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Reports Mar 28, 2022 | 7:52 PMby Colin McGourty

Nakamura and Rapport qualify for the Candidates

Hikaru Nakamura and Richard Rapport are in the Candidates Tournament after Hikaru's win over Andrey Esipenko ensured that the two would finish 1st and 2nd in the FIDE Grand Prix. All the results went Hikaru's way, as his key rivals Levon Aronian, Anish Giri and Leinier Dominguez all lost, while Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was held to a draw by Sam Shankland. Amin Tabatabaei is the surprise player already confirmed alongside Hikaru in the Berlin semi-finals, while So-Shankland and Mamedyarov-Keymer will play tiebreaks on Tuesday.

The FIDE Grand Prix series has such a complicated scoring system that it was a shock that suddenly, after a flurry of results, the question that really mattered — who would qualify to the FIDE Candidates Tournament that decides Magnus Carlsen's next challenger — was decided before the knockout stage. 

Replay all the games using the selector below.

Nakamura's win over Esipenko and Aronian's loss to Oparin had not just decided Pool A, but ensured that Nakamura and Rapport, both on 20 points, couldn't be caught in the overall Grand Prix standings. That leaves the 2022 FIDE Candidates Tournament looking as follows.

Becoming a professional streamer hadn’t, it seemed, done Hikaru any harm!

If he really wants to target the World Championship he may now need to take some time out in the run-up to the Candidates, however, with the formidable line-up likely to be bolstered by Ding Liren. The Chinese no. 1 has organised sufficient games in China in the next month to meet the 30 classical games requirement and, after winning the first 3 of them, is already the World no. 2 on the live rating list, above Alireza Firouzja. He’s on course to take a spot by rating, assuming Sergey Karjakin doesn’t win an appeal.

Let’s take a look at how the day went.

Pool A: Nakamura triumphs, Aronian heartbreak

Grigoriy Oparin ended Levon Aronian's challenge | photo: World Chess

Levon Aronian was the world no. 2 for so long that he looked destined to play a World Championship match, but nerves again and again let him down when the stakes were highest. It was the same in Berlin in the final round of the group stage, when Grigoriy Oparin was almost apologetic in victory.

From the one side I’m happy that I won a game. I think I played a good game, and I’m very happy with that. I’m a big fan of Levon as a chess player, as a person, so I feel a little bit sorry, because I didn’t have any chance to qualify to the Candidates, while he did have. But what can I do?

Levon took strategic risks to give himself a chance of winning the game, but things had gone wrong even before 19…fxe5? walked into 20.Ba5!

20…Qe7 would be hit by 21.Bb4, so 20…Qxa5 was forced. Levon called it, “just resigns on the spot”, though, given the circumstances, he played on anyway. After 21.Qxd7 Nc7 22.fxg5! Black’s position was in total ruins. Levon explained:

It was a one-move blunder. I completely forgot about Ba5, only considering Bb4… Very ashamed to blunder something like that. 

Andrey Esipenko finally did get to play Nakamura with the white pieces, after wrongly expecting that game the day before | photo: World Chess

That left the door open for Hikaru Nakamura, but the US star had a huge fight on his own board. He admitted of Andrey Esipenko’s 24.Nf5!, “I didn’t sense this danger until it was a bit too late”. After 24…Qe5 Andrey sank into thought.

The young Russian spent 33 minutes on 25.Nh6+! Kh8 26.Nd5!, an idea Hikaru confessed to having missed. After 26…g5!? Andrey was even on top, but Hikaru explained that paradoxically the position wasn’t so hard for him to play.

The great thing is in the position either I’m lost or I’m completely fine, but I have maybe one or two choices every move, and I just have to find a good move. It was actually quite pleasant, in a way, because there isn’t much to do. Either I’m fine or I’m lost.

In the end the clock would be a huge factor, since Esipenko sensed he was winning but couldn’t spot where, and then had no time in what was already a level position.

Both players pointed out that 35.Rxe8 Qxe8 (35…Rxe8? 36.f7! wins) 36.Qxd6 would have been an easy draw for White — when we’d have got a Nakamura-Oparin tiebreak — but instead after 35.Rf1? Qf7 Black, with an extra exchange, was on top, with h5 soon ousting the knight. Things escalated fast, and just three moves later Andrey resigned.

Hikaru had won the pool, and the way results went elsewhere meant both he and Richard Rapport qualified for the Candidates.

Pool B: Keymer ends Dominguez’ hopes

A draw in the end proved a very decent result for Mamedyarov, who will play tiebreaks vs. Keymer | photo: World Chess

Neither Daniil Dubov nor Shakhriyar Mamedyarov were in the running for a spot in the Candidates Tournament, and so, while not exactly gunning for it, they had no problem with ending their Grand Prix campaigns with a 13-move draw.

Leinier Dominguez did have an outside chance of the Candidates, but nothing went right for him against 17-year-old local hero Vincent Keymer. After the opening he needed to switch to passive defence, but instead went for a flawed tactical operation.

There was no backing out now as he continued 21…Nxe3, when 22.fxe3? Qxe3+ would pick up the e5-bishop and win the game. Alas for Leinier, Vincent had 22.Bd4! and was completely winning after the exchange of queens that followed, though the game dragged on to move 46. In fact it was critical, since if Leinier had survived Hikaru would have had to wait to confirm his Candidates spot.

Pool C: Tiebreaks it is

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave went into his game against Sam Shankland knowing he not only had to win with the black pieces but that Wesley So also had to lose with White. It was a lot to ask for, but at least Maxime was on the right side of a wild theoretical battle as the players blitzed out their moves.

Sam commented:

I clearly got caught in the opening and at some point I thought I’m going to lose this game without Maxime making one move on his own.

Maxime confirmed:

Sam is right about one thing — I didn’t make one move on my own today! It comes down to Sam finding this idea…

The key idea came in the following position.

There were different ways to execute, but Sam immediately played 24.Qxh6+! (“I was very fortunate to have Qxh6+ at the end, forcing a draw, which I had not seen in advance”) and after 24…Bxh6+ 25.Rxh6+ Kg7 26.Rg6+ Sam was able to keep giving checks with the rook, since 26…Kf7 runs into checkmate with 27.Ng5+ Ke7 28.Re6#

Sam suffered heartbreak at the end of his first Grand Prix when Dmitry Andreikin won a lost position to deny him a tiebreak, but this time there was no repeat of that situation. Wesley So was better against Alexandr Predke, but his advantage fizzled out and it’s going to be a So-Shankland tiebreak on Tuesday.

Wesley So will face Sam Shankland in tiebreaks | photo: World Chess

Pool D: Tabatabaei shocks Giri

Tabatabaei, like Nakamura, lost the first game of the tournament but stormed back to reach the semis | photo: World Chess

A well-played draw in Yu-Vitiugov meant all eyes here were on Giri-Tabatabaei, with Anish Giri still having Candidates chances if he could win the game. Instead it was all about Amin Tabatabaei, who like Hikaru Nakamura came storming back after a loss in Round 1 to clinch a semi-final spot without the need for tiebreaks. 19.h4? was a fateful mistake by Anish.

“I realised something was very off… I just kept going in a direction that I knew was going to end badly, but I just kept going,” said Anish.

19…d5! 20.g3 Nh3+! 21.Kg2 followed.

It was still tricky, but Amin found all the right moves: 21…exd4! 22.cxd4 Ngf4+! 23.gxf4 Qxf4 and there was no way to defend the white king.

Anish noted his Grand Prix performance was “one of my worst results in a while”, especially given he’d gone into the event as the top seed, but he praised his opponent. Amin was thrilled.

I’m extremely happy. I think Anish is the highest rated player I’ve ever beaten, so it’s such an honour for me.

The final crosstables looked as follows.

Amin will now play the winner of the So-Shankland tiebreak, while Nakamura takes on the winner of Mamedyarov-Keymer.

It’s now mainly money and pride at stake in Berlin, but if Hikaru needs some extra motivation there's the fact that one more win — and he's on a run of three wins in a row — would take him above Giri and back into the World Top 10. 

First, though, we have the tiebreaks on Tuesday. Follow all the FIDE Grand Prix action each day from 15:00 CET live here on chess24.

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