Ian Nepomniachtchi crushed Alireza Firouzja in Round 11 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament, but just when it looked as though that would extend his lead to 2 points with just 3 rounds to go, Ding Liren won a position he'd been struggling to save against Fabiano Caruana. The Chinese no. 1's 3rd win in a row leaves him 1.5 points behind the leader.
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And here's the day's live commentary from Judit Polgar and Jan Gustafsson.
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"Things are heating up and cooling down," said Anish Giri after another dramatic day in Madrid.
The Dutch no. 1 once more recapped all the action, and you can also check out his separate Candidates course on Chessable: chessable.com/candidates
Alireza Firouzja drew criticism from Judit Polgar among others for playing a hyper-bullet chess marathon until 6 am on the morning before Round 11, particularly as he was facing none other than Ian Nepomniachtchi, the runaway leader.
The idea to change something after the painful loss to Hikaru Nakamura was understandable, however, and if it had paid off people would write about an inspired decision.
At first there seemed to be no problem in the opening, as Alireza was playing faster in a Petroff sideline, but his choice on move 16 reopened the question of whether he was still on tilt.
Nepomniachtchi would later say:
I didn’t really understand what was going on today from his side. I would say he played in a very optimistic manner... Clearly every game here he plays for a win but sometimes the way he plays is a little bit artificial.
Rather than meeting the move in kind with a blow such as 16...Rxc3?! Ian responded with the calm 16...h6, asking Alireza to demonstrate his point.
This is when Alireza sank into a 35-minute think and must have realised he'd bitten off more than he could chew. Ian pointed out he was most concerned about 17.a4 with a5 to follow, but:
After g4 you’re not going to play something like a4, return to some normal flow.
Sure enough, Alireza went all-in with 17.h4?! Rfe8 18.g5 hxg5 19.hxg5 Nh5 as Nepo's advantage grew and grew.
After 20.Kg2!? Ng6! dark clouds were gathering around the white king.
The only move where you could even slightly fault Ian was his choice after 23.Ne4.
Here 23...Bd8! was the clincher, but walking into 24.Nxd6 is not for the faint-hearted. Ian hadn't missed that move — he just reasonably decided to go with his Plan B, 23...Rc4.
I thought Rc4 is some safe edge and I couldn’t make myself calculate some more lines.
The move impressed Anish Giri, who compared White's position to a "giant water balloon" which suddenly had too many holes. The tactics Ian had seen were spectacular and accurate...
...though there was a chance for Alireza to put up more resistance.
At the very end he had this 30.Re2! move. It felt like I’m spoiling some nice game, because I was giving all the chances in this game which he could only dream about.
It just wasn't Alireza's day, however, and after 30.Bb3? Bc5! Nepo slammed the door back into the game shut. He made the rest look easy, and was close to giving checkmate when Alireza resigned.
That was Nepomniachtchi's second win of the event over Firouzja and took him up to 2792.7 and world no. 3, while Alireza has slumped to 2773.7 and world no. 6.
Ian said of his young rival:
I felt that maybe a little bit Alireza he just went with the flow once he got very nice tournaments one after another, and he never stopped, and maybe that’s why he got slightly lucky to reach this 2800 mark that easily, but of course it was a completely outstanding achievement. And then ok, I wasn’t sure why he would just stop playing chess for half a year, but I don’t think it was anything good for him. I feel like he should have played a little bit more.
Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, is now on a stunning +5 score of 8/11, leaving the rest of the field in his wake.
Elsewhere there was just one non-game, with Teimour Radjabov commenting, "the mood was good but the play was bad" of his 33-move draw against Jan-Krzysztof Duda.
The remaining games were fought to the bitter end.
This was perhaps a case of "careful what you wish for" as Hikaru admitted that he was "hoping for a very, very long game". He explained of the approach he took to Richard's Sveshnikov Sicilian:
One of the reasons I played so slowly is that Richard is a player who likes to be creative, he likes dynamic positions, and this is anything but dynamic, it’s extremely slow, extremely dry, and not a whole lot is happening. I figured, if we’re both a little bit unhappy, that’s better than him being happy and me being unhappy!
Hikaru goes into great detail in the recap, but in the end he was unable to make an extra pawn matter in a game that stretched to 96 moves with neither side at any point having a decisive edge.
The day's other game, between the two players tied with Hikaru for second place, was vastly more dramatic.
At first the opening seemed to have gone Ding Liren's way, but, perhaps riding the wave of having won his previous two games, he went for an idea that culminated in the seemingly powerful 32...Qe5?!
The queen is hitting g3 and b2, but there was a huge hole in the idea. 33.Nf5! by Caruana prepared to meet 33...Rxb2? with 34.Nxd6!, with the point that after 34...Rxd2 White wins back the queen with 35.Nf7+ Kg7 36.Nxe5.
Just as against Richard Rapport the day before, however, Ding managed to respond to the shock and find all the right moves to hold on in what had become an extremely unpleasant position.
Ding would go on to do much more than that, however, with Fabi getting low on time when he pushed his e-pawn and got hit by a counterattack.
It was extremely tough for White to counter the black queen, rook and bishop, with the e7-pawn having to be given up as a sacrifice.
Fabi had ways to escape, with the best one perhaps coming just when he'd reached move 60.
61.Bxg5! fxg5 (61...Rxe1 62.Qxe1 fxg5 63.Qe7+) 62.Rxe8 Bxe8 63.Qe7+ and, although it's not obvious at first glance, the black king can't escape from checks. Everything has gone wrong in the last few rounds for Fabi, however, and after just 3 minutes he went for 61.Qg4?!, when the game went on.
Ding's decision to exchange off queens looked questionable, but the position was still horrible to defend, and Fabi cracked with 74.Bb5, allowing 75...Re7!
The main problem is that 76.Rc2 would run into 76...Bd3! and the rook can't both stop Re2 and defend the c7-bishop. The game didn't last long!
That meant Ding Liren has remarkably now won three games in a row to take over as Nepo's closest challenger, despite starting the tournament by losing to Nepo and then drawing the next 7 games.
It will still take a lot to catch Nepo — Nakamura could inject life into the race if he beats the leader with Black in Round 12...
...while Ding-Radjabov is a game where the Chinese no. 1 will hope to make it 4-in-a-row. Ding Liren doesn't necessarily need to win the tournament to get a World Championship match, since if Magnus concedes his title 2nd place will be enough, which also means the battle for 2nd is very much alive.
Giri feels that Fabiano has been broken:
Fabi, his dreams are shattered, in the last four rounds he’s scored 0.5/4, now he’s got two Blacks, I think that’s over for him. He’ll try to relax, sleep well and just come back to playing normal chess. I think he’s got no ambitions any longer. I think it’s very hard to come back after you’ve been broken thrice.
He's only one point behind Ding, however, so will he really go into Rapport-Caruana without any hope?
The FIDE Candidates Tournament, with Judit Polgar and Jan Gustafsson commentating, is live from 15:00 CEST.
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