21 June 2022

Either Side of the Leash

Dmitry Kryakvin reviews the first three rounds of the FIDE Candidates Tournament


Even before the start of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Madrid, many experts tagged it as the most interesting one over the past few decades. It’s hard to disagree with it: Ian Nepomniachtchi, eager to take revenge after the loss in Dubai; Fabiano Caruana, striving for the second championship match; Hikaru Nakamura, missing a big game; Richard Rapport, rapidly gathering pace; a promising Jan-Krzysztof Duda; Teimour Radjabov, who eventually made it to the Candidates Tournament; World № 2 Ding Liren, who had ‘caught the last ride’, and, finally, Magnus Carlsen’s favourite, the 19-year-old Alireza Firouzja! The line-up is indeed top-level (there’s no player rated below 2750), and everyone is quite serious about the event. Roughly speaking, the same Nakamura understands perfectly that it can be pretty much his last chance to qualify for the crown match taking into consideration the current level of competition.

The first three rounds met the experts’ expectations: ‘slight favourites’ Nepomniachtchi and Caruana, both hardened in the matches against Carlsen, took the lead, while Ding Liren, tired after his Chinese marathon, and Teimour Radjabov, who hadn’t played successfully in Stavanger, are closing the standings. However, first things first. 

The starting round immediately brought us two decisive games, while the drawn encounters saw a struggle to the last bullet. Caruana rigorously outplayed Nakamura in the Spanish structures (¡Hola Madrid!), while Ian Nepomniachtchi seemingly easily won against China’s representative, to the Russian fans’ joy. 


Ding Liren – Ian Nepomniachtchi

Round 1


There’s something to be done against the knight’s possible ride to d6, and 19...Rad8 20.Rad1 Nd5 is hardly a solution because of 21.Na5 Rd7 22.Nxb7! Well, if we can’t go in a straight line, let’s try the way at the side. 

19…Re6! 20.Rfd1 Nd5 21.Rd4

Now the knight’s jump to the board’s edge 21.Na5 is met by a harsh 21…g5! 22.hxg5 Nxe3! 23.fxe3 Qg5, and despite the fact that Black needs several tempi to create real threats, the white pieces are placed so badly that they don’t have time to help their king. 


It was possible to catapult the king’s wall even now: 21...g5 22.hxg5 Qxg5 23.b5 Rh6 with great chances to finish off the game earlier than in reality, but Ian is following the principle of ‘a threat is stronger than its execution’.  

22.Qd2 Rae8 23.Kh2

Curiously enough, but White’s position is quite hard by the 23rd move: he needs a good piece of advice. Probably, Ding considered to send his rook to h1, if given a good opportunity, and to repel the attack thanks to it, but now the f2 pawn is weakening, and Nepomniachtchi doesn’t allow his rival to implement his plans.

23…Bg4 24.Na5 Rf6! 25.Kg1

The white king has returned to his place, and it’s high time for a breakthrough! 

25…g5! 26.Nxb7

Of course, a useless b7 pawn cannot console White. Perhaps, the last chance for him was 26.b5!? with a slight hope to save a tough endgame after a necessary 26…gxh4 27.bxc6 hxg3 28.fxg3 Qe5! 29.Nc4 Qxg3 30.Qe1 Qxe1+ 31.Rxe1. However, Liren wouldn’t have been able to survive in an unequal fight against Nepo, who had already smelled blood. The game ended very quickly and without any particular intrigue. 

26...gxh4 27.Nc5 h3

The check from h2 is rather unpleasant, and Liren opts for extreme measures, which, however, cannot help him. 

28.Rxe4 hxg2!

It was possible to do without beauties: 28...Rxe4 29.Nxe4 hxg2 30.Nxf6+ Nxf6 31.Kxg2 Bxe2 with a total catastrophe through the white squares, but Ian chooses not less effective, but a more spectacular decision.  

29.Rxe8+ Kg7 30.f4 Qh1+ 31.Kf2 Qxa1 32.Kxg2 Bh3+, and the Chinese grandmaster resigned in view of 33.Kxh3 Qh1+ 34.Kg4 h5+ 35.Kg5 Qh3 with an inevitable mate. A great start for the Russian! 

It would have been absolutely logical to analyse Caruana’s victory over Nakamura in the first round, and Hikaru’s come-back in the following game against Teimour Radjabov, but I would like to act differently this time. Indeed, there are only three decisive games so far, but there were so many exciting things in the other nine ones! There were interesting parallels, study-like saves, and missed chances – a huge abundance of events, which risks to being left off scene!

Let’s start with the parallels.


Jan-Krzysztof Duda – Richard Rapport

Round 1

Duda and Rapport played one of the side lines of the Paulsen Sicilian in their first game as the candidates. Here the Polish grandmaster, after a short thinking, opted for the strongest 9.c5!?, soon made it to a pleasant endgame, and, having missed several opportunities to pressure on Richard, contented to a draw.

And now let’s see Rapport’s game from the second round. 

Richard Rapport – Alireza Firouzja

Round 2



It’s the Sicilian Defence again, the ninth move again, and the c-pawn is hurrying to destroy the structure again, but now this plan was carried out by Rapport! And the following sequence of events is very alike to the previous game, except for the Hungarian missed much bigger scoring chances than Duda had. 

Two white rooks are feeling at home on the seventh rank, but Black has a trump – a defended passer on d4. Rapport takes this factor into consideration and sends his own passed pawn closer to the rim of the board. 

36.e5 fxe5 37.fxe5 Rh3 38.Ke4?

Heh, Richard didn’t go to Mark Dvoretsky’s training sessions, unlike Nepomniachtchi and Caruana! Mark Dvoretsky repeated: it’s much easier to act, when one’s opponent doesn’t have any play. Rapport could have easily won the game by depriving Black of the passer – 38.Rg7+ Kh8 39.Rgd7!. For example, he would have got two extra pawns in case of 39...Re8 40.Kxd4 Rxg3 41.Rxh7+ Kg8 42.Rhg7+ Kh8 43.b4 g5 44.Rh7+ Kg8 45.b5 Rb3 46.Rhg7+ Kh8 47.Rxg5, or he could even have promoted the pawn after 39…Rxd7 40.Rxd7 Rxg3+ 41.Kxd4 Rg2 42.e6 Rxb2 43.e7.

A time trouble or the candidates’ thrill? It’s hard to say but Alireza, who had been spotted in an ‘endgame flaw’ in former times, but who later worked a lot on it, will give Rapport another chance.  

38...Rxg3 39.Rg7+ Kh8 40.Rxh7+ Kg8 41.Kf4 Re3 42.Rbg7+ Kf8 43.Rf7+ Kg8

44.Rfg7+ Kf8 45.Rf7+

Taking the pawn with another rook doesn’t change anything: 45.Rxg6 Re8! 46.Rh8+ Kf7 47.Rf6+ Ke7 48.Rxe8+ Kxe8 49.Rd6 Rb3, and an endgame, almost identical to the one in the game, appears.  

45...Kg8 46.Rhg7+ Kh8 47.Rxg6 Re2 48.e6

The pawn is moving, the black king can be mated any moment, but Firouzja keeps teetering on the brink.   

48…Re8 49.Rh6+ Kg8 50.Rg6+ Kh8 51.Rff6



And the French grandmaster faltered! It’s hard to leave one’s king to his fate and push the passer forward, but it was necessary to do so. After 51...d3! 52.Rg3, Black has 53…R8xe6 53.Rxe6 Rxe6, and the b-pawn, of course, is not promoting: 54.Rxd3 Kg7 55.b4 Kf6 56.b5 Rb6 57.Rd5 Ke6.

Unexpectedly, Richard gets the second chance to put his thumb on the scales, but the Lady Lack flew away.  


Of course, the b-pawn will play its role again, but now it’s much more important to take care of another passer: 52.Kf5! Black has no choice – 52…d3 53.Rg1 d2, but here the evil comes from an unexpected direction: 54.Rh1+ Kg8 55.Rfh6!, and it turns out that the king supported not only the e6 pawn but also a mating attack! 

And even here Black has a way of not losing immediately: 55…Rf2+ 56.Ke5 Re2+ 57.Kd6 Rh7 58.Rg6+ Kh8,

but White has just to choose between 59.Rd1!? with an approximate continuation 59…Rb7 60.b4 Kh7 61.Rg3 Rb6+ 62.Kc5 Rexe6 63.Rh1+ Rh6 64.Rxh6+ Kxh6 65.Rd3 with an easily won rook endgame and 59.Rgg1 Re3 60.Rxh7+ Kxh7 61.Rd1 Rd3+ 62.Ke7 Kg6 63.b4 Kf5 64.b5 Ke4 65.b6 – the rook perishes, but the pawns stay.

In the game, the pawn lacked the king’s support: 52...d3 53.Rg3 d2 54.Rh6+ Rh7 55.Rxh7+ Kxh7 56.Rd3 Kg6 57.Kf3 Rxe6

White’s main hope is lost, and a draw was agreed after 58.Rxd2 Kf6 59.Kf4 Re1 60.Rd4 Ke6.

It is no wonder that Firouzja cheered up after such a heroic defence and, as if inspired, was playing the endgame against Hikaru Nakamura but also didn’t manage to win – another parallel! A real mystic, if it isn’t! Today you’re holding your opponent on a leash, and tomorrow you’ll get the opposite scenario.  

By the way, it is worth mentioning one difference: Nakamura (one of the strongest fighters in the final phase of a game) defended very precisely, and it looks like he didn’t give any chances to the youngest participant of the tournament (although the position looked scary!). 

Alireza Firouzja – Hikaru Nakamura

Round 3


After 37.Re1 Kf7 38.Bd2 Rg8 39.g5 b4, Black gets a sufficient counter play, but is it possible to imagine that two pawns and a bishop won’t promote? 

37...Kxf8 38.Bd8 a4 39.g5 Kf7 40.h7

40.Ba5 Kg6 41.Bc3 Ne3 doesn’t make any difference – only the white pawns are one rank farther from the goal. 

40...Kg7 41.g6

It seems from the first sight that it all will soon finish with a zugzwang. However, Hikaru, without much trouble, makes nine (!) only moves and gets away with it. 


Black won’t survive without a counter play, that’s why Nakamura firstly clears the way for his potential passers.  


In case of 42.Bh4, Black needs to be precise, although the line is not so long: 45…e5! 43.Bg3 Nf4 44.bxc3 Nxg6, and the threat is eliminated. 

42...Nxc3+ 43.Kc2 Nd5 44.Bg5 e5 45.Kd2 Kh8!


A striking picture: the white king cannot break through to his pawns! The d3 and е2 squares are beyond the reach because of the check from f4, while Alireza’s attempt leads to the exchanges of almost everything and immediately. 

46.Ke1 b4!

Of course, there is no 46...Kg7? 47.Kf1 because 47…b4 48.axb4 a3 49.Bc1 a2 50.Bb2 is not working, since the king is avoiding checks. 

47.axb4 a3 48.Bc1 Nxb4 49.Kd2 Nd5 50.Bxa3 Nf4 51.Bb2 Nxg6 52.Bxe5+ with a complete elimination of the material. A fine cold-blooded performance by Hikaru after two tense decisive games! 

In general, the fate of the three players, who lost in the first part of the event, is quite different. As we know, Hikaru recovered from the starting failure quite easily, while Radjabov, on the contrary, made, to date, the most ‘colourless’ draw against Nepomniachtchi before a rest day.

The third ‘misfit’ of the start, Ding Liren, was very close to return to ‘50 percent’ but literally didn’t dare to win the game, having done a fine spade-work!

Ding Liren – Richard Rapport

Round 3

Curiously enough, this line had been played in one of Ian Nepomniachtchi’s online games against Anish Giri, but Liren, unfortunately for him, decided not to examine Ian in the first round and chose the English Opening. 

In this position, Giri played 18.a3, and Nepo received a slap on the wrist after 18…Qe7 19.Bg5 Bf6. Ding chose a much more poisonous line. 

18.Bg5 Nxd4

Seemingly, Rapport didn’t plan to go f7-f6, and he is drawing the fire against himself.

19.Bxd8 Rxd8 20.h5

The alternative 20.Ba6!? Bxa6 21.Qxa6 Qb2 22.Kf1 b5 23.Ng3 looked quite intriguing, but still Richard would have had a fine compensation for the missing material. 

20...Be5 21.a4 Kg7?!

Looks like Black needed to resolve to play 21...Nxe2+ 22.Qxe2 Rxd1+ 23.Rxd1 Kg7 hoping to take on e4 with time and ‘precipitate’, but evidently Rapport decided that it was better to leave as many pieces as possible and missed a fine reply.  



Of course, Ding’s move is objectively the strongest one, but a purely computer line is also worth noticing: 22.Qh3!? Nxe2+ 23.Bxe2 Rxd1+ 24.Rxd1 Qxe4 25.Bf3 Qxa4 26.hxg6 hxg6 27.Rd8 Kf6 28.Qh8+ Kf5


Here, the silicon mind calmly advises the moves like 29.Qf8 and affirms that White is not being mated and Black is holding on – the evaluation is around ‘+1’. I think that Richard was counting on a more or less this scenario, but Ding’s method was harsher (although it wasn’t accomplished). 


22...Qe7 23.Qe3 is too passive, that’s why it’s necessary to take risk.


It is known that people of China are rooting for their representative so widely that his games are broadcast on one of the main country’s channels! Millions of Chinese were anticipating Ding’s first win but, unexpectedly, Liren didn’t venture to take a rook at the last minute. And for no good reason! 

An easy analytics shows that after 23.Qxd8! Qxe4 (in case of 23...Nxc1 the only but sufficient move 24.Qg5! Bc7 25.h6+ Kg8 26.Qf6 Qf8 27.Rd7 leads to an overwhelming position) 24.Bxe2 Qxg2+ 25.Ke1 Qh1+ 26.Kd2, the white king easily avoids checks: 26…Bf4+ 27.Kc3 Qc6+ (there is 28.Qd3! after  27...Qe4, and now Black cannot interpose with a bishop after 28…Qxa4 29.Qd4+), and here White has either a simple 28.Bc4 Qf3+ 29.Qd3 with a lot of extra material, or a more ‘sophisticated’ 28.Kb3!? Bxc1 29.Qd4+ Kh6 30.hxg6, and Black has to switch to a hopeless endgame because of multiple threats to his king.  

23...Rxd1+ 24.Rxd1 a6

The main Ding’s idea lied in the line 24...Qxe4 25.Qxe4 Bxe4 26.Re1 f5 27.f3, and there is no saving check from d4 thanks to a prophylactic manoeuvre, that’s why Rapport takes the central pawn in a slightly different way. 

25.Bxa6 Bxa6 26.Qxa6 Qxe4


It is still possible to impose struggle after 27.hxg6 hxg6 28.Qe2 Qf5 29.Kg1 hoping not to allow the bishop to move to the stronghold of с5, but here Black’s chances to survive in a practical play look rather sizeable as well.

27...Qd4 28.Qe2 Bf6 29.hxg6 hxg6 30.Qe4 Qd2 31.Re2 Qd1+ 32.Re1 Qd2 33.g3 Bd4

The bishop has occupied the needed diagonal and, avoiding the worst, Liren went to get ready for new games: 34.Qe2 Qc3 35.Rd1 Qc6 36.Qg4 e5 37.Rxd4 exd4 38.Qxd4+ Kg8 39.Qd8+ Kg7 40.Qd4+ Kg8 with a draw.

The initial ‘zeroing’ was quite successful both for the majority of the players and for the spectators: almost all the games saw an uncompromising struggle literally to lone kings. Will this trend remain, or will the fighting spirit run short? We will get to know it very soon, and we hope for the best!