Wang Hao and Ian Nepomniachtchi won fine games with Black as Ding Liren and Anish Giri, who had both gone all 14 rounds unbeaten in their previous Candidates Tournaments, got off to a bad start in Yekaterinburg. There were tense battles everywhere, with MVL and Fabiano Caruana drawing what Peter Svidler called a “theoretically important game”, while the watching Magnus Carlsen was not the first person ever to call out Alexander Grischuk for “just bad time management” as he let Kirill Alekseenko escape in time trouble.
You might have predicted some awkward virus-related moments at the start of the 2020 Candidates Tournament, and Ian Nepomniachtchi’s refusal to shake the hand of 12th World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov was certainly that (note Giri immediately reaches for his hand sanitizer afterwards!):
…but few could have predicted the spectacular start on the chessboards:
We were privileged to be able to watch it not just with Lawrence Trent and Jan Gustafsson (socially distanced) in Hamburg but also with World Champion Magnus Carlsen from Norway and Kirill Alekseenko second Peter Svidler phoning in from Yekaterinburg:
After the games there was a recap of the day’s action by 2-time Canadian Champion Pascal Charbonneau:
For this written recap, let’s start by looking at one of the draws, if only because no-one sums up a day’s chess action quite like Alexander Grischuk:
The defining moment of this game perhaps came when 22-year-old Candidates Tournament debutant Kirill Alekseenko played 14…Bg4:
The watching Magnus Carlsen called it “an excellent move” to play against Grischuk, since you could be sure the Russian, who had taken over 3 minutes to appear at the board and play 1.c4, would spend “at least five minutes” choosing between a number of “plausible” options. In fact it was much longer, with Grischuk later lamenting, “at the end I played f3 after thinking 25 minutes, and I could play it thinking 25 seconds”. It was “only” 18 minutes, but Grischuk had left himself with 10 minutes for 25 moves, with Magnus summing up, “this is just bad time management”.
In an interview earlier this year Kirill was asked which contemporary player had most influenced him:
Grischuk. I admire his style of play. I can’t say that I imitate him, I impose my own game; but there are qualities Alexander has that I’d like to have as well.
One passion they seem to share is time trouble, as Kirill’s second Peter Svidler explained:
It became a dogfight in which Kirill was on the verge of defeat, but the idea he found in time trouble was bold and successful, if perhaps not entirely sound:
29…a6!!? 30.Qxa6 Ra8! 31.Qxb6 Bd5! was described as "a great double pawn sacrifice" by Grischuk, who should perhaps have taken on d5 here. Down to a minute on his clock he instead went for 32.Qb2!? and soon White’s advantage had fizzled out.
Afterwards Grischuk felt the coronavirus situation might be affecting the players:
It’s very hard to play because of the whole situation - you have a “suitcase” mood! Yesterday when the news appeared that the Ministry of Sport had banned all international tournaments in Russia after the 16th March I was already kind of relieved... but our tournament officially started on the 15th March, so we play. It’s still not clear, though, and any game here can be the last! It’s very hard to play, and I think not just for me. Very few people played well today - Nepomniachtchi maybe stands out. I played badly, Kirill, as he said, also played badly, Giri played terribly, Ding totally awfully, Wang Hao, also played the first part of the game incoherently [“like a chicken scratching” is closer to the Russian idiom!], well Lagrave-Caruana, but there there was no struggle.
You can watch Grischuk below, though the best comments were in Russian:
It’s hard to argue with Grischuk’s assessments. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave admitted he’d had “a few scary moments” after he found himself outprepared with the white pieces and needing to fight for a draw, though it seems Fabiano Caruana never missed any clear chance for more.
Afterwards Fabi described it as “not the most pleasant thing” to play in the current virus situation, summing up:
We’re one of the last sporting events in the world to not have been cancelled – we’ll see if it’s the right decision to have held it or not at the end of the tournament.
That brings us to the decisive games:
This was a very strange game, since Ding Liren, who scored 13 draws and 1 win in the last Candidates Tournament, had a very comfortable advantage all the way up until move 30:
The knight on c4 is completely dominating the bishop on c7, but here Ding, who was locked down in China before having to spend 14 days in quarantine near Moscow before the tournament, stumbled with 30.f4?
After 30…exf4 31.Bxf4 Nxf4+ 32.gxf4 f5! it was suddenly Black who held all the positional trumps. Jan Gustafsson, Laurent Fressinet and Peter Heine Nielsen had scored Ding 13/15 for time management, but Wang Hao had a diabolic smile when he later commented, “I decided to play 39…Rd7 to see what he’s going to play”. That innocuous move allowed White a chance to solve all his problems (40.d4!), but with just 3 seconds remaining to the time control the world no. 3 blundered with 40.Rdd2?:
After 40…Bxh4! 41.Rg2 Wang Hao got to play one of the moves of the day:
41…Rg4!! Ding Liren delayed a move before accepting the sacrifice, but there was nothing better, and he resigned a few moves later with Black’s pawns simply unstoppable:
So the reluctant participant (“I like travelling but now is not the time”) had dealt a huge blow to his compatriot and one of the main favourites for the tournament. It’s yet more proof that Wang Hao, who has now entered the Top 10 on the live rating list, has to be taken very seriously. As we noted in our profile, apart from a stunning +5 score against Caruana he has a plus against Grischuk, Nepomniachtchi and Giri and has beaten the likes of Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand.
And last but not least:
This was a game that seemed to showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the players. First there was the opening – in a symmetrical English Anish Giri went for a position that seemed to lead to a drawish ending only to unleash the novelty 12.Rc1!?, a move computers initially consider a mistake:
White is a pawn down and allows Black to partly consolidate with 12…d5, but after 13.b3 immediate tactical questions were posed. Nepo has never been a slouch there and found the computer’s best line 13…Bb4! 14.bxc4 Ra3! 15.Be5 f6 16.Bd4 Qa5 17.Be2 Bxc3+ 18.Rxc3 Rxc3, but it was only here that Giri revealed the hidden point of the whole line: 19.Kf1!!
“That’s what he spent months analysing”, said Magnus, but here Nepomniachtchi’s ingenious 19…b4!? made all that hard work almost void. Anish later admitted:
b4 was a very interesting, practical move, because I studied this position in detail. I also looked at b4, but I didn’t imagine any person could play b4 because it’s so tempting to take on c4 with the rook or a pawn and both moves are fine, and b4 seemed to me very, very deep.
Giri now spent 18 minutes on perhaps the only move 20.g5, but soon afterwards he lost the thread and ended up defending an unpleasant position. There was chance after chance to avoid the fate that followed, however. There was no burning need to give up his queen for a rook and a bishop, as he later did, though the position remained a likely draw. When Giri steered towards a rook and pawns vs. queen “fortress” the 7-piece tablebases announced that they didn’t believe in fortresses, though it remained very tricky:
If the white king can get to e1 or e2 then the construction with an f2-pawn and rook on e3 will indeed be a fortress, which is why 53…Qxh4?? 54.Kf1! would be a terrible mistake. Nepo was alert to that, however, playing 53…Qd5 so that he’d always have a check on d1 to drive the white king away. The game ultimately ended on move 73, with 73…Qd3! a nice finishing touch:
Giri resigned, though if he’d taken the queen first it would have made a big difference to our Fantasy Chess Contest! Here’s the man behind it, IM Greg Shahade, talking to Pascal about Round 1:
Meanwhile back in real chess, Anish Giri was gracious in defeat:
I think he played very well throughout the game, to be honest – that doesn’t mean I have to lose.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s perhaps what we argued in our pre-tournament profile of Giri:
It would certainly be good for Anish to win a game early on, but it might also be almost as good for him to lose one! The point is to exorcise the memory of drawing every single game in Moscow in 2016.
He’s done that, and he can also point to losing the first game to Nepomniachtchi in the 2019 Tata Steel Masters before going on to win 5 games, draw 7 and finish on +4. For now, though, it’s Wang Hao and Nepo who have something to celebrate:
The Candidates is not a tournament that gets easier after a loss, and in Round 2 Anish Giri finds himself Black against Wang Hao while Ding Liren is Black against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Our commentary team will this time feature 16-year-old superstar Alireza Firouzja, who's probably young enough not to be degrading himself by commentating!
We’re also hoping to have Magnus Carlsen’s coach Peter Heine Nielsen phoning in to the show. Don’t miss it!
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