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Reports Jun 24, 2022 | 11:40 AMby Colin McGourty

Madrid Candidates 6: A Nepo-Fabi 2-horse race?

Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana both won in Round 6 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Madrid to move clear of the pack and boost the chances of a World Championship rematch or, if Magnus isn’t interested, a Nepo-Fabi match. Ian won a powerful game against Jan-Krzysztof Duda, while Fabiano pounced on a mistake by Alireza Firouzja, who is now in last place and down to world no. 5. Elsewhere Teimour Radjabov missed a huge chance against Richard Rapport.

Ian Nepomniachtchi is even adopting the same pose as in the 2020 FIDE Candidates! | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

You can replay all the games from the 2022 FIDE Candidates Tournament using the selector below.

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

Round 6 saw Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi pick up crucial wins going into the 2nd rest day.

Ian Nepomniachtchi 1-0 Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Ian Nepomniachtchi raced to +3 after six rounds in the 2020 FIDE Candidates Tournament and he would do it again in Madrid, after surprising Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the opening. He played the Reti, starting 1.Nf3 and meeting 1…d5 with 2.g3. Anish Giri was impressed.

I realised it’s a very, very clever choice, so whoever it was, whether it was Ian’s seconds or Ian himself, I bow to this smart choice. After d5 g3 Jan-Krzysztof Duda has played many different systems, but all of them are quite interesting for White, so Ian Nepomniachtchi definitely prepared something exciting here and this would be a total surprise to Duda. An excellent choice.

Anish Giri also has a separate Candidates course on Chessable:

Duda already spent six minutes before going for 2…Bg4, which Giri described as a complicated system where you needed to know precise move-orders with Black. Duda didn’t, and his light-squared bishop was soon under heavy pressure as the white pawns advanced.

Here it seems 20…Kh8! would have made it hard for White to break down the black position, but after 20…hxg5 21.hxg5 Bb4 22.Bxb4 Qxb4 23.f5! Black was in dire trouble.

In the play that followed Duda sacrificed his bishop, but the pawns he got in exchange would only matter if he could simplify the position. Instead Nepo played fast and well and wasn’t going to miss any straightforward tactical tricks.

29.Rxf5! won a pawn and opened more paths to the black king, since 29…Qxf5?? runs into checkmate with 30.Qxg7#

The remaining moves were agony for Duda, who had nothing better than to resign five moves later.

That means Ian Nepomniachtchi has won three games and lost none to reach 4.5/6, just as he did in Yekaterinburg in 2022.

Back then he lost with the black pieces to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in Round 7, before the tournament was suspended for over a year. This time, as you can see, it’s Richard Rapport who will get the chance to stop Nepo after the rest day.

That win didn’t see Nepo increase his lead, since Fabiano Caruana won a hugely important game to keep within half a point.

Alireza Firouzja 0-1 Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana said before the tournament began that Alireza Firouzja storming to no. 2 in the world didn't reflect the current balance of power | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Not for the first time in Madrid, it was Alireza Firouzja who showed the work he’d been doing by springing a surprise, this time on move 6 of the Catalan.

Fabiano replied 6…c5 and played strong, sensible moves, while Alireza at some point missed the chance to get a small, safe advantage and burned up time as he tried for something more. Fabiano would later comment of Firouzja:

I’m really not sure what’s going on behind the scenes, but clearly he’s not playing at his usual level, and it might be pressure of the 1st time, but we can only speculate. He would know better what’s going wrong, but clearly something’s going wrong, because he’s playing super-slow and his quality’s not as high as it usually is.

The decisive action sequence of play began at move 20.

Black is somewhat on top due to the better prospects for his minor pieces, but here Alireza decided he had to take decisive action with what looked to be the temporary exchange sacrifice 20.Rxd7?! Qxd7 21.Bh3.

If the queen now had to move and White could capture on c8 the game would very likely have ended in a draw, but Fabiano stopped himself, thought for 10 minutes, and unleashed 21…f5! The trick is that after 22.Bxf5 Black has 22…Qe8!, hitting the undefended queen on h5. After 23.Qxe8 Rcxe8 White is down an exchange for just a pawn.

Alireza varied with 22.exf5!?, but it wasn’t an improvement, and the only achievement Firouzja could boast of in the remainder of the game was that he made the time control... with just 3 seconds to spare.

His position was busted, however, and 42.Qa4 would be the last move of the game.

Black can win at will, most easily with 42…h5+!, where it’s a quick checkmate unless White plays 43.Nxh5, but then 43…Qe2+ simply wins the knight. Alireza decided just to stop the clock and offer his hand when Fabi returned to the board.

That kept Fabiano Caruana well and truly in the hunt to win a second Candidates Tournament of his career. For now it’s looking like a 2-horse race, and if it did end with two former World Championship challengers in the top spots there’s a very real chance they’d play each other in a match — if Magnus doesn’t feel motivated for a rematch.

Alireza Firouzja was the player Magnus had name-dropped as someone he would play if he won, but that’s looking unlikely, with Firouzja in sole last place on -2, and also dropping to world no. 5 on the live rating list.

Anish Giri commented:

I personally think it’s probably just a tough situation when you’re doing so badly in the tournament, and also the opening doesn’t work out. Then it’s very hard, because you want to win, but you can’t, and you try to force it through and that’s usually backfiring. So a horrible day for Firouzja, and probably the end of his hopes to win this cycle. It seems very difficult, I don’t think anyone can come back from such a score, but of course his fans will keep fingers crossed and wait for a miracle, because if anyone can do it, it’s the prodigy called Alireza Firouzja!

Magnus Carlsen noted during Round 5 that we’d surprisingly had just one non-game draw in the tournament so far (Radjabov-Nepomniachtchi looks like the culprit), and that’s still the same going into the 2nd rest day.

Radjabov ½ - ½ Rapport: Teimour’s missed chance

This game featured a spectacular Sicilian, though Anish pointed out that it was less remarkable when you realised the players were following the computer’s first line all the way until 16…Kd7.

Here Teimour suddenly thought for 27 minutes, however, before playing not 17.c3! but 17.Bg5 and soon the Azerbaijan star had to find some very good moves to hold the balance. 

He managed, however, and when Richard lost the thread in the run-up to the time control Teimour got a huge chance to win his first Candidates game since beating Vasyl Ivanchuk in Round 2 of the 2013 London Candidates.

It’s a curious position where Black has three extra pawns, but they restrict his bishop. It was understandable that Teimour was looking to draw the game and correctly calculated he could force a draw with 39.Rf7? Rxe5 40.Rbxb7.

That turned out to be a terrible mistake, however, since after 39.Bh2! there would be absolutely nothing Black could do to stop Rf7 next. If the attacked bishop on b7 moves you can give checkmate on b8. Black could try to block the h2-bishop with 39…e5, but after 40.Rf7 Ba8 there’s no escape.

41.Ra7! simply picks up the bishop.

Richard Rapport had survived a huge scare! | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Hikaru Nakamura ½ - ½ Ding Liren

Ding Liren defended extremely well, but the pre-tournament co-favourite is still on -1 | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Hikaru explained in his recap that he’d varied with 11.Bxc6 from Duda’s 11.Nf1 against Ding Liren earlier in the tournament. Hikaru was hopeful of catching his opponent off-guard, but though he seemed to do so, Ding kept finding all the best moves, despite falling an hour behind on the clock.

Hikaru lamented:

I’d looked at this before the game, there were quite a few different possibilities, but I felt pretty confident that Ding would not be able to find the absolute best continuation. Much to my horror, he proceeds to do exactly that.

After 25…Bxb5 26.axb5 Ng5!? Hikaru began to use up time himself, but despite spending a full 50 minutes on his 30th move he was unable to find a way to crash through on the kingside — for the simple reason that there wasn’t one!

Ding may even have missed some slight chances for more, before Hikaru was forced to bail out by sacrificing his bishop on g7.

Ding perhaps missed a chance at the very end to dodge a repetition of moves, since that would have forced Hikaru to find a narrow path to a draw. It was a draw, however, and nothing in Hikaru’s play so far in Madrid has suggested he wouldn’t have been able to calculate it out.

Hikaru summed up:

A very interesting game. Most of it was prep by me, but unfortunately for me Ding found all the best moves. There’s not much I could have done differently. I tried as best I could, but when your opponent plays well credit goes where credit is due, and Ding definitely held his own in this game.

That leaves Hikaru Nakamura on 50% along with Richard Rapport, but already a full point behind 2nd placed Fabiano Caruana and 1.5 points adrift of the leader, Ian Nepomniachtchi.

With every player still to play each other at least once more, however, a lot can change in a single round. In fact each game looks critical in Saturday’s Round 7, including the clash of the strugglers, Ding-Firouzja. “They will spare nothing and no-one and it’s going to be a crazy fight!” said Giri of that match-up.

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

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