Reports Mar 19, 2020 | 5:02 PMby Colin McGourty

Candidates 2020, 3: Ding Liren beats Caruana

Ding Liren is right back in business in the 2020 Candidates Tournament after beating top seed Fabiano Caruana in Round 3. A 3rd loss in a row had looked more likely when Fabi blitzed out his first 17 moves while Ding got down to 25 minutes on his clock, but the Chinese no. 1 dug in, consolidated and ultimately showed that Caruana had nothing for the two pawns he’d sacrificed. The other games were all lively draws that leave Ian Nepomniachtchi, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Wang Hao in the lead on 2/3 going into the first rest day.

Ding Liren is interviewed by his compatriot Hou Yifan after his win | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The clash of the pre-tournament favourites had been billed as almost a must-win game for Ding Liren and, against the odds, he pulled it off! (click a result to replay the games with computer analysis)

We were privileged to have live commentary from not just Jan and Lawrence but also current World Champion Magnus Carlsen and a very possible future Champ, Alireza Firouzja:

The soonest match between them would be in 2022!

Before we get to the games here’s an advance warning that 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja will be playing his first ever Banter Blitz on Friday’s rest day at 18:00 CET!

That’s part of a full Banter Blitz schedule - if you’re not yet Premium then Go Premium and get 40% off with the code CANDIDATES2020 to be able to challenge!

For a video recap of Round 3 check out GM Pascal Charbonneau’s show:

Now let’s get to the games!

Ding Liren 1-0 Fabiano Caruana

This was more like the old Ding Liren! | photo: Maria Emelianova, official website

Despite going into the tournament as one of the two clear favourites to win, Ding Liren had gotten off to a terrible start. He blundered in a good position against Wang Hao and then played a game against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave that was so bad that Magnus felt it could only be explained by what had happened the day before. How did Ding try to turn the tables?

Yesterday I prepared hard, but not for this game, just for some general ideas. I want to find how I played in the past in my best shape and I want to recover.

He admitted, however, that he was “very frustrated” with how the opening of the game went. His key rival Fabiano Caruana opened with the Slav Defence, which Magnus called, “more than a minor surprise”. Fabiano had last played it in Gibraltar three years ago, while here he unleashed an extraordinary novelty, 9…e5!?


That sent Ding into a 17-minute think before he went for 10.Nxe5, which was met by 10…Bc2! This trick (11.Qxc2 Qxd4+) recalled a game Jan would prefer to forget from the 2018 Bangkok Open:

But on this occasion the Chinese no. 1 hadn’t blundered, and after 11.Qd2 c5 he resisted the temptation to go for the more drawish 12.dxc5, instead playing 12.d5! He said afterwards:

At one point I wanted to take with dxc and make a quick draw, but then I thought it’s not my style and I have to play for the most critical line.

That decision took him another 17 minutes, and Fabiano kept up maximum pressure by blitzing out all his moves as he went on to sacrifice a second pawn with 14…c4. Our watching experts were stunned, not just by Caruana’s moves but by the fact it was Lawrence Trent who had foreseen some of them!

It was one of those cases where the speed of Fabiano’s moves, and the computer evaluations, were telling a different story. By move 17 (and 17…Ng6!? is one of those moves that may have been an unpunished blunder) Fabiano still had more than the 1 hour and 40 minutes he’d started with, while Ding Liren was down to 25 minutes. Was Fabiano still in preparation, was he thinking on his opponent’s time or was he purely bluffing as he realised something had gone horribly wrong?

When trying to identify the point of no return the position after 22.Kf1 is one candidate:


Black seems to have excellent compensation after 22…Re5! 23.Qh3 Qb4!, but after 22…h6!? 23.Rd1 Qb6 24.Rd2 Qe3 25.Rc2 a6 26.Qh3 b5 27.Qg3 Ding was sure he was much better:


White is simply two pawns up, and after 27…b4 (27…Rec8! may have given some last hope) 28.Nd1 Qb3 29.Rd2 Qxa4 30.Qf2 White had given back one pawn for total positional dominance. Ding commented:

Maybe he played too slowly. He played many pawn moves, so I can develop my queen to a better square. After that it’s completely winning for White.

Fabiano went on to sacrifice a piece but the justifications for not resigning were not the objective evaluation of the position but Ding Liren’s questionable form and the fact the Chinese no. 1 had little time left on his clock. Ding in fact made the time control with a comfortable 4 minutes to spare, with Magnus praising his time management. The game was only finally over when Fabi threw in the towel on move 59 (it seems he was so upset he didn’t even avoid the handshake!):

That result suddenly puts Ding Liren right back in the picture, just one point behind the leaders with 11 rounds to go and with a win against his biggest rival in his pocket (“direct encounter” is the first tiebreaker). For Fabiano it’s a wake-up call – he’s not going to be able to cruise to victory, though it’s unlikely he ever thought he could!

Fabiano Caruana looked on course to take a huge stride towards a rematch with Magnus, but instead he stumbled | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The remaining three games were drawn, but not without some kind of fight in all of them. Let’s start with the quietest game:

Anish Giri ½-½ Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

MVL, as a late replacement for Teimour Radjabov, has had no time to build up an arsenal of new weapons as Fabiano seems to have done, so it was no surprise when he played his trusted Grünfeld against Giri. Anish played the 5.Bd2 sideline and seemed to get a very promising position, but he failed to organise a kingside attack before Maxime managed to simplify into what the Frenchman described as a “slightly worse” but “holdable” endgame – the watching Magnus summed it up as “the French School of Suffering”!

The game ended, perhaps prematurely, in a draw by repetition, but for an idea of the tension involved you should check out the players’ post-game comments:

That’s also unmissable since Giri was at his most quotable. He said of the elbow bump instead of a handshake we’ve seen from Ian Nepomniachtchi the last couple of days that, “from all the possible ways to show respect to each other this is really the creepiest”, and recommended instead bowing as people do before games of Shogi. 

As if the world didn't have enough to deal with nowadays... | photo: Maria Emelianova, official website

He called rest days “dangerous” as it was another chance to get sick, before commenting on the daily checkups:

Actually the problem is that you get the doctor’s check twice a day and the doctor just tells you that you have no fever and your throat is alright, but the doctor doesn’t tell you that you play like a total idiot and something is really wrong with your brain, and not the throat or the fever (…) She tells me I’m fine but I’m not fine. I see how I play! This is not fine, but the doctor tells me twice a day everything is alright so I don’t buy this whole thing.


Grischuk ½-½ Wang Hao

It's not just health checks that players face each day | photo: Maria Emelianova, official website

For the third round in a row you could argue Alexander Grischuk missed out on half a point because of his notorious time management, but in this case it wasn’t a case of Grischuk simply sleeping at the board. The watching Magnus Carlsen was very impressed by his 19.f3! in a Petroff Defence, limiting the f6-knight and blunting the effect of Bd4:


Grischuk was also happy with the move, but explained:

Here I just don’t see anything, I can’t calculate anything. For example, it took me one hour just to notice this f3 move, which was very important, because otherwise I think Black more or less makes a draw with some Bd4, Ng4. And I just didn’t see this move - it took me one hour just to see it! Sometimes there is no reason to go into time trouble, but here, if you’re completely blind, it’s more or less understandable.

White’s advantage grew to dangerous proportions until, down to under one minute, Grischuk played 34.g5?


That allowed 34…Ne4+! 35.Bxe4 (35.fxe4 dxe4 and if the bishop retreats 36…d3+ would be winning) 35…dxe4 and a draw was inevitable. Wang Hao admitted he’d been in the same trouble as Giri against him the day before and summed up, “I was really lucky to have that trick and make the draw”.

Alexander lamented:

The worst thing is that I even saw this Ne4+ trick some moves ago, because you could play it a long time ago, but at that time you would be a pawn down, so I saw this trick and it wasn’t working at the time, and then the problem was that Black moved his king to the e-file, moved his rook away from the e-file and so I completely forgot about it, and then he brought his king away to f7 and played Re8 again and I just now completely forgot. That was the worst thing. Apart from just it being a huge blunder the worst thing is that I saw it some moves before.

It was a brave time to ask Grischuk the stock question about what he was going to do on the rest day, but that provided a good chance for some humour in our coronavirus times:

Usually during a rest day in the morning I go to the museum and in the evening to some theatre, but now everything is closed, so it’s very bad luck!

The last game we’re going to look at was by far the day’s most lively draw:

Kirill Alekseenko ½-½ Ian Nepomniachtchi

22-year-old Alekseenko has made a decent start to his first ever supertournament | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Here we got to see a very rare guest at the highest level, the French Defence, and the super-sharp Winawer Variation. Kirill’s over three minutes spent on move 2 made it clear this wasn’t something he’d expected over his morning coffeee, and there were question marks over how he handled the opening, playing 7.h4 but only following up with h5 19 moves later:

Once again, Kirill played boldly, and slowly, as he went for an exchange sac on move 20:


20.Qe2!? Nxb4 21.axb4 left Black’s bishop completely cut off, for the moment, and later 25…g6?! (it turns out 25…g5! was strong) gifted Kirill a chance:


26.Bxg6! would have asked real questions. Nepo mentioned he might just have castled with 26…0-0-0!?, while attempts to punish the pawn grab fail. 26…Rg8?? runs into 27.Qxe6+!, while 26…fxg6 27.Qxe6 Qe7 28.Qc6+! Kf7 is in fact losing to 29.h5!! gxh5 30.Re3!. From the post-game interviews it seemed that was a trap Nepo might have fallen into, but instead Kirill, who said he couldn’t calculate the lines to the end, went for 26.h5 and found himself 40 minutes behind on the clock in a very double-edged position. It was perhaps a fair outcome, however, that Kirill ultimately managed to force a draw by perpetual check.

Here are the players after the game:

That means that Nepo is joined by MVL and Wang Hao in the lead after the first three rounds, with the win for Ding Liren leaving everyone within a point:


On Saturday, after the first rest day, we have a day where White is significantly higher rated on three of the four boards. That usually means blood will be spilt, though as you can see, the players with Black have scored higher in the past in these match-ups:


Our commentary team for Round 4 will be Jan and Laurent with Peter Svidler joining at some point from Yekaterinburg. We also hope to have Magnus back, while we’ve lined up a certain Nihal Sarin for Rounds 5 and 6. Follow all the action live here on chess24!

See also:


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