Throw the script out the window: The Candidates tournament in Berlin is once again a wide-open contest.
Saturday, in Round 12, the two players who had been leading for the last several rounds, Fabiano Caruana of the United States and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, both lost, to Sergey Karjakin of Russia and Ding Liren of China, respectively.
Karjakin’s win allowed him to overtake Caruana. They are now tied for first, with seven points apiece. Liren, who registered his first decisive result of the tournament, is tied with Mamedyarov and Alexander Grischuk of Russia, a half point behind the leaders.
(Each win is worth one point and each draw is worth a half point.)
With two rounds to go, all five players have a legitimate shot at first place. At stake is 95,000 euros, but, more importantly, the winner 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 competition features eight players. In addition to the five players at the top of the leaderboard , the tournament includes Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, Wesley So of the United States, and Levon Aronian of Armenia. The format is a double round-robin, with each player facing all the other competitors twice, once with each color.
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.
Saturday, the ceremonial first move of the round was made by Dr. Robert von Weiszäcker, an economics professor at Munich University of Technology. Dr. Weiszäcker is also the son of Richard von Weiszäcker, a former president of Germany.
Karjakin had White against Caruana and opened with 1 e4. Caruana chose the Petroff (also known as the Russian) Defense, which he had successfully employed earlier in the tournament. The defense has a reputation for producing draws and also of giving Black no problems in equalizing. Indeed, after 15 moves, Caruana had a very good position. On move 17, Karjakin made an interesting and slightly surprising decision: he sacrificed an exchange to win a center pawn. Though Karjakin was now down slightly in material, his light-squared bishop was powerfully anchored at d5, giving him equal chances.
Still, Caruana may have become over-optimistic. He started to take risks, playing 23 … g5, which created structural weaknesses in his position. A few moves later, he lost a second pawn. Though material was now theoretically equal, Karjakin’s pieces were better coordinated and his light-squared bishop was very powerful, giving him a clear edge. Karjakin methodically improved his position and manufactured a passed pawn on the kingside. Though Caruana was able to stop that, it was at the cost of another pawn on the queenside. That was too much. After 48 moves, he resigned, as he could no longer hold back all of Karjakin’s pawns.
Caruana’s loss opened the door for Mamedyarov to take the lead if he could beat Ding, against whom he had White. Early on, Ding allowed Mamedyarov to take control of the center, but Ding was able to castle early and had no weaknesses to attack. After 13 moves, Mamedyarov had a small edge because of his greater control of space in the center. But then he began to drift, seemingly unable to come up with a plan. Meanwhile, Ding began to advance his queenside pawns, where he had a two-versus-one majority. Mamedyarov may have underestimated the danger.
By move 32, the tide had turned. Mamedyarov’s center pawns had not budged, while Ding’s queenside pawns were advancing rapidly. Mamedyarov was able to infiltrate Ding’s position with his queen, but it proved to be optically more dangerous than it was in reality. Ding simply manufactured a passed pawn by 35 … b3 and then 36 … a3. By the time Mamedyarov tried to get his center pawns moving with 38 d5, it was too late. A few moves later, he resigned, as he was down too much material and his counterattack was not potent enough.
While the other two games were drawn and were not as important to the standings, they were hard fought nonetheless.
In one of them, Kramnik had White against So. The opening was an exchange Queen’s Gambit Declined, a system that has become more popular in recent years. The opening can be very complicated and, indeed, the players were soon involved in a complex tactical struggle. Both seemed to be well prepared. By move 18, a fascinating position had arisen: Kramnik had sacrificed a piece for three connected passed pawns on the kingside. It was clearly a dangerous situation for So.
Kramnik began to push his pawns forward, but his missed some of his best moves. In particular, exchanging his light-squared bishop for So’s knight with 20 Ba6 was not as good as 20 Rae1. So was eventually obliged to give up a piece, but he won two of Kramnik’s pawns for it, after which material was balanced again. Kramnik still had the initiative, but So had just enough resources to maintain the balance. The players agreed to a draw after 42 moves in a dynamically balanced position.
Kramnik now has 5.5 points and is alone in sixth, while So is a half point further back.
Grischuk versus Aronian was also a tough fight. Grischuk had White and opened with 1 e4. Aronian headed for the Marshall Gambit in the Ruy Lopez Defense, but Grischuk avoided it by employing the anti-Marshall move 8 d3. After that, the game became a complicated strategic struggle, which is very common in the structures arising from the Ruy Lopez.
By move 25, after most of the minor pieces and several pawns had been exchanged, the position was considerably simpler and chances were roughly equal. White had control of d5 and a ready target in Black’s backward d pawn, but the half open f file and Black’s pressure against White’s e pawn from his light-squared bishop gave him full compensation for a slight space disadvantage. After several more exchanges, most of the remaining weaknesses in both positions had been eliminated. The game continued to move 54, but there were no real winning chances for either player and they agreed to a draw.
Aronian now has four points and remains in last place.
Sunday is a rest day. Round 13, the penultimate round, will be Monday at 3 PM, local Berlin time. The tournament can be watched live at www.worldchess.com, the official site of the World Championship. It looks like the tournament will come down to the wire.