Moscow GP: Nepomniachtchi reaches the final

by Antonio Pereira
5/26/2019 – An all-Russian final will kick off Monday in Moscow, as Ian Nepomniachtchi will face Alexander Grischuk to decide the champion of the first leg of the Grand Prix. 'Nepo' defeated Radoslaw Wojtaszek on tie-breaks, with a win in the fourth rapid game, after the first three encounters finished drawn. Curiously, Grischuk and Nepomniachtchi have the exact same live rating at the time. | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess

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A tense play-off

Reaching the final was not an easy task for Ian Nepomniachtchi. He had difficult positions in both 25+10 games and in the first 10+10 encounter. Nonetheless, credit should be given to him for having defended effectively under such complicated circumstances. For Wojtaszek, on the other hand, it was a tough loss, as he not only came close to defeating Nepo in the tie-breaks but also surpassed the first two rounds without needing tie-breaks — and against two top-notch rivals, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Peter Svidler.

With Nepo in the final, the "Russia vs The World" battle that arose in the quarter-finals was won by the locals, with Grischuk having a pseudo home advantage, as he was actually born in Moscow. In addition, the two players are currently the highest-rated players from the Eurasian country — in fact, their current live ratings are identical, 2775.2! Alexander and Ian will play under the same conditions used in the previous rounds (unlike in the World Cup), with two classical games followed by tie-breaks if necessary.

FIDE Grand Prix Moscow 2019

Chess is popular in Moscow | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess

Game 1: A clear edge for Radek

With White, the Polish grandmaster got a clear structural advantage out of the opening. A Benoni-like structure without the dark-squared bishops on the board gave White clear targets in the centre. When Wojtaszek opened up the position, it was clear that Black was going to need a good defensive effort to avoid an early defeat:

 

You can try your own variations on the diagram above!

White's rooks, bishop and queen are well-placed to target Black's weaknesses — the game continued 23...dxe5 24.xe5 xe5 25.fxe5 xe5 26.xc6 b8 27.d5:

 

The simplifications left White with the more active pieces, as after 27...xd5 28.xd5 a6 Black is fighting for dear life. Nepomniachtchi, however, was up to the task — with good tactical vision and not much time on the clock, he created enough problems for his opponent as to avoid falling behind on the score board. The draw was signed after 40 moves.

Radoslaw Wojtaszek

How could I have missed that? | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess

Game 2: A sacrifice that could have gone wrong

Wojtaszek played the Sicilian and Nepomniachtchi decided to test his opponent in the Moscow Variation. Both players castled kingside and went into a strategical battle, fighting for key squares and looking for the best way to simplify into some sort of superior endgame...until, suddenly, Nepo decided to give up his bishop on h6:

 

Apparently, Ian thought this led to a draw by force, but after 26.xh6 gxh6 27.g4+ f8 28.h4 the computers show Black has a way to continue and try to convert his material advantage:

 

Instead of 28...f6, Radoslaw could have gone for 28...♛d8 when after 29.♕xh6+ ♚g8 White's 30.h5 would be followed by 30...♝xf5 31.♘xf5 ♞g7 and the attack has been neutralized. It is hard to blame the Polish GM for not finding this alternative, though. After the text, White found a perpetual check rather quickly.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Sometimes you need to defend | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess

Game 3: Radek gets another chance

In a Gruenfeld that followed theory until move 12 (one of the predecessors was Wojtaszek-Ragger from 2015, which was won by Black), White got a strong initiative on the queenside, while Black was left with the pair of bishops. A tactical skirmish left White a pawn up:

 

A series of simplifications followed — 29.xc4 dxc4 30.xc7 db8 31.d6 xb6 32.xf7 xf7 33.cxc4 xb2. And now:

 

A technical endgame ensued after 34.c7+ g8 35.c8+ xc8 36.xc8. White was the one with chances, until he erred with a king move:

 

39.g2 allowed Black to force further simplifications with 39...xf2+ 40.xf2 xd4+. At this point, the players agreed to a draw, as there is no way to prevent the disappearance of the pawns. Instead, Wojtaszek could have kept fighting for the win with 39.f5, when Black will need to be precise in defence. 

Radoslaw Wojtaszek

It was a tough day for Radek | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess

Game 4: The blunder

The players repeated line of the Sicilian they had played in game two until move 14, when Wojtaszek had prepared an improvement — he opened up the centre instead of going for a slow strategical battle:

 

In game two, Radek had chosen 14...♝e6, but he now went for the more direct 14...d5. Nepo reacted quickly with 15.exd5 and the game continued 15...e8 16.d6 xd6 17.d5 c6 18.fe3.

And here came the massive blunder:

 

A move like 18...f5 would have been a logical choice for Black, while Radek's 18...c5 simply gives away the game. Ian quickly played the winning 19.b4, which was followed by 19...d6 20.c4 b6 21.a5, nimbly mobilizing the queenside pawns:

 

There followed 21...e4 22.d4 e6 23.axb6 xd5 24.xd5 and now Black cannot capture the already far-advanced b-pawn:

 

Wojtaszek found nothing better than 24...xd5, given the fact that 24...xb6 would have been followed by 25.c5, gaining the bishop. The game only lasted four more moves, as White's advance on the queenside is way too strong — 25.xd5 xb4 26.xa6 d6 27.b7 xb7 28.b6.

 

White is about to gain a piece and has a passer on the c-file to boot. Wojtaszek resigned.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Nepo is the second (Russian) finalist | Photo: Niki Riga / World Chess

The highlight of the post-game interview was the following exchange:

Eteri Kublashvili: So what do you expect from this match [against Grischuk]?

Ian Nepomniachtchi: To be honest, the most thing I expect are the press conferences from Alexander after the games.


Full interview with Nepomniachtchi and Wojtaszek



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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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