FIDE Candidates Tournament
March 15–April 5, 2020
Current Standings (round 7 of 14)
1–2 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave FRA 2767, Ian Nepomniachtchi RUS 2774, 4.5/7
3–6 Fabiano Caruana USA 2842, Alexander Grischuk RUS 2777, Anish Giri NED 2763, Wang Hao CHN 2762, 3.5/7
7–8 Kirill Alekseenko RUS 2698, Ding Liren CHN 2805, 2.5/7
Average Rating 2774
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
The FIDE Candidates Tournament began on March 16th, in Yekaterinburg, Russia, with eight of the top players of the world to play a double round-robin to decide who would challenge the reigning world champion, Magnus Carlsen, in December for the title. The 14-round event took place in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Yekaterinburg, Russia — play was originally scheduled 17 March to April 3 this year with a prize fund of €500,000.
One of the competitors, Teimour Radjabov, withdrew from the event before it began, questioning the decision to hold the tournament as planned due to the ongoing corona virus pandemic. He was replaced by a French player, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
Why was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave chosen? To answer that we should go back to how the eight (8) original players qualified:
1 Runner-up of the previous world championship match — Fabiano Caruana
2–3 Two qualifiers from the 2019 World Cup — Teimour Radjabov and Ding Liren. Third placer is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who defeated the other semifinalist Yu Yangyi in a match
4–5 Two qualifiers from the FIDE Grand Prix — Alexander Grischuk and Ian Nepomniachtchi. Third placer is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
6 One qualifier from the FIDE Grand Swiss — Wang Hao. Next in line is Kirill Alekseenko
7 One qualifier by rating — highest-rated player not otherwise qualified – Anish Giri. Next in line is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
8 One organizers’ nominee – Kirill Alekseenko
That last bit about organizers’ nominee we should take a closer look, for they cannot just nominate anybody, there are rules as to who they can nominate:
a.) The player from the top-10 players by average FIDE rating as per Clause E — that would be Maxime Vachier-Lagrave;
b.) The player placed third in the 2019 FIDE World Cup — that would be Maxime Vachier-Lagrave;
c.) The best non-qualifying player from the 2019 FIDE Grand Swiss — Kirill Alekseenko;
d.) The best non-qualifying player from the 2019 FIDE Grand Prix Series — Maxime Vachier Lagrave
e.) The organizers, being Russian, naturally preferred a Russian player and chose Alekseenko. That is absolutely within their rights.
OK, now Radjabov withdrew from the tournament. Radjabov had qualified through the World Cup, so I assumed that MVL was named as his replacement since he was next-in-line from the World Cup. Why else did he have to play an additional match with Yu Yangyi to determine third place? But no, apparently the rules stipulate that any withdrawal will be replaced by the next one in the rating list not otherwise qualified. Good thing that was MVL too, so problem averted. Perhaps the rules committee on the world championship should plug that loophole in the next cycle.
Due to the lateness of the withdrawal Vachier-Lagrave only had two weeks to prepare for the tournament, but he arrived in Yekaterinburg fresh and ready to play. In the second round he defeated the second seed in a terrific game.
Vachier Lagrave, Maxime (2767) — Ding, Liren (2805) [C88]
FIDE Candidates 2020
Yekaterinburg (2.4), 18.03.2020
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0–0 8.h3
[8.c3 would, of course, allow the Marshall Attack, a specialty of Ding. 8…d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6 etc]
8…Bb7 9.d3 d6
Black can still play a’la Marshall with 9…d5, and this was what MVL expected.
The text is commonly played here but the queen gets in the way of the development of the other pieces. Personally I feel that Breyer style with 10…Nb8 11.Nbd2 Nbd7 12.Nf1 Re8 13.Ng3 Nc5 14.Ba2 Ne6 is the best way to continue.
11.Nc3 Rfe8 12.Bd2 Nd8 13.Nd5
See what I mean? Now if Black takes the knight 13…Nxd5 14.exd5 the b7–bishop and d8–knight will have difficulty coordinating and getting back into play.
13…Nxd5 14.exd5 c5
MVL: “14…c5 surprised me a bit, especially in connection with 15…f5.” He expected 14…c6.
This move has been universally panned by the critics. It appears that most believe that Black’s best play here is to stay solid, sit tight with 15…f6, and wait to see what White plays. Makes sense, but not in keeping with Ding’s keep-pieces-active style. Moreover, this move lays a trap.
16.axb5 axb5 17.Rxa8 Bxa8 <D>
POSITION AFTER 17…BXA8
Maybe Ding did not consider this move? If Black moves his b-pawn, either to b4 or to capture on c4, he will be hit by 19.Ba4!, attacking both queen and rook, while 18…Rf8 19.cxb5 Qxb5 runs into 20.Nxe5!
Ding was baiting MVL to go for the visually-attractive 18.Nxe5?! which doesn’t work here. The continuation will be 18…dxe5 19.d6+ c4 20.dxc4 (20.dxe7 is not good either. 20…cxb3 21.exd8Q Rxd8 22.Rxe5 Qc6 Black is the one playing for the win) 20…Bf6 and black is better.
Getting the rook out of the way with 18…Rf8? is refuted by 19.cxb5 Qxb5 20.Nxe5! dxe5 21.d6+ winning.
Black still cannot take the b5–pawn because of Ba4.
Ding is trying to generate counterplay at any cost. This move though plays into MVL’s hands as White is the better developed and coordinated.
20.Nh2! Kg7 21.Bc4 Kg6 22.g4! Nh6 23.Qf3 Bd8 24.Qg2 f4
To be followed-up with Nh6–g8–f6.
[25.Qe4+ Kg7 26.b4 Bb6 gives us the same position as in the game]
25…Bb6 26.Qe4+ Kg7 27.bxc5 dxc5
Recapturing with the bishop would allow 27…Bxc5 28.d4! Bxd4 29.Nf3 Black’s pawn center is about to collapse.
28.Nf3 Nf7 29.Bc3 Bc7 30.b6 Bb8 31.Qf5
The simplest way to victory: ‘It’s natural I didn’t spend too much time’ — MVL.
31…Qxf5 32.gxf5 Kf6 33.Nd2 Rd8
After 33…Kxf5 we get the following forced line: 34.Ra1 Bb7 (34…Bd6 35.Ra7 and b6–b7) 35.Ra5 Bd6 36.Bb5 Rd8 37.Bc6 Bc8 38.Ra8 (with the idea of Rxc8 followed by Bd7+) 38…Kg6 39.Ne4 (this time threatening Nxd6, Nxd6, Bxe5) 39…Be7 40.Ba5 Black’s position is completely hopeless.
None of the captures work:
34…Nxd6 35.Rxe5 Nxc4 36.Re8+;
34…Bxd6 35.Ra1 followed by Ra7 or Ne4.
With the none too subtle threat of b6–b7.
[35…Bb7 (or 35…Bc6) 36.Ne4+ Bxe4 37.dxe4 followed by Bc4–d5, b7, Rb1–a1–a8]
36.b7! Bxb7 37.Ba5 1–0
No matter what he does Black is losing a piece.
After seven rounds had been played, and with Vachier-Lagrave, the replacement player, tied for the lead with Ian Nepomniachtchi, the tournament was suddenly suspended. Russia had announced that, as of March 27th, no international flights, commercial or charter, would be allowed in the country’s airspace. That gave FIDE President Dvorkovich no choice but to call off the event, to be resumed when the situation was safer.
There is now a lot of uncertainty chief among them: (1) Teimour Radjabov withdrew from the tournament when his request for a postponement due to the corona virus pandemic was not granted. Now that he has been proven right he is asking that his candidates’ status be reinstated, (2) Caruana and Ding Liren, the top two seeds, were playing well below their usual standards due to the uncertainty and worry associated with the pandemic — shouldn’t the tournament be restarted from the beginning under more “normal” circumstances? (3) If the tournament is restarted, should Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Radjabov’s replacement, be allowed to compete?
The idea of Dvorkovich that the tournament be restarted in the same place with the same players and the same number of points sound good to me. What do our readers think? You know my email address.
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.