The FIDE Grand Prix concluded last Dec. 23 with the victory of GM Ian Nepomniachtchi in the Jerusalem leg and after that the participant list in the March 2020 Yekaterinburg Candidates Tournament was finalized:
1 Runner-up in 2018 World Championship – Fabiano Caruana
2–3 Two qualifiers from the FIDE World Cup 2019 — Teimour Radjabov and Ding Liren. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (MVL) and Yu Yangyi were the losing semifinalists and they played an elimination match for the 3rd place, won by MVL.
4 Winner of the FIDE Grand Swiss held in the Isle of Man — Wang Hao. Actually, Wang Hao and Fabiano Caruana tied for 1st place but since Caruana already had a slot in the Candidates there were no tie breaks involved anymore and the Chinese GM automatically qualified for the Candidates. There was a six-way tie for 3rd place just half a point behind the winners. In tie-break order: Kirill Alekseenko, Levon Aronian, David Anton Guijarro, Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura and Nikita Vitiugov.
5–6 Two qualifiers from the FIDE Grand Prix — Alexander Grischuk and Ian Nepomniachtchi. The 3rd and 4th places were occupied by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.
7 One qualifier by rating (average of the past year) not otherwise qualified: Anish Giri. The top 3 were Magnus Carlsen (2865), Fabiano Caruana (2819), and Ding Liren (2807). Magnus Carlsen of course is the current world champion while Caruana and Ding Liren already had confirmed seats to Yekaterinburg. Next in line is Anish Giri (2782), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (2777) and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (2775). The January 2020 ratings still have to be taken into consideration but a lead of 5 points by Giri over MVL is huge when you consider it is a 1-year average. No one expects the ratings order to change.
8 One Organizer’s wild card – Kirill Alekseenko. The rule is that the organizer of the Candidates tournament can nominate one player to participate who meets at least one of the following criteria:
The player from the top-10 players by average FIDE rating. This is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
The player placed 3rd in the 2019 FIDE World Cup. This is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
The best nonqualifying player from the 2019 FIDE Grand Swiss. This is Kirill Alekseenko
The best nonqualifying player from the 2019 FIDE Grand Prix Series. This is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
The organizer, the Russian Chess Federation, of course chose the Russian player, Kirill Alekseenko from St. Petersburg, as their nominee. A perfectly legal choice.
The French GM, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, is appealing the choice of the wild card and requests that he be allowed to play a match against Kirill Alekseenko for the last candidates slot. He has some valid points:
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave topped three of the four criteria (given above) for the wild card choice.
The FIDE Grand Swiss is a new criteria. Under the old rules the Top 2 qualifiers by rating get automatic slots. Thus MVL would have been an automatic qualifier.
The wild card rules are also new. Under the old regulations the organizers can name any wild card so long as his rating is at least 2725. Alekseenko currently has a rating of 2704. He would not have even be considered if we were to follow this rule.
The Candidates Tournament already has two Russian participants and MVL argues that it makes more sense to choose world number four Vachier-Lagrave instead of Alekseenko, who is number 37.
I do not believe this appeal has any chance of success, though.
The wild card is an incentive given to prospective organizers of FIDE qualifying events. They have every right to choose Alekseenko.
It is not that MVL did not have the same opportunities as Alekseenko to qualify. In fact, he had everything in his hands, but lost 3 key matches in this cycle, to Radjabov in the World Cup, to Grischuk in Hamburg GP and to Nepom in Jerusalem GP.
This is not to say that Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is not a deserving candidate. Obviously, he is. But the rules for qualifying were approved and published before the competitions and the World Chess Federation (FIDE) cannot be taken to task for simply following the criteria they announced would be used.
Vachier-Lagrave’s best game from Jerusalem.
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime (2780) — Topalov, Veselin (2737) [C67]
Jerusalem FIDE Grand Prix
Jerusalem (3.1), 13.12.2019
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0–0 MVL is also a regular practitioner of the Anti-Berlin line 4.d3.
Do you remember not so long ago I wrote about attacking the Berlin? If you don’t recall then please go back and review it as that is one column that I was really proud about. Anyway, the stem game was a beauty from the attacking genius Rashid Nezhmetdinov: 5.Re1 Nd6 6.Nxe5 Be7 7.Bd3 0–0 8.Nc3 Nxe5 9.Rxe5 Bf6 10.Re3 g6 (the natural 10…b6? falls instantly to 11.Bxh7+! Kxh7 12.Qh5+ Kg8 13.Rh3 Bh4 14.Rxh4 f5 15.d4 White is clearly winning) 11.Qf3! (Yup, Black still can’t develop his bishop via b7–b6) 11…Bg7 12.b3 Ne8 13.Ba3 d6 14.Rae1 Nf6 (the Black knight wants to go Nf6–g4–e5) 15.h3! Nd7 16.Nd5 f5 (It turns out that the black knight can’t go to e5 because of 16…Ne5 17.Rxe5! dxe5 [17…Bxe5 18.Rxe5 dxe5 19.Be7 wins the queen] 18.Ne7+ Kh8 19.Nxc8 White has two pieces for the rook) 17.Nxc7! Qxc7 18.Qd5+ Kh8 19.Re8 Nf6 20.Rxf8+ Bxf8 21.Bb2 Bg7 22.Bc4 Bd7 23.Bxf6 Bxf6 24.Qf7 Qd8 25.Re8+! An amazing tactical sequence. 1–0 Nezhmetdinov, R. — Kotkov, Y. Russian ch Krasnodar 1957.
5…Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+
Someone once asked me why White shouldn’t avoid the queen exchange with 8.Qe2. This question is actually addressed by GM Priyadharshan Kannappan in his new book on The Modernized Berlin Wall Defense. According to him “this move should not be taken seriously”: 8…Nd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Rd1 Bg4! (the queen trade favors Black, thanks to his bishop pair and the overextended pawn on e5 — Kannappan) 11.Rxd4 Bxe2 12.Nc3 Bh5 13.Bg5 h6 14.Bh4 g5 15.Bg3 Bc5! 16.Rc4 (16.Rd2 Rd8 17.Rxd8+ Kxd8 18.Ne4 Be7 19.f3 Bg6 Black is slightly better) 16…Be7 17.Ne4 0–0–0 18.a4 Rd5 Kannappan: “the misplaced rooks, weak pawns and bishop trapped on g3 make White’s life miserable.” Akatova, E. (2260)-Slugin, S. (2440) St. Petersburg 2010 0–1 51.
We have here on the board the Berlin Wall end game. Let us review some basic rule of the thumb stuff on this end game:
In this end game the uncastled king is not necessarily a handicap. If the rooks are exchanged it is going to come into action very quickly. Therefore Black should strive to exchange all the rooks.
Exchanging the knights is also in Black’s favor as he obtains the excellent f5–square for his bishops.
If White manages to exchange the dark-square bishops then Black can encounter problems fighting for the d-file. Best to keep both his bishops.
Black should never enter a king and pawn ending(5) Another thing, Black should not indiscriminately advance c6–c5 without good preparation, this can enable White to deploy his knight on d5 with powerful effect.
Previously the main line was 9.Nc3 but in the past few years the text move has become very popular with MVL in particular being one of its main promoters.
Currently 9…Ke8 10.Nc3 h5 is Black’s main path to equality. The move weakens the g5–square, but fights against the advance of White’s pawn majority on the kingside.
Black prevents White’s knight from going to g5.
11.g4 Nh4 12.Nxh4 Bxh4 13.Nd2 Kc8 14.Nf3 Be7 15.Bg5
Going for a swap of the dark-squared bishops, as per rules of the thumb outlined earlier.
15…Bc5 16.Rd3 b6 17.Be3
Basically forcing the exchange of bishops.
If Black insists on retaining his bishop then 17…Be7 18.Rad1 Be6 19.Nd4 Bd5 20.Nf5 Bf8 21.c4! Bxc4 22.Rd8+ Kb7 23.Rxa8 Kxa8 24.Rd8+ White is playing for a win while Black can just wait around to see what his opponent does. A sample line is 24…Kb7 25.b3 Be6 26.Bg5! g6 27.Nd4 Bg7 28.Nxe6 fxe6 29.Rxh8 Bxh8 30.Bf6 White wins the bishop and has a decisive advantage.
18.Rxe3 h6 19.Rd1 c5 20.Nh4
Intending to push his f-pawn.
Strongly threatening 22.Ne7+ Kd8 23.e6!.
Nothing looks good. Perhaps 21…Be6 22.Ng7 Kb7 (22…Bd7 23.Rf3 Be6 24.Nxe6 fxe6 25.Rf6 wins a crucial pawn) 23.Nxe6 fxe6 24.Rd7 Rad8 25.Red3 Rxd7 26.Rxd7 Kc6 27.Re7 is the best defense although even here White is for choice.
POSITION AFTER 22.GXF5
Is White already winning here? Maybe.
22…Kb7 23.Kg2 Rad8 24.Rxd8 Rxd8 25.Kf3! c4 26.Re4 b5 27.Kg4! Kc8 28.e6 fxe6 29.fxe6 Rh8 30.Kf5 Kd8 31.e7+ Ke8 32.Kg6 1–0
Topalov gives up. After the forced 32.Kg6 Kd7 33.Kg7 Re8 34.Kf7 White will simply move his rook up and down the e-file waiting for Black to use up all his moves, after which Black has to move away his rook and allow his opponent to queen the pawn.
Bobby Ang is a founding member of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) and its first Executive Director. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA), he taught accounting in the University of Santo Tomas (UST) for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.