Shakhriyar Mamedyarov wins Riga GP in thrilling finale

by Antonio Pereira
7/25/2019 – Shakhriyar Mamedyarov won the second leg of the FIDE Grand Prix series in Riga after defeating Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with Black in Armageddon. The contenders showed great fighting spirit throughout their final match-up, with Vachier-Lagrave twice stepping up to get wins on demand. Thanks to this triumph, Mamedyarov now shares first place with Alexander Grischuk in the GP overall standings table. | Photo: World Chess

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A nine-game final

The chess world could not have asked for a flashier final match-up in the second leg of the Grand Prix, as both Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov showed uncompromising play from start to finish in Riga. Furthermore, they were the only players to get wins in the classical stages of the tournament — Vachier-Lagrave got four to Mamedyarov's three. Consequently, they played sharp chess almost exclusively in their nine-game direct contest.

After exchanging blows in the classical stage, the players showed their skills in rapid and blitz chess on Wednesday. Both the 25'+10" and the 10'+10" games finished drawn, with Vachier-Lagrave the one missing the biggest chance to get a win in the four-game series (the Frenchman could have got tournament victory in the second 25-minute encounter). The first one to strike in the 5'+3" section was Mamedyarov, but Vachier-Lagrave bounced back with a win on demand in the eight encounter of the match. Only Armageddon was left to break the tie, and Mamedyarov ended up beating his opponent with the black pieces to become the champion.

Both players arrived in Riga less than a week after playing in Zagreb, where they had coincidentally accumulated 4½/11 points each. Now, after thirteen days of tense struggles in Riga, they will quickly fly down to Paris, where the third leg of the Grand Chess Tour begins on Saturday. Elite chess players do not have it easy this year!

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

It was tense | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess 

First series of Rapid

The first one to get the white pieces was Mamedyarov, who was surely prepared to face his opponent's pet defence — the Grünfeld. Vachier-Lagrave confirmed that he knows his way around this opening and blitzed out his moves until accepting a draw from a slightly superior position after merely 23 moves.

The Frenchman went on to play the Italian in the next game, the same opening he had used to get a win in the second classical encounter of the match. His opponent had things under control, until his over-ambitious approach in the endgame got him in trouble. Mamedyarov had given up a knight in order to get his rook to the second rank, targeting g2, but he failed to foresee White had a killer shot in the following position:


Vachier-Lagrave could have got a winning edge with the strong 34.♗f5, as after 34...exf5 his rook can infiltrate on the e-file with decisive effect. Instead, the French grandmaster opted for 34.d3 and Black ended up holding the draw after 46 moves.

Both 25'+10" games


Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Talking about missed chances? | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess 

Second series of Rapid

Once again Mamedyarov kicked off with 1.d4 and once again Vachier-Lagrave went for the Grünfeld. The position was balanced throughout, until the players reached a position with four rooks on the board, three pawns per side and a knight v bishop imbalance, with Black having the bishop and a weak pawn on the e-file. In the end, White managed to capture the pawn, but Black had more than enough compensation with the bishop on the open board. Draw after 56 moves.

The players stuck to the script and played an Italian in the rematch ten-minute game. White expanded on the kingside this time and the computers thought Black had an edge, but Mamedyarov decided it was prudent to go for a perpetual in a sharp position — the draw was signed after 24 moves.

Both 10'+10" games


Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

Mamedyarov faced the Italian repeatedly with Black | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess 

The Blitz series

Now Vachier-Lagrave had White first, and another Italian followed. Mamedyarov handled the complex opening and middlegame calmly and reached a superior endgame with a queen, a rook and seven pawns per side — the Azeri had full control of the only open file and a better pawn structure. 


Black has transferred his king to the queenside and now is ready to invade White's camp with 40...d3, as he can hide his monarch on a6 after 41.xg7+ b6 42.c5+ a6. Mamedyarov went on to get the win three moves later — 43.b4 d5+ 44.f3 d2+ 45.h3 h5 and Black has mate-in-five.

Vachier-Lagrave was in a must-win situation for a second time in the match, but he had the black pieces now — and he decided not to go for a rerun of the Grünfeld. The strategy shift worked out well for the Frenchman, who gained a pawn in the middlegame and resourcefully defended it until going into an endgame with rooks and bishops on the board:


Black needed no less than 34 moves to convert this position into an all-important victory. White could have put more resistance at times, but it is never easy to defend such positions with so little time on the clock.

This result meant everything was to be settled in a final sudden-death encounter!

Both 5'+3" games


Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Time to bounce back, again | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess 


Vachier-Lagrave had the white pieces, one extra minute on the clock and was forced to win if he wanted to become the champion in Riga. The Frenchman got a good position out of the opening and did not shy away from going for a pawn break at the right time (13.c5). His initiative did not last long, though, as Mamedyarov turned the tables with accurate manoeuvring. The Azerbaijani had a slight advantage in the opposite-coloured bishop endgame (with knights and rooks still on the board) that ensued:


White got a passer on the a-file with 41.b4 axb4 42.xb4, but Black immediately got control of the open b-file with 42...b8.

Ten moves later, Vachier-Lagrave made a decision that he would not have made had he not been in a must-win situation:


White went for 51.f2 instead of 51.♗xg5 — when he could have responded to 51...♚xg5 with 52.♖b5, getting an equal position. After the text, on the other hand, Black was on top and effectively used his initiative to force his opponent's resignation on move 64:


Black will play 65...♜e1 next. 0-1.

The Armageddon


Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

Does he always celebrate this way? | Photo: World Chess 

Curiously, Mamedyarov gestured disappointment at the time he shook Vachier-Lagrave's hand at the end of the Armageddon, which confused commentators and chess fans alike. Nonetheless, the Azeri took home 10 GP points and 24,000 Euros in prize money — he now shares the lead in the overall standings table of the Grand Prix with Alexander Grischuk (both have ten points after having participated in Moscow and Riga).

Post-tiebreak interview with Mamedyarov and Vachier-Lagrave

Commentary webcast

Commentary by GMs Evgeny Miroshnichenko and Arturs Neikans

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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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