The final – sixth round – of the group stage of the Grand Prix finished in Belgrade, with four clear winners progressing to the semi-finals.
Despite players such as Richard Rapport and Anish Giri entering the round as comfortable leaders in their groups, it was a tense day as things could have still gone wrong even for them. On the other hand, players such as Etienne Bacrot, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Nikita Vitiugov had to play for a win in order to secure a place in the tiebreaks. These circumstances were promising an exciting final round of the group stage of the Belgrade leg of the Grand Prix.
The first move in the round was made by Lukasz Turley, FIDE Vice President, in the game between Nikita Vitiugov and Anish Giri.
In Pool A it was Andreikin and Shankland who had the most chances to move to the next stage. If they drew their games, or if both won, the two would have to play each other in the tiebreak. However, if Andreikin lost and Shankland drew, it would be the Bacrot and the American who would have to decide in tiebreaks who moves forward to the semi-finals.
Dmitry Andreikin opted for a rare line in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted against Etienne Bacrot but did not get even a slight edge. Bacrot was holding his own quite comfortably, and a draw seemed like the most logical outcome. Trying to reverse his fortune, Andreikin ventured upon a queen sacrifice for a rook and minor piece, but it did not offer much had Bacrot played the natural move 27…Qxd5.
The game was full of twists and turns where both sides had a significant advantage and then blundered it away. The final portion of this encounter was a real blunder fest. Black had just a rook for the queen at some point but allowed the opponent to weave a mating net around his king. A miracle victory by Andreikin, who qualified for the semis.
Sam Shankland essayed the Sicilian defence against Alexander Grischuk, who responded with the Rossolimo Attack. White opted for a very solid setup, restricting Black’s activity. Shankland played the right logical moves, but unfortunately for him, they led to massive exchanges and a draw was agreed on move 24.
Anish Giri was the favourite to win in Pool B. He was Black against Nikita Vitiugov. In their previous game, in the second round, Giri was victorious as White. In the round six game, Vitiugov had to win in order to get a chance to fight Giri again, but in the tiebreak.
Starting with the English Opening, the game quickly transposed into a sideline of the Tarrasch Defence. It seemed that Vitiugov managed to surprise Giri as Black spent a lot of time on the opening: nearly 32 minutes on move eleven and 15 minutes on his 15th move. The time was well-spent as Anish got a comfortable position and after exchanges in the centre reached equality. With a solid pawn structure and no queens on the board, Giri was safe, and the two called it a draw.
With this draw, Anish Giri was on 4/6 and in clear first place in Pool B.
“It’s very important that I qualified and not so much how the games went… All the games were tough, and my play was decent. I’m happy with my score, and I’m looking forward to the next phase”, said Giri in his post-game interview.
Pentala Harikrishna lost as White to Amin M. Tabatabaei. The two had no chances to qualify for the next stage, but they still played an exciting game.
In the Open Line of the Ruy Lopez, White sacrificed an exchange, getting a pawn and a bishops pair as compensation, following the idea introduced in the game Caruana – Dominguez in 2021. Tabatabaei offered a repetition on move 23 but White opted to play on. However, immediately after this, following a strange move 28.b3, White opened the queenside to Black. Tabatabaei’s rooks jumped into action, and his extra exchange quickly came to fore. The Iranian finished the event with his first and only victory.
Richard Rapport drew with Alexei Shirov, and with this result, sealed his card for the next stage of the tournament.
In the English Opening, the Hungarian opted for the line he had tested back in 2013 but with black pieces. Shirov was trying to create some chances on the queenside but did not manage to get anything substantial. Everything was in Rapport’s hands, who opted for a safe path to a draw that promoted him to the next stage.
Vladimir Fedoseev and Vidit Santosh Gujrathi had a theoretical discussion in a popular line of the Petroff Defense. Castling on opposite sides promised a sharp game, and the opponents did not disappoint. Black pushed his pawns towards the centre, pressing White’s c4-square. Fedoseev had to switch to defence and allowed Vidit to seize the advantage, which he increased by cutting off White’s king on a1. Vidit Gujrathi was in control, but a strong computer-like move 30…Rd8! escaped his attention. White avoided the worst and after several unsuccessful tries by Vidit the game ended in a draw.
One of the most anticipated games of the round was between Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who was leading white pieces against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The only way Mamedyarov could qualify for the next stage was to score a victory against the Frenchman, who was the leader in the extremely strong Pool D.
After 1.d4, MVL decided not to play his pet Gruenfeld and opted for a more solid opening. In the Carlsbad Variation of Queen’s Gambit, the two players castled to the opposite wings suggesting a sharp game. White tried to engineer some activity on the kingside but the Frenchman was quick in his counterplay. His dark-squared bishop was a particularly functional piece, cementing defence and eyeing the b2-pawn in White’s camp. By move 30 Mamedyarov exhausted his attacking options and MVL forced a draw by a nice combination with an exchange sacrifice.
With six draws from six games, this was not a great tournament for Mamedyarov who prefers very sharp positions. With this outcome, Mamedyarov has no chance to get to the Candidates.
The second game of Pool D was between Yu Yangyi and Alexandr Predke. The Chinese player had to play for a win if he wanted to secure a tiebreak with MVL. In the Ruy Lopez, White obtained a space advantage and more promising position with Black’s pieces were mostly pinned to the 7th and 8th rank.
However, Yu Yangyi was not energetic enough, misplaced his queen and allowed Black to get mightly counterplay. Predke jumped at the opportunity, and by move 40, he was now clearly better, having exposed White’s castle. Yu had to exchange his queen for a knight and a rook and managed to complicate things, but Black retained a substantial edge, sufficient for victory. Despite time trouble, Predke kept his cool, consolidated the advantage and scored his only victory in this competition.
In the first pairing of the semi-final, the winner of Pool A is playing against the winner of Pool B. In the second pairing, the winner of Pool C is up against the winner of Pool D.
Arbiter Nebojsa Baralic and the participating players drew their colours for the first game of the semi-finals.
The first semi-final pairings are:
Anish Giri vs Dmitry Andreikin
Richard Rapport vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
The semi-finals are taking place on Wednesday, 9th March at 3 PM local (CET) time.
Leading partners supporting the FIDE Grand Prix Series 2022 include:
Kaspersky as the Official Cybersecurity Partner;
Algorand as the Official Blockchain Partner;
Prytek as the Technology Transfer Partner;
FIDE Online Arena as the official Partner.
Text: Milan Dinic
Photo: Mark Livshitz