French no. 1 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave crushed the French Defence of leader Ian Nepomniachtchi to join him on 4.5/7 at the halfway mark of the 2020 Candidates Tournament. Nepo’s defeat gave hope to the other players in the event, but the chasing pack of Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, Wang Hao and Alexander Grischuk remain a full point back after the other three games all ended in relatively quiet draws. UPDATE: The Candidates was stopped after this round: full details.
You can replay all the games from the 2020 Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg using the selector below (click on a result to open the game with computer analysis):
And here’s the live commentary where World Champion Magnus Carlsen and our regular team of Jan Gustafsson and Lawrence Trent were joined by English Grandmaster David Howell:
For a quick recap of all the day’s action check out the following video by Pascal Charbonneau:
Let’s start with the big game of the game:
If there was one thing our commentators were sure about before Round 7 it was that Ian Nepomniachtchi, who had raced to a +3 score, wouldn’t repeat the Winnawer French he’d played against Kirill Alekseenko in Round 3. Now, facing the 2nd placed player in the tournament, was surely the time for Nepo to wheel out his most solid preparation with Black and show he’d learnt from the way he squandered a +3 score in last year’s Croatia Grand Chess Tour and +2 score in the Sinquefield Cup to end both tournaments on 50%. If he could maintain his current score a little longer he might easily become unstoppable, and events might even work in his favour:
(Update: After this was written it turns out they did, although he has “only” a +2)
Instead, though, he repeated the same hyper-sharp French he’d tried against Alekseenko. What was he thinking? Well, as Team Magnus strategist Nils Grandelius helpfully commented in the chess24 chat:
The French Defence is considered more dubious than ever at the very top of world chess, with the likes of Leela Zero valuing the space advantage it gives White even higher than traditional engines. Magnus noted, however, that it’s far from the worst opening out there:
The Scandinavian is orders of magnitude worse than the French, as much as we like hating on the French opening and language!
Maxime may not be the best prepared player in Yekaterinburg…
…but even if he also didn’t expect the French again he wasn’t going to make the mistake of not looking at his opponent’s last game with the black pieces:
Of course he has played it against Kirill, earlier in the tournament, so I thought I should prepare for this at least, and I deviated, I played 8.h5 right away, which makes sense, because it’s the logical follow-up to 7.h4.
That advice had been given during Round 3 by Magnus himself:
Magnus noted that Nepo had got decent positions out of the opening in both games, but he did add the proviso, when looking at a line similar to that in game, that, “Black is way ahead of what he usually gets, but as we've discussed before, it may be that a dream French is still a nightmare!”
When Maxime returned all his pieces to the back rank you might have thought Black was in no danger…
…but the black king can’t castle (it’s almost an optical illusion that a glance it looks like it already has!) and White is ready for operations on both sides of the board. A few moves later Nepo took the radical decision to play 18…c4!?
That took him over 30 minutes, during which he must have wrestled with his natural instincts not to close up the position and drastically reduce his chances of any counterplay on the queenside. “I don’t think that was the right plan,” noted Maxime, who felt Ian simply wouldn’t be in time. Play developed 19.0-0 Rb6 20.Qc2 Rh8 21.a4 (“Cool as a French cucumber!” – Magnus Carlsen) 21…Ke8 22.Rb4! Nc6:
23.f4! Earlier in the game Black’s attack on the white a3-pawn had turned out to be a bluff, and here again capturing the rook on b4 would only help White, with f5 soon to follow.
Nepo showed admirable sang-froid to return his knight to e7 (in his On Magnus Carlsen video series Artur Jussupow dedicated a video to the mental flexibility and lack of prejudice required to make this kind of “pendulum” move), and after 23…Ne7 24.Rfb1 Ian's 24…f5! was the best chance of holding things together. It was never quite enough, however, and on move 29 the game entered its decisive phase as Maxime’s g-pawn also entered the fray with 29.g4! Our commentators enjoyed that move:
If there was any defence for Black it would have required very precise play, but Nepo was perhaps guilty of his old sin of playing too fast in critical positions, while Maxime was utterly ruthless. The advantage could easily have been squandered:
36.Nh4?, which was the move our commentators were expecting here, is in fact only a draw after 36…Qg4+ 37.Ng2 Qxh5 and there’s no way to play for a win without allowing Black to give perpetual check from d1 and h5. Instead 36.Ng3! was clinical, with Maxime seeing that after 36…Qg4 37.Kg2 the idea of getting counterplay with 37…g6 fails tactically (38.Qa5! is the best solution). After 37…Qxf4 38.Qxa7! Nepo was helpless, and he threw in the towel after 42.g7!
So the player who had only started the event as a late replacement, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, now leads on the tiebreak of having won the individual encounter against Ian Nepomniachtchi. He was of course delighted with how things had gone:
Ian Nepomniachtchi has suffered a blow, but still remains level with Maxime and one point ahead of the field:
On the Norwegian Løperekka podcast during the event Magnus talked to Magnus Barstad about the two leaders. He described Nepo, who has a 4 wins to 1 score against him, as follows:
He plays fast, he plays with confidence, he plays very accurately at times, and he puts a lot of pressure on his opponents. You never have a good feeling after playing against him, because there’s always weird stuff happening. He is a very interesting outsider.
Magnus fancies his chances in a match against the new leader:
But in terms of who I would feel most confident against, I think I’ve been quite comfortable against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave for some time now. It should be said that he has challenged me quite a lot in blitz and rapid, but I think it would take a lot for him to give me trouble in classical chess.
For a second day in a row no-one else managed to boost their chances, as the remaining games were drawn. Fabiano Caruana found himself playing against the Petroff line he’d used himself against Magnus Carlsen in the penultimate game of the 2018 World Championship match. Like Magnus, he backed down from a sharp struggle and went for an ending where he even ended up slightly worse against Wang Hao.
Kirill Alekseenko told Eteri Kublashvili it was a bad day to ask them how the first half of the tournament had gone, since both players, in joint last place, had had a miserable time in Yekaterinburg. Ding Liren, as a pre-tournament favourite, has suffered the most, and described the Round 7 encounter as “not a good game”.
He admitted his 21.Qa4? was a blunder:
He said he’d “totally missed” 21…c5!, with the point that 22.Qxa7!? runs into 22…Qc7, and White will have to give up his queen (though perhaps for sufficient compensation). Instead he found a radical solution to that Qc7 issue with 22.b4?!, though he confessed that 22…cxb4 23.Qxa7 Ne4! was “very risky” for White. In the end, though, the game simplified into a draw.
Giri-Grischuk was yet another case of a player surprising Alexander in the opening, with 10.Ne3 a move that saw the Russian enter a 30-minute think. Like Caruana the day before, however, Giri didn’t sound thrilled afterwards that Grischuk picked the most aggressive response with 10…h5!, even though Magnus felt he might have welcomed it:
Peter Svidler once mentioned that the first poker advice he was given by Alexander Grischuk was to use similar time on all plays, even if they were completely obvious ones – that way your opponents can glean no information from your time management. Whatever you say about how Grischuk uses the clock in chess there’s also something similar at play, and after 11.d4 exd3 12.exd3 Giri described 12…Qd4! as “a sophisticated move, but he knew it, or found it, and then I think it was not so much”.
Towards the end Grischuk was pressing but he decided to end things on move 30:
30…d4 liquidated the position on the spot, with Magnus commentating that you would be “thrown out of the CCC if you didn’t play that move”! The CCC was the Chicken Chess Club, of which Jan is the honorary president.
Alexander Grischuk hadn’t exactly been playing chicken chess in Yekaterinburg, but he had now drawn all 7 of his games, with Anish Giri commenting:
Actually today also for me it was a conflict of interest, because on the one hand I want to win, of course, on the other I want Alexander to make all the draws, so the spirit leaves from within me towards him, so in a way there was this conflict of interest and finally the evil in me won, and I think a draw is an achievement for me today as well!
If it was to be the last interview, it at least had a lot of fun material. The players were asked for a prediction on MVL-Nepo:
Grischuk: Of course Maxime is pressing, it’s on the verge between winning for him and a draw. If you put a knife to my throat I would say White is winning, but I’m not sure.
Giri: I think if you put a knife on Alexander’s throat, I will say White is winning!
Alexander was prompted to say something promotional about his sponsor, the fertiliser company PhosAgro. In the circumstances it was a fine effort!
I sort of advertise them and also of course I’m trying to eat only vegetables and fruit that are grown on ecologically clean phosphates for the ground.
You can rewatch that interview below:
And that, then, is all for the first half of the 2020 Candidates, which has come to a controversial halt:
That does, of course, mean the end of Candidates Tournament commentary, but for one final day Jan, Lawrence, David, Tania Sachdev and more discussed the tournament and how it ended:
We’ll have lots of shows in the coming days, with the conclusion of the Firouzja vs. Bluebaum Banter Blitz Cup match today and a Spanish vs. English language battle this evening among the highlights to come.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our Candidates 2020 coverage!
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