Fabiano Caruana of the United States has won the Candidates tournament in Berlin. With the victory, he earned 95,000 euros and will face Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, in a title match in London in November.
Caruana, who led going into the last round, closed with a flourish, winning his last game against Alexander Grischuk of Russia. It was the only decisive result of the round.
Caruana finished with nine points, a full point ahead of his closest pursuers. (Each win was worth one point and each draw was worth a half point.) Sergey Karjakin of Russia and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan tied for second, each with eight points.
The tournament was organized by World Chess, the commercial partner of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), the game’s governing body. The total prize fund was 420,000 euros.
The venue for the tournament was 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 were 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.
Tuesday, the ceremonial first move of the round was made by Anatoly Karpov, a Russian ex-world champion, in the game between Kramnik and Mamedyarov.
The tension was high throughout the last round as half the field of eight players still had a chance to win, but only Caruana controlled his fate. With a ticket to the world championship at stake, the players who were still in position to win fought long and hard. The first of those games to finish was between Karjakin and Ding Liren of China.
Karjakin had White and opened with 1 e4. Ding replied 1 … e5 and the game entered the Ruy Lopez. After a series of exchanges by move 15, the position already looked drawish. But neither player could afford or wanted to agree to a draw. Finally, on move 27, Karjakin erred, allowing Ding to break through his position and win a pawn. Karjakin, who is known for his defensive prowess, was initially worried, as he explained in the press conference afterward. But then he realized that he had defensive resources. Indeed, he was able to force the exchange of all the heavy pieces (the queens and both sets of rooks). Though he was then down two pawns, He was able to build a fortress by relocating his knight to e4. From there, there was nothing that Ding could do to break through and they eventually agreed to a draw. That result essentially eliminated both players from contention for first.
Ding, in his first Candidates tournament, finished in clear fourth, with 7.5 points. He was the only player in the competition to go undefeated.
In his game against Kramnik, Mamedyarov had Black. He needed to win to have a realistic chance to overtake Caruana. Kramnik opened with the Catalan and Mamedyarov intentionally chose a risky move (7 … Qd6) in an attempt to shake things up. Kramnik chose not to shy away from a fight and sacrificed a pawn to build up a strong initiative. The position soon became very complicated and sharp.
In the press conference after the game, both players said they looked at some incredible attacking and defensive strategies, but could find no way to tip the balance. Then on move 30, they traded errors and Mamedyarov found a nice resource to defuse the tension. He sacrificed an exchange that left him with a knight and two pawns for a rook in an endgame.
Unfortunately for him, it was a dead equal endgame. Kramnik avoided any possible pitfalls, including one last trick after 52 … Nd6 (53 Bd5? might have lost after 53 … Bd5 54 Kd5 Nf5, because White cannot play 55 Rg6 because of 55 … Kf7 and the rook would have been trapped). When he realized that the game would end in a draw and that he probably would not win the tournament, Mamedyarov buried his face in his hands, obviously distraught to have come so close.
Kramnik, who played enterprisingly throughout, finished with 6.5 points, tied with Grischuk for fifth and sixth places.
The game between Grischuk and Caruana was the last to finish. It stretched on for almost six hours. Caruana had Black and opened with the Petroff (or Russian) Defense as he has had throughout the competition. It is an opening that is considered drawish, but Caruana had had good results with it. Grischuk, who is always a fighter, opted for a slightly offbeat approach, hoping to break through Caruana’s defenses, but Caruana showed that he had prepared well and by move 15, he had a rock-solid position.
At that point, Grischuk initiated a combination that forced a trade of queens and left him with his bishop pair. Chances were still roughly equal, but as the time control approached, Grischuk, who is prone to time pressure, made some errors. By the time the first time control has passed, Caruana had a clear edge. He won a pawn and then guided his extra pawn up the board, combining threats to advance the pawn with threats against Grischuk’s king, which was dangerously exposed.
After the game between Kramnik and Mamedyarov had ended, and Caruana knew he only needed a draw to clinch first, he chose to play on, preferring to play for the win, knowing that there was almost no danger of losing. After nearly 69 moves, he was rewarded with success, as Grischuk resigned in a hopeless position.
The tournament overall was one of the most exciting in memory. There was only one round where there were no decisive results – a very unusual occurrence in top-level competitions.
Caruana had the right mix of enterprising play and good decision-making at crucial moments. He showed what he can do, even under the moments of high stress. He will need those skills when he faces Carlsen for the title.
Karjakin, who started out dreadfully, losing two of his first four games, displayed resourcefulness by storming back to almost grab first, hanging the sole loss on Caruana in the process.
Mamedyarov played extremely enterprisingly, taking his chances when they presented themselves and converting them.
Kramnik played the most unusual and creative games, continually entertaining fans with his ideas. Ding had a few lucky escapes, but was, for the most part, rock-solid, as reflected in his result.
Grischuk, as always, was dangerous, but his time management sabotaged his efforts.
For the other two players in the tournament, Wesley So of the United States and Levon Aronian of Armenia, who finished with six points and 4.5 points, respectively, it is a competition that they will try to put behind them as quickly as possible.
Caruana, who is two years younger than Carlsen, will be a formidable challenger for the title. The two players have faced each other 31 times at slow time controls, with Carlsen winning nine games, losing five, and the rest ending in draws.
At the press conference after the tournament, Caruana was asked if he wanted to send a message to Carlsen ahead of their match. Mentioning that they will be playing each other in a competition in a few days, Caruana said, “Hopefully I can send him a message then.”