Early leaders at the Candidates Tournament

The Chinese underdog Wang Hao, playing with black pieces, defeated his compatriot –and one of the favourites- Ding Liren, in a game followed by more than a million people online. The second decisive game was between Anish Giri who lost as white to local player Ian Nepomniachtchi.

The 2020 Candidates Tournament is probably the only high-profile sporting event taking place in the world. In light of the concerns regarding the coronavirus, various measures have been put into place. Players and arbiters are supplied with masks, sanitizers, and the audience is not allowed in the playing venue. In chess terms, this event is unique given that it has the highest prize fund ever for a Candidates Tournament (500,000 euros, free of taxes), and that for half of the players (Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Kirill Alekseenko and Wang Hao) this is their debut at the event.

Traditionally, the opening round started with the first-move ceremony. FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich made the first move in the game Ding Liren – Wang Hao, Russian football star Dmitri Bulykin made the first move in the game between Vachier-Lagrave and Caruana, the head of Yekaterinburg City chess federation Mikhail Vakhrushev did the honours in the Russian duel between Alexander Grischuk and Kirill Alekseenko, and former World Champion Anatoly Karpov made the first move in the game between Anish Giri and Ian Nepomniachtchi. Interestingly, while Giri did shake hands with Karpov, Nepomniachtchi refused, in light of the concerns about the global coronavirus pandemic.

The biggest upset of the day came in the Chinese duel where Wang Hao (who is playing his first Candidates event) defeated Ding Liren (who finished the 2018 Candidates without a single loss!).

For the first time in the Candidates, two Chinese players were playing each other. Following the English Opening, the Chinese players ended in a seemingly peaceful position in the midgame, with the queens exchanged. White (Ding Liren) had a tiny advantage – a strong knight on c4 and good control of the flow of the game, while Black had a passive bishop on c7. The position was, however, probably equal.

White then decided to play 30.f4, leading to an exchange that opened Black’s pieces and gave Wang Hao more chances to take the initiative, which he did. A few moves later, Hao was dominating on the Kingside flank, while at the same time blocking any chances for White.

As his position continued to deteriorate, so did his time continued to drip, and Ding Liren decided to resign.

Ding Liren did not appear at the press conference after the game. In his analysis of the position, Wang Hao highlighted 30.f4 as a bad move, pointing out that White had some advantage before that.

This game was interesting for one other reason: At times, the live broadcast on the official website registered more than one million. The Chinese commentary being provided by non-other than the highest-rated female player in the world Hou Yifan, and three-time champion of China and 14-time champion of the Netherlands, Peng Zhaoqing.

MVL vs Caruana: 1/2 – 1/2

The first game to finish was that between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (who got a place in the event only after Teimour Radjabov decided to withdraw) and Fabiano Caruana (the World No2 and the winner of the 2018 Candidates).

In the Ruy Lopez opening, they entered the sharp Arkhangelsk variation. As Caruana commented after the game: “it was one of the most double-edged lines in the opening, and it’s a double-edged opening in general”.

The opening did not go as planned for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and, in his own words, “the position was very unpleasant”. In a tactically challenging position, it seemed that Caruana was better prepared and had a more solid knowledge of the lines. However, the Frenchmen played patiently and managed to find the right moves to maintain the balance in a sharp position.

The most critical moment of the game came in move 32 where White played Qd3 after 23 minutes of thinking!

After 32.Qd3, it was very tactically dangerous for White but also tense for Black. However, there was still no sign of a distinct advantage: “I looked at a number of options without finding anything with a clear cut. I didn’t see anything I liked so much. After that it was a clean draw”, said Caruana in an interview after the game.

In a rook and pawn ending, with both having opposite color bishops, the game ended in a draw after 45 moves.K”

Grischuk vs Alexeenko: Draw

The Russian duel, between Alexander Grischuk and Kirill Alekseenko, started with a handshake and ended in a draw. There was a technical issue at the beginning when Grischuk asked for his chair to be replaced, as he found it uncomfortable.

The same opening was played as in the game between Ding Liren and Wang Hao. However, by move eight the game transpired into a position that has never been played before.

After a slow but pressuring play in the center and the Kingside White (Grischuk) managed to create a strong position, towering over the central squares.

Despite White (Grischuk) creating a secure and powerful structure in the center, Black (Alekseenko) had sufficient firepower (combining the queen and the bishop) and enough opened diagonals to manage to threaten the white king. The position landed in a perpetual check, confirming an even outcome.

While the engines and chess pundits gave many opinions about this game and others from Round One, Grischuk – in his style – gave a sweeping blunt summary of the first day: “Everyone played horrible today, except maybe Ian [Nepomniachtchi].”

Grichuk had a point in praising Ian Nepomniachtchi’s play as he managed to defeat Anish Giri while playing with Black pieces. This was the longest game of the First Round, lasting over five hours.

In yet another English opening, the players went for a very sharp line. As the game was developing, commentators around the globe – from Danil Dubov and Evgenij Miroshnichenko in Yekaterinburg (who are doing the English commentary for the event) to Viswanathan Anand in India and Hikaru Nakamura in the States – were guessing how far did Giri’s preparation go. It was noticeable that the Dutchman spent quite a lot of time before playing (what seemed clear) – 20.g5. The position was very complex but it seemed that Nepomniachtchi had more confidence, finding the most pragmatic and most confident moves.

By move 32 White had a rook and a bishop against Black’s queen. White was worse, but he had a loose pawn on the a-file and had some chances.

The game transpired into a queen vs rook endgame, with White having two pawns and Black having one. Despite the advantage, Nepomniachtchi needed to play very precisely, which he did.

After 62 moves, Anish Giri resigned.

“I played badly”, said Giri after the game. “I thought that if I played passively with the rook on the fourth rank, it should have been a draw. It’s not a 100 percent easy draw.” Asked whether he will change anything in his approach to the rest of the tournament, Giri gave a somber comment: “It’s hard to adjust. Probably it’s too late.”

The score after the first round:

Ian Nepomniachtchi — 1

Wang Hao — 1

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave — ½

Alexander Grischuk — ½

Kirill Alekseenko — ½

Fabiano Caruana — ½

Ding Liren — 0

Anish Giri — 0

Round Two of the 2020 Candidates Tournament starts at 4 PM local time on March 18. The pairings for the second round are:

Fabiano Caruana (USA) Kirill Alekseenko (Russia)
Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia)Alexander Grischuk (Russia)
Wang Hao (China) Anish Giri (The Netherlands)
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave(France)Ding Liren (China)

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