Grischuk wins Sharjah FIDE Grand Prix

by Albert Silver
2/28/2017 – Without taking anything away from his last-minute wresting of the gold from the two previous leaders, Alexander Grischuk's win of the FIDE Grand Prix in Sharjah was a bit of a disappointment, not for the result, much less the player, but because of the extremely modest 5.5/9 score required to do so. In many ways, it reflected the very sedate event and its astonishingly high draw rate. Here is the final report with analysis by GM Alex Yermolinsky.

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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 leg, in Sharjah, was held February 18 - 27 (with a rest day on the 23rd) at the Sharjah Cultural & Chess Club. The first prize was €20,000; the total prize fund was €130,000. 

2017 Sharjah GP Participants

All photos by Max Avdeev

"This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper."

--- T.S. Eliot (The Hollow Men)

This very famous line that ends the poem by T.S. Eliot also symbolizes the tournament in Sharjah, and while some will argue that this is the nature of elite chess, it is not so simple. The question is not simply the 74% draw rate. In spite of what naysayers might claim, it is not really common. For example the recently held Tata Steel tournament, with no less an elite field, saw just over 62% draws.

Still, the question is not so much whether a game saw a split point or not, but how it reached its final result. Of the 60 draws in Sharjah, 18 ended in 23 moves or less, and a number in 20 or less, often with almost all pieces still on the board and no obvious reason why the hands were shaken.

Hopefully, the organizers can find a way to motivate players to put up more of a fight, as this sort of display of bloodless bouts is detrimental to the extreme for professional chess on all levels. Football games sometimes end in 0-0 scores, but can you imagine if the captains decided to shake hands 20 minutes after the whistle, and everyone walked off the pitch?

Even the players felt this, as Pavel Eljanov expressed on his Facebok page

"It was one of the most boring tournaments I ever played with so many quick draws every round." -- Pavel Eljanov

For the final round, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is shown a crystal ball

After a tough start, Richard Rapport staged a good recovery and reached 50%, but no more. Though perfectly respectable, there is no question the Hungarian talent will be seeking to shine in his next participation.

Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, also the top seed of the event, started with a blistering 2.0/2. Unfortunately those were his last win, and seven draws later, found himself second on tiebreak. An excellent result, but one he had to feel he could have improved.

The number one female player in activity, Hou Yifan, had a reasonable 4.0/9 considering the field. Having now foregone for good (at least for now) women's chess, this is exactly the sort of battleground she needs to gain the experience against the elite.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov will leave with a slightly bittersweet taste in his mouth. His tie for first, though third on tiebreak came down to his defeat in the eleventh hour to Grischuk, a loss he need not have suffered. He recovered well by beating Hou Yifan in a good game in the last round, but will no doubt feel he is the one who should be at the top of the podium.

Annotating the games in this last crucial round is Alex Yermolinsky with his unique style

S. Mamedyarov vs Hou Yifan (annotated by Alex Yermolinsky)

Hikaru Nakamura was another player who came close to threatening the top spots, but never quite succeeded in making it past that threshold

Ding Liren came with a desire to show his stuff, and had mixed results. An unfortunate opening loss no doubt marred his final result, though he came back with a win. One knows he will be fighting for top spots in future events.

Levon Aronian had an indifferent tournament at best. The effort seemed ot be lacking as well. It isn't so much the eight draws he finished with and one last-round loss, but that four of those draws were among the shortest, and still ended with a board full of pieces. A player such as Carlsen would have considered those positions as the start of the fight, not the end.

Ding Liren vs Levon Aronian (annotated by Alex Yermolinsky)

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.

The Russian champion Alexander Riazantsev will leave the most disappointed. He knew he was one of the event underdogs by virtue of his rating, but by wining the Russian championship, he had shown his ability to successfully navigate an event with very strong players. With three straight losses in rounds six to eight, it was not meant to be.

Ian Nepomniachtchi's final plus one score was about par for his rating, and he showed he was well-equipped to stand toe-to-toe with the rest

Pavel Eljanov showed excellent fighting spirit through and through, and although things seemed to be heading south as he lost two games near the end, he got back to 50% with two wins in the last two rounds.

Alexander Grischuk played a classic event in terms of grandmaster strategy: draw with black and win with white. This reflected not just in where the points came from, but the length of his games, in whcih three of his four blacks were 20-odd moves at best, while the games with white were mostly protracted affairs pushed to the end. His first-place win on tiebreak was a sign of the successfulness of this approach, so there is little one can say, other than: what would have happened had he pursued his black games with the same energy?

Round 9 on 2017/02/27 at 15:00

Name Rtg Pts. Result Pts. Name Rtg
Vachier-Lagrave Maxime 2796 5 ½ - ½ 5 Grischuk Alexander 2742
Nakamura Hikaru 2785 ½ - ½ Adams Michael 2751
Jakovenko Dmitry 2709 ½ - ½ Nepomniachtchi Ian 2749
Mamedyarov Shakhriyar 2766 1 - 0 4 Hou Yifan 2651
Ding Liren 2760 4 1 - 0 4 Aronian Levon 2785
Rapport Richard 2692 4 ½ - ½ 4 Li Chao B 2720
Vallejo Pons Francisco 2709 4 ½ - ½ 3 Tomashevsky Evgeny 2711
Eljanov Pavel 2759 1 - 0 Salem A.R. Saleh 2656
Riazantsev Alexander 2671 ½ - ½ 3 Hammer Jon Ludvig 2628

Round nine games (with times per move)

Finals standings after nine rounds

Rk Name FED Rtg Pts
1 Grischuk Alexander RUS 2742 5,5
2 Vachier-Lagrave Maxime FRA 2796 5,5
3 Mamedyarov Shakhriyar AZE 2766 5,5
4 Ding Liren CHN 2760 5,0
5 Adams Michael ENG 2751 5,0
6 Jakovenko Dmitry RUS 2709 5,0
7 Nakamura Hikaru USA 2785 5,0
8 Nepomniachtchi Ian RUS 2749 5,0
9 Rapport Richard HUN 2692 4,5
10 Eljanov Pavel UKR 2759 4,5
11 Li Chao B CHN 2720 4,5
12 Vallejo Pons Francisco ESP 2709 4,5
13 Aronian Levon ARM 2785 4,0
14 Hou Yifan CHN 2651 4,0
15 Salem A.R. Saleh UAE 2656 3,5
16 Hammer Jon Ludvig NOR 2628 3,5
17 Tomashevsky Evgeny RUS 2711 3,5
18 Riazantsev Alexander RUS 2671 3,0

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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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koko48 koko48 3/1/2017 03:26
I think the football scoring was abandoned because it wasn't made standard...It was only used in a few tournaments, and it was considered a deviation - an outlier or an 'experiment'

The positive results of football scoring were there for all to see...It led to more decisive games, more fighting draws, and almost no short, unplayed draws.....But I believe it was undone and abandoned by the forces of conservatism and traditionalism in chess, which seem to be deeply entrenched. I also suspect many players didn't like the football scoring (some spoke out against it), because they didn't like having to play for a win every game. They liked having their extra 'rest days' and prearranged draws in the last rounds.

Nevertheless the Grand Prix and other elite tournaments are going to have to abandon 'business as usual' in chess and embrace some real solutions....The glaring lack of sponsorship (and tournaments like this one, which only chase away what few sponsors chess has left) has made that crystal clear
Angelo Pardi Angelo Pardi 3/1/2017 01:30
The draw rate was very high, but the winner score percentage is actually correct (slightly more than 60%, just in the range for top tournaments).
The high stakes involved by the fact it is a qualification event may explain the draw rates (2015 Grand Prix were almost as boring).

It is very hard to fight the "drawing mood". The 3-1-0 system was trendy a few years ago, but it did not seemed to make a real difference - London Classic went back to the usual scoring system for example.
peterfrost peterfrost 3/1/2017 10:50
Agree entirely with Weerogue. The 3/1/0 system leads to unjust outcomes. On the whole, the ratio of draws to wins is not a problem in elite chess, and the majority of games are well fought. But in Sharjah this did not happen. The problem seems to lie in the Grand Prix format. As others have mentioned, this seems to have led to players taking a "risk off" approach to their first GP. This needs to be addressed by some tweaking of the format, not by needlessly distorting everything with the 3/1/0 system, which would be an overreaction to the "problem".
weerogue weerogue 3/1/2017 09:59
@koko48: I don't like the football scoring system for chess, for me it's hard to think of a win being worth three draws, it seems overly arbitrary. I'm not convinced it will solve the "problem" of draws as, in closed tournaments, it could be deemed just as important to deny your opponent 3pts, leading to conservative play. Finally, I don't think it addresses the actual problem, which is short, lifeless draws, as it discriminates against all draws, which is obviously wrong. Draws are a part of chess, sometimes short and dull, sometimes imbalanced and thrilling, sometimes the product of a speculative attack or sacrifice which ends in a perpetual check.. One difference between chess and football is that, in chess, correct play will necessarily lead to a draw! We cannot 'get rid' of them, nor should we be trying to. Rules targeting short, colourless draws, such as the Sofia rule, are more appropriate in my opinion.
Bertman Bertman 3/1/2017 04:37

I don't know if the feedback allows links, but you can click any name in the results table in the report as it is from Chess-Results.
koko48 koko48 2/28/2017 11:23
Bringing back the 3-1-0 football scoring - and making it standard in elite tournaments - would solve the age-old draw problem in a heartbeat, and make the games more interesting to fans and sponsors....And it may be the only solution because Sofia rules have not worked in this regard (today's elite players can play 30-40 moves without really breaking the balance of the game)....But for some reason nobody wants to consider this option.

I've said it before but it needs repeating....The root cause of unfought draws in chess, is the traditional 0- 1/2 - 1 scoring system
KevinC KevinC 2/28/2017 10:44
Grischuk looks like "death warmed over". Looking at him, it is hard to believe he is only 33 years old. He REALLY needs to give up the cigarettes, or he is going to have some serious health problems at an early age.
Rational Rational 2/28/2017 09:44
High draw rate is due to Swiss system as the players on form play each other, in an all play all everybody gets a chance to play the weaker or off form players and chalk up a win
rokko rokko 2/28/2017 07:24
It does not make sense to compare a round-robin with a mini-Swiss as the Swiss system favours encounters of similar strenght and thus the draw rate. Those who started well like MVL only played top opponents and you needed a loss to get an easier opponent and win (Hammer for Adams, Hou for Mamedyarov). Given that not everybody plays the weaker (or out-of-form opponents), there should be a tie-break, but the normal Swiss tie-break (average of opponents points/rating). It seems unfair that Ding gets as many GP points as Nakamura when he has played very few top players (and Naka all of them).
weerogue weerogue 2/28/2017 11:21
Although the rules I can find aren't 100% clear on this, I believe the high draw rate can be attributed to the following:
There are four GP events, but each player will only play (at most) three; previously, the players had their worst result omitted from their record, but in the new format all of their appearances will contribute to their overall score. i.e., whereas previously there was some incentive to 'go for broke', in the knowledge that a terrible result would be expunged, this no longer exists. That, combined with the fact that this was the first GP in the series, meant that it is more sensible to put together a decent score and 'stay in the game', rather than go for broke, risk having a terrible result and mess up your entire GP chances.
I'd expect the draw rate to come down in future GPs and, in particular, I reject the theory that the high draw rate is due to the rating of the participants or the absence of a few key players such as Carlsen or So.
Pieces in Motion Pieces in Motion 2/28/2017 05:58
Good to see Grischuk win. It's been a good tournament.

As for the draws, there's a reason why they're not world champion. :-)
Denix Denix 2/28/2017 05:52
What a game by Liren! The game is all about sixth rank mastery!
bondsergey bondsergey 2/28/2017 02:15
In Swiss system tiebreak rules, first, the result of the direct encounter(s) between the players (if any) is counted. This rule along slits the top 3 players. 5.5 from 9 for a winner is a expected result considering the importance (qualificaion to WCC match) and the level (13 players above 2700) of the event. Only two players in my opinion could possibly get a higher score in this strong group at the moment - Carlsen and So.
Peter B Peter B 2/27/2017 11:57
Why on earth is a Swiss system used in the first place? Maybe one big Swiss is justified, but 4 short GP Swisses cannot be the fairest way to choose Candidates qualifiers.
KingZor KingZor 2/27/2017 11:45
Why are all the players wearing dark jackets? Is there a dress code?
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 2/27/2017 09:18
To Exabachay.

You are correct.

Extract from the official regulations:

"All prizes and Grand Prix ranking points are shared equally, in cases of any tied position/s. No tie break system will be utilised for the individual Grand Prix tournaments. The process of determining the overall winner of the cycle, in the case of a tie, is defined in Article 7.3 below.
7.3 Tie Break for Overall Winner
With the objective of determining qualifiers to play in the Candidates Tournament, and in the case that two or more players have equal cumulative points at the top, the following criteria will be utilized to decide the overall Series winner and other overall placings by taking into account all three tournaments:
a.) No. of actual game result points scored in the three tournaments;
b.) Number of games played with black in the three tournaments;
c.) Number of wins in all three tournaments;
d.) Number.of wins with black in all three tournaments;
e.) Drawing of lots."
Aighearach Aighearach 2/27/2017 08:55
Without Carlsen, Caruana, or So it might be unrealistic to expect the sort of serious chess we've been getting the past few years. It is natural to expect more 1990s-level scores. If a small number of top players are taking bigger chances, that forces the rest to try to win more, too. Without them, not only is that extra push missing, but the remaining players might be more protective of their preparation. Why waste a great line in a draw-fest when you can save it for tournaments that have some fighting players?
TommyCB TommyCB 2/27/2017 08:53
Regarding crosstables.
I don't think we are allowed to post links, but Chess-Results dot com has excellent crosstables for results of events including this one.
Balthus Balthus 2/27/2017 07:49
On second thoughts, a cross-table would be interesting to see; with 18 players, it is not impossible despite the Swiss format.
Balthus Balthus 2/27/2017 07:48
Is it really something to moan about that every fourth game was decided? The percentage is something like 26%. I think it was rather a consequence of the Swiss system with such few participants that a relatively modest score was enough to win.
Exabachay Exabachay 2/27/2017 07:40
The official rules say that there's tiebreaks only for the whole Grand Prix so how do you determine the winner of single events?