Nepomniachtchi leads the Candidates

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Bobby Ang

Chess Piece

FIDE Candidates Tournament
Yekaterinburg, Russia
March 15–April 5, 2020

Current Standings (round 6 of 14)

1 Ian Nepomniachtchi RUS 2774, 4.5/6

2 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave FRA 2767, 3.5/6

3–6 Fabiano Caruana USA 2842, Alexander Grischuk RUS 2777, Anish Giri NED 2763, Wang Hao CHN 2762, 3.0/6

7–8 Ding Liren CHN 2805, Kirill Alekseenko RUS 2704, 2.0/6

Average Rating 2774 Category 21

Time Control: 100 minutes for the first 40 moves, then 50 minutes for the next 20 moves, then 15 minutes for the rest of the game with 30 seconds added to the clocks after every move starting move 1

Special Rules: No draw offers allowed until after move 40

Tie Breaks: The following are used to break a tie for 1st place: (1) Direct encounter, (2) Wins, (3) Sonneborn-Berger. If they are still tied after the three systems are applied then a playoff beginning with four 25-minute games is played

Ian Nepomniachtchi (born July 14, 1990 in Bryansk, Russia), opened up a one-point lead against the field in the 2020 FIDE Candidates Tournament by winning three games and a performance rating of 2969. Really impressive.

In the 1st round Anish Giri hit him with a theoretical novelty from the White side of a Symmetrical English Opening. I was very impressed with the way GM Ian handled the situation — knowing that he had fallen for Giri’s preparation he nevertheless did not chicken out and bravely went into the most critical variation, even managing to outplay his Dutch foe in the complications. Giri then gave up his queen for a rook to set up a “fortress” (a position with the defending side down in material, yet impossible for the stronger side to make any decisive progress) to hold the draw.

Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion who was acting as a commentator on the game, was very confident that Nepom would not be able to breach the position but he really buckled down and found a way to win.

Giri, Anish (2763) — Nepomniachtchi, Ian (2774) [A33]
FIDE Candidates 2020
Yekaterinburg (1.3), 17.03.2020

Giri is well known for always being prepared. In this game he blitzed out his first 19 moves while Nepomniachtchi was giving his moves a lot of thought.

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 e6

GM Nepomniachtchi has a lot of experience with this line. I don’t think he has ever lost with it yet — he beat Wei Yi last year in the Jerusalem Grand Prix and the year before that took down Gelfand in the Poikovsky tournament.

6.g3 Qb6 7.Ndb5 Ne5 8.Bf4 Nfg4 9.e3 a6 10.h3 axb5 11.hxg4 Nxc4 12.Rc1!?

This is Giri’s new move. The previously seen 12.Qb3 d5 13.Bxc4 dxc4 14.Qxb5+ “is just draw” (Nepomniachtchi)


After 11 minutes.

13.b3 Bb4!

After another 10 minutes.

14.bxc4 Ra3! 15.Be5 f6! 16.Bd4 Qa5 17.Be2! Bxc3+ 18.Rxc3 Rxc3 19.Kf1!

All part of Giri’s preparation.


It appears that Giri expected 19…bxc4 because now, for the first time in the game, he stopped blitzing and took 10 minutes over his next move. After the game Giri remarked that he had looked at b4 but didn’t believe any person would play it as it was “very, very deep.”

20.g5! e5 21.Bxc3 bxc3 22.gxf6 gxf6 23.Qb1?

Targeting h7 but it turns out to be a mistake. It was already time to go for equality with 23.cxd5!? Qc5 24.Bd3 Ke7 25.Qb3.

23…Qc7! 24.Qd3 b5!

I believe white overlooked this. He was counting on 24…Qxc4 25.Rxh7! Rg8 26.Qxc4 dxc4 27.Ke1! b5 28.a4 the black pawns on the queenside are contained.

25.Qxc3 bxc4 26.e4! dxe4 27.Rh4 Be6 28.Rxe4 0–0 29.Bxc4? Kg7!

It turns out White’s bishop is pinned against his queen.

30.Qb3 Rb8 31.Bxe6

After long thought Giri decides to give up his queen to set up a fortress with rook and pawn on his kingside. He figures this should be good enough to draw. Other moves lose:

• 31.Qd3 Bf5;

• 31.Qa4 Bd7 32.Qd1 (32.Qc2? Bf5) 32…Bf5 33.Rh4 Rb1 wins the queen.

31…Rxb3 32.Rg4+ Kf8 33.Bxb3 Qc1+ 34.Kg2 Qc6+ 35.Kg1 h5 36.Rg8+ Ke7 37.Rg7+ Kd6 38.Rh7 Qf3 39.Rh8 e4 40.Rd8+ Ke7 41.Bd1 Qc3 42.Rd5 h4! 43.gxh4 f5! 44.Rxf5 Qe1+ 45.Kg2 Qxd1 46.Rg5

Why did Giri not take the e4–pawn? After 46.Re5+ Kf6 47.Rxe4 Qd5 48.f3 Black has no more pawn. The end game table bases say that “Black mates in 70 (!)” so it might theoretically be the best defense for White. However, Giri knew that with white’s pawn on f3 this endgame is lost. He has a drawing plan and is sticking with it — pawn on f2, king to e1/e2, rook to e3 and g3.

46…Qa1 47.Rg4 Qb1 48.Rg3 Qxa2 49.Rh3 Qd5 50.Kf1 Qd1+ 51.Kg2 Qg4+ 52.Rg3 Qh5!

Another very impressive point. It is not yet time to take the h4–pawn. As a general rule if the white king can get to e1 or e2 then with his pawn on f2 and rook on e3 we would have a fortress that Black cannot penetrate. After 52…Qxh4 53.Kf1 Qh1+ 54.Ke2 Ke6 55.Re3 it is a draw although by no means an easy one. Best try for Black is 55…Kd5 56.Rg3 rook intends to shuttle between e3 and g3. There is a trap he has to be wary of though 56…Kd4 57.Re3? (This exactly illustrates my warning that White should be alert to tactical traps. 57.Ra3! maintains the draw 57…Qh5+ 58.Ke1 Qb5 59.Rg3 Qb1+ 60.Ke2 Qc2+ 61.Ke1 Qc1+ Black cannot make progress) 57…Qh5+! 58.Ke1 (58.Kd2 Qg5 59.Ke2 Qxe3+ 60.fxe3+ Kc3 is a book win for Black) 58…Qa5+ 59.Ke2 Qb5+ 60.Ke1 Qb1+ 61.Ke2 Qc2+ 62.Ke1 Qc1+ 63.Ke2 Qxe3+ 64.fxe3+ Kc3 Black wins.

53.Ra3 Qd5!

Nepom is aware of White’s intention of putting his king on e1 or e2 so he places his queen on d5 so that he’d always have a check on d1 to drive it away. He will send his king to capture the h-pawn.

54.Kg1 Kf6 55.Rg3 Qd1+ 56.Kg2 Kf5 57.Rg5+ Kf4 58.Rg3 Qd5 59.Kf1 Qd2 60.Kg2 Qd1 61.Re3 Kf5 62.Rg3 Kf6 63.Rh3 Kg6 64.Rg3+ Kh5 65.Rh3 Qb1 66.Re3 Kxh4 67.Rg3 Kh5 68.Rh3+ Kg4 69.Rg3+ Kf4 70.Re3 Qd1 71.Ra3 Ke5 72.Rg3 Kd4 73.Re3


73…Qd3! 0–1

Nepo will now exchange his queen for the rook and win the pawn ending. Let us demonstrate. 73…Qd3 74.Re1 (74.Rxd3+ exd3 75.Kf1 Kc3 76.Ke1 Kc2; 74.Rg3 Kc3) 74…Qc3 75.Kf1 (75.Re3 Qxe3 76.fxe3+ Kxe3 77.Kf1 Kd2) 75…Ke5 76.Re2 Qc4! 77.Ke1 Qc1#

In rounds 5 and 6 GM Ian had two consecutive white games against the two Chinese grandmasters Wang Hao and Ding Liren. They followed the same course — Nepomniachtchi emerged from the opening with pressure against the Black positions and then kept pushing until his opponents cracked. Especially for Ding Liren this was a painful loss, as it was his 3rd loss in the tournament and it is really looking like he will no longer be challenging for 1st place. In the Candidates’ tournament only 1st place matters and right now Ding is 2.5 points behind Nepomniachtchi.

The top seed Fabiano Caruana had an impressive win in the 1st round.

Caruana, Fabiano (2842) — Alekseenko, Kirill (2698) [E20]
FIDE Candidates 2020
Yekaterinburg RUS (2.1), 18.03.2020

Fabiano went for something he’d never played before — the aggressive 4.f3! against the Nimzo-Indian. Anish Giri’s wife WGM Sopiko Guramishvili has done a video on this opening in the chess24 Website and he followed her recommendations all the way until Kirill deviated on the 10th move.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3 d5 5.a3 Be7 6.e4 dxe4 7.fxe4 c5 8.d5 exd5 9.exd5 0–0 10.Be2! Re8 11.Nf3 Bg4 12.0–0 Nbd7 13.d6!?

Caruana had looked at this position before the game but couldn’t recall all the lines.

13…Bf8 14.h3 Bh5

Alekseenko spent a combined 47 minutes over this and his next move.

15.Nb5 Re6 16.Bf4 a6 17.Nc7 Re4

Alekseenko was counting on this move which threatens the f4–bishop, giving his other rook on a8 time to swing into position.

18.Bh2 Rc8 19.g4!? Bxg4 20.hxg4 Nxg4 21.Bd3 Nxh2 22.Bxe4 Nxf1 23.Qxf1

Caruana had a lot of time here and felt his position was very advantageous because of the powerful outpost on d5.

23…Bxd6 24.Nd5 g6 25.Qh3 Kg7 26.Kh1 Ne5 27.Nh4!

[27.Nxe5 Bxe5 Would have let Black back in it]

27…h5 28.Rg1 Bf8 29.Nf4 Ng4 30.Nxh5+ gxh5 31.Bf5 Be7 32.Bxg4 hxg4 33.Qxg4+ Bg5 34.Qh5! 1–0

Nice. After 34.Qh5 f6 there is forced mate. One sample line is 35.Nf5+ Kf8 36.Qh8+ Kf7 37.Qh7+! Kf8 38.Qg7+ Ke8 39.Re1+

After six rounds Caruana has an even 3/6 score and is 1.5 points behind the tournament leader. I wouldn’t put it past him though to fight back into contention in the second half. Recall his 6.5/7 at the end to win 2020 Wijk aan Zee. He described his experiences in his two previous Candidates Tournament (Moscow 2016 where he finished second behind Karjakin and Berlin 2018 which he won) in an interview for New in Chess Magazine:

“The two Candidates tournaments I have played in were extremely different. One [in Moscow] where I struggled to win at the very start and also was extremely ill for the first seven rounds, and at some point I was fighting for the lead, but it didn’t work out. And the last one [in Berlin], where I had a very strong start, but I took some blows later in the tournament. I think the main thing is that you’re always going to have a difficult period in the Candidates, no matter what, there will be some struggle. I don’t think anyone ever wins cleanly; that just can’t happen.”

Well, we will see.


Bobby Ang is a founding member of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) and its first Executive Director. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA), he taught accounting in the University of Santo Tomas (UST) for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.