Jerusalem GP: Advantage Nepomniachtchi

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
12/18/2019 – Ian Nepomniachtchi obtained a crucial victory over Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in their first encounter of the semi-finals in Jerusalem. The Russian needs a draw to reach the final and get a step closer to next year's Candidates Tournament. For Vachier-Lagrave, this surely brings back bad memories, as he fell just short of qualification in the previous cycle. Meanwhile, Wei Yi and David Navara signed a 52-move draw. | Photo: Niki Riga

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Old ghosts

The fourth leg of the FIDE Grand Prix is being played in Jerusalem, Israel. The 16-player knockout has a €130,000 prize fund, with the series as a whole having an additional prize fund of €280,000 plus two qualifying spots for the 2020 Candidates Tournament. The tournament takes place in the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre from December 11th to 23rd.

Maxime Vachier-LagraveMaxime Vachier-Lagrave is one of the most notable players not to have ever participated in a Candidates Tournament, at least in the modern era. The French grandmaster has attained a 2750+ rating on every single monthly list since October 2015 and has become a constant feature in top-notch events. Furthermore, he has proved that he is capable of beating any member of the elite, especially in rapid and blitz — a couple of weeks ago, he knocked out Magnus Carlsen at the Grand Chess Tour finals in London.

You might think 'MVL' simply plays below his level when he takes part in events of the World Championship cycle, but that is not the case at all. He fell just short of qualification two years ago, when he was eliminated in the semis of the World Cup after losing a highly dramatic match against Levon Aronian — in fact, the Frenchman had a favourable position out of the opening in the deciding Armageddon game. He also finished fourth among the eligible players in the Grand Prix and in the race to get the 'rating spot' (each route granted two spots).

Sadly for him, the story seems to be repeating itself this year. Once again, he was knocked out from the World Cup in the semi-final stage, and now that he reached the final leg of the Grand Prix in second place, losing against Ian Nepomniachtchi without even reaching the tiebreaks would be a big blow.

It must be added that even if the Russian ends up prevailing in the match, he still needs to win the final in Jerusalem to take 'MVL' out of contention, so not all hopes are lost for the Frenchman.

Nepomniachtchi 1:0 Vachier-Lagrave

For a second day in a row, Nepomniachtchi's targeted opening preparation borne fruit. He responded to Vachier-Lagrave's 7...c6 in the Grünfeld with the infrequent 8.e3:


As Nepomniachtchi himself explained, most people go 8.♗e2, entering a line which Vachier-Lagrave "played one thousand [times]", and quite successfully. The experiment worked wonders, as it totally caught his rival by surprise. 'MVL' spent no less than 20 minutes on 8...g4 and after 9.e5 decided to go for 9...xe3, choosing an approach described by Nepomniachtchi as "strategically very dangerous". 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Vachier-Lagrave's expression after 8.♗e3 | Photo: Niki Riga

True to his nature — and following the plan that served him well against Dmitry Andreikin on Monday — Vachier-Lagrave decided to complicate matters on move 14:


Instead of opting for the more natural-looking 14...♞f5 or 14...h5, the Frenchman lashed out with 14...b5, which he later characterized as "interesting but maybe a bit too risky". In the ensuing complications, Black's compensation after losing the b-pawn seemed to be enough to keep the fight going, but Vachier-Lagrave faltered again in a sharp position:


Nepomniachtchi later explained that if his opponent had played 19...c5 here, "a big clash" would have followed. Instead, after 19...fxe5 20.dxe5 e8 Vachier-Lagrave had planned to go for a questionable forcing line. White played 21.g2 and 'MVL' mistakenly entered a tactical sequence with 21...xe5.


After 22.fxe5, 22...Nxh4+ is a discovered check, but what the French star had missed is that after 23.g1 xg2 White does not need to recapture immediately:


Vachier-Lagrave had seen from afar that 24.♔xg2 runs into 24...♛c6+ 25.e4 ♛b6, when Black gets strong threats against the opposite king with the infiltration of his queen and rook trough the f-file. He had missed, however, that White can play 24.e4, when the ideas mentioned above do not work and the knight is going to be captured later on anyway.

Black continued to pose problems to his opponent, but White's advantage was too big to be completely neutralized. Resignation came on move 36.


Ian Nepomniachtchi, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

The rematch will most likely be a fierce fight | Photo: Niki Riga

Wei Yi ½:½ Navara

An occurrence that is seen more often than people would think was the curious fact of this encounter: Wei Yi got confused and prepared to play with Black when he was set to move first in the game. This fact was made clear when the Chinese prodigy started to invest valuable time early on — for example, on move 10, he needed over fifteen minutes to find a manoeuvre that Vassily Ivanchuk had employed earlier this year. Luckily for the spectators, this led to an unusual situation on the board:


There is material equality and symmetrical pawn structures, but we hardly ever see both sides having three 'pawn islands' on a-b, d-e and g-h. From this point on, correct play by the semi-finalists led to a 52-move draw, when nothing but the kings were left on the board.  


David Navara

David Navara wearing his trademark checkered tie | Photo: Niki Riga

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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