Reports Jun 22, 2022 | 10:39 AMby Colin McGourty

Madrid Candidates 4: Nepo storms to Firouzja win

Ian Nepomniachtchi leads Fabiano Caruana by half a point after scoring a crushing win over Alireza Firouzja in Round 4 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Madrid. Alireza sprung a surprise in the opening but was punished the moment he forgot or misplayed his home preparation. The remaining games were drawn, with Ding Liren unable to convert an extra pawn against Fabiano Caruana in the clash of the pre-tournament favourites.

Ian Nepomniachtchi has now defeated world no. 2 Ding Liren, world no. 3 Alireza Firouzja, and drawn against world no. 4 Fabiano Caruana in Madrid | 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, Jan Gustafsson and special guest David Howell.

Go Premium during the Candidates and get 50% off using the voucher code CANDIDATES2022 — a 1-year membership comes with a free Candidates mug!

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

There’s also a daily-updated Chessable blog covering all the Candidates Tournament openings.

Ian Nepomniachtchi 1-0 Alireza Firouzja

Nepo is on course for a Carlsen rematch, but would Magnus play? | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Alireza Firouzja lost a wild game to Ian Nepomniachtchi in the recent Superbet Chess Classic in Bucharest, but it didn’t cause the 19-year-old prodigy to adopt a safer approach in Madrid. Alireza played the Najdorf Sicilian and went for an old sharp line against his opponent’s 6.f3, but with the modern twist 15…Bc4!?

That got Ian thinking before he continued 16.Kb1. Anish Giri pointed out that the computer’s suggested 16.Ng3!? Bxf1 17.Rhxf1 a4 18.Na1 would have gone against Nepo’s “very healthy traditional chess upbringing”.

The way the game went with 16…a4 17.Nbc1 d5 18.f6 gxf6 19.gxf6 Ndxf6 20.Ng3 gave little hint of the coming storm.

Suddenly Firouzja sank into a 30-minute think in a position where the computer was giving its infamous 0.00 evaluation. If Alireza’s team had prepared this position, 20…Kh8! or 20…Nd6! must have been the recommendation, with that second line continuing 21.Bh6 Kh8!, when 22.Bxf8 Bxf8 actually leaves Black on top. 

Instead Alireza played 20…Bxf1?! 21.Rhxf1 and then spent another 29 minutes on 21…a3, when after 22.b3 it was clear Black’s attack had come to nothing.

Alireza Firouzja is having a Candidates baptism of fire, but so far he's only lost one game | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Anish Giri talked about what had gone wrong.

It happens sometimes that you fall victim to your own preparation. If you imagine Alireza just came to the game and didn’t have anything prepared, he wouldn’t have lost this badly, but as it happens, sometimes your prep works against you. Thanks to the prep you create this chaos, you spur life into the game, you set the board on fire, but then you are the one who gets burned. You have to of course somehow find that very complicated balance between being in good shape, being ready for a fight, but also having your prep in your head, and it gets harder and harder in modern chess, because there is so much to remember and also the opponents play so many different things.

It was clear that Black was in trouble, but it was still surprising how fast things escalated.

Black could still struggle on with moves such as 23…Rg8, or 23…Qc7!, though ideas such as 23.Rxf6! Bxf6 24.Nd3! are hanging in the air.

Instead Firouzja went for the natural blockading 23…Nd6, but after Ian simply took the pawn with 24.Qxb4! there was no good discovered check to exploit the vulnerable position of the white queen. 24…Rc8 was also inaccurate, and after 25.Bb6! Qd7 26.Qe1! Black was well and truly busted.

Our commentary team discussed the aggressive strategy Firouzja has adopted with the black pieces in his first ever Candidates Tournament.

The remainder of the game was painful for Firouzja. He got his knight all the way to b2, but it was doing nothing there, while Nepomniachtchi moved towards decisive action on the kingside. The situation on the clock was also extreme, with Ian still having almost an hour while Firouzja was down to seconds.

Nepo could have tortured his young opponent by taking his time, with Alireza forced to stay at the board, but he spent just 3 minutes before executing the fastest win: 36.Rxh7+! Kxh7 37.Qh5+ Kg8 38.Nxf5 Bf6 39.Rg1+!

Here Alireza threw in the towel, since it’s mate-in-4. It’s been a fantastic start for Ian Nepomniachtchi, who has now beaten his two highest-rated rivals while also drawing against the other co-favourite Fabiano Caruana.

For a while it seemed as though Ian might even take a full-point lead over Fabi.

Ding Liren ½ - ½ Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana was made to work hard by Ding Liren, but he held on | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Ding Liren had staged a partial recovery from a terrible start in the 2020 FIDE Candidates Tournament by winning a spectacular game against Fabiano Caruana in Round 3. A repeat would have been very welcome for the Chinese no. 1, and he went for an opening idea that had proved successful for his countryman and second Wei Yi during the Chessable Masters.

Fabiano varied after 9.Bd2 by going for 9…Nc4 instead of Harikrishna’s 9…bxc5, however, and we ended up in a much quieter position. Soon, however, Fabiano would go for a surprising decision.

Black could have defended the b6-pawn with the passive 17…Qd6, or more actively with 17…Qd7, when 18.Qxb6 Rfb8 sees Black pick up the b2-pawn in return. Instead Fabi decided to give up the pawn with 17…Rc8!?

Anish Giri commented:

Fabi responded in a very, very I would say desperate, a little bit even panicky, way, but it worked out really well, so I’m not going to criticise that. He fought for the c-file at the cost of a pawn. I thought this was an overreaction to the potential problems he was facing, but actually having looked at it a little bit more after the game it seems to me that this was a legitimate way of playing, as Ding was unable to convert his pawn.

There were different ways Ding could have tried for more, but no clear missed win, while Fabi was just in time, e.g. with 22…Ne4!

The position eventually liquidated into a theoretically drawn 4 vs. 3 pawn rook endgame, which soon became 3 vs. 2 and then 2 vs. 1 until it was drawn in 64 moves.

It’s been a tough start for Ding Liren, who lost to Ian Nepomniachtchi and missed a great chance against Richard Rapport. As Anish pointed out, the Chinese no. 1’s situation is worse considering the colour distribution of his games so far.

I’ll have to remove Ding from the tier of favourites in this tournament, because with a start like that, three Whites and one loss and the other games drawn, it’s not a good start, and now he has a tough battle ahead of him.

Richard Rapport ½ - ½ Hikaru Nakamura

Hikaru Nakamura has been looking relaxed and in good form in Madrid | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Hikaru Nakamura has a 3 wins to 0 classical score against Richard Rapport, and although this game didn’t seriously threaten to increase that imbalance it was a comfortable draw with the black pieces for Hikaru. In an Anti-Berlin, his 9…Be6! was a new idea.

“At first glance you’re hanging a pawn, but there is a lot of counterplay,” said Hikaru, with 10.Nxe5 met by 10…h5!.

After some thought Richard wisely went for 10.Qd2 instead, but Hikaru was prepared, and even noted that 21.Rd2 was “the first move I was not super-familiar with”.

On the surface the rest of the game looked very easy, but Hikaru pointed out there was a lot of hidden tension — and one near blunder that you wouldn’t guess at from the computer evaluations.

Here Hikaru played 31…Ke5 instantly, “based on a huge miscalculation”, when he could just have played 31…Kf7.

He had calculated a long time in advance that he was making a simple draw after 32.Nd5 Nxe4? 33.Nxb6 Rxb2?? only to realise that would fall into 34.Nc4+

“Oops-a-daisy, I’m going to lose the game!” Hikaru commented, but he spotted it in time to deviate with 32…Ra1+! and, now fully alert, there were no stumbles before the game ended in a 44-move draw.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda ½ - ½ Teimour Radjabov

Radjabov found one excellent move to neutralise all Duda's advantage | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Teimour Radjabov has been struggling with the black pieces and Jan-Krzysztof Duda, in another Anti-Berlin, seemed to get an excellent position out of the opening.

If anything his problem was that he had too many tempting options. Anish Giri here liked the option of 12.Bxd7+ Nxd7 13.d4!, and also pointed out that after 12.Bxf6 gxf6 in the game, Duda might have kept the light-squared bishops with 13.Bc4. 

13.Bxd7+, as played, also seemed to be working out, until Teimour spotted a resource on move 17.

It looks as though Duda has the f5-square covered, but Teimour followed up with 17…f5! anyway. Duda spent 27 minutes on 18.exf5, but no doubt didn’t need that time to see that Radjabov’s idea was to respond 18…Rg5!, when there’s no good way to hold onto the pawn. After that the game soon fizzled out into a draw.

So the standings look as follows after Round 4, with Ian Nepomniachtchi, the winner of the previous Candidates Tournament, now in the sole lead. Alireza Firouzja has joined Ding Liren in the basement, with Alireza also now down to no. 4 on the live rating list, below Fabiano Caruana.

Round 5 once again has huge potential.

The most surprising lifetime score is Firouzja’s 4:0 against Duda. Anish Giri commented of the game ahead:

I think it’s crucial for Firouzja to try and win this game. He has had a shaky start, a -1 score, one of the favourites, but already 1.5 points behind the leader. If he stays on -1 for just a little longer, I believe that the confidence and his inner belief in tournament victory will slowly dissipate, while if he comes back right now he will immediately brush away that loss against Nepo and get back to 50% and the future might still be bright for him… the future for him in this tournament. The future for him in general is bright, but the future for him in this tournament might be bright if he comes back tomorrow. Must-win against Duda!

Ding Liren also needs a win, Caruana will be hopeful against Rapport’s sometimes shaky black repertoire, while Nakamura-Nepomniachtchi is a chance for Hikaru to gain both glory and potentially catch Ian.

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

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