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John Henderson
By John Henderson

The Chess.com/FIDE Grand Swiss on the Isle of Man ended with the forgotten man of Chinese chess, Wang Hao, scooping all the major prizes after being gifted an unexpected free point in the final round by Englishman David Howell; a crucial result that not only allowed him to edge out Fabiano Caruana for the top prize, but also sees him back with a bang on the world stage as he now qualifies for the 2020 Candidates’ Tournament.

Caruana had the overnight lead, but in his all-American top board clash with Hikaru Nakamura, the game ended in a draw for the US #1 to be the clubhouse leader. Many commentators thought that would have been enough for Caruana to take the title – but in a remarkable and very surprising turn of events on board 4, from what should have been an easy drawing position, Howell blundered to all but hand Wang Hao the full point and a double victory.

That result made all the difference because, with Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian also drawing, Wang Hao finished tied at the top with Caruana on 8/11. Both played the best chess throughout and deserved to share the spoils, but there has to be one winner, Wang Hao took the title and the top cash prizes of $70,000 as he edged Caruana (who takes home $60,000 as a consolation prize) out on tiebreak – and with it, Wang Hao also now has an unexpected bonus with a place in next year’s Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

Half the field for the eight-player Candidates’ that will determine Magnus Carlsen’s next title-challenger is now known: Fabiano Caruana, Teimour Radjabov, Ding Liren and now Wang Hao; and shortly, Anish Giri will is set to be announced as the rating qualifier, with the Dutchman having an unassailable lead over nearest rival Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. This leaves only three spots still to fill: two from the FIDE Grand Prix (current leaders: Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Alexander Grischuk) and the organiser’s wildcard.

Becoming a candidate late in life has to be an unlikely dream come true for Wang Hao, who has just won the biggest prize of his career despite having suffered professionally since falling out of favour in 2014 with the Chinese Chess Federation and dropped from their Olympiad squad. Since then, the 30-year-old from Harbin, Heilongjiang, has, chess-wise, almost become persona non grata in his homeland with no invitations and no financial support, and has been filling his time as a chess trainer – but now he has to find his own trainer!

Wang Hao now joins what will be his well-prepared and financed countryman Ding Liren next March in the candidates.  But during his winner’s interview, he hinted he was unsure whether he will receive any support or backing from Beijing. “Now I need to go back home, sit down and think how to continue. I don’t have a team working with me. I am hoping to create a small team—three to four people—who will be able to help me. I am, however, not sure if I’ll be able to do so.”

Final standings:
1. Wang Hao (China) 8/11; 2. F. Caruana (USA) 8; 3-8. K. Alekseenko (Russia), L. Aronian (Armenia), D. Anton Guijarro (Spain), M. Carlsen (Norway), H. Nakamura (USA), N. Vitiugov (Russia) 7.5; 9-13. A. Grischuk (Russia), D. Paravyan (Russia), D. Howell (England), S. Vidit (India), Le Quang Liem (Vietnam) 7.

Photo: Wang Hao receives his winner’s trophy from Isle of Man chief minister Howard Quayle | © Maria Emelianova / Chess.com

GM Wang Hao – GM David Howell
Chess.com/FIDE Grand Swiss, (11)
Grünfeld Defence, Fianchetto variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 d5 I’ve watched David Howell from the start of his career as a young kid, and for as long as I’ve known him he has always played the Grünfeld Defence. The position he soon gets should almost be like home for him – but for some reason, inexplicably he makes a big blunder just at the moment players generally agree to share the point. 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Nf3 Nb6 7.0-0 Nc6 8.e3 e5 9.Nc3 exd4 10.Nxd4 Nxd4 11.exd4 c6 12.d5 The best move for White – if Black gets in …Be6 and …0-0 safely, then the d5 square is well blockaded and White will have a long-term worry over his isolated d-pawn. 12…cxd5 13.Nxd5 0-0 14.Be3 I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen similar Grünfeld sequences – hell, I’ve even played them a few times myself in the past! – with multiple trades coming, and the game usually petering out to an easy draw. 14…Be6 15.Nxb6 axb6 16.Bxb7 Rxa2 17.Rxa2 Bxa2 18.Qa4 Bd5? It’s hard to work out what exactly was going through Howell’s mind here: was it nerves? tiredness? or did he see some sort of ghost? Any and all of the above could account for why Howell played this absolute howler.  Correct was 18…Be6! 19.Qb4 Qf6 20.Qxb6 (If you want to give Black the better side of the “easy draw”, then you can play 20.b3 Rb8 21.Bg2 Qc3 and again, the draw is coming fast.) 20…Qxb2 and with the symmetrical queen-less ending coming next, the players would be sheepishly looking at each other with a view to shaking hands around this stage; and that certainly was the opinion also of Wang Hao here. 19.Rd1! Wang Hao probably couldn’t believe his luck around here, as out of nowhere, he’s suddenly been given a big opportunity by the hapless Englishman. 19…Bxb7 20.Rxd8 Rxd8 21.f4! All Wang needs to do is stop any potential back-rank tricks. 21…Bxb2 22.Qa7! Could it be possible that, in evaluating the position, Howell just assumed that R+B for the Queen was equal, but he simply missed this move? 22…Rd7?! A better way to play this was with 22…Re8!? where now 23.Qxb6 Bg7! 24.Qxb7 (If 24.Bc5 Bf3! and the draw is the more likely scenario now.) 24…Rxe3 25.Qc8+ Bf8 26.Kf2 Re6 and Black does have a fighting chance to perhaps save the game – but it is going to be very tough with a long defence. 23.Qxb6 Ba1 This is just all awkward for Howell, as his pieces have no co-ordination and no anchoring point(s) to try to make a stand. 24.Qb5 Rd1+? Howell decides he may as well hang for a sheep than a lamb. Slim as it was, his only chance to try to tough it out was with 24…Bc8!? 25.Qa4! Bf6 26.g4! and while it’s not going to be easy for Black, at least this is far from over, and White will have to put a shift in to convert this. 25.Kf2 Bh1 Welcome to Awkwardsville, Mr Howell – population: You! 26.Qe8+ Kg7 27.Bc5! [see diagram] The only thing that Howell can do now is to hang around and wait to be mated, or perhaps pray for a sudden earthquake to hit the Isle of Man. 27…h5 28.Bf8+ Kf6 29.Qe7+ Kf5 30.Qxf7+ Bf6 31.Be7 Rd2+ 32.Ke3 Rxh2 It is all over bar the shouting – Howell is just making a few more moves to make the loss look more respectable. 33.Qxf6+ Kg4 34.Qxg6+ Kh3 35.f5 Bd5 36.f6 Kg2 37.Qc2+ 1-0 Howell resigns, as any king move (f1,g1, h1 or h3) loses the bishop to Qf5+ or Qd1+.

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