Fabiano Caruana leads the Candidates tournament in Berlin, but he may well regret a lost opportunity to stretch his lead in Round 9 on Tuesday. Caruana, an American, had Ding Liren of China on the ropes, but a couple of oversights cost him his advantage and the game ended in a draw.
Caruana now has six points, a half point ahead of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, and a point ahead of Alexander Grischuk of Russia. The Candidates is being organized by World Chess, the commercial partner of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), the game’s governing body.
The prize fund is 420,000 euros. The winner will receive 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. Eight players are competing for the right to face Carlsen. In addition to Caruana, Mamedyarov, Grischuk, and Ding, they include Sergey Karjakin and 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. There was only one decisive game in Round 9: Karjakin beat Kramnik. It was a curious game, as Kramnik, who was Black, got a reasonable position out of the opening and then proceeded to rapidly self-destruct as he played recklessly and with seeming disregard for safeguarding his pieces. He sacrificed an exchange and then upped the ante to a whole rook.
While Karjakin’s king was exposed, Kramnik lacked the fire-power and the coordination of his own pieces to pose a real threat. Though it took a while for Karjakin to consolidate his position, the result was never really in doubt. It was Kramnik’s fourth loss in the last six rounds. His fall has been rapid and surprising, as he started out with two wins in his first three games. Part of the reason may be that he is using openings that are riskier and more double-edged than is common among elite players. That is consistent with the strategy that he has used in the last few years, as he has basically reinvented himself by changing his opening repertoire. While that approach has been successful, against such an elite field as the one in the Candidates, it is not working.
Kramnik is tied for last place with So and Aronian, while Karjakin, who lost twice in the first four rounds, is now at 50 percent, with 4.5 points, 1.5 points behind Caruana. Caruana had White against Ding and employed the Catalan, an opening that Ding has used as well in the tournament when he has had White. A tricky sequence beginning on move 13 allowed Caruana to infiltrate Ding’s position with a rook on the seventh rank, but Ding had enough resources to hold his position together, at least for a while. Caruana managed to slowly but surely improve his position, capitalizing on his slightly better pawn structure, in particular, the weakness of Ding\’s e pawn. Ding eventually traded it for Caruana’s b pawn so that each player had a passed pawn – an e pawn for Caruana and a b pawn for Ding. Unfortunately for Ding, his pawn was well blockaded, while Caruana’s pawn posed a real threat. Ding cracked under the pressure and Caruana had a couple of opportunities to put the game away. His missed his last chance when he could have played 66 Nf8+. The point was that 66… Kg8, 67 h6 would be decisive. (If 67… Kf8, then 68 h7 Ne6 69 Kg4 Ng5 70 h8/Q+, and White should win easily.) Instead, Caruana played 66 Re5, and after 66… Be8, Ding was fine. The players agreed to a draw after 67 e7. Ding has 4.5 points and is tied with Karjakin. He remains the only player who has not won or lost during the competition. The game between Aronian and Mamedyarov was a bit curious as Mamedyarov, who had Black, ended up playing more or less the same system as Karjakin had used against him the round before, when Mamedyarov had White. The game against Aronian was a bit more interesting, however, as it went further than the game from the day before because Aronian tried hard to break through Mamedyarov’s defenses. Mamedyarov held steady, however, and the players agreed to a draw after 41 moves. The least interesting game of the day was between So and Grischuk. Grischuk, who was Black, used the Berlin Defense (also known as the Berlin Wall, after the Cold-War structure that divided the host city for 30 years) and So chose a system that allows Black to gain a symmetrical pawn structure.
The game actually followed Game 12 of the 2016 World Championship match between Carlsen and Karjakin, which ended in a quick draw. So and Grischuk could also have called it a day after 20 moves as the game was already devoid of any tension or imbalances. They played on to move 34 before agreeing to a draw. Wednesday is a rest day. The tournament resumes on Thursday with Round 10 at 3 PM, local Berlin time.
The tournament can be watched live at worldchess.com, the official site of the World Championship.