Reports Mar 22, 2020 | 4:58 PMby Colin McGourty

Candidates 2020, 5: Nepo takes the lead

Ian Nepomniachtchi squeezed out a win against Wang Hao in Round 5 to become the first player to take the sole lead in the 2020 Candidates Tournament. The other games were drawn, but not without a real fight. Alekseenko-MVL was a spectacular Najdorf where Kirill’s 48-move think midgame proved to be time well spent, while Anish Giri missed a great chance to beat Fabiano Caruana. Ding Liren-Grischuk was quieter than the post-game press conference where Alexander called for the tournament to be halted due to the coronavirus situation.

Magnus Carlsen thought Wang Hao's resignation was premature, but it gave Ian Nepomniachtchi, the player with the best score against Magnus in world chess, the sole lead in the race to challenge him! | photo: Maria Emelianova, official website

You can replay all the games from the 2020 Candidates Tournament using the selector below – click a result to open the game with computer analysis:

15-year-old Indian star Nihal Sarin joined what’s become the regular team of Jan, Lawrence and a certain Magnus Carlsen for Round 5, and you can rewatch the show below:

And here's a recap of the day's play from 2-time Canadian Chess Champion Pascal Charbonneau:

Chess in the shadow of the virus

Ding Liren switched hotels to get some more air | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

It was an important day on the chessboard in Round 5. Ian Nepomniachtchi became the first player to take the sole lead, and with 9 rounds to go, the length of an average supertournament, that could be significant. Historically the leaders after Round 5 have won these 14-round Candidates Tournaments!

A decisive result in Giri-Caruana could have made or broken the players’ tournaments, but in the post-game interviews it was the clear the players’ thoughts are on more than chess. It seems a very long time ago that Teimour Radjabov withdrew over coronavirus fears, but if we’d known 17 days ago how the world would look now it’s hard to imagine the tournament would not have been postponed, as he requested.

Anna Burtasova asked whether the players try to avoid news and social media during the event, with Fabi explaining that would take too much discipline nowadays. Giri interrupted:

You might have to, because at some point there might be a message like you have to go to that place otherwise we all die, so you really have to follow, because if you don’t it might be really, really bad simply. I think with stakes this high it’s more important to follow the news than to focus on the event.

A question on the difficult life of a constantly traveling chess professional provoked nostalgia:

I think the coming few months are going to be easier when it comes to traveling. In general, those were the good days we travelled and got to see different places. It was good. You could get out of the house. It was nice. I enjoyed it!

Travel was of course on Fabiano’s mind too:

I have a situation where I’m usually away from home for three months at a time, but now I’m not actually sure I’ll have anywhere to return to at the end of this tournament. I might be stranded somewhere, and I’m not exactly sure where, because the US State Department said that American citizens have to come back to the US or won’t be able to come back if they don’t come back right now. I’m not exactly sure, but I’m not really thinking about it now - where I’ll have to go at the end of this event.  

When Anna tried to reassure the players on getting back home, Giri responded with what is essentially no joke:

I have faith in the private jet of FIDE, that we will fly all players to their houses. That’s my only hope!

Private transportation arranged by FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich or the tournament organisers may well be the best hope for many of the players to return home, though there are restrictions everywhere.

The most dramatic intervention on the virus, however, came from Alexander Grischuk, who has never shied away from speaking his mind.

He was asked about his form:

My form is terrible. I don’t want to play at all because of this situation. When it was the beginning I did not have a clear opinion but now already for several days I have a very clear opinion that it should be stopped, this tournament. The whole atmosphere is very hostile. Everyone is with masks, the security and so on. For me it’s very difficult, I just don’t want to play, I don’t want to be here and actually considering this I’m quite happy with my result, but overall it’s no coincidence that everything else is stopped. We are the only ones left playing, the only major sport event in the world, and I think it should be stopped and postponed.

He went on to clarify:

I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking in general, of course. I’m not saying it should be stopped because I don’t want to play – that is not what I’m trying to say. I’m just saying in general, and also Botvinnik was commenting on this, that if you make two players play while standing it’s completely unsure that the same one will win who would win while playing seated.

There are flowers to lighten the atmosphere, but no spectators due to virus fears | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Ding Liren has suffered more than most from the situation around the virus, finding himself in lockdown in China before having to spend 14 days in quarantine near Moscow before traveling to Yekaterinburg. It’s understandable he wants to be able to open his hotel window!

My form is much better compared to the first two days. Since I moved to a new hotel I get some fresh air and life became more beautiful after that.

What is certain is that the Candidates has been a godsend for many chess fans around the world who are currently on lockdown:

But now let’s get to the day’s chess:

Giri ½-½ Caruana

Of all Anish Giri’s misses in the 2016 Candidates Tournament in Moscow perhaps the most crazy was his game with White against Fabiano Caruana, where he had no less than four extra pawns but failed to go on to win. This game in Yekaterinburg didn’t reach quite such legendary status, but it was close.

A familiar story for Anish Giri against Fabiano Caruana | photo: Maria Emelianova, official website

Fabiano repeated the Slav Defence he’d played against Ding Liren, and Giri was ready. Caruana admitted he had to improvise after 10.Qc2 came as a surprise, with Giri commenting, “I think Fabiano wanted to be clever with 13…Qb8 but then after 14.h4 there is no real point to it”. Although the computer was showing equality at this point Magnus explained that something had gone badly wrong:

Events developed fast, with Carlsen enjoying the change in the structure that followed:

He soon commented, “he's just showing superior understanding... of chess, of life, of everything!” and it was more or less genuine praise of how Anish had handled the position, since the Dutch no. 1 was building up a very significant advantage.

The first hints this might not be Giri’s day appeared on move 25:


26.f5! was a powerful move, but both here and for a few more moves Giri resisted (playing 26.Bd3), with Magnus commenting, "He doesn't want f5 g5 at all - our boy is not about taking those chances!"

He did eventually play it, however, and it was only 33.Re2?! that finally spoilt what was still a very promising position:


Again Magnus was enjoying himself as he described that as showing, “a little too much class” (33...Rxh4? 34.Qc6! wins) while here Fabiano really did show class to find the resource 33…d4!, suddenly threatening Nd5-c3+. After 34.Re5 Black was also just in time with 34…Ng4!, though Anish thought he still had a win until 35.Rc5 Ne3 36.Rc8+ Rxc8 37.Qxc8+ Ke7 38.Rc1:


The threat of Rc7+ means White would be winning here if not for the backwards move 38…Nd5! that Anish had missed. After that there was nothing better than to take a draw after 39.Re1+ Ne3 40.Rc1 Nd5 and repeating the position. Fabiano admitted it had been “a lucky break”.

Alekseenko ½-½ MVL

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had a lot of time to wander around and ponder life | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

This was a spectacular Najdorf, but there was more than a hint of déjà vu. One move quicker (Bg5 instead of Bg5-e3 and h5 instead of h6-h5), the players reached the same position as in the first playoff game of the Carlsen-MVL Grand Chess Tour semi-final in London last year:


In that game Maxime played Bf8, but soon realised that Bg5! Qc7 Rh4! would have been winning for Magnus. The World Champion missed that, got a winning position anyway but then went on to lose!

The reason Maxime had gone for that bishop move instead of his intended g6 was that he suddenly “realised” it was losing to Rxg6 fxg6 Nxe6, but computers immediately spot that things aren’t so simple, and in Yekaterinburg we saw 16…g6! 17.Rxg6! Rxc3!

And here Kirill sank into a 48-minute think. Jan and Lawrence felt this was a horrible situation for Kirill to find himself in, pondering a crazy position over the board while his opponent was clearly in home preparation, but Magnus insisted, “he's rather just enjoying calculating all the lines”. Kirill explained afterwards that his preparation consisted of the knowledge that Rxg6 was a good move, but that he only saw that Rxc3 was coming at the board.

The long think paid off as he found the crisp continuation 18.Nxe6! Qc8 19.Ng7+! Kf8 20.Rh6! Rxh6 21.Bxh6 Rxc2! 22.Nf5+ Ke8 23.Nxe7 Kxe7 24.Qh4+ f6 25.Bf4:


25…Rxb2+! 26.Kxb2 Na4+ 27.Kb1 Nc3+ 28.Ka1 Nxd1


Kirill had 7 minutes to his opponent’s over one hour at this point and sensibly chose to force a draw by perpetual check after 29.Qh7+.

It was the second day in a row that Maxime had seen his opponent spend almost an hour on a move when just out of preparation, with the French no. 1 joking:

I just wanted to add, if my next opponents another time think for like 50 minutes I’m going to have to ask the arbiters to bring some board games to the rest room!

Kirill began to apologise, but Maxime intervened:

At least you had a reason after Rxc3! Sasha (Grischuk) really had no reason for that yesterday.

Alexander Grischuk described his draw against Ding Liren in Round 5 as “a very good game, but not a very interesting one”. Ding varied from the line of the Anti-Marshall he lost to MVL in Round 2 with 9…d5 instead of 9…d6, but still found himself outprepared and had to find some good moves to hold.

That brings us to the day’s one decisive game:

Nepomniachtchi 1-0 Wang Hao

Nepo has looked very much at home in Yekaterinburg | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Ian Nepomniachtchi took a long break from chess after a crazy schedule last year, pulling out of Wijk aan Zee at the last moment, and so far that seems to have paid off. In Round 5 he unleashed a novelty on Wang Hao, playing 13.h4 in a position where, for instance, Vishy Anand had played Ne3 against Yu Yangyi in Norway Chess last year:


Ian already identified it as a mistake that Wang Hao replied 13…Nc7 14.Ng5 Bxg5!? (14…g6! seems a better try), since White got a nagging advantage in the simplified position that followed. It became a full-blown AlphaZero approach when the pawn reached h6, allowing Nepo to push his c-pawn to c4:


The position looks relatively quiet, but after 29…Nxc4?? 30.Nxc4 Qxc4 here 31.Qh2! (not e.g. 31.Qg3? Qc1+ and the h-pawn falls) wins on the spot due to the threat of mate against the black king. Our Russian commentators were full of praise for Nepo’s grasp of such positions, where fine technique is woven from the brilliant calculation of short variations. As former Russian team coach Evgeny Bareev put it, “you realise that in a minute (and he doesn’t spend longer on a move) he sees more than you’ll see in the next life!”

The players after the game | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

After 29…Kg8 30.Qh2 Boris Gelfand already felt it would be extremely difficult for Wang Hao to handle the impending infiltration of the white queen, and so it proved, though it turns out there was a chance to hold after 30…Kf7 31.c5 Nb5 32.Qb8:


32…Nxd4! was the move, and although after the game Nepo still didn’t believe you can play like this it seems that after 33.Qxb7+ Qe7 34.Qxa6 Qe4! there's nothing White can do to stop a draw by perpetual check.

Wang Hao agreed it was very hard to play like that, however, and in the game he went for 32…Qd7? 33.Qh8 Ke6 34.f4 Nxd4 35.Qg8+ Qf7 36.Qc8+ Qd7 37.Qg8+ Qf7 and was here hit by the move he’d missed 38.Qd8!


38…Nb5 can be met by 39.a4, so there’s nothing better than losing a piece to 38…Qd7 39.f5+! gxf5 40.gxf5+ Nxf5 41.Qxd7+ Kxd7 42.Nxf5. It was still a puzzle, however, that after 42…Ke6 43.Ne3 Wang Hao simply threw in the towel:

Black has a lot of pawns and an active king, so maybe there are still chances of holding? Often in such cases the win is obvious to grandmasters, but in this case even World Champion Magnus Carlsen wasn’t so sure! “We're assuming there's a way, but resignation seems premature.”

The post-game press conference didn't solve that mystery, but there was a lot of analysis of the game:

In any case, that victory in a clash of the co-leaders was huge, since it leaves Ian Nepomniachtchi in sole first place on 3.5/5, with MVL now in sole second on 3/5:


In Round 6 Nepomniachtchi has a chance to make a real statement with the white pieces against Ding Liren, while MVL is Black against Wang Hao. Fabiano Caruana is likely to try and makes things complex and time-consuming with Black against Alexander Grischuk. Our English commentary team will again feature Nihal Sarin, while Swedish no. 1 Nils Grandelius will be joining for the first time!

Follow all the games with live commentary in 9 languages on chess24 from 12:00 CET!

See also:


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