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Ding Liren confessed “I forgot the moves” as he stumbled into a close to lost position against Ian Nepomniachtchi in Round 3 of the Superbet Chess Classic. Just as in the second half of the match, however, Ding managed to survive, thus denying his opponent a 2800 rating. Elsewhere the one decisive game saw Fabiano Caruana beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in only 23 moves to join Richard Rapport, Wesley So and Nepo in the lead.
There was just one decisive game in Round 3 of the Superbet Chess Classic in Bucharest.
Going into Round 3, all eyes were on the clash between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren, a chance for Ian to get some small measure of revenge after losing the World Championship match in Astana.
Ian chose to go for 1.d4, a move he’d played only in Game 3 of the match. Back then Ding had scored one of his easiest draws with the black pieces in a game that was notable for the Chinese star declaring he'd recovered from his mental issues at the start of the match. This time, however, things didn’t go to plan. Was he expecting 1.d4?
Not today, but I prepared d4 during the World Championship match after he first employed it in Round 3, so actually I prepared this line, but today I forgot the moves.
Ding was the first to vary, on move 6, choosing to head for a passive but hard to break down endgame.
It wasn’t clear exactly where he left his opening preparation, but he wrongly felt that 13.f4! was a move that needed to be punished for its weakening of the e3-square. 13...Bc2?! was a mistake.
The computer was already signalling big problems ahead for Black, and Ian Nepomniachtchi correctly went for 14.Rc1! Bb3 15.Nb1!
The bishop on b3 is about to be attacked by the knight, the b-pawn can’t move because of Rxc6, the white knight is coming to the wonderful f5-square, and White has almost completed development.
Ding Liren sank into a 35-minute think, and later described his energy levels as “quite low”.
During the game I thought when he played this Nb1 I feel very tired. For this tournament, at first, I didn’t want to participate, I’m so tired after the World Championship, but now I’m just trying to hold, to continue to play.
Ian Nepomniachtchi must have sensed he was close to pulling off a win that while doing nothing to alter the outcome of the match would put him over 2800 for the first time and give him some bragging rights. It would also reverse a scenario from 2021, when in the final round of the Candidates Tournament Ding Liren scored a consolation win after Ian had won the tournament with a round to spare. On that day Ian could also have crossed the 2800 barrier for the first time.
From here, however, things started to go Ding’s way. The move he came up with, 15…Ra5!?, had the virtue of forcing Ian to start spending time himself. Then after 16.Be2 c5 17.Nf5 Nb6 Nepomniachtchi began to falter.
Connecting the rooks with 18.Kf2! is one good option for White, but instead Ian gave up a tempo with 18.Nd2!? c4 19.Nb1. That mattered, since Ding found a surprising knight manoeuvre of his own, 19…Na8!
Ding felt Nepo must have missed that move, and explained why it was so strong.
I’m getting into the game after Na8, since I have a very clear plan: Nc7, b5, b4, and he cannot play Bf3… he cannot prevent b5 anyway.
Ultimately Ding got to play b4 just after Nepo had played e4, and then perhaps the last critical moment of the game occurred after 25.exd5.
Ding said he’d been planning 25…Kd7! but didn’t explain why he instead played 25…Rxd5?!, when the computer and Garry Kasparov were advocating for a move Ding himself said he was worried about, 26.g4!, simply maintaining the dominant knight on f5.
Instead Ian went for the second best option, 26.Bxc4!? Rxf5 27.Bxb3, perhaps having overlooked the power of castling late with 27…0-0!
Ian fell behind on the clock as he spent 13 minutes on 28.Rc4, when after 28…Rxf4+ 29.Ke3 Bd2+! Ding was very close to home and dry.
A key point is that the alternative 28.Bxa4 runs into 28…Rxf4+ 29.Ke3 and again that key trick 29…Bd2+!
After 30.Kxd2 Rxd4+ 31.Kc3 Rxa4 Black should have no trouble drawing.
In the game there may still have been some small chances for Nepomniachtchi if he could show extreme precision in the rook endgame, but by this point he probably felt the universe was against him. The bare kings at the end summed up another fantastic fighting game.
On Twitter, Ian quoted Karl Marx, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,’ though he later deleted the tweet.
Elsewhere there were some reminders that not all classical chess games are classics. So-Giri was a Berlin endgame that ended in an opposite-coloured bishops draw, while Firouzja-Rapport was a Petroff Defence, though one not without some opening intrigue. Alireza commented of his 10.a3, “a3 was some Karjakin game in the 2018 Candidates”.
That was the game Karjakin won in Round 12, almost destroying Fabiano Caruana’s hopes of qualifying for the World Championship match. There was a difference, though, since in that game the black bishop was on f5 and not e6 — Firouzja’s move was in fact a novelty.
Alireza followed up 10…0-0 with 11.h4!?, which he said he didn’t think was a good move, but no great harm was done as the game fizzled out into a 33-move draw. More interesting afterwards was Alireza’s comment on the fashion career he’s currently pursuing alongside chess.
I think in general I wanted to always have something outside of chess, because just to play your whole life chess is a bit weird for me, but I always loved playing chess. The fact that I’m living in Paris now… is a good opportunity there, but in general I’m still in chess… It’s a new chapter. I like how things are going.
Jan-Krzysztof Duda looked to have every chance of bouncing straight back from his loss to Richard Rapport. Bogdan-Daniel Deac didn’t blunder in his latest time trouble, but he did find himself a pawn down when the dust had settled.
There would be more disappointment for Duda, however, since after 41.Re5 Be6 42.Ndc1?! (42.b4!) 42…Rb2! it turned out White’s advantage had slipped away and the game soon ended in a draw.
The one decisive result was a remarkably fast win for Fabiano Caruana against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Fabi was rewarded for playing the hyper-aggressive 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.h4.
I’m a few years behind the times! This h4 got really popular, again it’s kind of like an invention of Grischuk, like so many ideas these days. It got really, really popular, and Maxime has faced it many times. I actually wasn’t surprised that he decided to go for the Benko against it.
Maxime had experience of playing the opening from both sides, with Fabiano pointing to MVL’s win with White over Peter Svidler in the 2021 Sinquefield Cup. The players were following that game until move 11.
Here Maxime had played 11.Bd2, while Fabiano went for 11.Bxa6. He had no complaints about the position:
It's basically a Benko Gambit where White, for no reason, has put a pawn on h4. It’s the best Benko you could have, but it’s still a Benko!
Fabiano felt he’d calculated well, but added, “to be fair, I think Maxime was playing far from his best today”. He used as evidence for that the fact that the French star played 15…Nh5?! without realising the e7-pawn could be taken.
Fabiano took 22 minutes to convince himself to play 16.Bxe7!, mainly because after 16…Nf4 17.g3 he feared 17…Nbd3!
He needn’t have worried, however, since Maxime opted for the weaker 17…Rfe8?!, and was soon completely lost. The d6-pawn also fell, and at the end 23.Ne2! was threatening to trap the hapless black queen. Maxime resigned.
That means we now have four players in the lead on 2/3, and four players in last place on 1/3.
The leaders clash in Round 4, when we have Rapport-So and Caruana-Nepomniachtchi, while there’s plenty of hope for decisive action in MVL-Giri, Deac-Firouzja and Ding-Duda.
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