Newbies Rule! (2020 Candidates Tournament Day 1)

by admin on March 17, 2020

This year’s Candidates Tournament, which will select the next challenger to Magnus Carlsen for the World Chess Championship, started with a bang. Although some might argue that it was unwise for FIDE and the Russian Chess Federation to proceed with the tournament in spite of the COVID-19 epidemic, what’s done is done. Here we are, and it’s fun to have something — anything — to talk about other than coronavirus.

Often round 1 of a grandmaster tournament is a tentative, feeling-out affair, but that wasn’t the case today! Interestingly, all four games featured a “veteran” Candidates player versus a “newbie.” And the newbies did quite well, scoring two wins (as Black!) and two draws. In the two decisive games, Wang Hao of China defeated his countryman, Ding Liren, and Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia beat Anish Giri of the Netherlands.

In my last post, I picked Liren to win the tournament, which probably jinxed him. He got a perfectly reasonable position out of the opening but seemed to play very indecisively. He created a lot of weaknesses and eventually lost a pawn on move 40 and resigned soon there after. It was a very uncharacteristic game; as Viswanathan Anand succinctly said on, “this one he flubbed.” Fortunately it’s a really long tournament, with 13 more games, so there’s plenty of time to recover. But Robert Hess pointed out that Liren is not the type of player to run up a long string of victories. He’s the kind of player who picks up a win here and there and doesn’t lose. For him to drop a game out of the gate is not an encouraging sign.

I think that Giri-Nepomniachtchi was the game of the day. It looked as if Giri overlooked a pawn break by Nepo that won a pawn. Giri gave up a second pawn to loosen up Nepo’s pawn formation, and they got to this position.

Position after 1. Rh4. Black to move.

FEN: 2b1k2r/2q4p/5p2/4p3/2p1p2R/2Q3P1/P3BP2/5K2 b k – 0 1

Giri has just played 1. Rh4, attacking the pawn on e4, and Nepomniachtchi played the kind of move that separates masters from amateurs. Most of us would play 1. … f5, protecting the pawn and seemingly solidifying our pawn advantage. But White could immediately put those pawns under pressure with 2. g4, and if 2. … f4? 3. Rh5 the e5 pawn falls.

Instead of playing with his pawns, Nepomniachtchi thinks first and foremost about playing with his pieces. He played 1. … Be6! 2. Rxe4 O-O!, with the idea of sacrificing both the e4 pawn and the c4 pawn in order to activate his pieces and keep the initiative. After 3. Bxc4 comes the most remarkable move of the combination: 3. … Kg7! Black simply steps out of the pin on his bishop, preventing Bxe6+, and now the onus is squarely on White: how is he going to break the pin on his own bishop?

In fact there is no good answer. Giri played 4. Qb3 and Nepo played 4. … Rb8. What is White to do? If 5. Qa4 Rb1+ 6. Kg2 Bd7 7. Qc2 Qb7! is just a monster move, setting up a pin on the rook on e4 and also a battery of the queen and rook on the b-file. After 8. Bd3 (threatening the rook on b1) Rb2! everything comes together for Black and he wins at least the exchange. The way that the rook, bishop, and queen worked together in this combination is absolute chess poetry.

I have to give major credit to Robert Hess, the commenter for, who saw all of this before Nepomniachtchi played it: the idea of O-O followed by Kg7, the pin on the bishop on c4, the amazingly versatile Qb7 that is really the point of the whole combination.

Nepo definitely deserved to win the game for this combination, but the game wasn’t done! Giri realized that the best way to fight on was to give up his queen for rook and bishop: 5. Bxe6! Rxb3 6. Rg4+ Kf8 7. Bxb3 (Note that 7. Rg8+ doesn’t work because of 7. … Ke7 8. Rg7+ Kd6 9. Rxc7 Rb1+! followed by … Kxc7) 7. … Qc1+ 8. Kg2 (diagram)

Position after 8. Kg2. Black to move.

FEN: 5k2/7p/5p2/4p3/6R1/1B4P1/P4PK1/2q5 b – – 0 8

The position has now calmed down, and the question is: How is Black going to win?

It’s far from a routine win, and White has very good chances of creating a “fortress” position. Ideally he wants to get to a situation with R+P versus Q, where the one remaining pawn is either on f2 or on the g-file. (Note: If the remaining pawn is on f3, White loses! I wrote about this in a recent post, and I’m sure both players knew this.)

Black, of course, wants to push his kingside pawn majority — that’s the easy part — but at some point White is going to give up the bishop for one or two pawns. The hard part will be to prevent White from reaching a fortress position after the bishop sac.

I’ll skip through the next part and show you what the position looked like after the bishop sacrifice.

Position after move ??. White to play.

FEN: 8/4k3/8/6R1/4p2P/8/P4PK1/q7 w – – 0 1

Now, how does Black win? Again part of the solution is obvious. First job for Black is to win the a- and h-pawns without losing his own e-pawn. Although this is nontrivial (very nontrivial!) it seems likely that White cannot in the long run hold onto those two pawns.

Even if we give Black a blank check and just hand over those two pawns to him, what is to keep White from simply putting his rook on the third rank and playing Re3-g3-e3-g3 forever?

At this point, former World Champion Viswanathan Anand entered the studio, and within 30 seconds he explained Black’s winning plan to us. First, move the king to d4 (see next diagram). Can you see what comes next?

Position after move ??. Black to play.

FEN: 8/8/8/8/3kp3/4R3/5PK1/1q6 b – – 0 1

The winning idea here is a queen sacrifice: 1. … Qd3! No, this is not showing off, it’s the only way to get the job done. Of course, if White takes, Black queens his pawn: 2. Rxd3 ed 3. Kf1 Kc3! 4. Ke1 Kc2. And if White doesn’t take the bait, then Black uses his queen on d3 as a “bridge” to shepherd his king past the third rank and onto the second rank, the soft underbelly of White’s position. For example, 1. … Qd3 2. Rg3 Kc3! 3. Re3 (on other moves Black will simply continue moving his king to d2 and then e2) 3. … Qxe3 4. fe Kd3 5. Kf2 Kd2. White has to give up the e3 pawn, and Black wins the K+P vs. K endgame.

I was so impressed at how Anand knew this winning idea right away. On the GM level, I suppose it’s just elementary. Giri in fact resigned long before we got to this point. It was also interesting to see how Black uses the “bridge” concept to win the game. I like all of the medieval metaphors here: White is trying to build a “fortress,” and Black builds a bridge to get past the moat and into the fortress.

I was also really impressed with Nepomniachtchi’s play in the middle game and his “patient move” 3. … Kg7. How many of us would ever think of giving up two pawns and then playing a king move?

I also liked this quote from Robert Hess, when he was talking about that move: “Patience is a virtue, but sometimes the virtuous still lose.” 😎

The other two games today were both drawn: Caruana against Vachier-Lagrave and Grischuk against Alekseenko. In both cases I would consider these results to be a modest triumph for the newbies, who have now gotten their feet wet in the Candidates tournament and were able to score half a point against higher-rated opponents.

Although there is still a long, long way to go, Anand pointed out that perhaps Caruana was the happiest player after Wang and Nepomniachtchi. Before the tournament began, you could say that Caruana and Ding were co-favorites. After today’s games, Anand said, “I would say that now there is only one favorite.”


1-2. Wang, Nepomniachtchi 1-0.

3-6. Grischuk, Caruana, Vachier-Lagrave, Alekseenko 0.5-0.5.

7-8. Ding, Giri 0-1.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman Parparov March 17, 2020 at 12:52 pm

Not only Black had to win the a and h pawns without losing the e, but he had to keep the White king away from e2. With the king on e2 it’s a draw (Salvioli, 1896/97)


admin March 17, 2020 at 1:13 pm

This is a great comment. There were a couple of points in the endgame where Black could have captured the h4 pawn but didn’t. Robert Hess didn’t actually seem to know why, but I suspect that you have just given the answer — it would have allowed White’s king to get to e2.


Roman Parparov March 18, 2020 at 10:30 am

Interestingly, it’s probably harder to win the endgame against R+pawn on f3 than this one.


Mary Kuhner March 17, 2020 at 5:52 pm

I was watching this live and trying to win it against chess24’s computer, and I hadn’t a clue. It was amazing watching Nepo’s plan come together.


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