Reports Jun 19, 2022 | 9:24 AMby Colin McGourty

Madrid Candidates 2: Nakamura strikes back

Hikaru Nakamura bounced straight back from his loss to Fabiano Caruana to defeat Teimour Radjabov in Round 2 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Madrid. The other games were drawn, but only after Richard Rapport missed wins against birthday boy Alireza Firouzja, while the Nepo-Caruana clash of the leaders was a thriller after Fabi unleashed some dangerous home preparation. Duda-Ding was the quietest draw, but even there both sides got chances.

Hikaru Nakamura shrugged off his loss the day before to get back to 50% | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

You can replay all the games from 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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There was only one decisive result in Round 2, but all four games were tense battles.

Anish Giri once again recorded a recap of the day’s action — he also has a separate Candidates course on Chessable: 

Let’s start with the decisive action.

Hikaru Nakamura 1-0 Teimour Radjabov

Nakamura and Radjabov still found time for discussion after a very long game | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Anish Giri was speaking from experience when he talked about the difficulties of coming back after a loss in a chess tournament.

It’s always much easier to bounce back right away and then forget these two games so they didn’t happen, back to 50%, rather than start grinding out from a -1 position in the tournament. That’s just really hard.

There were two players who needed to hit back on Saturday, but it was Hikaru who managed. The opening, as in his game the day before, was an Anti-Berlin, with Hikaru commenting, “the way you bounce back is you try to keep it simple”. Yes, he once again recapped the action.

Hikaru then followed an earlier Nepomniachtchi-Aronian line, gambling that Radjabov wouldn’t know the trick to equalise, which was to play the immediate pawn sacrifice 12…d5!

It wouldn’t have worked against an opening expert such as Anish Giri.

This d5-push is something I knew for a long time and is still recommended by the engine as the best move… a great idea to open files for the rooks and diagonals for the bishop.

Instead Teimour took 17 minutes to reproduce Levon’s inferior 12…Qc6?!, when after 13.Re1!, the first new move of the game, White was much better. 

There would be many twists ahead, however, with 21.d6?! missing a tricky way to keep the advantage with 21.Rd1!, and on move 28 both Hikaru and Anish pointed out how Teimour should have held the draw.

28…h5?! was “a fairly significant blunder” according to HIkaru, who was able to play 29.h4! g5 30.g3 and keep his pawns on dark squares.

Perhaps the decisive mistake, however, came on move 35, when Teimour was already in real time trouble.

If he’d kept the position stable by moving his bishop it’s still close to equal, but 35…Rd5?! essentially gave up a pawn to 36.Rc6!

Teimour did some things right, however, such as reaching the time control! He had just 2 seconds to spare when he calmly made his move — it’s noteworthy he was still writing down his moves, though he wasn’t obliged to do so.

After that Hikaru had a big advantage, with Judit Polgar in our commentary pointing out that it was the kind of position where Black was likely to collapse in the end since it was so hard to keep making precise defensive moves. Hikaru’s approach borrowed from the current chess World Champion.

At this point in the game I start dilly-dallying, for lack of a better word, and I just thought, I’m going to try and play a little bit like Magnus, just grind it, try to improve the position slowly, but also make sure there’s no time pressure in the second control in the next 20 moves.

Not even grandmasters could fully assess what was going on…

…but it paid off, since although Teimour had one or two tricky chances to survive, in the final stages Hikaru was lethally precise. He admitted he half-stumbled on the brilliant 63.Kf2! and when Teimour played 64…h3 Hikaru had everything worked out.

65.Rxf7! h2 66.Rg7+! Kf4 67.Ne2+! Ke5 68.Ng3 and the h-pawn had been tamed. 

Then it was just a matter of arranging the coronation of the white a-pawn, which Hikaru did with his rook and knight.

Nc8, Rb8 and a8=Q would follow, so Teimour finally threw in the towel. 

That meant Nakamura is right back in the mix, while Radjabov has now lost eight Candidates games since he last won one. Giri commented:

Teimour really has to get himself together, because the last performance was a bit of the same. He’s just not on it with the black pieces in the opening, and then a lack of confidence is there a little bit, and he seems to be struggling.

Elsewhere the most anticipated clash was between the two early leaders.

Ian Nepomniachtchi ½-½  Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana arrived to the game along side Alireza Firouzja | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

The two leaders have both played and lost a match against Magnus Carlsen, which lessens the chance Magnus will want to play them again. If the situation remains the same, therefore, they might well end up playing among themselves for the highest title in chess.

While that would certainly be weird, it could also be a thriller, if their Round 2 game in Madrid was anything to go by. Fabiano has never beaten Nepo in a classical game, but despite having the black pieces he was ready to do everything to make it happen. He played an early g5, and then unleashed a novelty, 10…Ng4!?

Fabiano explained:

I knew that Ng4 would come as a surprise. I don’t know if many people have analysed this move. It’s a novelty. I’ve played the position myself against Wesley So in a blitz game or rapid game, and I played Nh7, which is the common move, and Ng4 is borderline losing. It was a huge gamble. It’s not losing, it’s probably not even very bad, but it’s definitely a very dubious move, but I was kind of counting on the surprise factor and I also thought that he would go for what he did, which is the most natural way, putting his knight on g3 and everything. And then he shocked me with this Ra3 move, I didn’t see that one coming!

Already heavily down on the clock, Ian invested an extra 20 minutes on the pawn sacrifice 17.Ra3!?, which finally got Fabiano out of his home preparation.

It was a very risky choice by Ian, but proved an excellent practical decision. Fabi continued:

You expect at some point that you’re going to be surprised, and that was the moment when I had to start thinking very hard, but I thought my position was very good. At some point I thought I was much better, but I couldn’t find the way to exactly coordinate my pieces, because I’m up a lot of material but he has this very lasting initiative. My king is weak. I thought there should be some way to prove an advantage, but I just couldn’t find it.

It all came down to this extremely tense position.

The winning try is the exchange sacrifice 32…Rxb2!?, which dramatically lowers the pressure on the black king, while the black a-pawns are potentially game-winners. It would have been a bold decision for time trouble, however, and Fabi instead settled for a draw which showcased the preparation, calculation skills and nerves of both players.

The big one that got away in Round 2 featured Alireza Firouzja, who was celebrating his 19th birthday — though what followed was anything but a celebration!

Richard Rapport ½-½ Alireza Firouzja

Richard Rapport knows how to make an entrance | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

You can’t say that Richard Rapport doesn’t learn from his mistakes. After almost losing to Jan-Krzysztof Duda in Round 1 after allowing his opponent the powerful 9.c5 move, he got to play the same move himself in Round 2!

Things weren’t so bad for Black this time round, however, at least until Alireza’s rash 30…Nd4+?!, which was followed up by the losing 32…Ra1?

Alireza was playing for active counterplay, but the problem was that after 33.Rxc6 Rh1 34.Rcc7 the white rooks on the 7th rank were every bit as strong as the beginners’ chess guides tell us. Rapport had plenty of time and was moving fast and confidently, but the rushed 38.Ke4? ultimately cost him half a point — and a lot of wasted energy.

Instead 38.Rg7+! (the king has to be driven one square further away) 38…Kh8 39.Rgd7! and then taking the pawn on d4 with the king seems to be a relatively straightforward win.

After 38.Ke4? Rxg3 39.Rg7+ Kh8 40.Rxh7+ Kg8 Alireza got an extra hour on the clock and Richard sank into deep thought, since there was at least no easy way to wrap up victory. Later there was one more fleeting chance, but this really was study-like.

In the game Firouzja dug deep and ultimately held confidently, his second escape in the space of two days. 

Starting his 1st Candidates with two Blacks was a tough challenge for Firouzja, but he survived | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Giri felt it was a good sign for the youngster.

Alireza saved a second bad position, and sometimes when you save bad positions there is a scenario in which at some point you’ll no longer do that and you’ll just collapse, but there’s also a scenario where you take these saves, count them as blessings, and then you feel that fortune is favouring you. And then you slowly turn things around and end up striking, so Alireza fans can start slowly getting optimistic. I think good things might happen for him!

That leaves us the quietest game of the day.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda ½-½ Ding Liren

Ding Liren switched to a chair with a low back in Round 2, and it seemed to work out | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

This was a fascinating strategic battle, with our commentators at first shocked but then warming to Ding Liren’s decision to play 19…c5!?, temporarily entombing his dark-squared bishop.

For a while it looked like Ding Liren would take over, but his 23…g5!? proved to be inaccurate after Duda found what Ding called the “very good move” 24.Rb1!, which was followed up by 25.b4!

In what followed the balance was never seriously upset before the players made a draw.

Ding was fine with that as he felt he was worse in the final position, adding:

Yesterday I played I think one of the worst games recently in my career, but today I feel much better. I think the draw is quite a good result for me.

Duda said he’d prepared an opening idea but then found he didn’t know what to do at the board. Curiously he also thought he was worse at the end.

He played some moves I wouldn’t have found in a million years, so I’m quite content with the draw. Even in the final position I guess it’s sort of balanced, but he has the two bishops, he’s better and I have to just do nothing not to worsen my position.

Duda didn't get the maximum from his two Whites, but has still made a solid start | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Duda was also trying to recover from a big miss a day earlier, against Rapport.

Today’s draw is nothing. Yesterday of course I spoilt a winning position and was very upset about this game, especially that I did see a winning continuation but at the very last moment I changed my mind and I actually spoilt it totally, so yesterday was kind of painful.

That leaves the standings as follows after Round 2, with Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi still in the lead.

Round 3 is once again packed with fascinating clashes, with the first classical encounter between Alireza Firouzja and Hikaru Nakamura perhaps the one that most stands out. Giri, meanwhile, noted that Ding-Rapport might almost be a must-win game for Ding Liren if he wants to challenge in the tournament.

Beyond the chessboard, another potential storyline is brewing in Madrid. Jon-Ludvig Hammer has had to drop out of commentary at the venue after testing positive for Covid.

We also know of another person who was working in the venue, tested positive and will now isolate,  though current Spanish regulations only require a mask and even a player testing positive wouldn't necessarily derail the event. In any case, the organisers must be praying for no repeat of the situation in 2020 when the Candidates Tournament needed to be stopped halfway.

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

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