Reports Mar 17, 2016 | 10:39 PMby Colin McGourty

Moscow Candidates, 6: Spellbinding drama

A touch-move controversy has dealt a crushing blow to Hikaru Nakamura’s World Championship hopes as he was forced to make a losing move after grabbing his king against Levon Aronian. The Armenian is now joint leader with Sergey Karjakin, who put up heroic defence against Fabiano Caruana. Vishy Anand, meanwhile, is right back in contention after winning a 24-move miniature against Peter Svidler. What a day!

What looked set to go down as another missed opportunity for Levon Aronian turned into a moment of sheer good fortune that might catapult him to a match with Magnus Carlsen | photo: World Chess

Moscow Candidates Round 6 results

This was the day that the 2016 Candidates Tournament finally burst into life, with each game taking turns to enthrall the watching chess fans. Let’s take the events one by one:

1. Topalov plays 3.h4!? against Giri

Veselin Topalov had prepared a surprise on move 3 | photo: World Chess

Veselin Topalov started the day in last place on -2 and made no secret of his desire to change that situation. So after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 he went for 3.h4!?, a favourite weapon of Simon Williams. 

The mercurial English GM was an instant convert to the Bulgarian's camp:

What made the choice more shocking was that it came against Anish Giri, perhaps the most “booked up” grandmaster in modern chess now that Vladimir Kramnik is beginning to take things a little easier. Predictably, Giri knew the antidote, following both a recent game by Rinat Jumabayev (a 23-move win with Black against 2713-rated Anton Korobov) from the Aeroflot Open and a game he won himself against Adrien Demuth in the 2015 French Team Championship. The difference to that latter game was that after nine moves Black had castled while White had played what Giri considered the useless move 3.h4. Still, it was perhaps an achievement to lure Anish into the strategically risky Benko (or Volga) Gambit. He explained:

Generally the Volga is a great opening, it’s just not really working, move-by-move. Now Black gets this extra move!

In the end Giri did get the upper hand, winning a pawn in a tricky ending, but Topalov managed to hold on for a 68-move draw. Watch the players argue about the merits of the opening in the post-game press conference:

Just when the buzz was dissipating after that opening, Vishy took centre stage:

2. Anand beats Svidler in only 24 moves

Friendship ends on the chessboard... | photo: World Chess

It’s fair to say the prospect of a third Anand-Carlsen match (and a sixth World Championship match in a row featuring Anand) has chess fans divided. The Indian is a legend in his own lifetime, but many are hopeful of a new challenger taking up the gauntlet of playing Magnus Carlsen. Vishy, meanwhile, has no intention of going quietly into that good night:

Just when Karjakin had knocked him back to 50% and it seemed this might not be his tournament, he goes and does this:

Afterwards Svidler made the surprising admission that he played the losing move in the full knowledge that it was losing:

When I played 18…Nb3 I saw this entire line leading up to 24.h4, but I thought my position was bad enough that I should still go for this.

Peter had harboured some hopes that his opponent might go astray in the complications, but Vishy was flawless. Watch the post-game press conference:

3. Karjakin’s defensive masterpiece

Caruana-Karjakin was played in what’s already become the most topical opening of the event. In Round 3 Giri played 11.Ne5 against Karjakin's Queen's Indian and sacrificed two pieces for a draw. In Round 5 Topalov played 11.Rb1 against Karjakin and also got serious attacking chances. Now Caruana went for 11.a3 and, you guessed it, had Karjakin on the ropes! 

There was good reason for the other players to take an interest in the opening of Caruana-Karjakin | photo: World Chess

It was all prepared up to 17.b4:

Caruana had expected 17…Qd7 or 17…Bd6, but instead Karjakin opted for something else:

It was a little bit of a crazy decision from my side. I didn’t remember what was the most precise move and, ok, I thought it was very solid, but maybe I was wrong!

The "solid" option he chose was to give up his queen! 17…cxb4 18.axb4 Bxb4?! 19.Nc6 Bxc3 20.Nxd8. Computers often favour the side with a queen against a rook and minor piece, so Sergey may have been in less danger than the computer assessments suggest, but Fabiano was also getting optimistic about his winning chances.

That all changed with a second sacrifice, this time of a knight – 28…d4!

There was some beautiful chessboard geometry in the play that followed: 29.Qxc4 d3 30.g5!? d2 31.gxf6+ Kh8 32.Bf3 Be4!

Suddenly with the pawn on d2 and the g-file open for the black rooks, White even needs to be careful. Caruana opted for 33.Kh2, when both players agreed a draw was the best he can hope for. 33.Bg4 would have been the last try for more, but by this stage Fabiano had had enough excitement for one day. If you want to see some of the things that could have gone wrong take a look at the post-game press conference:

4. Touch-move trauma

Just when it seemed Levon Aronian had missed a win and Round 6 of the Moscow Candidates was winding down to a quiet close, we got a showstopper.

There was no disguising that Nakamura was clearly intending to move his king | screenshot: YouTube/WorldChess

Hikaru Nakamura took hold of his king and, apparently, realised in a horrifying moment that his intended move would lose the game (perhaps he forgot that with the white rook on the d-file after 74…Kf8?? 75.Kf6! Ra6+ White has 76.Rd6!). We’ve all been there, and maybe we’ve all tried to react as Nakamura seemed to do and either hope our opponent didn’t notice or claim “j’adoube” after the fact… but it’s not something you expect to see at the very highest level! Levon Aronian wasn’t going to let a priceless win slip from his grasp and immediately appealed to the arbiter:

When Nakamura finally moved it was all over, with the game only continuing out of a reluctance to accept the new reality. Hikaru declined to attend the post-game press conference, and instead we were left with an almost punch-drunk Levon Aronian, who launched into an unlikely explanation of how the ending had been won all along, though he seemed at most half-serious:

I love giving this lesson, because I’m learning in the process!  

Judge for yourself!

Association of Chess Professionals President Emil Sutovsky was unimpressed with either player:

I am sorry, but Aronian pretending this endgame to be winning left me speechless. I put it mildly. This sounds like a...

Posted by Emil Sutovsky on Thursday, 17 March 2016

Ian Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, had been knocked out of the 2015 World Cup (his chance to qualify for the Candidates) in an Armageddon game in which he not only pointed out Nakamura had castled with two hands but also accused his opponent of touching but not moving his king. Understandably, perhaps, the Russian took the chance to rub some salt in Nakamura’s wounds:

So where does that leave us? Well, Hikaru Nakamura, one of the favourites to win the event, is almost out of contention on -2. Aronian, meanwhile, has joined Karjakin as the favourite to win the tournament, while no sane person would write off Anand’s chances:

Tomorrow is a rest day and a chance for the players to recover from all that drama, while in Round 7 we have a clash of the leaders – Karjakin-Aronian. A win for either would be a big step towards overall victory. We also have a clash of those in bottom place – Nakamura-Topalov. Both of them might feel that if they want to win this tournament – and nothing else matters – that’s a must-win game. Don’t miss our coverage from 13:00 CET on Saturday.

You can also watch the games in our free mobile apps:  


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