For many, John Sturges’ 1963 epic movie The Great Escape – which propelled ‘Cooler King’ hero Steve McQueen to stardom – sums up the bravery of the allied forces during the second world war. It’s one of my personal favorites; a comfort movie with Elmer Bernstein’s enduring theme music always a soothing, somewhat nostalgic reminder of Christmas television past. You can indulge me then when I tell you that I found myself humming the tune to a great escape also taking place in another ‘cooler’, with this one being at the iconic Kühlhaus building staging the FIDE Berlin Candidates in the German capital.
In round nine, the US tournament leader, Fabiano Caruana, turned in a masterful position squeeze as he outplayed China’s Ding Liren, and looked set for a sure-fire win that would have extended his lead at the top. But Ding put up a very tenacious defense of a very difficult position by staging several escapes that frustrated his opponent. But at the decisive moment, when he finally had Ding on the ropes, an oversight allowed one final escape for his opponent that saw the game fizzling out to a draw after nearly seven hours of play.
It was something of a personal tragedy for Caruana, who missed the critical move at the critical moment, as the win would have given him the comfort of a full point lead at top over nearest rival Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan – and that expanded lead would have gone a long way to making him the favourite to go forward to challenge World Champion Magnus Carlsen in a title match in London in November.
But just as remarkable as Ding’s great escape was yet another loss for ex-World champion Vladimir Kramnik, who sensationally crashed to fellow Russian Sergey Karjakin in the only decisive game of the round. After getting off to positive +2 start and on the verge of +3 with talk of another possible London title match, the wildcard has since lost four games and now finds himself tied with Armenia’s Levon Aronian and US champion Wesley So at the foot of the table – and that means that the world’s #3, 4 and 5, are tied for last on 3.5/9.
1. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 6/9; 2. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 5.5; 3. Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 5; 4-5. Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Ding Liren (China) 4.5; 6-8. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia), Wesley So (USA), Levon Aronian 3.5.
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Ding Liren
FIDE Berlin Candidates, (9)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 Bb4+ 4.Bd2 Be7 Chess at the elite level can sometimes be all about nuances. This retreat, with the loss of tempo may surprise many novices, but by enticing White’s bishop to d2, the bishop is now miss-placed and a little awkward here, so there’s no real damage done. 5.Bg2 d5 6.Nf3 0-0 7.0-0 c6 8.Qb3 Another way of playing this was going into a ‘pure Catalan’ with 8.Qc2 Nbd7 9.Rd1 Ne4 10.Bf4, but Caruana suffered a recent bad experience with this line against Hikaru Nakamura in their Chess.com Speed Chess encounter from late last year, with Nakamura playing the dynamic 10…g5!? and going on to win a sparkling game. 8…b6 9.Nc3 Ba6 10.cxd5 cxd5 11.Ne5 Bb7 12.Rfc1 Nc6 13.Nxd5 Nxd4 14.Nxe7+ Qxe7 15.Qc4 Bxg2 16.Qxd4 Rfd8 17.Qf4 Bb7 18.Bb4 Qe8 19.Rc7 Caruana has ‘won’ the opening – but there’s a difference between winning the opening and winning the game, particularly when you are facing “The Great Wall of China”, with Ding Liren being a very, very resourceful defender. 19…Nd5 20.Qxf7+ Qxf7 21.Rxf7 Ba6 22.Ba3 Bxe2 23.Rc1 This a dream position for Caruana – and you would normally expect him to convert this position into a win. But the reality is that his advantage is only a positional rather than a material one, and Ding Liren finds all the right moves to make life awkward for Caruana. 23…Bh5 24.Rb7 Be8 25.Kg2 a5 26.h4 Rdb8 This is the best way to defend, as exchanging pieces relieves the pressure on his position of all those active Caruana pieces – and certainly, an exchange of another set of rooks would go a long way to Ding being able to hold this position. 27.Rxb8 Rxb8 28.g4 b5 A stronger option (here or the next move) was 28…h5! and either three options of 29.f3 29.gxh5 or 29.g5 is answered now by 29…b5! and Black has contained White’s hand on the kingside. 29.b3 b4 Ding goes for liquidating off the queenside pawns first – but he under-estimated just how unpleasant this becomes for him, as he’d missed his best hope (as noted above) of counterplay with 29…h5! to hold back White’s kingside pawns first. 30.Bb2 a4 31.h5! Ra8 32.Kg3 Kf8 33.Nf3 Bd7 34.Rc4 Kg8 35.Ne5 Bb5 36.Rc5 Be8 37.Nc4 Bd7 38.Ne5 Making it difficult for Ding to go for White’s queenside pawns, as his rook is needed to protect his own back-rank from mating threats or the loss of a piece. 38…Be8 39.Bd4 Kf8 40.f3 Ke7 41.Kh4! When you have the better pieces and the space in the endgame, sometimes it’s best not to force things and simply look at ways to improve your king. 41…Kf8 42.Kg5 The king walk provokes Ding into weakening his kingside pawns – but what comes is better than allowing White to simply play 43.h6 forcing the even weaker 42…g6. 42…h6+ 43.Kh4 Kg8 44.Kg3 Kh7 Caruana thought all he’d achieved was to force Ding’s king to a better outpost – but a closer looks sees that Black’s king is not so secure here with threats to g7 and also possibilities of Ng6 and mating threats. 45.Nd3 Kg8 46.Rc1 axb3 47.axb3 Kh7 48.Nc5 Bf7 49.Re1 Ne7! Ever resourceful, Ding finds a cunning way to defend this difficult position. 50.Bb2 The point behind Ding’s resourceful 49…Ne7! can be seen in the line 50.Nxe6 Nc6! 51.Bc5 Re8 52.Nf8+ Kg8 and a draw, as after the forced exchange of the rooks, White can’t defend his b3-pawn. 50…Nc6 The position is still fraught with difficulties for Ding – but at least he’s made progress by successfully untangling his pieces. 51.f4 Ra2 52.Nd3 e5! The pawn exchange should be more than enough for Ding to escape with a draw – but he soon lets his position drift again. 53.fxe5 Bxb3 Also a possibility was 53…Nd8 attempting to stop the e-pawn running, as White’s b-pawn can’t be protected – but after 54.Re4 Bxb3 55.Rxb4 Bf7 56.Rb8 I would be more than a tad worried about how active White’s pieces have now become. 54.e6 Ra7? Amazingly, Caruana spotted the very brave defence for Black with 54…Bc4! 55.e7 Nxe7 56.Rxe7 Bxd3 57.Rxg7+ Kh8 58.Bd4 b3!! and remarkably now there’s no damaging discovered check with the b-pawn running, forcing 59.Rb7+ Kg8 60.Rxb3 Be2 and a draw, as White’s pawns are very difficult to defend. 55.Nc5 Bc4 56.Nd7 Bb5 57.Nf8+ Kg8 58.Ng6 The forced pawn weakness of 42…h6+ now comes back to haunt Ding, as his king is coming under serious mating threats now. 58…Ne7? Perhaps understandable with the mating threats, but this just loses now. Ding had to find 58…Bd3 or 58…Ra8 which both enough to hold. 59.Ra1! Ding had totally missed this resource, as now 59…Rxa1 60.Nxe7+ and Black can resign – and with it, Caruana should just be winning now. 59…Nc6 60.Rd1 The back-rank threats are becoming a major headache for Ding. 60…Kh7 Many may well have succumbed to the relentless pressure here from Caruana, but Ding attempts to hang on as long as he can, with this tenacious move the only way to stop the immediate threat of Rd1-d5-f5-f8 winning. 61.Rd5 Ba4 62.Kf4 Bc2 63.Rc5 Ba4 64.g5 hxg5+ 65.Rxg5 Nd8 [see diagram] 66.Re5? Ding’s tenacity has paid off, as now Caruana errs. It’s easy to be critical here of Caruana, but the reality is that, after approaching nearly 7 hours of play, and with less than two minutes on his clock (plus 30 second increment), fatigue does set in, and sometimes you can’t find a solution to a problem that comes out of the realms of a Sam Loyd Puzzle Book with 66.Nf8+! Kg8 (Even more stunning was the win after 66…Kh6? Now, Black is simply threatening …Re7 to successfully corral the e-pawn – but there is an amazing study-like solution with the finish of 67.Kg4!! and a forced mate! The point being that now, if Black defends the possibility of the Rg6 mate, it comes anyway! 67…Bd1+ 68.Kh4 Bc2 69.Rg6+!! Bxg6 70.Bc1#) 67.h6 Kxf8 68.h7! This simple solution of passing the h-pawn is what Caruana had missed. “It’s kind of silly because I was looking at this,” said Caruana. “Somehow 68. h7 completely slipped my attention. Once you see it, it’s pretty obvious; it’s a pretty simple tactic if I had a few minutes. So I should have found it.” Now, if 68…Nxe6+ 69.Kg3 Nxg5 70.h8Q+ Ke7 71.Qh4! Ra5 72.Qxb4+ the rook is lost, and with it, also the game! 66…Be8 67.e7 ½-½ The game now fizzles out to a draw, as after 67…Nc6! there’s now a sting in the tail to the h7 trick after 68.Nf8+ Kg8 69.Rg5 Nxe7! 70.h6 Nd5+! 71.Rxd5 (If 71.Kg3 Nc3=) 71…Kxf8 72.h7 g5+! and the h7-pawn falls.