Sharjah GP Rd1: MVL, Adams, and Rapport draw first blood

by Albert Silver
2/19/2017 – It promised to bring levels of excitement and dynamism, and the new format did not disappoint. Three games ended in decisive results, with one hardly a surprise: Ding Liren - Rapport. The game was a mess as expected, and both players sopught to show who was the wilder of the bunch. Adams defeated Salem after he produced super piece centralization, and strangled his rival. Finally, MVL outplayed Li Chao in an endgame to score. Full report with analysis by GM Alex Yermolinsky.

The first leg, in Sharjah, is being held from February 18 - 27 (with a rest day on the 23rd) at the Sharjah Cultural & Chess Club. The time control in the GP tournaments is 100 minutes for the first 40 moves, 50 minutes for the next 20 moves and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game plus an additional 30 seconds per move starting from move one. The first prize is €20,000; the total prize fund is is €130,000.

While the underlying principle of the FIDE Grand Prix is unchanged, the structure brings some fundamental modifications that have significant repercussions. This is not to imply they are bad though. The idea remains to organize four major tournaments that bring in a number of the world’s best players, and let them duke it out to find the two best overall performers and give them a spot in the next Candidates tournament.

All photos by Max Avdeev

While top seed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave seems in a wistful mood...

... Hou Yifan arrived as her chipper self. Initially she had been slated to play the Grand Prix, then she ducked out of it, and was replaced by Wei Yi. Finally, at the last minute, it was announced she woujld indeed play in the Grand Prix, and the Chinese Chess Federation, with whom AGON had been negotiating this, was more than happy to oblige.

What has changed is the number of players who are allowed to participate, 24 in all with 18 per event, increasing the opportunities for players not already in the top ten, and give them a chance at a fairy tale result. One need not worry this is a return to the massive 20+ player round-robins that were not unheard of in the 60s and 70s. This will be a reduced Swiss Open with 18 players played over nine rounds. For the players, this changes the dynamic considerably. For one thing, it means that contrary to a round-robin where you not only know who you will play and when, but you even know the color. Here, every day will mean a surprise, and since the number of rounds is odd, even the colors can be swapped if circumstances warrant it.

Security was tight and the players were thoroughly scanned, searched and prodded before entering the playing hall. Shoes were understandably checked very closely.

Hou Yifan's game against Ian Nepomniachtchi was far from dull, as both set out complications that left the engineless spectator scratching his head, but ended in a draw.

Maxime Vachier Lagrave had an intriguing bout with Li Chao, one of the three Chinese players in the Grand Prix. The Frenchman seemed to have a lingering edge, but it was not obvious it could be squeezed into a win, though that is exactly what he did.

Michael Adams scored a nice win over Saleh Salem in which he seemed to be the all-powerful puppeteer

Michael Adams vs Salem Saleh

Hikaru Nakamura never got anything to work with against Dmitry Jakovenko, and while he squirmed and squeezed, it was to no avail and they drew.

Jon Hammer faced Alexander Grischuk in a tough game, but the curious thing was the position in which they agreed to shake hands and call it a day.

Grischuk vs Hammer


While it's true Black is a pawn down, White's pawns are hardly an issue, and Black has both the bishop pair, and a very thorny a-pawn that could easily be advanced the next move to a2. After that Bh7-g6-f7 would secure the pawn and an advantage.

The Norwegian undoubtedly appreciates he is the underdog not only in the game, but in the event, however if he does not seize the chances when he gets them, there will be no Cinderalla endings awaiting him at the end.

Grischuk clearly had no illusions on how he stood

On the other hand, two players who know nothing about the word 'peace' are Ding Liren and...

...the incredibly active and entertaining Richard Rapport.

Guest commentator Alexander Yermolinsky, who once crossed swords with Garry Kasparov back when they were juniors in the Soviet Union, brings in his experience and knowledge as he annotates the game between the two firebrand players.

Ding Liren vs Richard Rapport (annotated by Alex Yermolinsky)

[Event "FIDE Grand Prix I"] [Site "Sharjah"] [Date "2017.02.18"] [Round "1"] [White "Ding, Liren"] [Black "Rapport, Richard"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E16"] [WhiteElo "2760"] [BlackElo "2692"] [Annotator "Alex Yermolinsky"] [PlyCount "80"] [EventDate "2017.02.17"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "UAE"] {One of the most intriguing match-ups of the opening round. Both players are young, ambitious, and in dire need of breaking out of their respective funks. While Ding largely stayed inactive lately - he only played in the Sinquefield Cup and Olympiad of the high profile tournaments in the second half of 2016 - Rapport seemed to travel almost non-stop, including his month and a half long stay in China, only to see his rating drop 60 points off his personal best.} 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. g3 Bb7 5. Bg2 Bb4+ ({the classical approach is} 5... Be7 6. O-O O-O 7. Nc3 Ne4 {but there Richard had a couple of losses in the Tata Steel last month, against Wesley So (totally undeserved) and Levon Aronian (fully earned this time). I'm sure his Queen's Indian is going to be further tested in this event.}) 6. Bd2 a5 $5 {This should have hardly come as surprise, because Rapport played it before. This move came about in the 1970's, and we can count Larsen, Korchnoi and Karpov among its supporters. The point was, and still is, to spice up otherwise routine play in the well-known structure.} ({Of course, both} 6... Bxd2+ {played by Korchnoi, and later Andreikin}) ({and} 6... Be7 {(Ljubojevic and Polugaevsky) are more reliable.}) 7. O-O (7. a3 {is what Black is hoping to see. After} Be7 8. Nc3 O-O 9. O-O Na6 {he invites} 10. d5 Nc5 11. Nd4 {to freeze White's Q-side with} a4) ({ Naturally,} 7. Bxb4 $6 axb4 {deprives the white knight of his birthright square c3, and after} 8. O-O O-O 9. Nbd2 c5 10. Re1 d6 11. e4 Nc6 {Black already stands well.} 12. d5 exd5 13. cxd5 (13. exd5 Ne7 {and there comes b6-b5!}) 13... Ne7 14. Nc4 Ng6 15. a4 bxa3 16. Rxa3 b5 {with lovely Benoni counterplay was seen in Socko-Hou Yifan, Baku Olympiad, 2016.}) 7... O-O 8. Bf4 ({Many games see} 8. Bg5 Be7 {and Black once again relies of exchanging pieces after} 9. Nc3 Ne4 {White wins his share of games, but not nearly enough to put this line out of business.}) 8... Be7 $1 {The bishop is no longer safe on b4.} ({Lose your focus,} 8... d5 $6 {and then you fall for a typical trick:} 9. c5 $1 a4 {What else?} 10. a3 Ba5 11. Qxa4 {and there goes your brave a-pawn for next to nothing.}) 9. Nc3 Ne4 10. Qd3 {This isn't a novelty, just a very rare move.} Nxc3 11. bxc3 $5 {Voluntarily accepting a structural weakness in order to facilitate his play elsewhere on the board - a worthy concept from Ding Liren.} ({It was not too late for Ding to get back to quieter waters with} 11. Qxc3 d6 12. Qc2 {Black's best then is} f5 {setting up a Dutch pawn structure, which, quite fittingly, is exactly what Rapport did in Wijk aan Zee last month against Anish Giri. Playing the Dutch against a Dutchman in Holland may seem an outrageous idea, but in practice it worked out for a draw! The game went} 13. Rad1 ({Years ago I chose} 13. Ne1 {against the great Ratmir Kholmov,and also drifted to a draw after} Bxg2 14. Nxg2 Qd7 15. Rad1 Nc6 16. Be3 Rae8 17. Qa4 e5 18. dxe5 Nxe5 19. Qxd7 Nxd7) 13... Be4 14. Qc1 Qe8 15. Qe3 Bf6 16. c5 bxc5 17. dxc5 e5 18. Qb3+ Qf7 19. Bg5 Qxb3 20. axb3 h6 21. Bxf6 Rxf6 {etc.}) 11... Qc8 {A standard prophylactic move in many Queens Indian variations.} ({ On the other hand,} 11... d6 {allows another typical shot} 12. Ng5 $1 {White would love to to see his LSB unopposed, as the case here:} Bxg5 13. Bxb7 Ra7 14. Bxg5 Qxg5 15. Bg2 $14) 12. e4 d6 13. Rfe1 Nd7 ({Black's problem is that his own pawn takes away the a5-square from the knight.} 13... Nc6 $2 14. d5 Nb8 15. e5) 14. Rad1 a4 $5 {This is the essential Rapport chess. While Black is unable to play either c7-c5 or e6-e5, he nevertheless finds a way to play actively.} 15. h4 Ra5 {If nothing else, that rook stopped the white pawn from continuing to h5-h6.} 16. Bc1 $6 {I find this retreat somewhat dissatisfying.} ({I want White to play} 16. e5 {to set up Nf3-g5 with an attack.}) ({Perhaps the best was} 16. Bh3 $5 {with the idea of meeting} Qa8 {with} 17. Ng5 { White needs to provoke some weakening moves off Black's K-side pawn shield. Garry Kasparov was the master of that strategy.}) 16... Re8 17. Nh2 Qa8 18. Nf1 Nf6 19. d5 {I guess Ding didn't feel like playing a long maneuvering game that day.} Bf8 20. Ne3 a3 21. f4 Ra4 $5 {Rapport shows a lot of nerve in the face of White's offensive.} ({A lot of us old hands would feel obliged to slow White down with} 21... e5) 22. e5 Nd7 23. h5 Nc5 24. Qf1 h6 $1 25. Rd4 Qa5 26. Bd2 exd5 {Black is forced to take some action.} ({The wait and see policy of} 26... Qa8 {would be due to rude awakening after} 27. f5 $1 dxe5 28. Rg4) 27. Nxd5 ({Maybe the right move order was} 27. exd6 Bxd6 28. Nxd5 {to try to force Black to trade his defensive rook.}) 27... c6 28. Nb4 Qa8 (28... dxe5 29. fxe5 Ne6 30. Rg4) 29. exd6 Rd8 $1 30. f5 {Ding was still dreaming of the attack. He wanted to get his rook to g4.} Nd7 $5 (30... Rxd6 31. Rxd6 Bxd6 32. f6 { is a sharp fight, which Black's scattered pieces are ill prepared for.}) 31. Rd3 $2 {You miss a beat you lose the rhythm...} ({The only way to continue was to uphold the old revolutionary "We Chinese Never Go Back" spirit:} 31. Re7 $3 {anticipating} c5 32. Bxb7 Qxb7 33. Rg4 cxb4 34. Bxh6 {Should it have worked out we'd be talking a brilliant game from Ding Liren, and, in turn, the failure of Rapport's ultra-provocative strategy.}) 31... Nf6 32. Bf4 Ra5 { Lots of pawns are hanging, and the time must have been running out on Ding.} 33. Qf3 ({Better was} 33. Qf2 {seeking new targets.}) 33... Rxf5 34. Nxc6 $2 { This only helps the black bench players, Bb7 and Qa8, enter the arena.} ({ Instead,} 34. Re5 {most likely maintains the balance}) 34... Rxd6 $1 35. Rxd6 Bxd6 36. Ne7+ Bxe7 37. Qxb7 Bc5+ 38. Kf1 Qxb7 39. Bxb7 Nxh5 40. Re8+ Bf8 { Smoke has cleared, and facing a loss of his last K-side pawn Ding resigned. Well, this game certainly did not disappoint us spectators.} 0-1

If you enjoyed Yermolinsky's analysis, be sure to check out the next issue of ChessBase Magazine where a more in-depth version of his analysis will appear.

Ilya Merenzon (right) shows off the WorldChess website to his hosts

Round 1 on 2017/02/18 at 15:00

Bo No Ti. Name Rtg Pts. Result Pts. Ti Name Rtg No
1 1 GM Vachier-Lagrave M. 2796 0
0 GM Li Chao B 2720 10
2 11 GM Tomashevsky Evgeny 2711 0
0 GM Aronian Levon 2785 2
3 3 GM Nakamura Hikaru 2785 0
0 GM Jakovenko Dmitry 2709 12
4 13 GM Vallejo Pons Francisco 2709 0
0 GM Mamedyarov Shak 2766 4
5 5 GM Ding Liren 2760 0
0 GM Rapport Richard 2692 14
6 15 GM Riazantsev Alexander 2671 0
0 GM Eljanov Pavel 2759 6
7 7 GM Adams Michael 2751 0
0 GM Salem A.R. Saleh 2656 16
8 17 GM Hou Yifan 2651 0
0 GM Nepomniachtchi Ian 2749 8
9 9 GM Grischuk Alexander 2742 0
0 GM Hammer Jon Ludvig 2628 18

Round one games (with times per move)

Live Commentary

AGON is offering exclusive pay-per-view video of the games and live commentary. It comes in three packages: a one-time $10 fee just for Sharjah GP, a full package of all the events in the World Championship cycle for $30, and a $250 package, which is the same as the $30 Base but comes with signed posters from each event.

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Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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Aighearach Aighearach 2/18/2017 09:17
Hou Yifan vs Ian Nepomniachtchi was interesting. The computer doesn't like white's play, but it works out fine in the game. The computer may be right, but it requires a lot of work from black just to avoid problems. Nakamura was almost as stubborn as Carlsen! lol Adams was very tricky. Grischuk-Hammer was exiting, regardless of the standoff type end result.
Tomas Kmec Tomas Kmec 2/18/2017 09:22
I am very glad that the FIDE managed to find a tournament format that is attractive for chess fans: Swiss format and odd number of games.
In my opinion, round-robin tournament is boring.
Chess is a very fair game, and it is therefore necessary to tournaments also bring an element of chance and luck.
Truffaut Truffaut 2/19/2017 03:19
Is this one of the the WC qualifying tournaments? If so how do you qualify to play in it? i.e. One wouldn't expect Hammer, Hou, Salem, and Riazantsev to qualify. There are many higher rated players.
Masquer Masquer 2/19/2017 05:49
A 9 round swiss with just 18 players is more than a little awkward. I wonder how it will play out.
koko48 koko48 2/19/2017 04:14
Great and insightful comments as usual Yermolinsky