How Mamedyarov Won GCT Bucharest Undefeated

How Mamedyarov Won GCT Bucharest Undefeated

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After the 2020 hiatus, the Grand Chess Tour returns in 2021 with a regular schedule of events. There will be two classical time control events and three rapid/blitz combos. The venues are familiar, only Bucharest switched with Zagreb and hosted the classical tournament, while the Croats will host a speed chess event later this summer.

GCT Bucharest was the first OTB tournament after the 2020-2021 Candidates but had lots of questions about the players participating. All is good, but this edition of the tour was a bit lacking in star power. First, World Champion GM Magnus Carlsen turned down his invitation, which came as no surprise because he has skipped a full load of GCT participation in the past when he had to defend his title.

Then his challenger, GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, followed suit. This is a reasonable decision considering the mountain of work needed to prepare for the world championship match later this year. Both Carlsen and Nepo will be featured as wild-card participants in some GCT events.

Magnus Carlsen Ian Nepomniachtchi Nepo Bucharest
Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi have other events in mind for this year beyond the GCT.

Another blow to this year's tour prestige came when world number-three GM Ding Liren also withdrew. One can understand that the Chinese star had reasons to be unhappy with his play lately, and wanted to take his game to the repair shop. The difficulty of travel in today's uncertain times must have also been a factor in his decision.

The organizers tried to alleviate the problem by inviting world number-11 GM Richard Rapport, whose absence from Carlsen's online events had raised a few eyebrows, as a full-tour participant. Rapport accepted, but at the last moment had to withdraw from the inaugural event due to illness (although he is currently playing in GCT Paris).

The remaining names are quite recognizable: GMs Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, Alexander Grischuk, Wesley So, Anish Giri, Shakhrijar Mamedyarov, Teimour Radjabov, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The field was completed by the inclusion of two Romanian players, GMs Constantin Lupulescu and Bogdan-Daniel Deac.

Still, the event doesn't quite cut it as the superstar show envisioned by the tour mastermind, GM Garry Kasparov. He gave his best effort to promote the tournament by coming to Bucharest in person. He also made the ceremonial first move in a first-round game with the Romanian soccer star of the 1990s, Ilie Dumitrescu.

Garry Kasparov Bucharest
What if Kasparov played in the event himself? Photo: Maria Emelianova/

It must have been disappointing for the organizers, and Kasparov himself, to see the lack of effort shown by the elite players in the opening rounds in Bucharest. Practically every game between the tour regulars ended in a quick draw. The players showed no remorse by repeating known theoretical lines to reach their “strategic” goal of finishing their games as soon as allowed by the 30-move rule.

Radjabov was the only one who gave an explanation. In a Twitter message, he cited the intense schedule and “lack of ideas” for his (and presumably, his colleagues) disappointing no-show at the start. He also brushed off further criticism by saying that no matter what, he already has his place in chess history. My comment is, World Cup winner or not, such statements are better left for others to make.

It was the local heroes who more than made up for it. Deac is only 19 years old and 150 rating points below his opposition, but the youngster played a kind of “I got nothing to lose” chess, which was refreshing to see. He almost nailed Giri in the opening round and shook off his disappointment by downing MVL as Black in round two.

Bogdan-Daniel Deac
Deac, host country Romania's #2 player, played fighting chess in Bucharest. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

His more experienced compatriot Lupulescu pitched in on his own. A loss to Caruana in round two was answered the very next day when Lupulescu defeated Giri.

To make the tour truly grand, I suggested (only half-jokingly) that the organizers should eliminate unnecessary games between the regulars and switch to the Scheveningen system, where a team of elite players would compete against a local squad. Five on five, playing each other twice, how bad would it be? Throw in some high-rated players from neighboring countries, if need be, to make it competitive.

Thankfully, the big names of the tour slowly began to wake up. An interesting pattern had emerged: the players from the 2020-21 Candidates Tournament struggled with their games, while others at least kept their expected level of play.

Fabiano Caruana Maxime Vachier-Lagrave MVL Bucharest
Caruana and MVL at the Candidates following their round eight game. Both might soon want to forget their performances both in that tournament and at Bucharest. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

Caruana's -1 score cost him 14 rating points, putting him perilously close to falling out of the 2800 club for the first time in years. His chess suffered from unsure handling of middlegame positions, a rather unexpected downside of his emphasis on opening preparation. Hopefully, lots of rapid and blitz games that are on the agenda can help to alleviate the problem.

Even worse was the result of Vachier-Lagrave: A last-place finish, another 11 points dropped, and now below 2750. Some serious work has to be done to right the ship. Considering his unfortunate loss to Giri, studying opposite-color bishop endgames would be a good start.

The Dutch GM started the tournament with a near loss to Deac and followed with a real loss to Lupulescu. A complete disaster was averted, thanks to Giri's professionalism. On a positive note, he fought hard in nearly every game in Bucharest.

So defeated Caruana in style to get to +1 but didn't try too hard to improve his score. So's appetite for chess playing appears to have been fully satisfied by the success he has enjoyed in online events. True, he earns enough money, but is there enough ambition to drive his chess forward? I'm afraid not. So's commitment to a spiritual way of life contradicts with the need to develop the necessary killer instinct.

Wesley So Bucharest
So didn't dominate at Bucharest like he has in some recent online events. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Aronian has recently made a life-changing decision to relocate to the United States. I'm not familiar with the details, but I can easily imagine how distracting such life events can be, particularly if he has to take care of family members. He still has a lot of chess left in him, as indicated by his comeback from -1 to finish with So and Grischuk at +1, and he will be a major force in the remaining tour events.

It's notable that Grischuk had the best score among the 2020-21 candidates. On the negative side, both of his wins came against the locals, who struggled to equalize as Black, while his loss to Aronian was rather deflating. I agree with GM Aleksandr Shimanov's opinion that the glory days of Grischuk's impeccable handling of time-trouble situations are sadly behind him, and now he falters under pressure like the rest of us. I think it's high time for him to reassess the situation.

No such issues for Mamedyarov. He looked fresh and motivated throughout, and the three-game winning streak in rounds five to seven was enough to put him on top of the field. His wins weren't cheap, he downed Caruana as Black by using his trademark g7-g5 idea in the Ruy Lopez. Well done and welcome back to the top five in the rating list!

# Fed Name Rtg Perf 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 Pts SB
1 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov 2770 2868 ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 6.0/9
2 Wesley So 2770 2787 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 5.0/9 22
3 Levon Aronian 2781 2785 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 5.0/9 21.5
4 Alexander Grischuk 2776 2786 ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 5.0/9 21.25
5 Anish Giri 2780 2748 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 0 4.5/9 20.25
6 Teimour Radjabov 2765 2749 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 4.5/9 20.25
7 Bogdan-Daniel Deac 2627 2725 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 4.0/9 17.25
8 Fabiano Caruana 2820 2705 0 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 4.0/9 16.75
9 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2760 2671 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ 3.5/9 16.5
10 Constantin Lupulescu 2656 2682 0 ½ ½ 0 1 ½ ½ 0 ½ 3.5/9 15.5

The upcoming events of the tour will be graced by cameo appearances of Kasparov and GM Vladimir Kramnik. We will also see Nepomniachtchi in action, along with a host of wild-card talent. We all hope for exciting chess, and we don't have to wait too long for the action to resume.

Yermo's Selected Game Analysis

Yermo GCT Bucharest

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