Tournament report

Nepomniachtchi on fire as he increases his lead in the Candidates

Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi increased his lead at the 2020 Candidates to a whole point, after defeating China’s Ding Liren. With 4,5 points, the 29-year-old goes into the rest day with three plusses after the first six rounds and is now the very strong favorite to become the challenger to Magnus Carlsen for the title of the world champion in chess.

Behind him, with 3,5 points, is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who is followed by a pack of four players with three points. Today also saw the longest game of the tournament so far: After an epic seven-hour battle and 98 moves, Anish Giri defeated the Russian wild-card Kirill Alekseenko in a tense and draining endgame.

It was a day of long and edgy play in the sixth round of the 2020 chess Candidates in Yekaterinburg. 1.e2-e4 played on three out of four boards with the Black responding 1…e7-e5, suggesting more open, sharp play. Only China’s Wang Hao decided to play 1.d2-d4 but developed into a very dynamic game.

The clash between Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) and Ding Liren (China) was a battle between the current tournament leader (Nepomniachtchi) and one of the a priori favorites to win the event (Ding Liren). Before this game, the two played each other nine times, with one win each and seven draws. The last decisive game between the two was a decade ago, at the Zagreb Grand Chess Tour, where the Ding Liren won.

The leader of the tournament after Round Five, Ian Nepomniachtchi demonstrated excellent opening preparation as White. Grandmasters commenting on the game in various online chess shows noticed that Ding Liren is repeating lines he previously played, suggesting that his opening preparation is not so sophisticated. It was pointed out that this approach would open Ding Liren to a risk of walking into his opponents’ preparations and it seems that this is what happened in his Round Six game. Ding Liren spent considerably more time thinking about the moves than his opponent.

After exchanges in the centre, White created a free pawn runner on the b-file and quickly launched it forward towards the promotion-line. Ding Liren responded by launching an advance on the White’s king fortress, creating mate threats. It was a double-edged game, but it seemed that Nepomniachtchi (White) had better control of the game. He was also better on time and more chances, but Ding Liren was not without options. The Chinese, however, needed to play very precisely to keep himself in the game and the race. The key moment for Black was on his 33rd move when Ding Liren missed the right continuation. The Russian mercilessly took the chance he was given and put his queen behind black’s lines, creating back-rank issues. After a few more moves and exchanges, Ding Liren ended with a piece down and with no chances to oppose White. He decided to put an end to his suffering on move 40, after just over three hours of play.

After this game two things are clear: Ian Nepomniachtchi has positioned himself as a very strong candidate to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world chess crown, while the pre-event favorite, Ding Liren, seems to be giving up on his hopes as he is on the bottom of the scoreboard with 2/6.

Nepomniachtchi made his sentiments clear in the post-game interview: “In this tournament, only the result counts, nothing else”. With 4.5/6, he made his point clear.

It was noticeable that during the post-game interview Ian Nepomniachtchi was coughing. When asked how he feels, Nepomniachtchi confirmed that he was in the best shape, but that both of his tests came back as negative.

The game between the Russian wild-card Kirill Alekseenko and Anish Giri (The Netherlands) was the longest of the day and the tournament so far. After more than seven hours of play and 98 moves, the Dutchman managed to force the Russian to resign.

Previously, the two met once, in 2008 – when neither was a Grandmaster – and it was Giri who was victorious.

Alekseenko opted for the Italian game where both sides try to stabilize the position in the center and develop without many exchanges. Giri was showing more confidence in his play as he spent less time and seemed surer of his moves. After several exchanges in the center, the game transpired to a queen and knight endgame where Black had a better pawn structure on the queenside. White pressed on, understanding that if he wishes to stay in the game he cannot afford to be passive. Giri responded with careful, preventive moves. Eventually Black managed to get hold of an extra pawn on the queenside, which was compensated with white having a more open attack on the black king.

Giri defended himself well, preparing his own counter strike. The 2:1 pawn majority on the queenside disappeared and after an exchange of queens, Black had a 3:2 pawn advantage on the kingside with a knight each. Giri pushed forwards in the hope to capitalize on the advantage. Commentators noted that the position on the board was similar to a 2019 game where World Champion Magnus Carlsen managed to capitalize on the pawn advantage against Visvanathan Anand. Alekseenko was doing his best, carefully maneuvering his knight and king trying to fend off Black’s advances.

Finally, after seven hours of play, the Dutchman managed to break his opponent: Giri forced the position, exchanging one pair of pawns and then – somewhat surprisingly – deciding to double his pawns on the f-file. Black had two extra pawns (however – doubled) on the f-file. Alekseenko played on but it was to no avail. On move 98, he resigned.

This was Giri’s first victory in a Candidates tournament, as he pointed out in the post-game interview: “In the end, I almost had a heart attack as I realized it was going to be my first ever win at the FIDE Candidates! I think I have never had such a high heartbeat. After this game today, I think we need a good doctor check!”.

After this game, Anish Giri is back on 50% and has joined the pack of three other players with 3 points out fo six. This defeat left Kirill Alekseenko on 2/6, sharing the last place with Ding Liren.eaves one of the top favorites to win the event – Fabiano Caruana – “only” on 50 percent after a third of the games played!

Alexander Grischuk (Russia), the most senior and experienced player of the event, was late for his game against Fabiano Caruana (USA).
the two agreed on a draw.

This has become something of a tradition in the Candidates as the Russian was late for every single game so far. Somehow, it seems that this goes hand in hand with his time troubles, which Grischuk is renowned for.

he more aggressive, Archangelsk variation of the Ruy Lopez was played. While Caruana was blitzing out his moves (suggesting good opening preparation), Grischuk was somewhat struggling: on move 13 he spent nearly 15 minutes pondering on what to do. Interestingly, it was after Grishuk’s 13th move that Caruana offered a repetition. After a further half-hour of thinking, Grischuk decided to refuse the repetition. Eventually, the Russian offered (and Caruana took) a pawn in the center, leading to complications on the board. It was Caruana’s turn to make an offering as he left his knight up for grabs on a7. After 13 minutes of thinking, Grischuk refused the poisonous gift. The position was tense and required a lot of precise and detailed calculation, which demanded time. This is exactly what Grishuk did not have as he was down to two and a half minutes and needed to make eight moves to reach the first time control. Grischuk managed. He is used to these situations and in this tournament he had quite a few of them. After further maneuvering in the knight vs bishop endgame, the two agreed on a draw.

This was Grischuk’s sixth draw in a row and Caruana’s third. Both players are now on three out of six – 50%.

A very sharp game transpired on board four between China’s Wang Hao and France’s last-minute entry Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

The Gruenfeld Defence was played. Wang Hao opened aggressively, pushing his h-pawn towards Black’s castle. In this game, it was the Frenchman who had to spend more time calculating and finding his way. After the h-file was opened both sides exchanged both pairs of rooks as the Chinese player continued to have a good command of the center. It followed an exchange of queens, taking the game to a knight and bishop endgame.

Having a more active position and a centralized knight, White managed to achieve an extra pawn. Black’s king, however, quickly got to the center, supporting his bishop and knight in holding the position. Wang Hao pushed and a long endgame battle transpired. Despite being a pawn down and with a knight against a bishop in the endgame, Vachier-Lagrave managed to hold the position. The two agreed to share a point on move 83.

This was a fourth game played between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Wang Hao. Before this tournament, the two met three times: they drew twice but the Frenchman defeated Wang Hao in 2004, at the Under-14 World Championship.

In the post mortem, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave said
that he was “lucky to make a draw” adding that this is not a game that he will remember proudly.

Interestingly, in the post-mortem interview, when asked if they could go back into the past and change something in their preparation, Wang Hao said that one thing he might change was not taking up chess at all! Although this was met with laughter, this is not the first comment in such a style made by the 30-year-old Chinese player who is still considering picking up another profession over chess.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is on 3.5/6 and is still in the race to reach the top. Wang Hao is 50% with three other players.

STANDINGS AFTER 6 ROUNDS:


Playerpointsrating
1Ian Nepomniachtchi
2774
2 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2767
3Fabiano Caruana 3 2842
4Anish Giri32763
5Wang Hao32762
6Alexander Grischuk32777
7Liren Ding 2 2805
8Kirill Alekseenko22698

Tuesday, March 24, is a rest day. Round Seven of the 2020 Candidates Tournament starts at 4 PM local time on March 25. The pairings for the fifth round are:

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

About the partners:

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