Ian Nepomniachtchi took another huge step towards winning a second Candidates Tournament in a row after he dug deep to hold on after getting surprised by Fabiano Caruana in the opening. He still leads by a full point with just 5 rounds to go, while Hikaru Nakamura and Richard Rapport were stopped in their tracks by losing to Teimour Radjabov and Alireza Firouzja. Ding Liren also grabbed his 1st win, against Jan-Krzysztof Duda.
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And here’s the day’s live commentary from Judit Polgar and Jan Gustafsson.
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Round 9 of the FIDE Candidates saw three players win for the first time, all with the white pieces, but the key game of the round ended in a draw.
Anish Giri once again recapped all the Round 9 action.
Anish also has a separate Candidates course on Chessable: chessable.com/candidates
Jan Gustafsson had quipped the day before, "if Fabi's refuted the Petroff, tomorrow would be as good a time as any to show the world!" Sure enough, Ian did go for the Petroff, and Fabiano Caruana did unleash a new idea, to universal approval.
The main thing was that it took Ian Nepomniachtchi by surprise, and Fabi was soon up 45 minutes on the clock, with Ian saying he couldn’t recall his prep. Caruana took a first long think after 17…Nd6 and came up with 18.Qa4 after 32 minutes.
18.Qe2 was another computer suggestion, but Fabi felt the offer to trade queens was critical.
I figure Nd6 is a rather dubious move, although it’s very natural as well, and I had many options after that. I thought Qa4 was a good choice. It wasn’t my first instinct, it looks rather unusual, but I couldn’t find a clear advantage otherwise and I thought Qa4 was super-dangerous for him, and the endgame I thought should be very good for White.
What I did was, as it seemed to me, more or less only moves after I played this Nd6, because I ran into Qa4, which is extremely unpleasant, and I believe if not Qa4 it’s maybe slightly worse but I can stabilise.
18…Rc6!? was an alternative, but in the game we reached another critical position after 18…Bf6 19.Qxd7 Bxd7 20.Nxd5 Bxd4+ 21.Kg2 Rce8 22.Bf4 Nc5 23.Ne7+ Kf7.
Nepo admitted his position was “very suspicious” since he realised 24.Bxf5!? wasn’t forced, but it was the move Fabi went for. The US star commented:
I guess that Bxf5 maybe is a mistake. Bc2 was the other option I was considering, and I just missed one detail.
24.Bc2 also seems only to draw with best play, with Fabi completely missing the computer’s best option, 24.Bf1!, when the bishop retreats but is ready to jump back to c4 if the d6-knight moves — and the computer says 24…Nc8 is Black’s best try.
After 24.Bxf5 we got mass exchanges, 24…Nxf5 25.Nhxf5 Bxf5 26.Nxf5 Rxe1 27.Rxe1 and then a key move which Ian had spotted in advance, 27…Nd3!
That’s just bad luck, I guess. It sometimes happens that it looks very dangerous and it doesn’t really amount to much. Like I think Nd3 is the only drawing move… It’s by one move that Black draws, but I guess it’s enough!
Fabi explained that he’d also seen 27…Nd3 in advance, but the detail he’d overlooked was that after 28.Re7+ Kf6 he couldn’t play his intended 29.Bg5+?
Sometimes intense super-GM battles are decided by the most trivial of details. Here Fabi had thought when going for the whole line that he was winning, as he would be… if Black couldn’t simply take the knight on f5!
Fabi then spent almost 13 minutes on 28.Re4, and when Nepo went on to create a passed pawn on the b-file it suddenly looked as though Ian might score a win that would almost win him the Candidates on the spot.
Fabi perhaps didn’t want to calculate grabbing the pawn on g7 and playing Re7+ in time trouble, but after 32.Re2!? the clock and the position were becoming perilous.
Fabi stabilised, however, and safely made move 40 with just under a minute to spare. The players agreed a draw.
That meant Ian remains a full point ahead with just five rounds to go, with the statistics giving him an 86% chance to win the event.
That could all still change in a single round, however, with Fabi describing the 1-point gap as “quite a lot, but not insurmountable”.
After his win over Fabi, Hikaru Nakamura had the wind in his sails, and that he would target last-placed Teimour Radjabov was understandable, though it completely backfired. Hikaru began by playing the Berlin Defence, later lamenting:
It’s worth noting that if I had perhaps had more time last night — say I did not play a 7-hour game and everything else — I would have chosen to play something sharper, but alas, I decided to stick with the repertoire that I prepared for the event.
The assumption might have been that Teimour would go for the Berlin endgame, but instead he played the Anti-Berlin with 4.d3. Then, on move 12, Hikaru began to make choices he would regret.
I go a little bit off-script and I try too hard to create an imbalance with my next move by playing 12…Ba7. What I should have done is I should have put the bishop on d6 or b6.
Hikaru pointed out that if he’d played either of those moves then after 13.Bb5 he could have moved the knight, since the a5-pawn would be defended.
Instead Hikaru followed up with 13…Bg4!?
This is what I would say was my attempt to go for it, to try and create something unbalanced and to try and win and give myself an outside chance of perhaps winning the tournament… As it turns out, unfortunately it’s a very serious error, and I simply end up with a much worse position after what happened in the game.
Hikaru had misjudged the position after 14.Bxc6 Bxf3.
Here he thought Teimour would be obliged to play 15.Bxb7 Ng4 16.gxf3 Qh4 17.fxg4 Qxg4+ with a draw by repetition.
Instead Radjabov grabbed a pawn with 15.gxf3 bxc6 16.Nxa5! Qe6, when Hikaru said he expected to get a huge attack on the kingside. Instead after 17.Qe2!, it turned out White had everything under control.
Hikaru decided to follow through with his attack in any case, but there was no avoiding trading off queens into a position where White’s passed a-pawn was a monster. There were one or two chances to put up more resistance, but Teimour went on to demonstrate superb technique and convert his advantage into his first classical win since 2019!
Hikaru summed up:
Effectively the tournament is over in terms of competing for first place, but there are still five more rounds to go.
This game lived up to the expectations fans had for bold and sharp play, despite Richard coming up with an opening surprise. As Alireza put it:
Normally he plays the Sicilian all his life, but he played the most solid line in chess — the Berlin!
Again it was an Anti-Berlin, and it only became interesting when Richard played the inferior 10…Qe7?! Soon we got action.
17.Nxe5! Qxe5 18.d4 Bxd4 19.cxd4 Qxd4 was all good, but 20.Be3!? was inaccurate (20.Bd2!, which Alireza said was his first choice, was better), and by move 26 Black was even on top.
The black king is stuck in the middle of the board, but after 26…g5! 27.Qf2 Ng4! the threat of checkmate on h2 forces the ugly-looking 28.Qg1. If you would expect one player in chess to consider such a move it would perhaps be Richard.
Instead in the game, 26…Bc4? allowed 27.Rf5! and White was taking over. After 27…Qb2 28.Rg1 (28.Re1!) 28…Be6! Alireza found a star move.
29.Qg3! relies on the fact that after 29…Bxf5? White can calmly play 30.exf5! and Black will be put to the sword on the e-file.
29…Nd7! was the only defence, but after 30.Bd6 Qd4!? 31.Rff1! h5 Alireza was able to get what he wanted: “My plan is very simple: push e5 and mate him!”
At the very end Alireza didn’t yet give checkmate, but he did pick up a free piece.
That meant any dreams of Richard putting together a tournament winning run had gone, while Alireza is back to only -1. Afterwards he seemed to have his feet firmly on the ground and talked about how he’s simply enjoying playing his first ever 14-round tournament against the world’s best players. Did he regret his strategy?
I was playing very aggressively at the start of the tournament, which was maybe not the correct thing to do, but I play normally like this. For instance, against Ian I took a lot of risk, playing this Najdorf. But in general, I will continue playing the same!
It’s an approach that has every chance to pay off in the years to come, and Alireza could still have a big influence on who wins the event.
This was the only clash of the day where both players were winless, so that not all dreams could come true. In fact it was Ding who got back to 50% after outplaying his opponent in a slow grind, though ultimately everything turned on move 40.
Here Jan-Krzysztof had to play the strange looking 40…Bh5!, with the point that after 41.Rc7 he’d then have 41…g5! and the h5-bishop would defend the f7-pawn.
Instead after 40…Bxe4?, played with seconds to spare, 41.Rc7 followed and Duda couldn’t defend f7 and was losing. It was by no means easy, but Ding Liren looked his old self as he gradually nursed the a-pawn to victory.
Those results mean that it’s only Duda who’s adrift of the pack, while Ian Nepomniachtchi is right on course to win a second Candidates Tournament in a row.
On paper his run-in now isn’t the most difficult, but as we’ve seen, everyone in the event can be dangerous.
After the rest day, Nepomniachtchi-Radjabov and Duda-Caruana are the key clashes for the tournament leaders.
The FIDE Candidates Tournament, with Judit Polgar and Jan Gustafsson commentating, is live from 15:00 CEST.
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