Nothing is now a certainty in the time of coronavirus, where even the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg – the last remaining major event still standing on a globally-decimated sporting calendar, and with the organisers boasting it would carry on despite the threat of the pandemic – had to bow to the inevitability of Covid-19, as it was dramatically postponed after the Russian government made the sudden announcement that all international air traffic would be suspended from Friday.
The announcement came – as some would perhaps argue – at a convenient stopping point at the halfway mark, with seven of the 14 rounds played, and just before the eight players battling to become the next title challenger had to endure a second Covid-19 test. And with flights in and out of Russia now banned, the fear was that the Chinese, Dutch, French, and US grandmasters plus any aides and tournament officials would find themselves unable to return home and be marooned in the Russian Urals city.
The world governing body of chess, FIDE, intend the tournament – with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi leading on 4½/7, a full point ahead of the chasing pack that includes Fabiano Caruana, the US world #2 and previous title challenger – will resume within six months time, to stay on schedule for Magnus Carlsen’s title defence in December in Dubai. But whether the pandemic will keep to that schedule remains to be seen!
Many criticised FIDE for allowing the Candidates Tournament to start in the first place amidst an engulfing global crisis with a virus that knows no boundaries – but, as politicians and scientists are discovering, events change fast when it comes to a pandemic. It also makes Teimour Radjabov’s decision to withdraw just a couple of weeks before the start, after his not unreasonable request for a coronavirus postponement was declined, look wise. The Azeri World Cup-winner was subsequently replaced by Frenchman Vachier-Lagrave, who nominally now is the favourite to win having the better tiebreak scores.
In the end though, it proved to be a surreal interruption to what was turning into a surreal tournament just as a surreal humanitarian catastrophe was dramatically unfolding in the real world. And with it, there’s also now an added sense of surrealism for the players returning home to what, for many, will seem like a dystopian landscape of bleakness and emptiness. It was all perhaps best summed up by Caruana, who tweeted: “The Candidates is over for now. The hard part still remains: getting home. I expect to re-enter a world I’ll hardly recognize.”
1-2. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 4½/7; 3-6. F. Caruana (USA), A. Giri (Netherlands), Wang Hao (China), A. Grischuk (Russia) 3½; 7-8. Ding Liren (China), K. Alekseenko (Russia) 2½.
Photo: It all started innocently with the novelty of elbow bumps – but the Candidates soon turned into Covidates | © Lennart Ootes/FIDE
GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Wang Hao
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (5)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Bf5 7.0-0 Be7 8.Re1 0-0 9.Nbd2 Nd6 10.Nf1 Bxd3 11.Qxd3 c6 12.Bf4 Na6 13.h4!N A new novelty from Nepo that just gains a little space on the kingside to support Ng5 – and, more importantly, forces a concession from Black that makes the f5 square a superb outpost for the Whites knight. 13…Nc7 14.Ng5 Bxg5 If 14…g6 15.Ng3 and White will soon be following up with b3, Qd2, Re2 and doubling rooks on the e-file. 15.Bxg5 f6 16.Bf4 Qd7 17.Ng3 It looks as if Black doesn’t have much to worry about – but that potential White knight outpost on f5 is mightier than it looks. 17…Rae8 18.Bxd6 Qxd6 19.Nf5 Qd7 20.Qh3! Ouch! The threat of Nh6+ winning the queen means Black has to waste more time defending – and a self-inflicted back-rank mating threat as he has to tuck his king in the corner. 20…Kh8 21.h5 Effectively locking down the kingside. 21…Rxe1+ 22.Rxe1 Re8 23.Rxe8+ Nxe8 Wang is doing his best to mitigate his problems with a series of rook trades on the e-file – and with it, he almost, but not quite, saves the day. 24.g4 a6 Black really wants to play 24…Nd6 to shunt the troublesome Nf5 – but there’s the little matter of 25.Nxd6 Qxd6 26.g5! exploiting the back-rank mate. And with that in mind, perhaps a better try to play Nd6 is by first playing 24…Kg8!? to stop the back-rank threats and bringing the king back into the game. Now, if 25.Qe3 Kf7 and Black looks to have equalised – this certainly looked a better option than what now unfolds in the game. 25.b3 Qe6 26.Ne3 Nd6 27.h6! g6 28.c4 dxc4 29.bxc4 Kg8?! It’s just a couple of moves too late now – Wang had to play 29…Qe4! 30.c5 Ne8 31.g5 f5 and, with the queen superbly centralised on e4, I can’t see how Black can lose now. 30.Qh2 Kf7 Wang is systematically being stretched by Nepo – and just one little slip and he is totally busted. One classic example of the dangers lurking is 30…Nxc4? 31.Qb8+! Kf7 32.Qxb7+ Ke8 33.Qxh7 Nxe3 34.Qxg6+ and White is not only hoovering up some spare pawns, but the h-pawn queens after 34…Kd7 35.h7! Nxg4 36.Kg2! Qe2 37.Qf5+ with f2 protected, so the extra White queen means Black can resign. 31.c5 Nb5 32.Qb8 Qd7? It’s the critical moment in the game for Wang, and not made any easier for him as he faced the looming time control. He basically had a 50-50 chance of trying to stay alive but makes the wrong call. He simply had to play 32…Qe7 to provide a running square for his king on d7. Now, after 33.Qh8 he can safely play 33…Ke6 34.Nc2 (This time if 34.f4 Nxd4! 35.Qg8+ Kd7 and not only is Black safe, it’s also a reversal of fortunes as he has the winning position!) 34…Kd7 35.a4 Nc7 36.Ne3 White is better, but Black has everything covered, though cramped, and a lot of work will be needed to convert any possible win. 33.Qh8 Ke6 34.f4! [see diagram] Oops! Suddenly there are no squares for the king and f5+ threatens mate. 34…Nxd4 The only move – but everything loses now to a clever tactic. 35.Qg8+ Qf7 36.Qc8+ Qd7 37.Qg8+ Black is completely paralysed, but the true chess pro will always safeguard his clock first with the time control coming by repeating a couple of moves first, and only then moving in for the kill. 37…Qf7 38.Qd8! Qd7 Wang is bust, pure and simple. If 38…Nb5 39.a4 and either the knight is lost or there’s a nasty Qd6 mating moment. 39.f5+ Black can’t avoid the loss of the knight. 39…gxf5 40.gxf5+ Nxf5 41.Qxd7+ Kxd7 42.Nxf5 Ke6 43.Ne3 1-0 Wang resigns. He may well win the c5-pawn, but in doing so, White’s knight pirouettes with Ne3-g4-f6xh7 easily winning.