Reports Mar 23, 2020 | 7:04 PMby Colin McGourty

Candidates 2020, 6: Nepo ends Ding’s hopes

Ian Nepomniachtchi felt unwell and wanted to make a quick draw but instead scored a devastating win over Ding Liren that all but ended the Chinese no. 1’s hopes of earning a match against Magnus. Nepo is the clear frontrunner on 4.5/6, a point ahead of MVL and 1.5 points clear of favourite Fabiano Caruana. Also on 50% is Anish Giri, who defeated Kirill Alekseenko in 98 moves and over 7 hours to claim his first ever Candidates Tournament win at his 20th attempt.

Nepomniachtchi coughed his way to +3, while Anish Giri was the day's other winner | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

You can replay all the games from the Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia using the selector below – click on a result to open the game with computer analysis:

For Round 6, Jan, Lawrence and Nihal Sarin were joined by Swedish no. 1 Nils Grandelius, while Greg Shahade also made an appearance before the end of the almost 8-hour show:

For a video recap of the Round 6 Candidates Tournament action check out 2-time Canadian Champion Pascal Charbonneau’s show:

Nepo extends his lead

Ian Nepomniachtchi has a 4:1 score in wins in classical chess against Magnus Carlsen and is now the hot favourite to reach a match against the World Champion after beating Ding Liren in Round 6. That third win, his second win in a row against a Chinese player, takes him to +3 while no other player has won more than one game. Anish Giri later commented:

I felt this whole tournament is like a birthday party of Ian except that the other kids come in, they give him presents, but they’re not really happy to be there nor are they really happy for the birthday boy, so they pretend to be his friends but in fact he’s the only one happy with the presents!

To add insult to injury, Ian coughed his way through the post-game interview with Anna Burtasova and when asked if he was ok responded:

I’m definitely feeling not ok, and actually I wanted to make some kind of a quick draw today. I was never against it until I got this position. In general, I got a couple of these tests and both were negative. Again, the whole atmosphere doesn’t help you to feel healthy.

What almost forced him to play for a win was how Ding Liren handled the opening, with the out-of-form Chinese star repeating his pet 13…Qd7 Ruy Lopez line that had brought him a winning position against MVL in the first game of the Grand Chess Tour final last December in London (though he let that win slip). Ian varied with what he called the “small improvement” 16.Rb2 and felt his opponent went astray when he didn’t play 20…c6 immediately and defend the b5-pawn. Instead the players reached the following position with doubled isolated d-pawns and a passed b-pawn, where Nepo felt, “Black should be very lucky to be in time with some counterplay”:

This is the age of AlphaZero, and just like Nepo himself the day before Ding Liren now decided to push his h-pawn as far as it could go with 26…h5 27.b5 h4 28.b6 h3!?. Objectively it shouldn’t have been enough, but the power of restricting the king that way was demonstrated by an amazing opportunity that arose for Ding after 33.Qc6:

He could have drawn with the forced line 33…Rxb6!! 34.Rxb6 Qxe2! 35.Rb8 Re5!!

The threat of Qe1+ and mate actually leaves White scrambling to draw, even though he can start by taking a piece with check with 36.Rxd8+. 

Nepo couldn’t quite believe it in the post-game interview. “I’m only human”, he said, as he summed up:

Re5 is a cool move, but if you see Re5 you should be disqualified, seriously, because it looks so lost for Black.

He means disqualified for cheating with a computer, though there was disagreement among our commentators over whether an in-form Ding Liren would have spotted his one chance. In the game Ding instead quickly played 33…Rc5, but after 34.Qe8+ he only struggled on for six more moves before resigning. He was a piece down, but for a second day in a row it looked as though a Chinese player could at least have tested Nepomniachtchi’s technique.

That brought a grinding halt to Ding Liren’s recovery after losing his first two games, with a 3rd loss in six games making it a shocking performance by a player who went 100 games unbeaten not so long ago. Ian Nepomniachtchi is now just 4 points away from snatching Ding’s world no. 3 spot, but much more importantly he has a massive 2.5 point lead over Ding in Yekaterinburg. He’s also comfortably ahead of his other rivals, after MVL and Caruana were held to draws:

Fighting draws

Grischuk-Caruana was a game full of twists and turns | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The task of any player facing Alexander Grischuk in Yekaterinburg is first and foremost to get him thinking, and Fabiano Caruana certainly did that, with a move that recalled the 10…Rd8! surprise he sprung on Magnus Carlsen in Game 2 of their World Championship match. 12…Re8!? was described by Fabi as, “not quite a novelty, but a rare move, and I think it’s very clever – it looks like it’s tactically losing, but it sort of works out for Black”. It’s other virtue, of course, was that even a player less prone to time trouble than Grischuk would have had to do some serious thinking. How long would Alexander take?

It turned out he spent a mere 15 minutes at first, but as Jan had predicted, Grischuk then went for a repetition with 13.Ng5 Rf8 14.Nf3 Re8 before only then finally choosing to play on with 15.Re1!? after another 27 minutes’ thought. Fabi said afterwards that he wasn’t happy to see this “very dangerous pawn sacrifice”, but Grischuk confessed he’d actually missed that after 15…exd4 16.cxd4 Black could play 16…Nxe4!, since after 17.d5 Bxe3 18.Rxe3 he had the only move 18…Na7. It was the first of many misses, since the Russian was also surprised by 19.Qd4 Bf5!

He’d overlooked that 20.Qxa7 sees the queen trapped by 20…Nc5, though that turns out not to be fatal. Grischuk instead played 20.Nbd2! and seemed to be doing well until missing yet another trick!

35…c5! couldn't be met by 36.dxc6, since that loses a piece to 36…Be6! 37.Nd2 d5!. By this stage Grischuk was, inevitably, in time trouble, down to his last two minutes compared to Fabi’s 32 minutes, and he played 36.Qd3 with 9 seconds to spare. The chances of a vitally important win for Caruana looked high, but instead he allowed a queen trade into an ending where he’d overlooked that after Nd2-e4 the d6-pawn would be very weak. Fabi had to shut things down and a draw followed.

Grischuk summed up, “of course when you play half of the game clearly against a computer, against preparation, it’s hard to have too big ambitions!” That was a 6th draw in a row for Grischuk, but no-one could accuse him of not playing fighting chess. Magnus Carlsen, making a guest appearance on our chess24 Norwegian show…

commented on Grischuk’s request the day before that the tournament be stopped:

Of course it’s a very special situation, but you’ve chosen to play there yourself. I think as a player you have to try and be as professional as possible. I think that even if Grischuk means what he says he’ll still try to do his best. When you’re at a tournament there’s not always much more you can do than sleep and eat anyway. So although these restrictions are certainly dull and it feels strange that it’s almost as if you’re in a warzone… playing chess is not the worst thing you can do in such a situation. Had I been in that situation – and I don’t know exactly how it is now – then I’d most likely have thought it was ok, that the full focus is on chess and you’ve gone there to do a job. And you do that job.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has been the main beneficiary of the coronavirus situation, getting to play after Teimour Radjabov’s withdrawal, and is still in clear second place despite failing to keep pace with Nepomniachtchi. 

Wang Hao-MVL didn't disappoint fans of what Magnus has dubbed the French School of Suffering | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

A draw against Wang Hao was in fact a good result, as the French no. 1 had been on the brink:

I really cannot be happy about this game, especially when you compare it to every other game I played so far.

Wang Hao explained he was “not planning to play for anything special” as the players went for a fashionable line of the Grünfeld (seen e.g. in Dubov-Svidler from the Hamburg Grand Prix) where he felt Maxime could have made a forced draw. Instead White got a big positional advantage, though Wang Hao later regretted trading it for a pawn:

He felt 33.g4! was the correct way to play, while in the game he picked up the a-pawn with 33.Nb5 a6 34.Nc7 Kd6 35.Nxa6. Maxime managed to build something resembling a fortress, although he admitted he later spoilt it after blundering a detail. No great harm was done as the game did in fact end drawn in 83 moves.

Afterwards Wang Hao was asked how he might approach his chess career differently if he could go back to when he was a child knowing what he knows now. Not for the first time, his answer was a surprise:

This is a very big question because in this case I probably would not start a chess career! I think I would do something related with the financial market.

That leaves one more historic game:

Anish Giri’s first ever Candidates win

Dutch no. 1 Anish Giri broke his 14 draws in a row Candidates Tournament streak in the first round in Yekaterinburg by losing to Ian Nepomniachtchi, but in Round 6 he finally grabbed a first win. He said afterwards:

In the end I almost had a heart attack because I realised that it’s going to be my first ever win at the Candidates and I think I never had such a high heartbeat. The last moves I was already… I think today we need a good doctor’s check after this game!

The Italian opening went well for Anish, though it seems he was unaware of the game Robert Hovhannisyan had won against our commentator Nils Grandelius in last year’s Reykjavik Open. Robert’s 21…Rxe1+! seems better than Giri’s 21…Re5!?, but in any case Black was doing well until he let most of the advantage slip in the run-up to the time control. 22-year-old Kirill Alekseenko may struggle to sleep after his decision on move 38:

38.Qxb7! is the simplest move in the world and it’s hard to imagine Black could win afterwards, so why did Kirill play 38.Qd7?!. Giri had a theory:

Some people have done it to me in the Grand Prix and so on, like Wei Yi, and Firouzja at Wijk aan Zee - kids sometimes instead of making a draw or playing for a draw they start to go for some tricks.

After 38…b6! it was only Black who had tricks and Kirill had to settle in for a long torture session. Inaccuracies followed…

…and Magnus knew all about winning such positions since he'd done it to Vishy Anand in last year's Tata Steel Masters

…but right until the end Kirill should have been able to survive:

89.Nh1+! was the simple option (89.h5 appears to work as well, but is much trickier) and the white king gets to f4 to attack the black pawns (or 89.Kg4 Nf2+ 90.Kg3 Nh1+ would be a draw by repetition). Giri commented, “It was very easy - you give check, you usually give checks when you can!” Instead, with under a minute on his clock after 7 hours of play, Kirill blundered with 89.Nd3? and after 89…Nd5+! the white king was driven away and it was game over. When Kirill resigned on move 98 he was immediately shown the error of his ways:

That was a bitter pill to swallow for Kirill Alekseenko, who before the tournament would probably have jumped at the chance to be level with Ding Liren after 6 rounds!

As you can see, Ian Nepomniachtchi has a commanding lead, but he does also have a history of squandering such advantages. For instance, he won his first three games in Croatia last year but ended the tournament on 50%, a score he also finished with in the Sinquefield Cup after getting to +2 with two rounds to go. In Round 7 he has Black against 2nd placed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave…

That’s after today’s rest day, which features a stunning line-up of chess action here on chess24:

That’s in addition to the Banter Blitz Cup action, where we have two noteworthy matches today, and one to look forward to tomorrow!

The rest day is also a great time to catch up with FantasyChess and make your Round 7 predictions – full details here. And then - unless the players have mutinied - it's back to action with Round 7 of the Candidates on Wednesday, with live commentary in 9 languages here on chess24!

See also:

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