Halfway through the 2020 Candidates, there has been a change at the top as France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave defeated the leader after Round 6 Ian Nepomniachtchi in a duel for first place. Both players are now tied for the lead with 4.5 each. A group of four players is a full point behind them. The race is now wide open again as at least six players have a chance for first place.
The game between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) and Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) was a centerpiece of the day. The Russian started Round 7 with a whole point ahead of his closest rival and was hoping to keep his leading position.
Before this round, the two met 13 times and the score is clearly in favor of the Frenchman: seven draws, one loss and five victories. However, Nepomniachtchi won their last game before the Candidates (Jerusalem 2019) in which the place in the Candidates 2020 was at stake.
The position was sharp from the very opening, with Nepomniachtchi opting for the French Defence for the second time in this event. Commenting on the game, British Grandmaster Daniel King pointed out that the line, which Black chose to play, was very sharp, suggesting it was a very brave but risky decision of Nepomniachtchi. It seemed it was more the latter than the former as the Russian gradually got into time trouble under White’s pressure. First, the Frenchman started active operations on the queenside, since Black’s rook got stuck at the opposite flank, then he foiled Ian’s attempts to block the position and finally launched an attack in the center and the kingside. Black’s defense collapsed and Ian signed his capitulation just two moves after reaching the time control.
Nepomniachtchi now might be regretting his opening choice of a very sharp line. Luck favors the brave, but not always.
After the game, Vachier-Lagrave said that he was satisfied with how the tournament was going for him. “Apart from the game with Wang Hao, I played reasonably well [at the tournament]. I hope to continue this trend and to be able to stay on this journey”, the Frenchman said.
After this victory, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave joined Nepomniachtchi at the top of the standings as both players now have 4.5 points out of seven games. Despite the two having the same amount of points, Vachier-Lagrave has better tiebreaks thanks to winning their direct encounter.
Both Fabiano Caruana (USA) and Wang Hao (China) were on 50% before this round. Caruana, the winner of the 2018 Candidates had to pick up speed if he wanted to be in the race for the first place. However, he was facing Wang Hao, a dangerous and uneasy opponent who already had a good record against the World #2 – five victories, four draws, and no defeats. Still, the majority of the games were played seven or more years ago. Since 2013, the two faced each other just once, in the Isle of Man Grand Swiss in October 2019 (the game was drawn).
After Caruana opened with 1.e2-e4 Wang Hao responded with his trusted Petrov Defence. The opponents castled on the opposite sides, presumably signaling a sharp game ahead, but on move 13 the queens left the board. Fabiano launched his g-pawn towards the Black king’s fortress, but this aggression was met with a classical counterattack in the center. The position quickly transpired into an endgame (as Caruana said in the post-game interview, he could not remember all the lines so opted to simplify). Black was slightly better but not enough to convert this tiny advantage into more than a half-point. The two agreed on a draw on move 41.
With 3.5 points out of seven games, both players are still in the race for the top spot and hoping to kick into high gear in the second part of the tournament.
Alexander Grischuk (Russia) continues to be the king of draws at the 2020 Candidates. The Russian split a point in all his games, including the Round 7 encounter with Anish Giri (The Netherlands).
The two have played 14 times before this game with Giri leading by 2:1 (plus 11 draws).
The game saw a relatively rare line of the English Opening bearing the name of Paul Keres. As in all previous games, Grischuk spent a lot of time in the opening but for a good reason, as he obtained quite a comfortable position. Like in Caruana – Wang Hao game the opponents castled on opposite sides, but after White’s breakthrough in the center and massive exchanges on d5-square, the game steered into an equal endgame in which the conflict was quickly exhausted. The opponents shook hands in a drawing endgame right after reaching the time control.
In the post mortem, Giri said that Grischuk played well and managed to find the most sophisticated moves in the opening, holding the position. The Dutchman confessed to an unusual conflict of interest in this game, saying that although he “obviously wanted to win” he also wanted a series of draws by his opponent to continue. Both players have chances to fight for the first place as they are just one point behind the leaders (on 3.5 points after seven games).
Ding Liren (China) drew as White with Kirill Alekseenko (Russia). Both players were on two points after six rounds and were at the bottom of the board before Round Seven.
This was a duel between the Chinese pre-start favorite and the Russian wild-card. The two played twice before and both games ended in a draw.
A popular Russian comedian Andrey Rozhkov, Yekaterinburg’s native, made the first ceremonial move in the game and seemingly raised players' spirits. Black quickly managed to equalize in the Catalan Opening and got a flexible position. Ding Liren was not at his best in the middle game as at some point Alekseenko’s ambitions might have gone farther than just making a draw with Black. However, the Chinese never crossed the line in this game and the opponents sealed a draw by repetition in a rook ending.
Both players were not enthusiastic about the outcome in the post-game analysis. Ding Liren said that it was not a good day for him, that he missed moves and was playing risky, adding that he hoped the tournament would end soon. Alekseenko said that he thought his position was solid but he couldn’t find a way to make progress.
This draw leaves both players on the bottom of the board, with 2.5 points after seven rounds.
The 2020 Candidates tournament is in full swing now. After seven rounds out of 14 played, all the participants have faced each other once and had a chance to make their mark. Six players are in the race for the first place, which suggests a tense and close contest in the days to come.
Standings after Round 7:
1-2. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi – 4½
3-6. Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, Wang Hao, and Alexander Grischuk – 3½
7-8. Ding Liren and Kirill Alekseenko – 2½
Round 8 of the 2020 Candidates Tournament starts at 4 PM local time on March 26. The pairings for Round 8 are:
Fabiano Caruana (USA) – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France)
Wang Hao (China) - Ding Liren (China)
Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) - Anish Giri (The Netherlands)
Kirill Alekseenko (Russia) - Alexander Grischuk (Russia)
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Text: Milan Dinic
Photo: Maria Emelianova and Lennart Ootes
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