Riga GP: Topalov's shocking decision

by Antonio Pereira
7/16/2019 – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has already secured his spot in the semi-finals of the FIDE Grand Prix in Riga, as Veselin Topalov shocked everyone by offering a draw after merely twelve moves in a must-win situation. The rest of the match-ups are still tied and will be decided on tiebreaks — while Wesley So, Sergey Karjakin, Yu Yangyi and Alexander Grischuk played it safe, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Jan-Krzyztof Duda got into a real fight in Tuesday's round. | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess

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The non-game of the day

The knock-out format in chess provides the fans with particularly exciting fights, like the ones seen on opening day in Riga or during the first round tiebreaks, but it also leaves everyone bamboozled with close-to-inexplicable draw offers. On Tuesday, Veselin Topalov needed a win to stay in contention against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and, instead of looking for — perhaps unsubstantiated — chances to complicate, he cut the day short and offered his opponent a truce after twelve moves.

The Bulgarian was indeed in an unenviable situation — even if he did manage to win in game two he would remain a big underdog in the tiebreaks (Vachier-Lagrave is number four and number one in the rapid and blitz ratings lists, respectively). Moreover, reducing the suffering is not an unprecedented strategy among the chess elite, as Peter Svidler, for example, is known for resigning positions in which other players would certainly choose to keep going.

Topalov was not the only one agreeing a quick draw on Tuesday, however, as So v Karjakin and Yu Yangyi v Grischuk lasted 19 and 22 moves. Mamedyarov, on the other hand, got some chances against Jan-Krzysztof Duda but ended up splitting the point after 39 moves nonetheless.

Match results

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FIDE Grand Prix Riga 2019

Seven players are still in contention in Riga | Photo: World Chess

Vachier-Lagrave 1½:½ Topalov

Black naturally went for the Sicilian Defence, but already on move 5 spent some time deciding on how to proceed — the Bulgarian ended up going for a closed structure with 5...e5. Vachier-Lagrave was prepared to face this structure, however, and when given the chance released the tension in the centre with 9.dxe5. Three moves later, it became clear that Black would only be able to create imbalances by giving some considerable concessions in a position with symmetrical pawn structures.

Topalov did not turn away from talking to press officer Yannick Pelletier afterwards, and explained what had gone through his mind:

I don't see any risk for White, because it's a symmetrical position. [...] White has many simple moves, developing moves, and he doesn't need to win. I mean, if he sees a draw he can force [it], and if I play some bad moves then it can become critically bad. [...] I didn't see any realistic chance.

Nevertheless, this means Maxime Vachier-Lagrave reached the semi-finals of the Riga GP without needing tiebreaks in neither of the first two rounds. Thus, he has already collected five points for the overall standings (3 for reaching round three and 2 extra points for having won two match-ups on the classical phase).


Veselin Topalov, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Veselin Topalov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave discussing after their short encounter | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess  

Post-game interview with Vachier-Lagrave and Topalov

Mamedyarov 1:1 Duda

Jan-Krzysztof Duda, with Black, explored a setup used twice in the past by the recent winner of the Women's Candidates Tournament, Aleksandra Goryachkina. In response, Mamedyarov — true to his style — decided to respond with an unorthodox plan:


The Azeri grandmaster isolated his own doubled pawns on the b-file with 12.cxd5, and showed what he had in mind after 12...cxd5 13.a5. This unexpected sequence prompted Duda to spend over half an hour on 13...c7.  The game continued 14.f4 b6 15.aa1 fe8, in sync with the unconventional nature of the position. 

Mamedyarov's strategy worked out well, as his young opponent found himself in an inferior position out of the opening. A battle of manoeuvres in the ensuing closed position almost led to a threefold repetition, but that was not Mamedyarov's plan, who dealt with Black's queenside initiative by pushing his b-pawn:


There followed 35.b3 axb3 36.xb3 a8 37.xa8 xa8 38.d2 ec7:


Here the computer considers 39.♞a5 to be the best continuation (planning on cementing the knight on b7), but Mamedyarov opted for 39.a5, which was followed by a draw agreement — apparently the players assessed that the passers on the b and c-files neutralize each other. 

The most exciting match of the quarter-finals will be decided on Wednesday's tiebreaks.


Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Jan-Krzysztof Duda thinking hard while Shakhriyar Mamedyarov checks out what is going on elsewhere | Photo: World Chess

Post-game interview with Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Yu Yangyi 1:1 Grischuk

By now it seems clear that Yu Yangyi has chosen a safety-first strategy for this tournament. The Chinese grandmaster has overcome the rating shortage in comparison to his opponents by showing good preparation with both colours. In his second classical game against Alexander Grischuk, he reached a draw after 22 moves, while sitting in front of a position with good potential. 

A curious exchange followed during the post-game interview:

Yannick Pelletier: Are you two looking forward to the tiebreak tomorrow?

Yu Yangyi: I don't know. I hope I play good games.

Alexander Grischuk: I guess, but what else are we supposed to do? [...] Given that I had two clearly worse positions, of course I could not dream about anything [better].


Alexander Grischuk

Alexander Grischuk with a young fan | Photo: World Chess

So 1:1 Karjakin

Former World Championship challenger Sergey Karjakin has played 16,30, 17 and 19 moves in his four classical games of the tournament so far. At the same time, he has made use of his strong nerves and fighting spirit to knock out rating favourite Anish Giri after a lengthy seven-game tiebreaker on Sunday. He will try to repeat the trick against Wesley So in tomorrow's rapid (and blitz, if necessary) play-off.

Out of a Nimzo with 4.f3, So had some ideas to face Karjakin's treatment of the position, but the one giving a surprise was the Russian, who chose the slightly rare 7...c5. The battle was cut short though, so we will have to wait and see whether the contenders decide to explore this variation again on Wednesday.


Wesley So, Sergey Karjakin

Wesley So and Karjakin will settle the contest on tiebreaks | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess

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Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.


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