Caruana Comes a Cropper (Candidates, Day 3)

by admin on March 19, 2020

The Candidates Tournament hit the “reset” button today as a result of Fabiano Caruana’s unexpected loss to Ding Liren. Caruana, at 1.5 points in 2 rounds, was tied for first; Ding, with 0 points in 2 rounds, was alone in last place. But all of that changed over the course of three dramatic hours.

The game started just as Caruana hoped it would. He played a novelty on move 9, and blitzed out his first 17 moves, clearly relying on home preparation. The novelty was a bold sacrifice of not one but two pawns, after which White (Ding) had extremely uncoordinated pieces but no obvious weaknesses for Black (Caruana) to attack.

Position after 9. Kf2. Black to move.

FEN: rn1q1rk1/pp3ppp/2p1pn2/5b2/PbNP4/2N2P2/1P2PKPP/R1BQ1B1R b – – 0 9

This is one of those crazy positions that looks as if the players are amateurs rather than grandmasters. But it’s all opening theory; it comes from a Slav defense after 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 dc 5. a4 Bf5 6. Nf5 e6 7. f3 Bb4 8. Nxc4 O-O 9. Kf2. White has left his bishops undeveloped, moved his king knight three times, and lost the castling privilege, all because he wants to get the e4-d4 center duo. Can he really get away with such a wanton violation of opening principles?

Caruana comes up with a really radical solution: 9. … e5!?, offering a pawn in two different ways. Although I don’t think anything is really wrong with 10. de, Ding on principle plays 10. Nxe5. It creates fewer weaknesses. The game continues 10. … Bc2, a cute move that gets the bishop out of the way of the soon-to-advance e-pawn. Of course, 11. Qxc2? would lose back the pawn to 11. … Qxd4+, so Ding plays 11. Qd2. Caruana follows up with 11. … c5 12. d5 Bb3 13. e4. Finally White achieves his goal! His development may be a little bit slow, but where is there a weakness that Black can attack?

The answer, Caruana says, is the knight on e4. 13. … Re8 14. Qf4 c4!? Caruana gives up another pawn but threatens … Bd6. White has no choice but to accept: 15. Nxc4 Nbd7 16. Be3. Slowly but surely, White’s pieces are coming out. Where is Black’s attack?

16. … Nf8 17. Bd4 Ng6

Here my computer disagrees with Caruana’s choice and thinks that 17. … Rc8 would have been better. But Caruana is still in his preparation, so I have to assume that he had a reason for preferring this move.

18. Qf5?! …

This is the first move that Ding has played since move 9 that the computer thinks is not the best. 18. Qc1! looks passive but has a nasty point: White threatens 19. Nd2 trapping the bishop. Black’s light-squared bishop, it turns out, has gone from the frying pan into the fire.

18. … Bxc4 19. Bxc4 Qc7 20. Be2 Bc5 21. Bxc5 Qxc5+ 22. Kf1 …

Position after 22. Kf1. Black to move.

FEN: r3r1k1/pp3ppp/5nn1/3P1Q2/Pq2P3/2N2P2/1P2B1PP/R4K1R w – – 0 23

Thirteen moves after Caruana’s novelty, the position is still not settled. Black has not yet managed to create an attackable weakness, but White has still not managed to organize his pieces. This move is perhaps the turning point of the game. Caruana continues to play as if he has all the time in the world. But the computer says that this is his last chance to make some real inroads. 22. … Re5 is an obvious starting point, chasing the queen to h3. Then Black can continue with … Qb4, … Nf4, … Nfh5, and finally … f5. Maybe he has compensation for the two pawns, maybe not.

Instead Caruana chooses a move that puts no pressure on White. And that gives White, in essence, a free move to start organizing his pieces. After 22. … h6? 23. Rd1 Qb6 24. Rd2 Qe3 25. Rc2, White’s position has perceptibly improved. All of his pieces are defending each other, and Black still has no targets to attack. Caruana does find a clever way to win back his pawn, but it costs him several tempi, and White finally completes the agonizingly slow coordination of his pieces. 25. … a6 26. Qh3! b5 27. Qg3 b4 28. Nd1 Qb3 29. Rd2 Qxa4 30. Qf2. I think that we can finally say the smoke has cleared, and White is in complete control. Caruana fought on, but never really seemed to have a chance of holding the position.

What an impressive two-pawn sacrifice by Black! White had to play accurately for 20 moves, except for one slight misstep on move 18. On the other hand, what a fine defense by White! He played with unbelievable patience and kept everything defended, except for the a4 pawn in the end. That is perhaps the biggest problem with Caruana’s concept. Even though his pieces were active and White’s pieces were uncoordinated, there just weren’t enough weaknesses for him to attack. So, all in all, I don’t think that Caruana’s 9th move will have many followers.

The other three games today were all drawn. After three rounds, the standings are once again very closely bunched.

1-3. Vachier-Lagrave, Nepomniachtchi, Wang, 2-1.

4-5. Grischuk, Caruana, 1.5-1.5.

6-8. Giri, Ding, Alekseenko, 1-2.

The three leaders are definitely not the ones anyone would have picked before the tournament. As for Ding, he has definitely resurrected his chances. Nobody yet is out of the running. On Friday the players have a rest day, and Round 4 will be held on Saturday.

Finally, I apologize if my comments on Ding-Caruana were pretty heavily based on computer analysis. The depth and sophistication of the play is just too high for me to feel confident of my own analysis, especially in a limited time frame.

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