Reports Jun 18, 2022 | 8:15 AMby Colin McGourty

Madrid Candidates 1: Nepo and Caruana start fast

Ex-World Championship challengers Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana got off to a perfect start in a blistering Round 1 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Madrid. Nepo overwhelmed top seed Ding Liren, while Fabi punished Hikaru Nakamura for castling into trouble. The remaining games were drawn, but only after huge fights. Jan-Krzysztof Duda was almost winning in 10 moves against Richard Rapport, while Alireza Firouzja lived dangerously against Teimour Radjabov.

Ian Nepomniachtchi took down Ding Liren while Fabiano Caruana beat Hikaru Nakamura | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

You can replay all the games and check out the pairings for the 2022 FIDE Candidates Tournament in Madrid using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Judit Polgar and Jan Gustafsson.

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Anish Giri summed up a frenetic first day of the 2022 FIDE Candidates Tournament.

Anish went on to record a recap of the day — he also has a separate Candidates course on Chessable: 

Round 1 of the Candidates produced two decisive results, but it could have been four!

Ding Liren 0-1 Ian Nepomniachtchi: Déjà vu!

Day 1 of the 2022 Candidates felt familiar. After Ding Liren’s heroic late qualification, the Chinese no. 1 had been installed as one of the favourites in most people’s eyes. Just as in 2020, however, when he started with a loss to Wang Hao after weeks of quarantine in China and Russia, he began his campaign in Madrid with a hugely damaging loss with the white pieces. It’s tempting to speculate about jetlag after he left it relatively late to fly to Europe.

For Ian Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, the win with Black echoed what he’d done against Anish Giri in 2020. There are also parallels to Vishy Anand, who was largely written off after suffering a heavy defeat to Magnus Carlsen in the 2013 World Championship match. Vishy hit back to score a victory in the 2014 Candidates, beginning with a statement win in Round 1 — over one of the favourites, Levon Aronian.

Nepo said of beating Ding:

A win is always a win, but I guess it was quite smooth, and overall I didn’t analyse, but I’m quite pleased with the game.

The opening was noteworthy for following a game Ding Liren had played against Hans Niemann in the Charity Cup in March until move 12, when instead of Hans’ 12…c5!? Nepo went for the new move 12…Ng4!?, offering a sacrifice of the pawn on e4.

In the Charity Cup Ding had a great first day — he won 3 of his 4 games, including beating Magnus Carlsen — but he was crushed by Hans in complications. That was a rapid game, but the same thing would happen against Nepo in classical chess.

Ian Nepomniachtchi got off to another perfect start | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

You can raise questions about most of the moves Ding now made until the end of the game. He declined the pawn with 13.Bb2!? Qh5 14.h4!? (14.Nxg4 Bxg4 15.Bxe4 was still an option) and when Nepo captured on e3 Ding found himself with a very uncomfortable pawn structure. 

21…g5! would already have been very strong for Ian, while 21…h6!? left Liren with perhaps his last, best chance to survive the game.

22.Qd2?! was perhaps played with the right idea, but the queen just got in the way on d2, especially of the white king's escape to the queenside. Instead 22.Rad1!, planning the exchange sac Rxd5! while the queen still guards the e2-pawn, might have held.

In the game after 22...Rae8! the situation was dire for White, and only heroics could save the Chinese star.

26.b5! remarkably still gives White chances, but after 26.Nxb7 gxh4! 27.Nc5 h3! it was a matter of choosing your poison. Ding knew it had gone horribly wrong, with Judit Polgar pointing out one of the ways things could end.

Nepomniachtchi was clinical, finishing the game with the fastest blow 32…Bh3+!, when after 33.Kxh3 Qh1+ there’s a countdown to mate.

“It looked like he just blew him off the board!” said Fabiano Caruana afterwards, and it was hard to disagree.

Fabiano Caruana 1-0 Hikaru Nakamura: One wrong move

Caruana-Nakamura was the central game of the round | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

The other big favourite in the Candidates Tournament is 2018 winner Fabiano Caruana, who got off to a winning start after what he described as a “very nerve-wracking game” against his fellow American Hikaru Nakamura.

The opening, an Anti-Berlin with 4.d3, saw Fabiano play 8.Nb3, a move that has been seen rarely, but almost exclusively at the highest level… and with almost exclusively decisive results!

8…0-0, as Teimour Radjabov played on the way to beating Wesley So in the final of the 2021 Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, is the most common move, but Hikaru paused and went for 8…Qe7!?, preparing to castle long. Then after 9.Na5, instead of playing 9…0-0-0, as Leinier Dominguez had against Ray Robson in the 2019 US Championship, he switched plans with 9…Rb8!?, which Fabiano called “illogical”.

There was method in the madness, however, since Hikaru later produced a recap of the game and explained that he was willing to go for something a little dubious if that was the cost of getting Fabiano out of the deep preparation he must have done for the event.

It was risky, but it worked, with Fabiano soon losing the thread and any advantage, until the game swung again on move 21.

Hikaru commented:

This is where I made a critical mistake in the game. I considered ideas of Kd7, but in this position, for some reason, whether it’s being in the first round or being a little bit rusty, I simply was a little too carefree or careless, and I thought that I could castle, which was a big mistake.

21…Kd7!, or leaving that move in reserve and playing 21…h4! or 21…Rg8!, and Black is no worse, but instead after 21…0-0?! Hikaru confessed he’d been distracted by nice lines for Black such as 22.Qh6 Qf6 23.Qxh5? Rd7! and the queen is trapped and Black wins.

Fabi, meanwhile, had been willing Hikaru to play 21…0-0, since he’d seen 22.f3!, a move Nakamura said he’d simply underestimated. The position soon opened up, with Hikaru helping accelerate the process with 24…d5!?

Hikaru had spent 13 minutes and confessed it was a move he made despite having a bad feeling about it.

I just decided to play the move even though I knew it was not the best move, simply because I did not see a way for my opponent to punish me.

Fabiano set about showing the punishment, however, and found himself in a dream position where, as he explained, the pressure was massively greater on Black, who knew that a single mistake might cost the game, while if White blundered it would only mean losing the advantage. 

In fact Fabi did slip, for instance missing the winning 40.Qf4!, but there were extenuating circumstances, since he was down to his last minute to make the time control. He might have got another chance, but Hikaru spotted the danger and didn’t repeat the position.

The only move 41…Bd7! held out the prospect of long resistance, but Hikaru was critical that he didn’t use the hour added to his clock on move 40 better. He said, “I let my guard down” after 42.Rd1, and his 42…Be6?! (42…Re7!) was inaccurate. 

Black was objectively losing already, but it was only after 43.Nd5! Rf8 44.Qxe4 Qh6?! 45.Re1 that the outcome was clear. Hikaru noted 44…Qg4! was the last chance and would have forced Fabiano to find 45.Qe1! to keep a winning edge.

As it was there was no stopping Fabiano, who went on to win smoothly.

Hikaru credited his opponent for playing very well, but was left with some regrets.

I avoided his preparation, I was up on the clock, and I’m even slightly better if I play h4 or Rg8, one of those ideas without castling, but alas I did castle, and unfortunately one wrong king move cost me the game today.

Meanwhile, the two non-decisive games were every bit as entertaining.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda ½-½ Richard Rapport: A miniature avoided

Duda-Rapport lived up to expectations! | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Magnus Carlsen put Richard Rapport in the third tier of players when it came to the Candidates Tournament, noting:

I see a slight chance Rapport could make it if everything works out for him, but it feels very unlikely that he will survive seven black games against such opposition, even if he wins a few.

The first round at first looked likely to prove Magnus’ point. Jan-Krzysztof Duda has been working hard on his openings, now together with Vishy Anand’s long-time second Grzegorz Gajewski, and he came armed with a fresh idea on move 5 of a Sicilian.

It had been championed by Dutch Grandmaster Max Warmerdam, among others.

As early as move 8 Rapport was in deep trouble.

9.c5! followed after a 16-minute think by Duda, and the game might have become a famous miniature win for the Polish no. 1 if he’d chosen differently on move 16. He quickly captured a rook on d1 with his bishop, leaving the a2-pawn defended, but much stronger was to play 16.Rxd1!, when after 16…Bxa2 White has 17.Nb5!

17…cxb5?? 18.Bxb5+ Kf8 19.Rd8# would be unduly cooperative, but after the only move 17…f6 White gets a wonderful position with 18.Nd6+!

Instead in the game Duda played an endgame where he tried convert his better pawn structure into a win, and though that seemed doomed to fail there was one big twist approaching the first time control.

It’s hard to entirely approve of Richard’s approach, since the computer tells us simply 33.a4! and White has a huge edge, but the Hungarian gambled correctly that Duda would “spot” a tactical sequence to win a pawn.

33.Rd3?! Bd4 34.Rb3+ Kc6 35.Bxa5 followed, but it turns out that after 35…Ra8 White’s pieces are awkwardly placed, with the b3-rook in particular stuck defending the b2-pawn. Duda’s decision to give up the pawn and exchange rooks may have been the correct one, but his bishop pair didn’t prove enough to martial his a-pawn to victory. Richard was just in time.

By the end, almost all the material had disappeared from the board.

The final result perhaps supported Carlsen’s decision to also rank Duda among the 3rd tier of players in the Candidates, but he’d come very close to scoring a win reminiscent of the kind of games he was winning when he won the 2021 FIDE World Cup.

Teimour Radjabov ½-½ Alireza Firouzja: Don’t write off Teimour… or Alireza!

Alireza Firouzja's first ever Candidates game was eventful | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

This game came close to providing a sensation, with Teimour Radjabov, who had been written off by most of the pundits, coming close to beating Alireza Firouzja, the 18-year-old wunderkind who began the event as world no. 3.

The opening already promised action.

Everything seemed at first to be going Firouzja’s way, but when he sacrificed the exchange on move 18 it was already more out of necessity than choice.

He was then perhaps guilty of playing too generally, missing a sharp tactical solution.

Here he played, as planned, for compensation with 20…Bd5!?, but 20…Nd3! was in fact possible. After 21.Qc3 Nxc1 22.Qxc4 it seems the c1-knight is trapped, but 22…Qd5! holds the balance (22…Bxa3 does as well, but gets much trickier).

In the game Teimour built up a big advantage, but he was also battling the clock and saw his edge fizzle out until the best he could obtain was a pawn-up rook endgame.

It was a theoretical draw, but Firouzja himself had won a similar position against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the final round of the 2021 European Championship — the game that made him the youngest 2800-player ever. Defending such endgames has been perceived as a weakness of Firouzja's, but this time he made no mistake.

There was a lot to discuss afterwards | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

So that means the Candidates field is already split after just one round, with Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi in the lead.

The early decisive results are very good news for the prospects of more decisive action, while Round 2 already gives us a clash of the leaders: Nepomniachtchi vs. Caruana.

It’s noteworthy that Fabi has never beaten Nepo, with the one decisive classical game coming in Croatia in 2019. It would also be a first time if Radjabov beat Nakamura or Duda beat Ding Liren. As you can see, there are no dull match-ups, especially as all the players but the leaders are already playing catch-up. 

The FIDE Candidates Tournament, with Judit Polgar and Jan Gustafsson commentating, is live every day from 15:00 CEST.

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