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Moscow Semifinals Begin With Two Nervous, Tense Draws

Nerves were on display on Thursday in the first games of the semifinals of the Moscow Grand Prix – the players in both games had winning chances when the games were stopped by mutual agreement.

By Dylan Loeb McClain

The Grand Prix is using a knockout format this year and it is having an effect. There have been many exciting games and there have also been come curious draws as the players seem to be feeling the pressure.

The format is mini-matches of two regulation, or slow games, followed, if necessary, by two rapid games and then blitz games. If there is still no victor at that point, the match is decided by an Armageddon game in which Black has less time but only has to draw to win.

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So far, none of the matches has gone that far. Indeed, all have been decided in regulation or in the rapid tie-breakers.

The Moscow Grand Prix, which is being held at the Central Chess Players’ House, is the first in a series of four tournaments to select two players for next year’s Candidates tournament. The winner of that tournament will become the challenger for the 2020 World Championship match to be held in November.

There are 21 players in the Grand Prix, with each playing three of the four tournaments.

The prize fund for each competition is 130,000 euros with an additional 280,000 euros allocated among the top 10 finishers in the series, for a total of 800,000 euros.

The principal sponsors of the series are PhosAgro, a giant Russian fertilizer company, and Kaspersky Lab, a worldwide leader in data security. The series is being organized and broadcast by Worldchess on its Web site under the auspices of the World Chess Federation, which is better known as FIDE, the game’s governing body.

The first game to finish on Thursday was between Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia and Radoslaw Wojtaszek of Poland. Arguably, that draw was the more curious of the two.

Nepomniachtchi, who had White, blitzed out his first 25 moves against Wojtaszek’s Najdorf Sicilian Defense, using almost no time on his clock, indicating that he was still basically following analysis that he had done before the game. At that point, Black’s position was under pressure as White’s pieces were all pointing menacingly at Black’s castled king.

One move later, however, after thinking for about 10 minutes, Nepomniachtchi played 26 h3 (about 1:45 into the broadcast), a somewhat weak move, and offered a draw, which was quickly accepted.

Afterward, in an interview (which can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ti7cL7GXw0), Nepomaniachtchi did not sound very confident, suggesting that he thought that Wojtaszek knew exactly what he should be doing. Radoslaw said that he accepted the draw because he was already well behind on the clock and the position was very complicated.

The other game featured Hikaru Nakamura of the United States and Alexander Grischuk of Russia. The opening was a Giuoco Piano, which is Italian for” quiet game.” The opening usually features a lot of quiet maneuvering, but it can become very tactical if the center opens.

Nakamura surprised Grischuk on Move 16 by exchanging his light-squared bishop, which is usually an essential piece for White, in order to win a pawn. The plan turned out to be double-edged as Grischuk’s pieces began to spring to life, putting immense pressure on Nakamura’s center. Grischuk followed up by posting his remaining knight aggressively on f4, presaging a possible attack against Nakamura’s king. Though Nakamura was not objectively worse, the position was much easier to play for Black than for White.

But, with time running low on both players’ clocks, Grischuk played 35… Rc8 (at 3:40 of the broadcast), which was readily accepted by Nakamura.

In an interview afterward (which can seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmOipYSu9hQ), Nakamura said that Grischuk’s 14… Qc7 had not been part of his pre-game analysis preparation, but that it turned out not to be bad. He said that he accepted the draw offer because the position was messy and he did not have enough time to evaluate it better. Grischuk said that he also did not have much confidence in his position at the end, which is why he offered the draw.

The matches resume Friday at 3 PM local time. The broadcast can be viewed free and live at worldchess.com.

Photos for media use are available in the event’s archive.