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Monday, 23 Mar 2020 21:03
Candidates 2020: In-form Nepomniachtchi stretches the lead

Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi increased his lead at the 2020 Candidates to a whole point after defeating China’s Ding Liren. The 29-year-old goes into the rest day with 4.5 points after the first six rounds (+3) and is now a very strong favorite to become the challenger to Magnus Carlsen for the title of the World Champion. Behind him, on 3.5/6 is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, followed by a pack of four players with three points each. Round 6 saw the longest game of the tournament so far: after an epic seven-hour battle and 98 moves, Anish Giri defeated the Russian wild-card Kirill Alekseenko in a tense and draining endgame.

It was a day of long and double-edged play in Round 6 of the 2020 chess Candidates in Yekaterinburg. 1.e2-e4 was played on three out of four boards with the Black responding with solid 1…e7-e5. As a result, two Ruy Lopez and one Italian appeared on the boards. Only China’s Wang Hao opened with 1.d2-d4 and tested his opponent in the Gruenfeld Defense.

The game between Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) and Ding Liren (China) was a battle between the tournament leader (Nepomniachtchi) and one of the favorites before the event (Ding Liren). Prior to this game, the two played each other nine times, winning one game each and drawing seven. The last decisive outcome between the two was last year, at the Zagreb Grand Chess Tour (Ding Liren won).

The leader of the tournament demonstrated an excellent opening preparation as White. The grandmasters commenting on the game pointed out that Ding Liren was repeating lines he previously had played, suggesting that he is open to a risk of walking into his opponents’ preparation.n. It seems that this is what happened in this game as Ding Liren spent considerably more time in the opening.

After exchanges in the center, White created a passer on the b-file and quickly advanced it towards the promotion-line. Ding Liren responded with engineering some counterplay on the kingside creating potential mating threats. It was a double-edged game, but it seemed that Nepomniachtchi had better control over the proceedings. The key moment came on move 33 – first Ian made a natural move 33. Qc6 (an in-between 33.f3 was much better) allowing Black escape with a brilliant 33…Rxb6!!, but the Chinese missed this golden opportunity. After the Russian mercilessly put his queen behind Black’s lines Ding Liren gave up a piece and put an end to his suffering on move 40.

After this game two things are clear: Ian Nepomniachtchi has positioned himself as a very strong favorite to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world chess crown, while the pre-event favorite, Ding Liren, seems to be giving up on his hopes as he is on the bottom of the scoreboard with 2/6.

Nepomniachtchi did not beat about the bush in the post-game interview: “In this tournament, only the result counts, nothing else”. With 4.5/6, he made his point clear.

The game between the Russian wild-card Kirill Alekseenko and Anish Giri (The Netherlands) was the longest of the day and the tournament so far. After more than seven hours of play and 98 moves, the Dutchman forced the Russian to resign.

Previously, the two met once, in 2008 – when both were kids – and it was Giri who came victorious.

Alekseenko opted for the Italian game where both sides usually develop slowly without many exchanges. Giri was showing more confidence and better preparation as he spent less time but obtained a quite comfortable even a slightly better position with Black. After several exchanges in the center, the game transpired to a queen and knight endgame where Black had a better pawn structure. White pressed on, understanding that if he wishes to stay in the game he cannot afford to be passive. Giri responded with careful, preventive moves but maybe proceeded too cautiously. Kirill broke through in the center and was very close to reaching complete equality but played unthinkable 38.Qd7 instead of a more than natural 38.Qxb7. 

Eventually Black managed to get hold of an extra pawn, but his 2:1 pawn majority on the queenside transformed into a 3:2 pawn advantage on the kingside in a knight endgame. Commentators noted that the position on the board was similar to a 2019 game where World Champion Magnus Carlsen managed to convert an extra pawn against Visvanathan Anand. Alekseenko was doing his best, carefully maneuvering his knight and king thwarting Black’s attempts for quite a long time but got cracked on move 89 after playing 89.Nd3? instead of 89.Nh1+. Ten moves down the road Alekseenko threw in the towel.   

After this victory, Anish Giri got back on 50% and joined the pack of three other players with 3/6. This defeat left Kirill Alekseenko on 2/6 – he is sharing the last place with Ding Liren.

Alexander Grischuk (Russia), the most experienced player of the event, was late for his game against Fabiano Caruana (USA). This has become something of a tradition in the Candidates as the Russian was late for every single game so far. Somehow, it seems that this goes hand in hand with his time troubles, which Grischuk is known for.

The game saw an aggressive, double-edged Archangelsk variation of the Ruy Lopez. While Caruana was blitzing out his moves (suggesting good opening preparation), Grischuk was somewhat struggling: on move 13 he spent nearly 15 minutes pondering on what to chose. Caruana offered a repetition early on but after a further half-hour of thinking, Grischuk decided to continue the battle. Eventually, the Russian sacrificed a pawn but got full compensation in a dynamic position. Then it was Caruana’s turn to make an offering as he left his knight up for grabs on a7. Grischuk thought another 13 minutes and refused the poisonous gift.

The position was tense and required a lot of precise and detailed calculations, which demanded time. This is exactly what Grishuk did not have as he was down to two and a half minutes for eight moves to reach the first time control. Grischuk managed to do it regaining a pawn along the way. He is used to these situations and had quite a few of them in this event. After further maneuvering in a knight and bishop equal endgame, the two agreed on a draw.

This was Grischuk’s sixth draw in a row and Caruana’s third. Both players are now on three out of six – 50%.

A very eventful game was played between China’s Wang Hao and France’s last-minute entry Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Wang Hao opened aggressively, pushing his h-pawn towards Black’s castle. Although Maxime is known as a great expert in the Gruenfeld Defense, in this game, it was the Frenchman who had to spend more time calculating and finding his way. After the h-file was opened the opponents traded both pairs of rooks but the Chinese player kept better control over the center. After the exchange of queens, the game transpired into a knight and bishop endgame. Having a more active position and a centralized king, White managed to win a pawn. Black, however, pulled his king into the center, arranged his pawns on dark squares and build a fortress which White was besieging for awhile but failed to break in. The two agreed to share a point on move 83.

This was a fourth game played between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Wang Hao. Before this tournament, the two met three times: they drew twice but the Frenchman defeated Wang Hao in 2004, at the Under-14 World Championship.

In the post mortem, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave said that he was “lucky to make a draw” adding that this is not a game to be proud of.

Interestingly, in the post-mortem interview, when asked if they could go back into the past and change something, Wang Hao said that one thing he might change was not taking up chess at all! Although this was met with laughter, this is not the first such comment made by the 30-year-old Chinese player who is still considering picking up another profession over chess.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is on 3.5/6 and is still in the race to reach the top. Wang Hao is on 50% with three other players.

Standings after Round 6:

1. Ian Nepomniachtchi – 4½
2. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – 3½
3-6. Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, Wang Hao and Alexander Grischuk – 3
7-8. Ding Liren and Kirill Alekseenko – 2

March 24 is a rest day at the 2020 Candidates Tournament. Round Seven is played on March 25 at 4 PM local time. The pairings for the seventh round are:

Fabiano Caruana (USA) – Wang Hao (China)

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) – Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia)

Ding Liren (China) – Kirill Alekseenko (Russia)

Anish Giri (The Netherlands) – Alexander Grischuk (Russia)

Official website: https://en.candidates-2020.com

FIDE website: www.fide.com

Chess Federation of the Sverdlovsk Region: www.ural-chess.com

Press inquiries: press@fide.com

Text: Milan Dinic

Photo: Maria Emelianova and Lennart Ootes

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