With the Coronavirus pandemic continuing to erode ever more into our daily lives, and where – in between frantically washing hands obsessively and being careful to maintain the right levels of social distancing – all worldwide sporting events have now been officially suspended for the foreseeable future, and those crazed sports-starved fans looking for their live-action fix now have to seek solace in a different sort of competition: chess!
It seems that Chess in the time of Coronavirus is the only remaining high-profile event left standing on the global sports calendar, with the 2020 Candidates Tournament taking place in a luxury hotel in Ekaterinburg in the Russian Urals. And with this being the one time in history when all the experts are telling us that staying at home in front of a TV or a computer screen “will save lives”, a number of online chess sites are reporting a record rise in new members.
With a near-global lockdown in place, chess24.com, just one of the many portals providing live move-by-move (and even multilingual) commentary, reported a massive 500 per cent spike in viewers. FIDE also reported that a peak of one million people in China alone tuned into their coverage of the first day of the Candidates that witnessed two Chinese players going head-to-head for the first time in the world championship challenger qualifier.
They were more like than not to have been supporting Ding Liren, the world #3 – singled out by by Magnus Carlsen, alongside Fabiano Caruana, the US world #2, as his likely title challenger – rather than Wang Hao who is out of favour with Beijing, but the latter surprised everyone with a sparkling and somewhat easy win. Things then went from bad-to-worse for Ding after he was beaten by late substitute Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France. And sitting on a pair of ‘duck eggs’ of 0/2, and with his chances of becoming the first Chinese player to play for the world crown deminishion early doors, Ding faced a further battle for his very survival as he now had to face Caruana, who was now firmly installed by pundits and punters alike to be the clear favourite to win.
And after Ding fell down the rabbit hole of being ambushed on move 9 by Caruana, the American looked to be psychologically in a strong position, but uncharachteristiclly he squandered it all with a rare misstep by seemingly ‘forgetting’ his own deeply prepared opening analysis. This gave Ding his chance to strike back and also give his legion of online fans in China something to cheer about – and a vital lifeline for himself, with the tournament now genuinely wide-open with the two favourites suffering early losses.
1-3. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), Wang Hao (China) 2/3; 4-5. F. Caruana (USA), A. Grischuk (Russia) 1½; 6-8. Ding Liren (China), A. Giri (Netherlands), K. Alekseenko (Russia) 1.
Video: Ding shows his mettle – and finally a smile! – as he beats Fabiano Caruana.
GM Ding Liren – GM Fabiano Caruana
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (3)
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Bf5 6.Ne5 e6 7.f3 Bb4 8.Nxc4 The big critical test of this line of the Slav once used to be the obvious 8.e4 but the trouble is that Black has 8…Bxe4!? 9.fxe4 Nxe4 10.Bd2 (There’s no easy solution for White., as all the tactics favours Black. If 10.Qf3? Qxd4! 11.Qxf7+ Kd8 12.Bg5+ Kc8 13.Qxe6+ Nd7 14.Qxd7+ Qxd7 15.Nxd7 Nxc3! 16.bxc3 Bxc3+ 17.Kd1 Bxa1 18.Nc5 b6 19.Ne4 h6 20.Be3 Kb7 and with a material advantage and the rooks coming to d8 and e8, Black has a big advantage.) 10…Qxd4 11.Nxe4 Qxe4+ 12.Qe2 Bxd2+ 13.Kxd2 Qd5+ 14.Kc2 and although the c4-pawn falls, the consensus is that Black has more than enough compensation for the piece, with many top-level games fizzling out to a draw. 8…0-0 9.Kf2 e5!! It’s that moment of dread for Ding, who after losing his opening two games, and commentators already beginning to write his candidates’ chances off, suddenly he gets hit with a piece of deep, deep preparation from Caruana. And knowing that he’s now about to fall down a big rabbit hole, Ding has to tread carefully, as a third successive loss and it really is all over. 10.Nxe5 Bc2! A clever trick that’s in the tradition of a similar tactic seen in the Alekhine’s Defence Four Pawns Attack that was all the rage in the 1970s – the point being the bishop is taboo due to …Qxd4+ and …Qxe5 and Black stands better. 11.Qd2 Alternatively, there’s the ‘tactical’ option of 11.Nxf7 Bxc3!? 12.Nxd8 Bxd1 13.Ne6 Bb3!? 14.Nxf8 Bxd4+ 15.e3 Bc5 16.Nxh7 Kxh7 17.Bd3+ Kh8 18.Bd2 Nbd7 but as all this looks forced, Ding was probably thinking – rightly – that Caruana and his team had thoroughly analysed this unbalanced material position to his advantage. And as this was a very forcing line, he opted to avoid it. 11…c5! Caruana’s strategy is simply to rip the position wide open for his bishops to wreck havoc. 12.d5 Bb3 13.e4 Re8 14.Qf4 c4 15.Nxc4 If 15.Bxc4 Bd6 White is in danger of falling further down Caruana’s rabbit hole, as after Bxb3 White will also have to contend with the annoying …Qb6+. And if 16.Qe3 Black just continues to develop with 16…Nbd7! (threatening …Bc5 skewering the queen and king) 17.Nxd7 Nxd7 18.Qe2 Bxc4 19.Qxc4 Rc8 20.Qe2 f5! and suddenly the White king is in danger of being caught in the crossfire as the game opens up even more. 15…Nbd7 16.Be3 Nf8 17.Bd4 Ng6 18.Qf5 Bxc4 19.Bxc4 Qc7 Worryingly for Ding, as he explained in the post-mortem, “I was very frustrated as he was playing so quickly.” And this is what would have been worrying him, realising he was still walking in Caruana’s minefield. 20.Be2 Bc5 21.Bxc5 Qxc5+ There’s also another possibility for Caruana, the interesting looking 21…Re5!? 22.Qh3 Nf4 23.Qh4 g5!? (If you want to bail-out now with a repetition, then there’s always 23…Ng6 24.Qg3 Nh5 25.Qg4 Nf6 26.Qg3 Nh5 etc.) 24.Qh6 Qxc5+ 25.Kf1 N6xd5! 26.Nxd5 Nxd5 27.exd5 Qc2 28.Re1 Rae8 but White seems to have a saving resource with 29.f4! Rxe2 30.Qxg5+ Kf8 31.Qh6+ Kg8 32.Qg5+ and another repetition. It would be interesting to know if Caruana knew there were two paths here, but with Ding on a pair of duck eggs, and 29.f4 being relatively easy to find, wanted to steer towards the complex path? 22.Kf1 h6? This is a somewhat bewildering, timid move in a complex position that just makes no sense after some of the brutal variations seen above – and with it, suddenly Ding catches a chance to regroup and consolidate his position. It seems Black has to stay active and play 22…Re5 23.Qh3 Qb4 24.Rb1 Nf4 25.Qg3 N6h5 26.Qe1 f5! where again, Black is starting to rip open lines towards White’s king, with one incredible idea being 27.g3 fxe4! 28.gxf4 Nxf4 29.Nb5 (The safer option was 29.Nxe4 Rxe4! 30.Qxb4 (Of course, you can’t play 30.fxe4?? as 30…Qxe4 31.Rg1 Rf8 and Black is winning.) 30…Rxb4 31.b3 Rc8 32.d6 Rd4 33.Bc4+ Kf8 34.Kf2 Rxd6 35.Rbd1 and an equal ending that should see a quick draw now.) 29…exf3!! 30.Qxb4 fxe2+ 31.Kg1 (If 31.Kf2? Nd3+ wins.) 31…Rg5+ 32.Kf2 Nd3+ 33.Kxe2 Nxb4 34.d6 Re8+ 35.Kd2 a6 36.Nc7 Rd8 37.Rbd1 Rxd6+ Black not only has an extra pawn, he also has the better-placed rooks and knight, and should easily convert his advantage. What an unbelievable concept! 23.Rd1! Qb6 24.Rd2 Ding is carefully emerging from the rabbit hole. Already he has consolidated with Rd1-d2 protecting b2, now he only needs to find a way to bring his other rook into the game – and if he achieves that, then Caruana is doomed due to White’s powerful central pawns. 24…Qe3 25.Rc2 a6 26.Qh3 b5 27.Qg3 The idea is Qf2 to contest that annoying long dark diagonal of a7-g1. And this moment, Ding said he knew he stood better. 27…b4 28.Nd1 Qb3 29.Rd2 Qxa4 30.Qf2 Caruana has got one pawn back, but Ding can now start the unravelling process – and faced with this losing prospect, Caruana has to take enormous risks to try and play for unsound complications. 30…Qd7 31.g3 Qh3+ 32.Kg1 a5 33.Qd4 Nh5 34.Nf2 Qd7 35.f4! [see diagram] It’s time now for Caruana to hit the panic button! If he doesn’t go for something desperate now, then Ding will simply play Kg2 and Rhd1 and Black will get steam-rolled by White’s pawns. 35…Nhxf4?!? 36.gxf4 Nxf4 37.Kf1 Qd6 38.Rg1 It’s a little bit awkward – but Ding skilfully completes the unraveling process, and now has his pieces in play and the extra piece! 38…f6 39.Bb5 Re7 40.b3 Rf8 41.Rc2 Ding’s advantage now is huge, both materially and positionally. And while many would be considering resignation here, Caruana fights on to the very last, as he tries to make something – anything – out of nothing. 41…Ne6 42.Qe3 Ng5 43.h4 Nf7 44.Rc6 Qb8 45.Qc5 This is the powerhouse Ding we are more use to seeing – almost as if someone had thrown a spare tin of spinach to Popeye! 45…Qd8 46.Rxf6 While many expected Caruana to resign now, for some reason he still battled on – and we got to see arguably the biggest material advantage and engine assessment ever seen in an elite encounter! 46…Kh8 47.Rf5 Rc7 48.Bc6 a4 49.bxa4 b3 50.Rg3 b2 51.Rb3 Nd6 52.Rxf8+ Qxf8 53.Rxb2 Qf4 54.Rb8+ Kh7 55.Qc2 Re7 56.e5+ It’s all over now. 56…Nf5 57.Qe4 Qc1+ 58.Kg2 g6 59.Rb3 1-0