Grand Swiss 6: MVL & Sasikiran catch the leaders

Alireza Firouzja let Alexei Shirov escape while Evgeniy Najer stumbled into a 3-fold repetition against Fabiano Caruana as none of the leaders won in Round 6 of the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss. That allowed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to join them on 4.5/6 by continuing to win with White and draw with Black, while Krishnan Sasikiran also seized the chance by beating Alexandr Predke. Lei Tingjie regained the sole lead on 5/6 in the women’s event by defeating Jolanta Zawadzka.

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Alireza Firouzja had already edged into the world Top 5 on the live rating list before Round 6 began, and a win over Latvian veteran Alexei Shirov would have taken him at least above Ian Nepomniachtchi into the world no. 4 spot, and potentially up to world no. 3 if Fabiano Caruana lost, which for a long time looked a distinct possibility. Winning with the black pieces is tough, but Alexei wasn’t wrong when he summed up the game:

Well, I believe that nowadays in press conferences it’s the interviewer who should summarise the game, because normally you could have a look with the computer and I could not, so how can I summarise a game that was very complicated? All I can say is I feel I was clearly worse, maybe lost, and so I’m happy to draw!

The game was a Caro-Kann where Alexei would live to regret his decision on move 14.

He went for 14.Nxg5!?, leaving the h4-pawn en prise, instead of playing the alternative 14.hxg5. A few moves later Alireza took on h4, soon had a healthy extra pawn and, with clever play, he later traded in that pawn for a strong attack. 

It was still very tricky, however, and Alireza was down to under four minutes to his opponent’s 10 when he let his last chances slip with 36…b6?! Alexei could have captured on b6 immediately, but played the equally strong 37.Qc5!

There was no way out for Black, and after 37…Qb7 38.Rxb6! axb6 39.Rxb6 it was Alireza who had to force a draw with 39…Rxf2+ 40.Ke1 Rf1+ and a repetition of moves.

It had been a great fight by both players, and despite the 31-year-old age gap Alexei explained that the issue with Firouzja wasn’t that he was a kid.

In almost every tournament you get very young opponents. In fact against the same Alireza I played more than four years ago, when he was only 14 years old, so then it was maybe something special still, but today he’s just one of the world’s leading grandmasters, so to play against him is just the same as to play Caruana and Vachier-Lagrave. Simply they are better chess players than me, and that’s not very pleasant of course, but I have to fight — what to do!

While Alireza was pushing to win with the black pieces, Fabiano Caruana never got that chance in a game where the players more or less blitzed out their moves until move 19.

In Round 3 of the 2015 FIDE World Cup in Baku the eventual tournament winner Sergey Karjakin had thought for 14 minutes here and played 19.f5, Yu Yangyi played 19…Qb6 after 27 minutes and 20.fxe6 took Sergey almost 35 minutes before he went on to win the game — the timings tell you all you need to know about the complexity of the position. 

In Riga, Najer opted for the new move 19.Bg2 and, just a few moves later, Fabiano was on the ropes. He dug in and made things tough for his opponent, sacrificing a pawn to improve his overall structure, but essentially the assessment of “suffering for Black” hadn’t changed until the game suddenly ended in a draw on move 58.

Najer admitted he’d just blundered that unnecessary draw by 3-fold repetition in a position where he could have kept torturing his illustrious opponent almost indefinitely. Sometimes such repetitions are hard to spot as they’re made by moving different pieces, but this one was a little careless, since it was made by 48…Ne7, 50…Ne7 and 58…Ne7.

It was the first time in his career Najer could remember such a blunder, but it’s not hard to explain — the 44-year-old Russian could easily have scored even more points, but has been playing very long games. His attitude to the rest day?

Now I feel it’s time to rest!

With pre-round leaders Firouzja, Shirov and Najer failing to win, that left the door open to the players on 3.5 points to catch the leaders, though just two of the 14 players managed: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Krishnan Sasikiran. Maxime made easy work of beating Pavel Ponkratov, to make it three draws with Black and three wins with White.

That tweet was posted before Maxime commented afterwards:

For now the plan is going the way I want, draw with Black, win with White, is like what every Russian schoolboy has been taught about in chess. So far my play is convincing, I didn’t have any long games, I never made it past the time control, so it’s all good, but now the decisive games where you play for the money are happening and I’ll need a couple more wins and no losses, so definitely the quest is not over. 

Maxime needed just 26 moves, with the game decisively swinging his way, according to the computer, after 18…Rh6? (18…Qd8!). 

19.Qxd5! Nxf6 20.Qg5! Ng4 and now the immediate 21.f3?? would lose to 21…Nxd4, but the quickly played 21.Nc3!, threatening to crash through with Nd5, forced 21…Qd8.

Maxime explained afterwards that he spent some time looking at beautiful lines starting 22.Qg8+ Ke7 23.Nd5+!?, but felt things would be too unclear, so opted for the more straightforward 22.Qxd8+!. After 22…Kxd8 23.Ne4 e5?! 24.f3! saving the knight with 24…Nf6 allows 25.Nd6!, hitting the c8-rook and f7, but giving up the knight with 24…Nxd4 was obviously hopeless and Pavel resigned a couple of moves later. 

“If my play holds up I don’t see why I should’t end in the top two,” said Maxime, with the two winners gaining the two spots in the 2022 Candidates Tournament. Our French Twitter account would have been happy to see the tournament stopped after Round 6!

It was a tough day for very strong but less well-known Russian grandmasters, as Alexander Predke didn’t get out of the opening with White against India’s Krishnan Sasikiran. 11.Qc2?! was a dubious move, while castling long on move 16 was wildly over-optimistic.

Sasikiran’s 16…Nxf2! was crying out to be played, but is the kind of move that would often be a blunder, since after 17.Rhf1 the knight was pinned to the queen. In this particular case, however, 17…Nd3+! immediately solved that issue, with the position after 18.Bxd3 exd3 simply very good for Black, who was two pawns up. Predke tried to play for an attack, but it never came close to working.

The day could have got better for India, as 17-year-old Nihal Sarin was confronted by a bold choice from David Navara.

The Czech no. 1 went for 14…Bxa1!?, giving up his queen, with 15.Bh6!? from Nihal politely asking David if he was sure. After 18 minutes David opted for 15…Bh8 and Nihal finally did take the queen on d8. 

What followed was an intense strategic struggle where the youngster at times seemed to play too straightforwardly, allowing Navara to establish exactly the fortress he wanted. 

Wins for the players on 3/5 would take them to within half a point of the leaders. 2nd seed Levon Aronian failed to make that jump, after squandering a big advantage against Alexander Donchenko, but five players did succeed. 

David Anton took down Aleksey Dreev, but the other winners were all Russian. Alexey Sarana won a powerful game against Praggnananadhaa, and would be at least among the leaders if he hadn’t slipped into a mating net from an endgame a pawn up in Round 1.

Sanan Sjugirov beat Mustafa Yilmaz with a sudden attack, while 19-year-old Andrey Esipenko beat 16-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov in a game that only suddenly became completely clear after Andrey met the blunder 26…Bd7? with 27.Be5!

White wins material, since after 27…dxe5 he’ll simply be able to play 28.Rxb2.

The other Russian to win was Daniil Dubov, who gave up a piece to keep Ivan Saric’s king in the centre of the board. He was taking real risks, but the way the game developed it was Black who was on the brink but holding on, until 34…Kf8?, played with under a minute on the clock. 

Daniil pounced with 35.Rxe6! and it was game over. After 35…Qxg3 (there’s nothing better) 36.fxg3 fxe6 37.c7! there was no stopping one of the white pawns from queening. Ivan simply allowed his rook to be taken with 37…Ke7, but the pawn endgame after 38.cxd8=Q+ Kxd8 was a trivial win for White.

That painful moment for Ivan Saric was captured on video.

Some notable games elsewhere included Lucas van Foreest allowing Sergei Movsesian a nice checkmate…

…and an opening disaster for Jules Moussard against Baadur Jobava. Baadur opened 1.e4 e5 2.d4!? exd4 3.Nf3 and already had his opponent deep in thought.

He would say afterwards:

I know, like a player, how disappointing it is to lose like that, but we know this is sport, so it can happen, such losses. I chose this line, it’s quite original, to avoid his Petroff, for example. He played more or less ok out of the opening, but then he made a huge blunder. I think he completely missed 11.Ne2!

The big point is that 11…Qxd1? 12.Rxd1 is completely lost for Black, since 12…Rxe7?? runs into 13.Rd8+ and a back-rank checkmate next move. If Jules had now played 11…Qf5! he’d still be right in the game. Baadur can save his extra piece with 12.Bh4, defending f2 at the same time, but after 12…Nc6! Black has dealt with the back-rank issue and can put immense pressure on the stranded white king.

Instead in the game Jules took just over two minutes to play the losing 11…Qh5?, which ran into 12.Qd2!

That multi-purpose move prepares to castle long and solve White’s king issues, potentially to play Qd8, but also, after 12…Nc6, to save the bishop and win the game with 13.Qg5! Moussard’s 13…h6 stopped that last idea, but after 14.0-0-0 Nc6 Jobava could simply have played 15.Ba3. Instead he played the even more powerful 14.Nf4!, and, with no safe squares for the queen, Jules resigned.

“I will try not to go too mad tonight,” said Jobava of his plans going into the rest day. The standings look as follows at the top, with just five rounds now remaining.

Lei Tingjie leads the women’s race

24-year-old Chinese star Lei Tingjie restored her status as the sole leader after being the only one of five co-leaders at the start of the day to win. 

Her game against Poland’s Jolanta Zawadzka swung in her favour on move 27.

Jolanta has an extra pawn, an anchored knight on an excellent outpost on d6 and a healthy bishop that she could have safe-guarded with 27…Bd7! Instead 27…c5? ran into the concrete refutation 28.a4! Bd7 29.Qb6!, hitting the suddenly undefended knight. Black defended the knight with 29…Qg6 and now 30.f4! seems to win almost on the spot, but 30.Ba3, hitting the c5-pawn, was also strong. 

The game had many twists after that, before Lei Tingjie went on to win, with a pleasing final move. 

53.h3! trapped the queen, since if you take on h3 there’s mate on g7.

The draws among the other leaders were perhaps more about fatigue and pressure than any intention to play solidly, since Zhu Jiner missed a win against Elisabeth Paetz, while Harika Dronavalli did the same against Nino Batsiashvili. 

That allowed some other players to move into contention, including top seed Mariya Muzychuk, who beat Nana Dzagnidze for a first win after four draws. There were some dramatic moments elsewhere. Olga Girya had been doing well until she missed the point of Alina Kashlinskaya’s 30…h3! when replying 31.Nf4?

31…Qxb3! suddenly turned the game on its head, with 32.axb3 of course not possible due to 32…Ra1+ and back-rank mate. 

58-year-old Pia Cramling moved back to 50% by picking up a win over Jovanka Houska, who blundered everything with 25…g5??

You don’t need to be a chess legend to spot 26.Nh6+ — as mentioned, the rest day couldn’t have come soon enough! 

The standings at the top look as follows, with only one place in the Women’s Candidates Tournament up for grabs in the Women’s Grand Swiss.

Battle will resume on Wednesday, when Alireza Firouzja faces Evgeniy Najer while Fabiano Caruana has a chance to get revenge for his loss to Sam Sevian in the recent US Championship.

Tune in to all the Grand Swiss action here on chess24 from 13:00 CET each day: Open | Women

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