Shakhriyar Mamedyarov surprised everyone in the finishing straight of the Gashimov Memorial to end with two consecutive victories over the favourites and then beat Fabiano Caruana in the playoff for first place. The joy of the local supporters didn't end there, since two of the other three Azerbaijan representatives also won their games in the last round. Let's take a look at a long and emotion-packed day in Shamkir.
You can replay all the games from the Gashimov Memorial (including the tiebreaks) using the selector below:
This was a clash of two potential title winners, and the difference, which proved decisive, was the emotional state in which the two players went into the final round. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov followed victory over Eltaj Safarli with a great win over Fabiano Caruana, while Anish Giri went into the round having spent over five hours failing to defeat Hou Yifan. The Azeri no. 1 also had the white pieces.
Anish was ready to enter the Grünfeld Defence, but Mamedyarov, probably hoping to avoid a theoretical discussion in extremely complex positions, chose an unambitious setup with c3. On move 14 Shakh took another decision that looked unusual for him:
The variation with 13.Nxa5 leads to a complex position in which precise calculation is demanded from both sides in order to maintain the balance. After 13.Be3 Qxb3 14.Bxc5, it was Giri who chose the calmest option with 14...Qxd1. That was entirely understandable, since a draw would take Anish into a playoff, but he had first agonised over whether he should instead play 14...Qxb2. That seems to have been clearly the best choice, though it's unlikely the game would have ended in the quick draw by repetition that the chess engines claim is objectively White's best outcome.
Back in the game White had a slight initiative, which Mamedyarov convincingly converted into a rook ending with an extra pawn.
Shakhriyar played actively and demonstrated excellent technique to convert the pawn into victory. Giri threw in the towel on move 53, when it was inevitable that the c-pawn would queen.
The Dutchman had lost only that single game, and summed up his performance on Twitter:
There was nothing for it but to play some more chess!
Fabiano Caruana might have had some dark forebodings about this game, given what happened in the last round of the Moscow Candidates. For Sergey Karjakin, meanwhile, it was an opportunity to improve on his lukewarm performance in Shamkir so far. On the other hand, Sergey's thoughts may still have been elsewhere, with only five months remaining to his chance-of-a-lifetime match against Magnus Carlsen. After the game he confirmed he'll play in the Bilbao Masters in July (check out our 2016 Chess Calendar), where he should meet Carlsen twice.
The game in no way resembled the encounter in Moscow. A Ruy Lopez rapidly led to an ending where White had a slight structural advantage. Caruana found sufficient defensive resources and provoked massive simplifications, leading to the shaking of hands on move 34.
The only thing that could then stop Fabiano from featuring in a playoff for first place was a victory for Giri - that never looked likely, and the quick draw meant Caruana would have ample time to rest before the extra games.
There were two more decisive results in Saturday's round, in both cases featuring local representatives winning with Black against close tournament rivals.
Pentala Harikrishna was having a decent tournament, with two wins and two losses before the final round. A victory over Eltaj Safarli would have made it another stepping stone on the Indian's rise towards the Top 10, and he seemed well on the way to achieving that. Hari had a significant edge in a queenless middlegame, with much more active pieces than his opponent. In the run-up to the time control, though, he blundered away his whole advantage. Safarli was able to activate his passive bishop and Harikrishna collapsed until he admitted defeat on move 61. Both players ended on 4/9 or "minus 1".
Hou Yifan must have been somewhat disappointed with her performance. In the first rounds she only conceded defeats to Caruana and Karjakin, but in the last three she fell to two of her close rivals and ended up bottom of the table, a point adrift of another underperformer, Pavel Eljanov. Her last executioner was Rauf Mamedov, who ended up as the only player to finish on 50%, improving on his -1 score a year ago.
The leaders then faced each other in rapid playoffs. The first two games were played at a time control of 10 minutes for the whole game with a 3-second increment after each move. Mamedyarov started with the white pieces.
In the first encounter Caruana showed himself to be more precise in the opening and won a pawn by move 22, but the ensuing position with opposite-coloured bishops allowed Mamedyarov to complicate matters and reach an ending with a high probability of a draw. Caruana gave up his winning attempts on move 54.
In the second game Shakh played the Sicilian with Black, and Caruana quickly seized the initiative. In the razor-sharp position that ensued the chess engines frequently showed a winning advantage for the US player. One of the most striking examples is the following:
Caruana played 26.Qb7+ here, but 26.e7! is stronger. If Black exchanges queens the e7-pawn will be a big problem for Black in the ending, and if 26...Rd6, there would follow 27.Qxe5 fxe5 28.Nf5+ gxf5 29.Rxd6 exf4 30.Rd8, and White wins.
In any case, the US Champion failed to find these continuations and a draw by perpetual check was reached on move 35.That meant that Mamedyarov entered the 5+3 blitz phase with a mental advantage: he'd won his last three games in the tournament and then defended two almost lost positions in rapid chess. It should be added that blitz has never been one of Caruana's strengths.
Shakh started the final phase with Black and the players repeated the opening from their last game. A sharp battle ensued in which the balance was broken around move 40, when Mamedyarov won a pawn and converted it into a victory in 62 moves.
In the final game the US player had chances to gain a real advantage on more than one occasion, but at such a time control it's hard to spot difficult variations and the likely outcome was always a draw. Mamedyarov kept a cool head and avoided Armageddon by reaching the desired draw in 69 moves.
It was a dream end for Mamedyarov, who after consolidating a position in the Top 10 a few years ago had allowed his level to drop. This victory gained Shakh 13 rating points and took him up to 13th on the world rankings. We hope he can stay at the same level and continue delighting us with his refreshing style!
So another supertournament is over, but the action doesn't stop there! As well as the current French Top 12 and the European Women's Championship, a match between David Navara and Richard Rapport starts on Sunday, with the Capablanca Memorial and Leon Masters coming up. The headline event is the Paris Grand Chess Tour, which features Carlsen, Aronian, Kramnik, Caruana, Giri, Nakamura and more playing blitz and rapid chess. You can check out all the upcoming events in our 2016 Chess Calendar and watch all the action on our Live Tournaments page. See you soon!
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