Tournament report

Nepo emerges as a clear leader after five rounds

After five rounds of play, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi emerged as the clear leader in the 8-player 2020 chess Candidates, having defeated the Chinese underdog Wang Hao.

With 3.5 points, he is half a point ahead of second-placed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave who drew with Russian wild-card Kirill Alekseenko in a game full of sharp lines and tactics. On other boards, American Fabiano Caruana was lucky to escape with a draw against Anish Giri, while the game between Grischuk and Ding Liren finished last with the two agreeing to split a point after a fierce battle.

After a day of draws (round four) came a day of sharp lines and edgy play at the 2020 Candidates. Finally, one player managed to rise above the rest – Ian Nepomniachtchi, as he defeated Wang Hao of China. This was a battle between two leaders (Nepomniachtchi, Wang Hao and Vachier-Lagrave were sharing the lead after four rounds). Before this game, the two met four times and the result between them was even: one win each with two draws. The last time they faced each other in a game of classical chess was at the Danzhou super tournament in 2016, and it was a draw. Not this time, however!

Wang Hao was Black and he played the Petrov Defence (also known as the Russian Game). White quickly started pushing his h-pawn towards the black king’s fortress. The move is considered to be a novelty and was a cause for Black to go into deep calculations. Commentators – including world champion Magnus Carlsen – noted that pushing the h-pawn has become more common in top games as a clear sign of how AlphaZero (the powerful chess computer, which patented the idea behind the move) was affecting the play at the top ranks of the chess world.

Both players demonstrated a high level of preparation and the position was mostly balanced. However, a slight imprecision by Wang Hao towards the end endangered his king. Nepomniachtchi was quick to notice that, rapidly placing his queen on Black’s back ranks. Eventually, Black was forced to give up a piece. Although he had two pawns for a knight, White had sufficient material and the spread of the pawns on both flanks made it impossible to hold the position. Wang Hao resigned.

The complexity of the game was shown later in the analysis, where both players spent well over 10 minutes in live commentary analyzing the lines previously seen by computers. Wang Hao did not seem disappointed after the match, while Nepomniachtchi (currently ranked as the fifth strongest player in the world and the only one at the top to have a better score against world champion Magnus Carlsen (4 wins, one loss, and six draws), was very calm and reserved about his lead, saying it’s still early days.

After a third of the games have finished in Yekaterinburg, now sharp distinctions are beginning to arise and it will become clear who the real favorite is. So far, Ian Nepomniachtchi seems to be that person.

One of the favorites to win the event – Fabiano Caruana – is counting his lucky stars after he managed to escape with half a point from Anish Giri who created a very uncomfortable position for the World’s #2.

From the very opening, Anish Giri (who played as White) pushed and came down hard on his opponent. The devil is in the detail and this was noticeable in the Giri – Caruana game. The American later confessed that he didn’t remember the right line after Giri surprised him with a move and that he was forced to improvise. The improvisation, however, led to Giri achieving a dominating position, making Black feel quite uncomfortable (“I was borderline lost”, said Caruana after the game).

However, it is the resilience and the will to ‘bugger on’ at even the toughest of times that sets the best from the rest. Caruana kept defending well and hoping for his luck to turn. Then came a turning point in the game: Despite having created a better position – deemed by some as almost winning – Anish Giri opted for a safer approach and Caruana was quick to seize on that. This was met with a lot of criticism by top Grandmasters following and commenting on the tournament in online shows around the globe. As Indian Grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi noted, “there is a perception that he [Giri] lacks the ability to put his advantages away and pocket a victory”. Caruana somehow managed to reach the time control and improve his position. After a repetition of moves, a draw was called.

This was not the first lucky escape the American had at the hands of Anish Giri: When Giri had White against Caruana in Candidates 2016 in Moscow, he was completely winning but – as now in Yekaterinburg – the position was sharp, Giri missed his chances and then tried to break through for 96 moves with no avail.

In the interview after the game, Anish Giri gave the following assessment of the outcome:“I was better, but… I cannot say I saw a win but there were options there”.


This game leaves one of the top favorites to win the event – Fabiano Caruana – “only” on 50 percent after a third of the games played!

One of the most exciting duels of the day was between Kirill Alekseenko(Russia) and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France).

A double-edged Najdorf Sicilian was played. A very sharp and tense game developed with a lot of tactical opportunities for both sides. Then the game reached its crescendo when White (Alekseenko) sacrificed a rook for a pawn on the kingside, which was immediately met by Black sacrificing his rook for a knight on the queenside.

Both players were very well prepared, but the number of tactical lines available forced the less experienced Alekseenko to spend an hour more than his opponent did. Interestingly, this was the second time in this tournament that Vachier-Lagrave experienced his opponent spending almost an hour on a single move (in the fourth round Grischuk spent almost an hour for an obvious move). The Frenchmen later commented that if this happens to him again, that he will ask the Chief Arbiter “to bring some board games out” so he could amuse himself.

However, in the game between Kirill Alekseenko and Vachier-Lagrave – all the excitement was there at the board as both needed to make sure not just that they calculate correctly but also, not to forget any of the relevant lines that were possible. This put higher pressure on the Russian wild-card Alekseenko who was in serious time trouble. Vachier-Lagrave tried to exploit this by thinking on his opponent’s time trying to set a thinking-trap for the Russian.

However, the Russian managed to find the right moves just in time and the two called it a draw.

In the interview which followed, both players noted that sharp positions demand that the players remember the lines clearly and not overlook them later on.

“I try to remember the main lines by heart, but you can’t remember everything. Also, when you know some key positions, you don’t need to remember everything by heart”,
said Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Explaining why he spent 50 minutes on one move, Alekseenko said that he knew that he had to sacrifice his rook when he did, but could not remember the rest of the line.

This outcome left the Frenchman in a comfortable second place, with three points out of five.

“I think I have been playing much better, especially in terms of time control. I am close to the lead and we’ll see what happens”, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave said after the game.

His opponent, Kirill Alekseenko, also felt buoyed after the game: “I feel better than in the first rounds. This was the first ‘normal game’ for me, without any big mistakes. I’m sure it’s getting better”.

Alekseenko is now on two out of five, the same as Giri and Ding Liren.

The last game of the day to finish was between Alexander Grischuk (Russia) and Ding Liren (China).
the two agreed on a draw.

Grischuk was, as in all previous rounds, a couple of minutes late for the start. As other players started their games and their board was empty, it was noticeable that Grischuk and Ding Liren are the only two players to have different chairs from the rest. It turned out that both players at the start of the event replaced the special luxury chairs with the more “simple” ones, which were meant for the audience.

As he sat down to play, Grischuk shook his opponent’s hand (an unusual gesture in the Coronavirus world) and proceeded to carefully rub sanitizing gel over his hands before adjusting his pieces and making the first move. Ding Liren was not bothered as he patiently waited for his opponent to start. After 1.e4 the game transpired into the Ruy Lopez Opening. The game was a long uphill struggle for both players with Black managing to successfully balance out the initial advantage of White’s first move. There was a lot of maneuvering and positioning of pieces, with both sides testing each other’s weaknesses. Finally, the position transpired into a rook endgame. After some further positional discussions, the two agreed on a draw.

“It was a very good game but not a very interesting one”, said Grischuk afterwards, while Ding Liren lamented on having forgotten his opening preparation. This was the 11th game the two played in their careers: Ding Liren leads Grischuk by two points, while nine games, including this one, ended in draws.

Overall, this is a fifth consecutive draw for Grischuk at the Candidates and he is on 50%. Ding Liren – seen as the favorite before the event – is now on 2/5 but confident that his strength is improving and he is getting into his element.

STANDINGS AFTER 5 ROUNDS:


Playerpointsrating
1Ian Nepomniachtchi
2774
2 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 3 2767
3Fabiano Caruana 2842
4Hao Wang2762
5Grischuk, Alexander2777
6Liren Ding22805
7Kirill Alekseenko 2 2698
8Anish Giri22763

Round Six of the 2020 Candidates Tournament starts at 4 PM local time on March 23. The pairings for the fifth round are:

Alexander Grischuk (RUS) Fabiano Caruana (USA)
Kirill Alekseenko (RUS)Anish Giri (NED)
Ian Nepomniachtchi (RUS) Liren Ding (CHN)
Hao Wang (CHN)Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (FRA)

About the partners:

Algorand – Official blockchain partner.

Kaspersky – Official cybersecurity partner.

Mercedes-Benz Russia – Official auto partner.