It’s a somewhat puzzling decision with one qualification event still active and yet to be decided, but Agon, in their infinite wisdom, announced earlier this week that the organizer’s wildcard spot for the 2018 Candidates Tournament, to be held next March in Berlin, Germany – and which ultimately will determine Magnus Carlsen’s next title-challenger – will go to Vladimir Kramnik, the former world champion and current Russian #1.
Recently, Kramnik, 42, lost out in a close three-horse race with the American top duo of Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So for the two rating qualifying spots that will be officially decided on 1 December. But following a double disaster at the World Cup and then the Isle of Man Masters in recent months, the Russian’s chances were quickly dashed, and Caruana and So now have an unassailable lead in the year-long race for the two spots.
But Agon, which has the financial rights to the world championship and the qualifying cycle, is owned by a Russian, and also with having additional Russian sponsorship for the Candidates, it was long touted that the wildcard spot would most likely go to Kramnik – but it would have been diplomatic and far more appropriate on a professional level to have at least waited until after the final Fide Grand Prix event later this month in Las Palmas before making the announcement.
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Alexander Grischuk lead in the overall standings, but they’ve already played their full complement of Grand Prix events. They could be overtaken by Teimour Radjabov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, so there’s still a very much competitive four-horse race still to be decided there – and Kramnik’s early pick ahead of the known official qualifiers will come as a blatant snub for the two that now don’t make the cut.
Going down the home straight of his year-long rating battle with Caruana and So, Kramnik also kept his options open until the last moment of whether or not to play for Russia in the European Team Championship that’s currently ongoing in Hersonissos, Greece – but when he announced after the Isle of Man that he wouldn’t be leading the Russian team, speculation mounted that he was set to be offered the wildcard spot.
And the Russian team currently could be doing with the services of Kramnik in Greece, as the perennial top seeds came unstuck and had a shock 2.5-1.5 loss to Hungary in round four of the competition, and could well be set to return home to Moscow from yet another major team event without the gold medal.
(Photo) Agon announce Vladimir Kramnik as the Candidates wildcard.
GM Viktor Erdos – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
21st European Team Ch., (4)
1.Nf3 c5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e3 Nxc3 6.dxc3 These days, everyone has a favourite Anti-Grünfeld system – and this fashionable one is a particular favourite of Erdos. And it is also one with an exchange of queens and early endgame-scenario that is strategically similar to the success Ulf Andersson had in the Anti-Grünfeld in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 6…Qxd1+ 7.Kxd1 b6 During the “chess summer” in St. Louis, I well remember the tension as Maxime Vachier-Lagrave instead opted for 7…Bf5 8.Nd2 Nc6 9.e4 Bg6 10.Bb5 Rc8 11.h4 h5 12.Re1 e6 13.a4 Be7 14.g3 0-0 against Magnus Carlsen in what proved to be a dramatic tussle, as the world champion went on to completely outplay his opponent, only to blunder at the decisive moment that allowed the Frenchman to emerge victorious in a game that ultimately decided the outcome of the Sinquefield Cup. 8.Bb5+N A novelty, as Erdos attempts a subtle improvement over another game of his opponent. Previously, 8.e4 Bb7 9.Bb5+ Bc6 10.a4 a6 11.Bxc6+ Nxc6 12.Kc2 e6 13.Rd1 with White being slightly better, as was seen in Wang,Y-Nepomniachtchi,I Moscow 2016. But the position Erdos is looking for is not that far removed from the aforementioned game – he’s just looking for a slightly better way of reaching a roughly similar position. 8…Bd7 9.a4 a6 10.Bxd7+ Nxd7 The difference is that Black’s knight is on d7 rather than more centrally in control on c6. It may not look like much, but it all helps, as the higher-rated Russian team are the ones who have to generate something in order to win the match. 11.e4 e6 12.Bf4 f6 13.Nd2 Be7 14.Nc4 Kf7 15.Kc2 e5 A tough move to make, as it cedes control of the d5-square – but Nepo had to feel it was needed to prevent White from playing Bd6 (or Nd6) and exchanging down to a favourable endgame. 16.Rhd1! Erdos can be happy with his position here – against the higher-rated player, he really has a no-sum risk of losing this position, and, if anything, his little spacial advantage with a4 and e4 gives him hope of a perhaps more than a draw if Black tries to overreach trying to create something that might not be there if he’s looking for a team victory. 16…Ke6 17.Be3 Rhb8 18.f4! Most players would have been happy just maintaining the status quo against a stronger player – but Erdos seizes his moment with a bold choice that takes control of the b8-h2 diagonal and brings back the possibility of a piece occupying the d6 square and exchanging down to a favourable ending. 18…exf4 Nepo couldn’t simply allow White to play f5+ winning a piece – and for this reason, he also can’t maintain the tension with 18…g6? as again 19.f5+ wins the errant knight on d7. 19.Bxf4 Rb7 20.Rd5 It’s amazing how, with just the smallest of advantages, it takes only a couple of minor errors from Nepo for Erdos to now get a dominating position, as his pieces threaten to invade deep into the Black position. 20…Raa7 21.Nd6 There were many ways to go here, the other two main alternatives of 21.a5 or 21.Rad1 being just as good – but eventually, the same scenario will play out with a White piece invading d6. 21…Bxd6 22.Rxd6+ Ke7 23.Rc6 Ra8? The creeping pressure takes its toll now on Nepo. The Russian simply had to try blockading the queenside with 23…a5 24.Rd1 Ra8 and look to hold this position. 24.a5! It’s too late now, as with this simple push, Erdos severely weakens Black’s a- and c-pawns – and if either fall, Black is fighting for his very survival. 24…Kf7 What else is there? If 24…b5? 25.Bd6+ Kf7 26.Bxc5 Ne5 27.Rb6 Rba7 28.Bd4 Black is in grave danger of going under very rapidly here. Rather than that, Nepo accepts the weakening split of pawns and hopes that somehow he can activate his cramped pieces to try to fight for the draw. 25.axb6 Rxb6 26.Rc7 Ke8 27.Rd1 Rd8 28.Rd6 The safest option, as Erdos exchanges off more pieces and wins a pawn – but the pawn win is not the only advantage White has here, as he’s also emerging with a very active rook. 28…g5 29.Bg3 Rxd6 30.Bxd6 h5 It doesn’t matter whether you are a top GM or simply a club player here, as the principle applies at all levels – a pawn down and heading to the ending, your best hope of trying to save the game is finding a way to liquidate the position down to a rook and pawn ending. This is one of the most difficult endings to win when you are a pawn up, because, if your opponent can somehow get his rook active, then the pawn advantage may not count for much. But fortunately for Erdos, not only does he have the extra pawn, he also has the more active rook! 31.Bxc5 Nxc5 32.Rxc5 Kf7 33.Rd5 Re8 34.Kd3 Erdos’ rook on d5 stops Black’s king from coming across to the queenside – his winning plan now will be to push his queenside pawns up the board and supported by his king. 34…h4 35.b4 h3 A good try in a desperate position – Nepo is hoping for 36.gxh3 when then …Rh8xh3xh2 offers some drawing chances. But Erdos is having none of this. 36.g3 Rb8 37.Kd4 Ke6 38.Ra5 Rb6 39.Rc5 White has to be careful still, as 39.Kc5 Rd6! threatens …Rd2 hitting h2 and making Black’s h-pawn a potential game-saver. So now 40.Ra2 Ke5 41.c4 and although White is still winning, Black has slim hopes of some saving chances. 39…Rd6+ 40.Rd5 Rb6 41.g4 With Black’s rook doomed to playing a passive role shoring up the queenside defences, Erdos doesn’t need to rush anything, so just simply makes the necessary moves for a switch to a hit on the kingside. 41…Kf7 42.e5! [see diagram] The final nail in Nepo’s coffin. With his rook reduced to defending the queenside, Erdos uses this as a decoy to switch his focus to Black’s weak and now vulnerable kingside pawns. 42…Ke7 43.Ke4 Rc6 44.Kf5 fxe5 45.Rxe5+ Kf7 46.Re3 a5 There’s nothing else now. If 46…Rf6+ 47.Kxg5 simply wins all the kingside pawns. 47.Rxh3 Kg7 48.bxa5 Rc5+ 49.Ke6 Rxa5 50.c4 Ra6+ 51.Kd5 Kf7 52.Re3! Again the rook cuts the king from crossing the board, and White will soon be able to push home his c-pawn with the support of the king. 52…Ra4 53.h3 1-0 Nepo resigns as all of White’s pawns are now protected, and he can’t stop his opponent pushing home the c-pawn.