28 June 2022

Without Looking Back at Peloton

Review of Rounds 7-9 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament by GM Sergey Grigoriants

By the end of the first half of the event the main intrigue has taken shape – Ian Nepomniachtchi  and Fabiano Caruana have significantly broken away from their pursuers. That said, in round seven this gap became even wider! 


Richard Rapport – Ian Nepomniachtchi

Petrov’s Defence

Round 7

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Bd6!

Flexibility in the opening and the ability to steer away from opponent's preparation is a crucial asset in modern chess. When playing against Nakamura two rounds earlier, Ian opted for the 6...Nc6 system, and it is obviously this continuation that Rapport spent the whole rest day preparing for. 6...Bd6 was likely given only a random check.

7.0–0 0–0 8.c4 c6 9.Qb3

The mainline is 9.Re1.


A tough move and a clear indicator that Ian is well-versed here.

10.Bxe4 dxe4 11.Ng5 Be7 12.Nxe4 Qxd4 13.Qxb7 Qxe4 14.Qxa8 Bh3!

The opponents reached this position in no time at all, and the picture became very clear: White opted for a rare and objectively harmless sideline in the expectation that the opponent' memory would fail him along the way. The opponent did not fail... and the game was about to end with a perpetual check.

15.gxh3 Qg6+ 16.Kh1 Qe4+ 17.Kg1 Qg6+ 18.Kh1 Qe4+ 19.f3 Qd3 20.Kg2 Qg6+ 21.Kh1 Qd3

Richard took a deep think here. A cooked on the fly backup line has come about, and the preparation obviously fell short of its goal. To agree to a draw as White, when the opening stage was still underway on the neighboring boards, is a psychological challenge for a combative chess player. And what will the second Ljubomir Ljubojevic say about a game like this? On the other hand, Rapport could not fail to understand the evaluation of the position that emerged a couple of moves later... Lingering doubts led to the decision to go on playing.

22.Nd2? Qd7 23.Ne4 Na6 24.Qxf8+ Bxf8

This position's evaluation for White starts off as "worse" at a shallow calculation depth. The king's chronic weakness proves a key factor in the upcoming game that renders White's game difficult and unpromising.



25...Qxh3 26.Rad1 h6 27.Bg3 Nc5 28.Rfe1 Ne6

In fact, the exchange of knights via 28...Nxe4!? does not make White's situation any easier, and in future Black will provoke it himself. Overall, the engine points out to faults with this or that move of Black's, but White's strategic trouble with the king does not disappear, the rooks are forced to remain passive, and the positional evaluation only grows worse.

29.a3 h5 30.Rd3 Qf5 31.b4 h4 32.Bb8 Ng5



33.Re3 is a tougher move, but Richard's positional problems have added with a strong time pressure.

33...Nxe4 34.fxe4 Qf2 35.h3 Be7 36.Bh2 Bg5 37.Bg1 Qd2 38.R3e2 Qd3 39.Be3 Bf6 40.Bxa7 Qxh3+ 41.Kg1 Qg3+ 42.Kf1 h3 43.Bg1 Bh4 White resigned.

Rapport's actions have apparently caused a serious effect on Fabiano, who delivered the final part of his game with exceptional accuracy and energy.

Fabiano Caruana – Teimour Radjabov

Round 7


White launches the already typical, but nonetheless instructive march by the king.

30...Ka7 31.Rd4 Rc5

Despite being down a pawn, Black's position looks pretty robust, and the c3-weakness promises counterplay. And yet, White does find a vulnerable spot – the g6-square!

32.Kh4! Rec7 33.Kh5 b5 34.f4 Nd7 35.Rcd1 Nb6 36.R1d3 Na4 37.Kg6 Nxc3

Black wasted no time as well, and it is not at all easy to understand from afar whose pawns are faster. It takes self-confidence and precise calculation line, something that Caruana managed to demonstrate.

38.Bf3 Nxa2

By the way, Black is already up a pawn and with two connected passers at that. I think even many strong players would have abandoned the whole idea of pawn racing then and there, but Caruana went as far as calculating everything...

39.Rd7! Nc3 40.Kxg7 b4 41.Kxf6 b3

In some lines Black even promotes his pawn first, but it doesn't help!

42.Rd2! a5 43.Ke6 Rxd7 44.Rxd7+ Ka6 45.f6 b2 46.f7 b1Q 47.f8Q Qg6+ 48.Qf6


Nice lines arise in the endgame after 48...Qxf6+ 49.Kxf6 a4 50.f5 a3 51.Rd2! a2 52.Rxa2+ Nxa2 53.Kg6. What an amazing position in which being up a rook does not allow Black even as much as to escape! The f3-bishop is ideally placed and stops the black knight from taking up his defensive duties 53...h5!? 54.f6 h4 55.f7 Rc8 56.g4 hxg3 57.hxg3 Nc1 58.g4 Kb6 (58...Nd3 runs into 59.Be2, this is why you need to waste a decisive tempo!) 59.g5 Nd3 60.Kf5! The knight is cut off again, and White wins the game.

49.Kd6 Rc4 50.Rc7! Kb5


The situation clarifies, at last.

51...Qxe5+ 52.fxe5 Rxc7 53.Kxc7 Kc5 54.e6 Nb5+ 55.Kd7 a4 56.e7

The decisive zugzwang is not far away, and Black resigned. A brilliant creative achievement by Caruana, which kept him in contention at that.


Hikaru Nakamura – Fabiano Caruana

Ruy Lopez

Round 8

Round eight introduced serious adjustments into the standings. Ian opted for safety first approach and, as they say, fizzled out the game to the extent that would not leave the Chinese chess player any hopes of bouncing back for the defeat in the first half. And Caruana, inspired by a brilliant victory over Radjabov, went all out into complications. In hindsight we can say that his opening choice was unsuccessful.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6

We know that Caruana knows to play the Petroff Defence, too. However, whether it was worth going for it on that day will only be possible to determine at the end of the tournament. Anyway, a rather unorthodox position of the open variation of Ruy Lopez appeared on the board.

3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0 Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.c3 Bc5

This active placement of the bishop, followed by a double-edged exchange on f2, is considered the most fundamental rejoinder to the order of moves chosen by White.

10.Nbd2 0–0 11.Bc2 Nxf2 12.Rxf2 Bxf2+ 13.Kxf2 f6 14.Nf1!?

14.exf6 Qxf6 15.Nf1 has been seen more frequently, and the game statistics testify to dynamic equality.

14...fxe5 15.Kg1

Judging by the speed of execution, Hikaru was not at all new to this position. Overall, rich in hidden tactical ideas, this position suited his style perfectly.

15...Qd6 16.Be3 Bf5 17.Bb3 Rad8 18.Qe1 Na5 19.Qf2 Nb7 20.Re1 c5 21.Ng3 Bd3 22.Qd2 c4

This is an important moment. After 22...e4!? the game could have followed a long path towards a draw: 23.Ng5 (23.Nh4 is an option that takes nerves of steel) 23...Na5 24.N5xe4 Bxe4 25.Nxe4 Nxb3 26.axb3 dxe4 27.Qxd6 Rxd6 28.Bxc5 Rd2 29.Bxf8 Kxf8 30.Rxe4 Rxb2 31.b4=.

23.Bd1 Rd7 24.Bf2 Rdf7


A spectacular positional maneuver: the knight and bishop are about to switch places for better coordination!

25...e4 26.Nd4 Qg6

The d4-knight is too good, and it was worth trying to exchange it with 26...Nd8!?, maintaining rough equality.


We can say that starting from move 25 it took White a couple of strong maneuvers to seal the fate of the game.


27...h5 was the lesser of evils, even though 28.Qg5! would have been rather unpleasant for Black.

28.h5 Qd6 29.Bg4 h6 30.Qe3

As a result, White has completely consolidated his position, and Black needed to put up with the exchange of queens and subsequent transition into a clearly worse endgame. Given that Caruana was seriously down on time after the opening, there was very little chance to escape.

30...Qf4 31.Qxf4 Rxf4 32.Ne6 Nxe6 33.Bxe6+ Kh7 34.Bxd5 R8f5 35.Bc6 Rxh5 36.Bd4 Rhf5 37.Nf2 Rf7


This is a first-class solution that reminds the reader about wonderful books by Dvoretsky.

38...h5 39.a4 bxa4 40.Bxa4 h4 41.Be3 R4f5 42.Ra1 h3

This pawn desperado allowed Black to "muddy the waters" somewhat, and it was for the first time that Fabiano's fans started cherishing certain hopes of saving the game, but Nakamura dispelled the illusions with a couple of cool brilliant moves.

43.Ra2! hxg2 44.Bd1!

White took control of the situation and is ready for harvest reaping. Despite some slips, the rest was a piece of cake.

44...R7f6 45.Bg4 Rd5 46.Kxg2 Rg6 47.Kg3 Bf1 48.Bd4 Bd3 49.Kf4 Kg8 50.Bf5 Rh6 51.Ng4 Rhd6 52.Ne3 Rb5 53.Bc5 Rf6 54.Ke5 Kf7 55.Nd5 Rxf5+ 56.Kxf5 e3+ 57.Ke5 e2 58.Bf2 Rb8 59.Be1 Re8+ 60.Kf4 g5+ 61.Kg3 Re6 62.Kf2 Rh6 63.Ke3 Re6+ 64.Kf2 Rh6 65.Ne3 Rf6+ 66.Kg3 Rf1 67.Ng2 Rf6 68.Bf2 Kg6 69.Ra5 Re6 70.Ne1 Bf5 71.Nf3 Rd6 72.Nd4 Bd3 73.Re5 Kf6 74.Nf3 Black resigned. 

Thus, Caruana's fighting mindset did him a disservice this time around. Nakamura, in turn, made a cautious claim to rejoin the contention race.


Richard Rapport – Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Four Knights Game

Round 8

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.g3 Bc5 5.Bg2 d6 6.d3 a5 7.0–0 h6 8.b3 0–0 9.h3 Nd4 10.Be3 c6 11.Kh2 Re8 12.a3 Nxf3+ 13.Qxf3 Bxe3 14.fxe3 b5 15.g4 Ra7 16.Qg3 

As has already been highlighted by many, performance quality in a number of tournament games leaves much to be desired. One of the obvious reasons is a clear bias towards the Internet blitz and rapid during the past few years, or "dilution" of chess, as Vlad Tkachev defined it aptly. The following example is a rather good illustration of the topic. The engine votes for Black's position, which is strong and strategically promising. It takes just a couple of moves to turn the tables completely.


This is an interesting-looking tactical trick. Strictly speaking, however, it was not the only way to go. It resembles a fullback's sleight of foot within own penalty area.

16...Be6 is calmer.

17.g5 h4! 18.Qxh4 Nh7 19.Qg3 Nxg5

As a result of the exchange operation, Black created a potential weakness for White, but also opened up lines for a potential offensive. However, it is still within boundaries of acceptable, let us what happened later...

20.h4 Nh7 21.Bh3 Bxh3 22.Rg1!?

Either this intermediate move had such a psychological effect, or Duda somehow liked the game with Nepomniachtchi, where he opened up the h-file to get his king mated, but there followed another "trick".


Paraphrasing the classics: ‘An excellent mark for the ingenuity and a low grade for the subject’. After an easy 22...g6 23.Qxh3 Nf6, Black would have placed the rook on h8 and fought for the advantage. 

23.hxg5 Bc8?! 24.Rg2

All of a sudden, Black created troubles for himself, but the next move is just puzzling.


Indeed, the classics, Karpov - Kasparov, a decisive 24th move, doubling the rooks along a closed line, a hidden spring of dynamics, etc... But here? The only function of the rook on e7 is to lock the exit from a mating net to its king. Instead of using it for the evacuation as soon as possible! After 24...Kf8!? or 24...f6!? 25.g6 Kf8, the whole game is ahead, and there is no full clarity about the evaluation, although the destiny of the black king is worrying. 


It is telling that all White’s reasonable moves (25.Qh4!?, 25.Rf1!?) have already led to the decisive edge. The text-move, by the way, gave a certain tactical chance for Black. 


Successfully finishing the creation of a cooperative. The last chance was the escape to the endgame without a pawn: 25...f6! 26.gxf6 Rf7 27.Rag1 Qxf6 28.Qxf6 Rxf6 29.Rxg7+ Kf8.

26.Rh1 f5


Delicately and coolly, White is helping his opponent mate the black king. 

27...b4 28.exf5

Is more spectacular than a simple 28.Rh6!?

28...gxf5 29.Ne4! Black resigned.

Fabiano Caruana – Ian Nepomniachtchi

Petrov’s Defence

Round 9

The central game of the ninth round had been highly anticipated. Caruana needed only a win, and the opening turned out to be quite successful for the American grandmaster. 

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Bd6 7.0–0 0–0 8.c4 c6 9.Re1

Rapport tried a side move 9.Qb3 against Ian, and we remember how it ended. 

9...Bf5 10.Qb3 Qd7 11.Nh4 Be6 12.Qc2 Na6 13.a3

There are a lot of various move orders where one can easily get entangled.  

13...f5 14.cxd5 cxd5 15.Nc3 Rac8 16.f3

At this point, Ian took a long thought, which is an alarm sign in modern chess. Obviously, the position had been prepared some time ago, but he didn’t manage to remember all the complex lines, and after 16...Be7 17.g3, Ian opted for a modest 17...Nd6.

More principled lines contain sacrifices, and it is quite difficult to try them against a ‘heavily armed’ opponent.   

17...Bf6!? or 17...Nxc3 18.bxc3 Bxh4 19.gxh4 f4 are worth studying.


White had a good alternative of 18.Qe2!? Nc7 19.Nxd5! taking a pawn, but the positions like 19...Bxd5 20.Qxe7 Qxe7 21.Rxe7 could seem insufficient to Caruana since the black pieces were quite active. 


The engine is not quite happy with this decision but a wry 18...Rc6 is evidently not in Ian’s style and, moreover, it didn’t save him from problems. 

19.Qxd7 Bxd7 20.Nxd5 Bxd4+


An interesting moment. White had an easy 21.Be3!? keeping a long-term initiative, quite unpleasant for Black, in the endgame. I suspect that Carlsen would have played like this. The text-move is more ambitious and, probably, it is even mathematically stronger, but it is less practical: White will have to solve very complicated calculating tasks and there is a big chance to make a mistake. Here, the choice is a matter of style and approach to the game. The significance of the victory and a general belief in his calculating abilities directed Fabiano along a tough path, and eventually, he failed to control his car. However, the advantage after 21.Be3 could have been insufficient, and we would have recommended a harsher king’s move. 

21...Rce8 22.Bf4 Nc5 23.Ne7+ Kf7

This is the most decisive moment of the game, of the round, and, who knows, probably, of the whole tournament. Caruana thought for a long time, calculated a lot but didn’t calculate till the end.  


The text-move leads to immediate equality. It was necessary to find 24.Bf1! In general, the ‘back’ moves are often overlooked, but here everything bumped into a forced line: 24...Nc8 25.Bc4+ Be6 26.Rxe6! It is important that all the alternatives are harmless for Black, and it didn’t give White an option just to follow this line and see what would happen. 26...Nxe6 27.Nhxf5 Kf6!, and here Caruana, perhaps, missed from afar a tactical idea of 28.Nd5+!, which accumulates the whole play of White. Probably, he saw 28.Nd5+ but wasn’t sure in the evaluation of the arising position with these jumps and without the exchange. Nevertheless, it was a point where Black could be faced with serious challenges, but the game turned out to be quite favourable for Ian.  

24...Nxf5 25.Nhxf5 Bxf5 26.Nxf5 Rxe1 27.Rxe1


Apparently, this simple move was also missed in Caruana’s calculations. White would have indeed maintained the pressure after 27...Bxb2 28.Bd6.

28.Re4 Bxb2 29.Be3 Bxa3

The further is easy. Taking into consideration White’s certain time trouble and a general emotional background of the struggle, Black, if wished, could have ‘asked some questions’ to his opponent, but Ian precisely fixed the completion of the athletic task. 

30.Bxa7 Ra8 31.Bd4 Bf8 32.Re2 g6


33.Ne3 Rd8 34.Bb6 Rd6 35.Nc4 Rc6 36.Re4 Bg7 37.f4 Re6 38.Kf3 Ne1+ 39.Ke3 Nc2+ 40.Kf3 Ne1+ Draw.

White celebrated victories in the other three games of Round 9! Duda didn’t cope with the Chinese player’s skills in an approximately equal endgame. Firouzja scored his first win in a bit uneven, but exciting tactical fight against Rapport. It even seemed that a normal grandmasters’ play, which had been missed in the first half, came back to the tournament. 

The following game happened to be very important in an athletic matter: here Nakamura (as well as Caruana in the previous round) supported the thesis that it is very hard to perform the next day after a brilliantly played game. 

Teimour Radjabov – Hikaru Nakamura

Ruy Lopez

Round 9

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6

As we remember, Caruana (the next day after his masterpiece against Radjabov) chose a very sharp line versus Nakamura and was eventually outplayed in a complicated struggle. Taking this experience in mind, Hikaru is playing solidly, aiming at a strict equalising. 

4.d3 Bc5 5.c3 0–0 6.0–0 d5 7.Nbd2 dxe4 8.dxe4 a5 9.Qc2 Qe7 10.a4 Na7 11.Be2 Nc6

This manoeuvre, as well as a general setting of the game, unambiguously tells us that the American intends to take a time-out. But Teimour is an experienced fighter, and also he had an interesting idea in store, so he saddened Hikaru’s million-strong fan club very quickly.   

12.Nb3!? Ba7

One needs to get to the bottom, but it seems that this decision was dubious since Black has problems with the pawn on a5.  


The white bishop is swinging an amusing pendulum. 

13...Bg4 14.Bxc6 Bxf3 15.gxf3 bxc6 16.Nxa5 Qe6 17.Qe2

The opening didn’t work out at all, and Black faced a rather unpleasant choice: either to take back a pawn with a hard position of a technical character with a minimum of tactical counter chances or to try to twist something on the kingside with an almost guaranteed loss, if White reacts precisely. Hikaru opted for the second way… 


After 17...Bxf2+ 18.Rxf2 Rxa5 19.b4 Raa8 20.Be3, the a-pawn doesn’t promise anything good to Black in the long run.

18.b4 Kh8 19.Kh1 h6 20.Rg1 f5 21.Rg2 fxe4 22.Qxe4 Rf6 23.Be3 Bxe3 24.fxe3 Qd5 25.Qg4

25.Re2!? is a bit more accurate. 

25...Qxf3 26.Qxf3 Rxf3 27.Re2 c5 28.Nc6


Hastens the climax. The last chance was to get at the c3 pawn – 28...Nf6! 29.a5 Ne4.


Now the White’s play is straightforward and effective, and Black has no chance to survive.

29...Rf6 30.b5 Rd6 31.a5 Nf6 32.a6 Nd7 33.a7 Kg8 34.Rc2 Kf7 35.Nb4 c5 36.bxc6 Nb6 37.e4 Nc8 38.Rca2 Ke6 39.Ra6 Rd4 40.Nd5 Kd6 41.Nb6 Black resigns. Thus, Nakamura’s chances to interfere in the struggle for the leadership dwindle to the minimum, however, there are five more rounds ahead, so let us not jump to early conclusions.