It’s All About Nepo Now (Candidates, Round 6)

by admin on March 23, 2020

It was a good news, bad news kind of day for Ian Nepomniachtchi and for chess fans everywhere. On one hand, he won his second straight game and put more distance between himself and his pursuers. He beat Ding Liren in a very solid Ruy Lopez where Ding’s position just spiraled downhill. This gives Nepo a very impressive full-point lead, with 4.5 points in 6 games, while Maxime Vachier-Lagrave at 3.5 points is the only other player with a positive score. His lead is 1.5 points over the presumably most dangerous competition, Fabiano Caruana and Alexander Grischuk. Both of them are at 3 points, and Grischuk has yet to win a game.

What could possibly go wrong for Nepomniachtchi? Well, at the press conference after the round he was coughing and he said that he didn’t feel well. If that doesn’t make everyone say “Uh-oh…” I don’t know what will. Of course, we all know that a cough doesn’t necessarily mean you have the coronavirus. But in the current situation, everybody’s thoughts go to the worst-case scenario.

We have already had one player withdraw, before the tournament, because of coronavirus concerns (Teimour Radjabov). Vladimir Kramnik, a former world champion, said that the tournament should not be held. I believe that Grischuk said the same thing, although he’s still playing. I think that the chorus will only get louder. And if Nepo actually has the coronavirus (something we might not know for a couple days) I don’t see any way that the tournament will continue. But not only that, it would be an incredible disaster because it would mean that 8 of the top players in the world had all been exposed.

There will surely be lots of second-guessing, no matter what happens. To me, something that has to be looked at is FIDE’s claim, before the tournament, that their hands were tied; that it was the organizing country that would decide whether the tournament proceeded, and FIDE had no legal authority to intervene. Oh, really? So FIDE had no authority to intervene when they suspended the first Karpov-Kasparov world championship match “out of concern for the health of the players”? Why was there no such concern this year?

It’s quite possible that today’s games were the last we will see in this tournament. Out of respect for the tournament leader (?) or winner (?), let’s take a look at an amazing position from his game today with Ding.

Position after 30. R1b1. Black to move.

FEN: rr4k1/3q1pp1/1P6/3p2b1/3p4/1Q1P2Pp/1R2NP1P/1R5K b – – 0 30

Here Black’s next two moves combined are a mistake. According to Fritz, either now or on the next move, Black has to find a deeply hidden plan: 30. … Qf5! 31. Nxd4? Qg4!

This is the kind of two-step that computers are very good at finding and humans (at least, the human writing this post) are very bad at. If … Qg4 is the move that Black wanted to play, why not do it in one move? The reason is that he wanted to sucker White into taking on d4 first. After that happens, the knight on d4 is exposed and it can’t move because Black would mate with … Qf3+. Fritz gives the following absolutely sick variation that you have to play through to believe. Both players sacrifice their queens and the position ends up in a drawn endgame:

30. … Qf5! 31. Nxd4? Qg4! 32. b7 Ra7 33. Qd5 (seemingly holding everything together, but watch out for those back-rank mates!) Bf6 34. Rb4 Bxd4 35. Rxd4 (This seemingly wins, but now things get seriously crazy.) 35. … Raxb7!! (Queen sac number one) 36. Rg1 Rb1!! (Queen sac number two) 37. Qd8+! (Queen sac number three) Rxd8 38. Rxg4 Rxg1+ 39. Kxg1 Rxd3 with a dead draw.

So after 30. … Qf5 31. Nxd4? is a mistake and White has to play 31. Ng1 instead. In that case White is still better but Black has a playable game, for example after 31. … Bf6 (with ideas of … g5 and … g4) 32. b7 Ra7 33. Qc2 Qd7. Note that 34. Qb3 would not be so good after 34. … Raxb7. Instead the computer finds 34. Nxh3! with tricky play. But on the whole, Black has to be happy with giving up the h-pawn to eliminate White’s b-pawn.

Okay, now let’s go all the way back to the initial position and see what happened.

30. … Bd8?!

This isn’t the losing move yet, but it’s clear that Ding has not seen the computer-like two-step of … Qf5 and … Qg4. There’s another little problem with this move that Ding might not have been sufficiently aware of: it leaves the square e8 open for White’s queen.

31. Qb5 Qg4?

This is Ding’s last chance for the two-step with 31. … Qf5, after which Fritz still thinks Black has a playable game. If 31. … Qxb5 32. Rxb5 Rb7 33. Ng1 Rab8 34. Rxd5 Black can’t take the b-pawn! White wins on both 34. … Bxb6 Rdb5 and 34. … Rxb6 35. Rxd8+!! (the Hook and Ladder Trick!).

32. Qxd5 Ra5!

Position after 32. … Ra5. White to move.

FEN: 1r1b2k1/5pp1/1P6/r7/2Qp2q1/3P2Pp/1R2NP1P/1R5K b – – 0 33

A desperado rook! White can’t take because of … Qf3+ followed by mate. Did Nepo miss this? No, he’s seen deeper than Ding did. Remember that e8 square?

33. Qc6 Rc5

The desperado strikes again. You have to admire Ding’s concept. If White had to settle for 34. Qe4 Qxe4 35. de d3, Black would be in business. Unfortunately for Black, there is a fatal flaw: White has another option, after which he is clearly winning.

34. Qe8+! Kh7 35. Ng1 …

This knight is an excellent defender, both of the f3 square and of the back rank.

35. … Rxb6

Ding tries a tactical solution, but it doesn’t work.

36. Qxd8 Rxb2 37. Rxb2 Rc1 38. Qh4+ Qxh4 39. gh …

White has the world’s most awful pawn structure, but the key is that he’s up a piece and that’s what matters.

39. … Rd1 40. f3! Black resigns

A cute final move, whose point I did not quite get at first. The point is that the instant Black captures on d3, White’s knight will capture on h3. The move f3 creates a before-the-fact interference so that the rook on d3 will not protect the pawn on h3.

A great example of Nepomniachtchi’s play so far this tournament: opportunistic and tactically right on point.

In today’s other games, Anish Giri finally won his first game ever in a Candidates Tournament, after 14 straight draws in 2016 and a loss and 4 draws this year. He squeezed out a 98-move victory against Kirill Alekseenko, winning a knight and pawn endgame that seemed as if it should have been a draw. Great tenacity and great patience by Giri! The other two games, Grischuk-Caruana and Wang-Vachier-Lagrave were both drawn. The standings after six rounds are as follows:

1-1. Ian Nepomniachtchi, 4.5-1.5.

2-2. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, 3.5-2.5.

3-6. Fabiano Caruana, Alexander Grischuk, Anish Giri, Wang Hao, 3-3.

7-8. Ding Liren, Kirill Alekseenko, 2-4.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

weng March 23, 2020 at 4:24 pm

It is reported on Chess24 that Nepo had had 2 tests done and both were -ve on the virus.

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