Whoever ends up winning the tournament, the 2018 Candidates in Berlin is going to go down as one of the most exciting in memory.
One round after two unexpected losses upended the standings in the fight for first, two more decisive results in Round 13 on Monday rejiggered the leaderboard again.
Fabiano Caruana of the United States beat Levon Aronian of Armenia to once again climb to the top of the standings. At the same time, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan downed Alexander Grischuk of Russia, thereby knocking Grischuk out of the fight for first, while keeping Mamedyarov in the hunt.
With one round to play, Caruana has 8 points, Mamedyarov and Sergey Karjakin of Russia are tied for second, each with 7.5 points, and Ding Liren of China has 7 points. (Each win is worth one point and each draw is worth a half point.) The four competitors all mathematically have a shot at winning the tournament, though Caruana is the only one who controls his fate.
The situation is almost a reversal of the one in the 2016 Candidates in Moscow. Then, Caruana had to beat Karjakin in the final round in order to win the tournament, but Karjakin prevailed.
In the final round on Tuesday, Caruana will play Grischuk, Mamedyarov will face Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, a former world champion, and Karjakin will play Ding.
There are multiple scenarios for who could win. Caruana will take first if he beats Grischuk, or he draws and neither Karjakin nor Mamedyarov win.
Karjakin can win if he beats Ding and neither Mamedyarov or Caruana wins, as Karjakin has better tie-breaks than Caruana.
Mamedyarov can win if he beats Kramnik and Caruana does not win, or if he draws his game, Caruana loses and Karjakin and Ding draw their game.
Ding can win only if he beats Karjakin, Caruana loses and Mamedyarov does not win.
The winner will take home 95,000 euros, but more importantly, he will earn the right to play Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, in a title match in London this November.
The tournament is being organized by World Chess, the commercial partner of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), the game’s governing body. The total prize fund is 420,000 euros.
The venue for the tournament is Kühlhaus (or “cool house” in English), an industrial building in central Berlin that was built in the early 20th century as a cold-storage facility for fresh produce. Among the principal sponsors of the tournament are PhosAgro, a giant Russian fertilizer company; Kaspersky Lab, a global cybersecurity firm; E.G. Capital Advisors, an investment management company; S.T. Dupont, a global luxury goods maker; Prytek, a venture capital firm; and Isklar, a Norwegian mineral water company.
Monday, the ceremonial first move of the round was made by Ullrich Krause, the president of the German Chess Federation.
The most important game of the round turned out to be between Caruana and Aronian. Caruana, who had White, opened with 1 e4. The game headed down the path of the Ruy Lopez, or Spanish, opening and, like other players before him, Caruana did not allow Aronian to play the Marshall Gambit (at which he is an acknowledged expert), instead opting for an anti-Marshall system beginning with 8 d3.
The game became a slow, strategic struggle with each player trying to probe for weaknesses. Unfortunately for Aronian, he has had a miserable tournament – quite probably his worst in more than a decade. When things are not going right, every decision seems to be fraught and difficult and a player can become somewhat desperate. Aronian sacrificed a piece for nebulous counterplay, and within a few moves, he was already losing ground. He also got into severe time pressure, and then the mistakes started to pile up. Though Aronian had sacrificed a piece to expose Caruana’s king, Aronian’s was the one that was soon in trouble. Caruana finished up with a nice attack and Aronian resigned, as he faced mate.
It was his sixth loss of the tournament and third in the last four rounds and left him at four points and in last place.
The game between Mamedyarov and Grischuk was balanced and symmetrical for the longest time. By move 17, the only thing separating the players was that Mamedyarov had his bishop pair and Grischuk, who was Black, had a knight and a bishop. The game became a little unbalanced after an exchange of rooks on b5, but the most likely result still seemed to be a draw. But as the time control approached, Grischuk, who was in time pressure, as usual, made a big error, taking Mamedyarov’s pawn on b5 with his knight, therebly walking into a pin. More importantly, his pieces were now stranded on the queenside. Mamedyarov suddenly had a lightning attack on Grischuk’s king. In an extraordinary situation, Grischuk was actually able to promote a pawn to get second queen and promptly resigned, as he could not stop Mamedyarov from also promoting and mating his king.
Grischuk now has 6.5 points, eliminating him from contention for first place.
Karjakin had Black against Wesley So of the United States. The opening was a heavily analyzed variation of the Queen’s Gambit. By move 15, the queens and a set of bishops had already been exchanged and the game seemed to be heading for a draw. Though the game continued until move 39, neither player ever had any real chances to win and the players agreed to a draw.
So now has 5.5 points, and is in seventh place.
The other game between Ding and Kramnik was exciting, despite ending in a draw. Indeed, as has been true a few times during the competition, Ding was fortunate not to lose. He had White and chose the English (1 c4). Kramnik countered with a form of the Hedgehog Defense (pawns on a6, b6, d6, and e6), allowing Ding to achieve a Maroczy Bind (pawns on c4 and e4). Such positions are complicated and usually revolve around whether White can restrain efforts by Black to free his position while punching holes in his defenses.
Ding’s decision to push b4 and b5 was risky, as it left him with weaknesses on the queenside. Indeed, Ding overlooked the danger and after a nice finesse by Kramnik (20 … Bg2, 21 … Ra3!, and 22 … Qa8), White was behind in material. But Kramnik still had to play precisely to win, and, instead, he got a bit careless with 30 … Nfg4 instead of 30 … Re7. A few moves later, Ding was able to force a trade of queens while also eliminating all but the last of Kramnik’s pawns. While Kramnik still had a slight advantage, it was not enough with the reduced material on the board. On move 47, the players agreed to a draw after repeating moves.
Kramnik has six points and is in sixth place.
The final round is Tuesday at 3 PM, local Berlin time. It should be tense and exciting and as close to a must watch event as the chess world can get. The tournament can be watched live at www.worldchess.com, the official site of the World Championship.