Reports Mar 18, 2020 | 6:10 PMby Colin McGourty

Candidates 2020, 2: MVL inflicts 2nd loss on Ding

“It seems like he was poisoned in this quarantine in Moscow,” was Alexander Grischuk’s take on Ding Liren’s play as the Chinese no. 1 and world no. 3 sank to a second loss in a row, this time to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. That was great news for world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana, who joined the leaders on 1.5/2 by outpreparing and then outplaying Kirill Alekseenko. Wang Hao almost took the sole lead, but couldn’t convert a big advantage against Anish Giri, while time trouble saw Grischuk curb his enthusiasm against Ian Nepomniachtchi.

It's all gone wrong for Ding Liren | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The fear was we might get a quieter round after the explosive action on Day 1 of the Candidates, but in Round 2 the players once again went straight for each other’s throats (replay the games with computer analysis by clicking on a result):

This time Jan and Lawrence were joined by none other than 16-year-old superstar Alireza Firouzja, while Magnus Carlsen’s coach Peter Heine Nielsen also phoned in to the show. You can rewatch the full 6.5 hours below:

And here's GM Pascal Charbonneau's quick recap of the Round 2 action:

If two moments summed up the day they were the new greeting for our times in Nepomniachtchi-Grischuk...

...and a clearly devastated Ding Liren getting up and walking away after a second loss in a row had left his Candidates dreams in ruins:

Let’s start with that game:

MVL 1-0 Ding Liren

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave doesn't look like a man intending to squander his unexpected first chance in the Candidates | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was asked by Anna Burtasova what it was like to have under two weeks to prepare for the most important tournament of your life:

I had motivated people helping me and so far they all did a really good job, and then there’s not much else to do - you play. At least in a way I felt fresh, with the idea that I didn’t just spend two months studying things and maybe being worn out before the tournament starts. Right now I have not played for almost two months and it just feels great, especially when I consider my schedule last year.

Maxime didn’t come unarmed, and in an Anti-Marshall Ruy Lopez against Ding Liren he varied with 12.Bd2 instead of an immediate 12.Nd5 from the game Ding Liren-Nakamura from the 2019 Sinquefield Cup. The Chinese no.1 immediately began to think and then after 15.a4 blundered for the second time in two days by pushing his f-pawn two squares, this time with 15…f5?

Ding is usually a formidable calculator, but must have overlooked the forced 16.axb5 axb5 17.Rxa8 Bxa8 18.c4!

Maxime described that move as “thematic”. If Black touches his b-pawn he’ll lose on the spot to 19.Ba4!, hitting the queen and rook, while 18…Rf8 19.cxb5 Qxb5 runs into 20.Nxe5!. Ding therefore had to give up a pawn and went for 18…Nf7 19.cxb5 g5!?, but it was an attempt that Alireza Firouzja gave little chance of succeeding:

Maxime coolly, and quickly, played 20.Nh2! and soon had an overwhelming advantage. He wasn’t thrilled with how he went about converting his advantage, but he never let it slip, and the finish was nice:

36.b7! Bxb7 37.Ba5! and there’s nothing Black can do to defend his bishops from the threat of removing the defender with Bxd8. Ding resigned.

Can Ding Liren mount a comeback? | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

That means that while Maxime is on a roll, Ding Liren’s hopes of Candidates qualification have taken a massive hit. As we noted in our Candidates preview he scored plus scores in almost all his events in 2019, but he never scored better than +2. To win the Candidates he’ll now have to be aiming for something like +5 in the remaining rounds. That looks like a mountain a climb, but it could look a lot more doable if he beats Fabiano Caruana with the white pieces in Round 3!

Caruana 1-0 Alekseenko

Maxime and Fabiano are trying to navigate the toughest of tournaments and the coronavirus at the same time | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

That’s going to be a lot easier said than done, however. In Round 1 Fabiano applied serious pressure to MVL while in Round 2 young Kirill Alekseenko was the player put to the test. Fabiano went for something he’d never played before - the aggressive 4.f3! against the Nimzo-Indian. He followed Sopiko Guramishvili’s recommendations all the way until Kirill deviated after 10.Be2:

The young Russian took his first serious think of the game and instead of putting the bishop on d6 played 10…Re8, but in hindsight he might have regretted that decision. Fabiano commented later:

It’s clear this is a very fighting line and also very risky for White. The upside is that it isn’t something that he could possibly expect as I’d never played this opening before. I think he was decently well-prepared, because the line he played is extremely decent for Black, but it was probably a bit hazy in his memory…

Alekseenko spent a combined 47 minutes over his 14th and 15th moves:

Here 15…Rb8, getting out of the fork, was a move suggested by Fabiano and approved by the computers, but after 36 minutes Alekseenko came up with the deep 15…Re6!? That provoked 16.Bf4, a move Caruana wanted to play anyway, but he called the idea that followed of 16…a6 17.Nc7 Re4, exploiting the loose bishop, “very clever”. So far everything was following the script of Kirill’s escape the day before against Alexander Grischuk, but while Grischuk’s clock situation had left him unable to refute his opponent’s bold idea, Fabiano was almost an hour up on the clock.

Kirill sacrificed a piece for three pawns, but in picking up the last one (instead of playing 23…Nf6!) Caruana felt his opponent’s chances of surviving had gone. It became just a question of how the execution would be carried out, with 28…Bf8? played with 2 seconds remaining:

29.Nxg6! or 29.Nf5+ would get the job done, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with 29.Nf4 Ng4 30.Nxh5+ gxh5 and simply 31.Bf5 as played by Fabiano. A few moves later and Kirill was offering his hand in resignation… though it wasn’t entirely accepted!

Not so fast! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

That was ultimately enough for a share of the lead, since Wang Hao failed to punish Anish Giri for a moment of chess madness:

Wang Hao later commented about the draw:

It was ok because in the opening I got nothing, exactly nothing, so I was ready to make a repetition after 12.Qc1.

He was expecting 12…Kh7 13.Nc7 Rb8 14.Nb5 and a draw, but here Anish invested an epic 47 minutes looking for something better, found nothing, forgot about the draw and instead played 12…a6?!, after which White had a very comfortable advantage. Later a nervy decision by Anish made it a full extra pawn for White, but if there’s one weakness we saw from Wang Hao in his victory in the Grand Swiss last year it was a tendency to drop half points in technical endgames, as he did against both Levon Aronian and Nikita Vitiugov. That was the case again here, though there was no clear blunder.

It was relief for Anish, whose paranoia goes into an amazing level of detail!

I’m very happy because I was really worried. Usually when I start streaks at the Candidates I don’t stop, so I was thinking maybe I’m going to lose 14 games in a row this year! The way I was playing today I think that would be a normal result, but at the end I got very lucky. I counted myself a loss for sure, at least today, I also thought probably tomorrow I’ll overpush with White, and the day after I’ll probably lose with Black, and then at some point I’ll have Fabiano and Grischuk, who are probably going to be leading, and then I’m going to lose again, so I was already imagining I was losing all the games… but ok, at least today I held.

That leaves Nepomniachtchi-Grischuk, which apart from an elbow bump featured some more puzzling events. It was a Berlin Endgame, which fills a select few with joy…

Alexander insisted it was “kind of an interesting game”, but as you can see, that somewhat conflicted with the fact he seemed to literally fall asleep at the board!

The result is ok. I slept half of the game, just slept. I don’t know what I was thinking, then I see I have six minutes and I wake up. Then I think maybe I was even slightly better, but of course with this time and just after waking up it was difficult. Of course then I didn’t even try, I just played it as safe as possible, but I think it was kind of an interesting game for gourmets, for those who spend, like me, hundreds of hours analysing this Berlin with h5, but of course for 99.999% of the audience the game is completely dull, boring and not interesting.

There’s not much to add, but once again Grischuk’s assessment of the day’s play as a whole was memorable!

Alekseenko played terribly, Anish prepared very nicely but then two moves later he was clearly worse, so again not fantastic. Ding, I don’t know, it seems like he was poisoned in this quarantine in Moscow! I guess Maxime is playing a nice game, but me and Ian, maybe the moves were more or less ok, but you cannot afford sleeping for more than one hour. Ok, Fabiano plays a very nice game I guess…

No messing around at the end! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

On blunt assessments in general:

It used to be much more interesting and honest. A certain player would say that I will crush this player like a bug (as Carlsen once said of Kramnik before a game in Wijk aan Zee – it didn’t end well!) and this one like a little baby, it was cool, and now everyone overrespects… Magnus actually says a lot of interesting things. Actually sometimes he says such smart things that I wish he would not open his mouth, because really he shares some really good insights that I feel some people are not aware of.

Those results leave the standings as follows, with four players in the lead on 1.5/2, while Ding Liren finds himself in a very unfamiliar position:

As we mentioned, he can improve that dramatically if he beats Fabiano Caruana with the white pieces in Round 3, though the smart money might be on our finally getting a day of draws – all four leaders have the black pieces, with the other games Giri-MVL, Grischuk-Wang Hao and Alekseenko-Nepomniachtchi. All the action will be live here on chess24 from 12:00 CET... and we're going to have World Champion Magnus Carlsen joining potential World Champion Alireza Firouzja to commentate!

If you’ve been taking part in the Fantasy Contest you can check out the results here, while anyone can now fill out the Round 3 bracket here. For more check out: FantasyChess - Daily Updates

See also:

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