a few minutes' thought Maxime took the bull by the horns with 31.Nxd7! Rd2 32.e6 fxe6 33.f6 Kg8:
This amazing position is full of fantastic options,
including 34.Bh7+!? as well as 34.Be4!?, but as Grandmaster Romain Edouard points out 34.Bf5!! was the best chance to win
the Riga Grand Prix. The point is that after 34…exf5 White would follow up with 35.Re8+! Kh7 36.Re7+
Kh8 37.f7! and Black is forced to give back the piece.
In the game after 34.Bd3!? Rxg2+ 35.Kf1 h3! 40.Ne4! a similar ending ultimately arose, but Black's scattered extra pawns gave him sufficient counterplay to hold a draw.
In the 10-minute rapid games it was Shakhriyar Mamedyarov who was in the ascendency. The first game seemed destined to end in a draw by repetition after MVL had achieved full compensation for a pawn sacrifice in the Grünfeld. We were witnessing a confident and ambitious Mamedyarov, however, and he went on to outplay Maxime and post problems right until the end of a tense 56-move game.
That momentum continued into the next game, when White looked dead in the water by move 19:
What followed could perhaps only be explained by nerves. 20.Rh1! was a good move by Maxime, but after 20…h5! the odds would have been on the black attack crashing through. Instead Mamedyarov was alert to the possibility of 20…Bb5!?, threatening an invasion on e2. After 21.Ng1 Ne2+?! (again 21…h5!) 22.Kg2 Nf4+, however, the players drew by repetition. It was hard to believe we’d seen four draws in a row given the positions that had arisen in the games...
The match going to blitz looked like very good news for Maxime, the current blitz no. 1 after beating Magnus Carlsen three times in blitz this year. Instead, however, things went wrong almost immediately when he again played the Italian and landed in a miserable position with only heavy pieces and pawns. By the time 40…Qd3! appeared on the board it was simply lost:
The threat is mate-in-4 starting with Qf1+, and there’s little White can do about it, except exchange down into a lost ending. Maxime instead went for 41.Qxg7+ Kb6 42.c5+ Ka6! (42…Kxc5? 43.Qf8+! and White gives perpetual check) and three moves later it was time to resign.
That left Maxime needing to win on demand for a 2nd time in the match, but this time with the black pieces. Desperate times call for desperate measures and he switched to an offbeat double-fianchetto system, which worked to perfection. Black gradually took over and won a pawn, though tablebases show the position was objectively drawn all the way up until move 61:
Only 61.Rg7+ Kxf6 62.Rd7 or the immediate 61.Rd7 draw, with the point being that the white king doesn’t get cut off from the d-file as it did in the game by 61.Ra7 Rxf6 62.Kc3 Rd6!. That was a subtlety too far for a blitz time scramble, and Maxime had soon taken the match to Armageddon:
Mamedyarov was playing Black in the Armageddon game and therefore, for the 3rd time in the final, he only needed a draw to win the Riga Grand Prix. He still didn’t get it, but he went one better and won the game instead!
Maxime adopted exactly the same double fianchetto approach which had worked in the previous game, this time with White, but the outcome never looked like being the same. Mamedyarov caught up on the clock and had by far the better position, with Maxime’s desperate attempts to make something happen only hastening the end. It was a dramatic blitz finale, with Shakhriyar’s final gesture making it a look for a moment as though he’d lost on time or suffered some similar misfortune:
He hadn’t, and perhaps this was more of a Roman emperor saluting his victory!
That crowned a brilliant comeback from Mamedyarov after what must have been one of the toughest years of his career so far, while Maxime had little reason for regret, with three victories in the classical section of his matches giving him 3 bonus points to make up 8 points in total. Mamedyarov gained 8 points for winning the event and another 2 bonus points for beating Dubov and So in the classical games so that he matched Grischuk’s 10 points in Moscow and Riga combined:
As you can see from the full standings above, Maxime is excellently placed with 8 points after just one event (Mamedyarov played and scored 0 in Moscow), only surpassed by Moscow winner Ian Nepomniachtchi with 9. That means it’s still within Maxime’s control to finish in the top 2 in the Grand Prix series and qualify for his first ever Candidates Tournament, while Shakh must win or do very well in his final event in Tel Aviv and hope his rivals do badly.
Here are the players after the final match:
The next Grand Prix doesn’t take place until Hamburg in November, so the focus will switch to other events for the next few months. One of those is the Grand Chess Tour, and as Maxime and Shakh mention they’re both off almost immediately to Paris for the Paris Grand Chess Tour. The 3rd stage of the Grand Chess Tour is rapid and blitz, with Alexander Grischuk, Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Daniil Dubov the wild cards. There’s no Magnus - the World Champion returns to action for the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz and then the Sinquefield Cup classical tournament next month - but it remains a very impressive field:
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