With only two rounds remaining in Sharjah the tournament is yet to spark into life. Rounds 6 and 7 saw 14 draws, including 13 and 14-move efforts from co-leader Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. He’s been leading with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave since Round 4, with the main change coming at the other end of the table, where Alexander Riazantsev has slumped to three losses in a row. Ian Nepomniachtchi got in some blockbuster home preparation to join a 5-player group half a point behind the leaders.
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The most interesting thing about the Sharjah Grand Prix so far has perhaps been the question of why it’s been one of the least enthralling top tournaments in recent memory, with Emil Sutovsky sparking discussion in both Russian and English on his Facebook page:
But let's get to the games...
There were two decisive games in Round 6. One was an endgame victory for Richard Rapport, who returned to 50% by beating Alexander Riazantsev. The Russian Champion looks to have been completely knocked off track by his move 19 blunder against Dmitry Jakovenko in the previous round.
The other win was very different, with Ian Nepomniachtchi getting to unleash some devastating home preparation against the Petroff Defence.
It was déjà vu, since last May in the Russian Team Championship Nepo had stunned Sanan Sjugirov with some new computer analysis in an area of old theory:
9.Bxg5! Bxg5 10.Bxh7+! Kxh7 11.h4! and White went on to win.
This time Chinese Grandmaster Li Chao was the player punished for using the same defence one time too many, falling into the trap of 14.Nh4!
Black is already in serious trouble - maybe not losing, but he should play very precisely.
After 14…Bh7 the point was revealed with 15.Bxh6!!, when after 15…Bxh2+ 16.Kh1 it was already the decisive mistake to play 16…Bf4?:
Nepo said the main line was 16…gxh6, but in that case Black’s kingside is in tatters while his queenside pieces are still undeveloped. Li Chao’s choice had the virtue of forcing Ian to think for himself, but he proved up to the task, starting with 17.Bxg7! Kxg7 18.Qg4+ before exchanging a pair of minor pieces on f5. Li Chao followed the seemingly sensible plan of exchanging queens, but it did nothing to diminish the white attack.
In the final position after
29.Bc2+ it’s mate-in-5!
In the post-game press conference Li Chao admitted that his favourite defence to 1.e4 as Black had developed a bug that he didn’t know how to fix!
The other notable game of the round, Nakamura-Grischuk, understandably piqued the interest of Peter Svidler, who referred to it during his Banter Blitz show on Friday. The first 20 moves of a razor-sharp Najdorf were following Svidler 1-0 Grischuk from the 2007 World Championship in Mexico. Only Nakamura’s 22nd move deviated from Karjakin 1/2-1/2 Grischuk in 2010, but the topic of memory was the one the players focussed on in their post-game interview:
Nakamura: The opening was well-known, but I figured Alexander last had this so long ago that he had forgotten now…
Grischuk (on whether the theory had changed): The theory didn’t change but I have changed, that’s the problem… to the worst. At that time I think you could wake me up in the middle of the night and I would tell all the lines… not the case now!
Up to a point Grischuk had things under control, but Nakamura may then have missed a win:
46.h5! is the try, with Nakamura confessing that he’d wrongly thought Black could force a draw by perpetual check. That was what eventually happened in the game after 46.Qg6 Rxh4+, when Grischuk went on to find a narrow path to a draw.
In the next round the top six boards were drawn, and generally at a speed that made it look as though the players wanted to watch the Women’s World Championship tiebreaks. Only Grischuk-Adams stretched to 59 moves, though Alexander said afterwards it was simply that he was obliged to play on with an extra pawn, despite having few winning chances against as capable a defender as Mickey. One curiosity, at least, was that Hou Yifan played the Berlin Defence for the first time, with Paco Vallejo’s choice of a rare line in response getting him nowhere when the Women’s World Champion found the best reply at the board.
A rain of draws...
The decisive action saw Li Chao bounce straight back to return to 50% by beating Pavel Eljanov, who has now lost his last two games with the black pieces. Both players agreed that 37…Nd7! seems to hold for Black, while 37…Nd5? was losing by force. All hope of resistance was gone after 42…Ba3:
43.Rb1! Rxc3 44.b6 Nf6 45.b7 Nd7 46.Rb5! and Black resigned, since there’s no defence against simply 47.Rxd5 and 48.Rd8 (or 48.Rxd7).
Alexander Riazantsev completed “long-castling” by losing to local hero Saleh Salem, who won an exchange with the first wave of a kingside attack and then managed to bamboozle his Russian opponent in the manoeuvring that followed:
20.Ne1! was a bold decision that paid off, with Riazantsev helping the knight complete a journey via e3 to g4, when it was decisive in a mating attack.
So the standings with two rounds to go look as follows, with 13 players within a point of the lead:
In Nepomniachtchi-MVL and Grischuk-Mamedyarov the leaders have Black against their pursuers, while Aronian-Nakamura is an attractive pairing – even if so far Levon has drawn all seven of his games in Sharjah. Games start at 15:00 local time, or 12:00 CET, and you can watch them here on chess24. You can also follow the games in our mobile apps:
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