26 June 2022

Vice-Champions' Race

Dmitry Kryakvin analyses Rounds 4-6 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament


We are practically in the middle of the tournament and, frankly speaking, it is very pleasant to start the review by saying: ‘Ian Nepomniachtchi is leading the race after the sixth round’. Caruana is not so far from him, indeed, and we still remember the finish of the first part of the Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, but the work, which Ian for sure had done for the World Championship Match, yields fruit! 

When I started to watch the Nepomniachtchi – Firouzja game approximately 30 minutes after its start, I had a feeling that it all would boil down to yet another ‘Sicilian’ examination for Alireza, which he will pass with flying colours, since those who play correspondence chess have analysed everything in the English attack up to the 50th move.

But one more hour had passed, and it turned out that Ian was almost winning! If I hadn’t known the details of the game, I could have thought that it was played somewhere at the stage of the Russian Cup with Dmitry Kokarev having the white pieces and some promising junior playing as Black, and the latter couldn’t do anything against a mighty setting of the grandmaster from Penza, regardless a very deep preparation from his well-known coach.    


Ian Nepomniachtchi – Alireza Firouzja

Round 4


We see one of the most popular tabiyas of the Najdorf Sicilian (by the way, one of Dmitry Kokarev’s signature variations) – one can find more that 6 thousands of such games in the database! The majority of them belong to the correspondence chess, and it looks like Firouzja directed his attention to them while getting ready. The move he played is not the most popular, however, there is a rather concrete ‘correspondent’ idea. 

15…Bc4 16.Kb1 a4 17.Nbc1 d5 18.f6 gxf6 19.gxf6

Why did I refer to Kokarev in the intro? My pupils had to fight against Dmitry’s researches many times, and very often, it all ended like this: it seems that you are following your home analysis, but suddenly Dmitry thinks a bit and then makes a move accurately (like he always does), and you see that you didn’t examine this line at home. And voila! Black has a tough position!  

It’s highly likely that Firouzja reckoned on the line, which was seen in several correspondence games: 19.Ng3 Nd6 20.gxf6 Nxf6 21.Bh6 Kh8 22.Qg5 Rg8 23.Qxe5 Ra5!, but he unexpectedly didn’t consider that it’s possible to take on f6. It’s hard to imagine but my database shows that it’s a novelty! 

19...Ndxf6 20.Ng3 Bxf1?!

There is no need to help the opponent develop his initiative. 20...Kh8!? deserved attention, and it looks like White has nothing better than 21.Bxc4 dxc4 22.Qxd8 Rxd8 23.Nf5, but a simple 23…Bd6 makes Black’s position quite defendable. Now, White’s attack goes by itself, and the situation becomes critical.

21.Rhxf1 a3 22.b3 Kh8 23.exd5


The best chance to continue the fight was 23...Qc7, and here Ian should have dared to play 24.Rxf6! Bxf6 25.Nd3 Nd6 26.Bc5 with his minor pieces dominating. However, exchange is exchange, and it’s not so easy to convert the edge. In the game, Nepomniachtchi just took the key pawn and was acting faultlessly afterwards.

24.Qxb4 Rc8 25.Bb6!

A very precise reply: White shouldn’t allow the black knight to be placed on d7.

25…Qd7 26.Qe1 Rb8 27.Ba5 Nc4 28.d6

28.Rxf6!? Bxf6 29.Qf1 Bd8 30.Bxd8 Qxd8 31.Qxc4 with a technically winning position may have been more precise, but why should one sacrifice when there is no need? 

28...Bd8 29.Bc3 Qe6 30.Nd3 Nd5 31.Nf4

31.Ba1 Ba5 32.Qe4 was more elegant, however, Ian chooses the way of ‘playing with all the pieces’.  

31...Nxf4 32.Rxf4 f6 33.Qe2 Nb2 34.Rdf1 Re8 35.Rh4 f5

The final touch is ahead.

36.Rxh7+! Kxh7 37.Qh5+ Kg8 38.Nxf5 Bf6 39.Rg1+ with a mate in several moves. Such a knock-out!

There were no more interesting events in the fourth round, but there was a sight to behold in the next one, although all the games were drawn! A short but eventful battle between Caruana and Rapport in the Paulsen Sicilian, Ian Nepomniachtchi’s tightrope walk, and Ding Liren’s another missed opportunity! Round 6, however, happened to be not a speck more boring, that’s why let us take a look at the afore-mentioned games in a blitz mode.

Fabiano Caruana – Richard Rapport 

Round 5


It is even a bit offensive that Rapport didn’t take a risk to continue fighting with 17...0–0–0 18.Kf2, and here there is something like 18…h6!? with a puzzling position in his style. We can only guess how this game would finish in the case of a long castle, but the Hungarian’s decision also turned out to be nice enough for the overall picture.

18.Kf2 axb2 19.Ne2

If Black lingers, the white queen will immediately come back to the ‘base’ that’s why Richard cuts off all the ways of her retreat and finishes the game with a pretty move repetition.  

19…e5! 20.f5 Bf8 21.Qf6 Be7 22.Qg7 Bf8 23.Qf6 Be7 24.Qg7 Draw.


Hikaru Nakamura – Ian Nepomniachtchi

Round 5


‘Experienced’ spectators will immediately remember the following game: 14.cxd5 Qxd5 15.Bf4 Rac8 16.Qc1 Na5 17.c4 Qe4 18.Bd1 Qd3 19.Re3 Qxc4 20.Re5 with a win, Anand – Kramnik, 2005. Ian didn’t blunder the queen, but the general background was worrying during the game. 

14...Bf8 15.cxd5 Qxd5 16.c4 Qe4?!

Apparently, it was worth choosing 16...Qd6!? 17.Rd2 Be4 18.Nh4 Be7 19.Bf3 Bxf3 20.Nxf3 Bf6 and White is not likely to gain anything from holding the centre. Nepomniachtchi sent the queen on a long-term journey and, at some point, was close to repeating Kramnik’s fate. 



While sitting on a sofa with a cup of freshly brewed coffee, it is easy to recommend 17...Qb1! with the following line in which one needs to make at least one precise move:

18.Rb2 Rxe1 19.Qxe1 Qa1 20.d5 Bxa3 21.dxc6 Bxb2 22.cxb7 Rb8 23.Qe7 h6! (other moves are losing!) 24.Qxc7 Rxb7 25.Qxb7 Qxc1= with a gradual elimination of the material;

18.Rxe8 Rxe8 19.Rb2 Qa1 20.Rxb7 Be4 21.Rxc7 Bd6 22.Rd7 Bxa3 23.Nd2 Qxc1 24.Qxc1 Bxc1 25.Nxe4 Rxe4 26.d5

It may seem from afar that there is no escape for Black, but a precise 26…Re7 27.Rd6 Rc7! 28.dxc6 Ba3 allows him to hold on. 

Despite his phenomenal form, Ian didn’t manage to calculate all the position’s cobwebs and continued to run with his queen thus making his task more difficult. 

18.h3 Rxe1 19.Qxe1 Qe4 20.Re2 Qd3 21.Rb2 Qe4 22.Re2 Qd3 23.Re3 Qb1 24.d5 Ne7 25.Nd2?!

25.Nd4!? would have brought Black much more troubles – there is no need to provoke the queen ‘The Odyssey’ to come home. 25...Bg6 26.Rb3 Qa1 27.Nb5 looks rather miserable, but after the strongest 25…Qb6 26.Qd2, the silicon mind puts 26…Bc8 to the first line with good chances for White to successfully accomplish his mission. 

25...Qa1 26.Nb3 Qf6 27.Bd2 Ng6



By right or wrong, the queen came back from a long business trip, and White needed to switch to a poorly placed knight: 28.Bc3 Qd8 29.g3!? Now, 29…Bxa3 30.h4 h5 does not pay because of 31.Bxg7!, otherwise the kingside can crack at any time. Nepomniachtchi was more than ready for the upheaval on the queenside, and Nakamura fixes the move repetition. 

28...b6 29.Nc6 Bd7 30.Bc3 Qd6 31.Bb4 Qf6 32.Bc3 Qd6 33.Bb4 Qf6 34.Bc3 Draw.

The Russian grandmaster’s fans breathed out, while the multi-million Chinese audience sighed heavily: Ding Liren once again missed almost a one-hundred-per-cent chance. 

Teimour Radjabov – Ding Liren

Round 5

The Chinese gradually outplayed his vis-a-vis, and Radjabov had to find 36.Nf5!? Qxd3 37.Nxe7+ Kf8 38.Rxd3 Rc2+ 39.Rd2 Ne3+ 40.Kh3 Kxe7 41.Rxc2 Nxc2 42.Bxg7 f5 43.Kg2!? with a hope to survive in a tough endgame. However, Teimour, who was short of time, headed for the perimeter protection. 

36.Qe2? Qb7 37.Qd3 f6 38.Kh3 Qc8

е6-е5 is a threat, but the king’s come-back doesn’t seem to be attractive, so Radjabov goes all in. 

39.e5 fxe5 40.fxe5


The notoriously disastrous move forty! The knight is to be allowed on g5 be no means, and the best way to achieve it is via 40...Bxd4!, to be roughly followed by 41.Nxd4 Qa8 42.Nf3 Rc8!? (no trades!) 43.Bd4 Nf5 – I think that with more time on his clock Liren would have made his compatriots happy with the first victory. A slow pawn move allowed Radjabov taking a deep breath and calmly steering the game to a draw.

41.Ng5 Bxd4 42.Bxd4 Qa8 43.Qf3 Qxf3 44.Nxf3 Nc6 45.Bc5 Ncxe5 46.Nxe5 Nxe5 47.Re2 Nd3 48.Rxe6 Nxc5 49.bxc5 Kf7 50.Rxa6 Rxc5 , and the opponents agreed a draw.

In round six Ding calmly held off Nakamura's onslaught, however... Even if there are many rounds ahead yet, the leaders are already far away – Caruana and Nepomniachtchi, eager for a rematch with Carlsen, have put one more victory under their belts!


Firouzja – Caruana

Round 6

Alireza's next opening experiment did not bring proper dividends – the experienced Caruana methodically equalized the position, and Firouzja had to sacrifice the exchange to drum up some counterplay. Bh5 is in the air, but Caruana didn't even think necessary to take any countermeasures.


29.Bh5 is met by 29…exf2+ 30.Qxf2 Rxf5, and the d1-rook is hanging – you need to retreat with the king, but it does not make the situation any easier.

29.Kg2 Rd8 30.Rxd8+ Nxd8 31.fxe3 Rc7 32.Kh3

Again, the bishop threatens to go to h5 with a potential counterattack. However, as is often the case in chess, White is short of a tempo to save the game.

32…Nf7! 33.Bf3 Rc2 34.Qd1 Ng5+ 35.Kg4 Nxf3 36.Qd8+ Kh7 37.Kxf3 Qxb2 38.Qe8 Qf6

The hopes of a perpetual check have vanished, and after 39.e4 Rxh2 40.Qd7 Qc3+ 41.Kg4 Qd2 42.Qa4 Firouzja stopped the clock without waiting for his opponent to make his next move. It is obvious that Alireza, with all his genius, is not ready for the championship match yet, but it will be interesting to see if Carlsen's favorite can keep cool head and bounce back in the second half of the event.

No less convincing was Ian Nepomniachtchi's almost direct attack and prevalence over Jan-Krzysztof Duda, who had had the unblemished score going into that game.


Nepomniachtchi – Duda

Round 6

I am confident that Ian had a choice of several poisonous opening preparations to test the Polish prodigy, but in the end the Russian decided to fight with his visor raised and his guess was correct – even if from a computer point of view everything is fine for Black, it is extremely difficult to deal with White's caveman approach.

19.h4 Rad8 20.g5 hxg5

Usually it is your hand that wants to exchange pieces, but not now – 20...Kh8!?, with the idea of posting the bishop on f5 and the pawn on h5, could have helped Black stop White's offensive. The pawn capture does not look catastrophic, but gives White a simple and clear play nonetheless.

21.hxg5 Bb4 22.Bxb4 Qxb4 23.f5 Qxb2


The engines' evaluation bars suddenly dropped, fiercely voting against Nepomniachtchi's move, and for good reason so as the inclusion of 24.Rc3 d4 was almost an immediate win (otherwise the rook would land on e3 to cement the pawn structure), and now with the queen cut off 25.e6! gains in momentum It takes capturing the rook to avoid a direct checkmate – 25 ...Qxc3, but after 26.exf7 + Kxf7 27.Qc7+ Re7 (27...Kf8 fails to 28.f6) 28.Qxd8 Rxe2 29.g6+ White wins the piece, and threats to the king force Black to part with the exchange on top of that.

The path chosen by the tournament leader is not much inferior, but it throws a spanner in the works of advantage conversion.

24...fxe6 25.g6 exf5 26.gxh7+ Kh8 27.Rb1 Qf6

27...Qxe2 28.Rxb7 Re7 29.Rxe7 Qxe7 30.Rxf5 would have offered more chances – the position turns out to be approximately identical, the only difference being in a pair of rooks exchanged off: the absence of a bishop in this case even plays into Black's hands as White has fewer attacking opportunities.

28.Rxb7 Rxe2 29.Rxf5! Qh6+ 30.Kg1 Rxa2 31.Rbf7

The consequences of the 27th move are obvious now – not only does the f7-rook help White in the attack, but it also covers the bottom rank by controlling the f-file.

31…Ra1+ 32.Bf1 d4


If White hesitates, and the d-pawn can make its way to the promotion square, but Nepomniachtchi ruthlessly finishes the game in just three moves.

33.Rg5! Qd6 34.Qf2 Qa3 35.Rg3!

Black is denied the opportunity of trading queens and any hope of saving the game for that matter – Duda resigned.

Round six could have given us a third victory, but in the end it only enriched the collection of "opposite-colored bishops in the rook ending".


Radjabov – Rapport

Round 6

What happened in the game before this move will take one (or even two) articles, so I suggest that you go over the course of the duel yourself – it's better not to go into much detail because it is simply mind-boggling. I think it was the irrationality of the position that prevented Teimour from understanding the proximity of victory and clinching a simple victory.


The Candidates Tournament spares none – a simple retreat 39.Bh2! (only this way because 39.Bg3 Rg4 40.Bh2 c5 is not going to work) would have left Black hopelessly weak along the black squares, and, despite being up three pawns, Black has no adequate protection from the rook arrival on f7! I suggest that all coaches put this position in front of their students at the next lesson and ask them to find a solution within five minutes (this is exactly the amount of time that Radjabov had on his clock) – a great opportunity to outperform one of the candidates!

39...Rxe5 40.Rbxb7 Rb5

The rook, of course, did get to f7, but in the absence of a dark-squared bishop White is only good enough to deliver a perpetual check. Rapport was so close from a disaster, but has managed to survive all his ordeals so far. That said, he has scored no victories yet – he is the only tournament player to tread in the footsteps of Anish Giri.

In store for us is Rapport vs. Nepomniachtchi – the final and very important encounter in the first half of the event.