The FIDE Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg in Russia has got off to a quite stunning and remarkable nightmare start for one of the big pre-tournament favourites, with Ding Liren of China, the normally solid and reliable world #3 with a reputation of being one of the toughest players to beat on the elite circuit, sensationally crashing to a brace of shock opening loses and is now consigned to last place with 0/2.
In the opening round(s), players from the same country are automatically paired against each other – to avoid possiblity of colluding, and brought in after an infamous Bobby Fischer accusation following the Curaçao Candidates Tournament in 1962 that gained noterity in Sports Illustrated – and Ding was unexpectedly outplayed with the Black pieces by his fellow compatriot Wang Hao. And a jubilant Wang, who almost withdrew at the last minute as he questioned the wisdom of holding the event during the coronavirus pandemic, could possibly have taken the early outright lead with a perfect start of 2/2, but he couldn’t convert his advantage against Dutchman Anish Giri.
Joining Wang Hao – who being based in Tokyo, also avoided most of the China coronavirus lockdowns – in the lead after two rounds is Fabiano Caruana. After drawing with Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the US world #2 and now clear favourite to once again win the candidates beat the Russian wildcard Kirill Alekseenko. And MVL only further compounded Ding’s misery by inflicting a second successive loss. Also joining the leaders in a four-way tie on 1½/2 is Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, who beat Giri in the opening round, and then drew with fellow countryman Alexander Grischuk.
But all the talk has been at the opposite end of the leaderboard and the catastrophic start for Ding Liren, one of the most talked about potential challengers for the world title over the past two years – and singled out by Magnus Carlsen, along with Caruana, as one of the two favourites the world champion thought would go on to become his challenger. But with his second loss at the hands of MVL, and clearly looking out of sorts, Grischuk’s take on Ding’s disastrous start was “It seems he was poisoned in his quarantine in Moscow.”
Several are already speculating that Ding’s meltdown could well be due to the strains of the coronavirus pandemic. This is the biggest tournament of a player’s life, and all of Ding’s vital preparations were unexpectedly thrown into disarray following the initial outbreak in his homeland. In late January/early February, as China effectively went into lockdown, he had to cancel his training camp at the last minute for the lonely confines of his Wenzhu apartment for nearly a month. He then had to leave China much earlier than he originally planned, only to endure a further two weeks of quarantine in Moscow before he was tested and allowed to travel on to Ekaterinburg.
There are now stringent checks in place with Covid-19 testing done (on all players, plus officials and technical support staff) on day one and day 10 followed by twice daily medical examinations (temperatures checked) at the start and end of each round. This is only adding a further strain on the mindset of all the players, and Caruana made reference to the tournament conditions today in his press conference: “I showed a temperature of 98.7°. This provoked a panic…Everyone’s extremely paranoid. They’re not great conditions to play under, but I have no choice.”
Initially it was not clear from FIDE what would actually happen if one of the players tested positive for Covid-19. But now it seems the FIDE protocol is that if one of the eight in the near month-long tournament does test positive, then the Candidates will stop immediately. The event will then be resumed later in the year with all points earned to that date being carried over.
1-4. F. Caruana (USA), I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), Wang Hao (China) 1½/2; 5. A. Grischuk (Russia) 1; 6-7. A. Giri (Netherlands), K. Alekseenko (Russia) ½; 8. Ding Liren (China) 0.
Photo: Perhaps feeling the strain in the age of Covid-19, Ding suffers a dramatic setback | © Lennart Ootes/FIDE.
GM Ding Liren – GM Wang Hao
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (1)
1.c4 e5 2.g3 More usual in the English is 2.Nc3 followed by g3 and Bg2 – but this was the recommended set-up endorsed by English GM Tony Kosten, mainly to avoid the rather annoying 2…Bb4, in his wonderful 1999 book, The Dynamic English. 2…Nf6 3.Bg2 Bc5 4.d3 This is the particular set-up Ding specialises in – and he won a very nice positional squeeze against fellow Candidate Alexander Grischuk in last year’s World Cup. 4…0-0 5.Nc3 c6 6.Nf3 d6 7.0-0 Re8 8.Na4 Bb4 9.a3 Ba5 10.b4 Bc7 11.e4 The problem here for White, as happens in the game, when the inevitable pawn exchanges come, it will leave d3 weak and vulnerable. 11…a5 12.Bb2 Na6 13.b5 If 13.Bc3 now comes 13…b5! 14.Nb2 Bg4! and all the breaks are going to favour Black. 13…cxb5 14.cxb5 Nc5 15.Nxc5 dxc5 Black has ‘won’ the opening battle with d3 now being the big weak point in White’s position – but he has not won the war yet. 16.a4 Bg4 17.Ra3 Welcome to Awkwardsville, Mr Ding! This is the punishment he has to suck up with having to make unnatural moves now to defend d3. 17…Nd7 18.h3 Bh5 19.Qb1 b6 20.Nd2 Nf8 21.Bf3 Qg5! The breaks are all going Wang’s way now. 22.h4 Alternatively, if 22.Bxh5 Qxh5 23.Kg2 there comes 23…f6 24.Nc4 Red8 and doubling on the d-file – and if 25.Ne3 looking to put the knight on the d5 outpost, then 25…Rd7 26.Nd5 Rad8 27.Qa2 Kh8 Black will soon be coming in with …Nf8-g6-e7 to shunt the Nd5 from its outpost. 22…Qg6 23.Qd1 Bxf3 24.Qxf3 h5 25.Qf5 Rad8 At the end of the day, the pressure on d3 is going to be the deciding factor. If Wang can find a way to exploit it, he wins; if Ding can find the right way to hang on, he’ll save the game – but Ding is the one who has to play accurately to do this, and just one slip will be fatal. 26.Qxg6 Nxg6 27.Kg2 f6 28.Nc4 Kf7 29.Bc1 Rd7 30.f4?! Ding is not losing per se, but this error just opens the game too much for Wang’s active pieces to turn the game in his direction. It is always tough in such situations, when you are trying to make something – anything – of your worse position, but Ding needed to keep the position solid with 30.Rc3 followed by Rd1 and f3 and then shuffle his king over to e2. The idea is, if Black thinks he’s winning, then the onus is on him to come up with a breakthrough plan. 30…exf4 31.Bxf4 Nxf4+ If 31…Bxf4 32.gxf4 then the weakness on b6 should be more than enough for White to hold for the draw. 32.gxf4 f5! Fixing White’s f-pawn – and with the h4-pawn also fixed, now suddenly Ding faces an uphill task as Wang has the big rook lift of Re8-e6-g6-g4 and both pawns coming under pressure. 33.e5 Re6 Sure, the engine will tell you that this is “0.00.” and White has nothing to worry about – but not so easy for a human to deal with this pressure at the board, and in one of the most important career-defining tournaments of your life! 34.Kf3 Rg6 35.Ne3 Ke6 The Ne3 may well have temporarily stopped …Rg4, but an added problem now is …Bd8 hitting the vulnerable h4-pawn. And such is the pressure now, if that pawn falls, White’s position will collapse with it. 36.Rd1 Bd8 37.Ra2 Rd4?! Looking to repeat moves in time-trouble – normally a good tip for all players, but the clinical win needed right now was the obvious 37…Bxh4! 38.Rh2 Rg3+ 39.Ke2 g5! and Black is in total command. But then again, with the flag on your digital clock metaphorically starting to hang, repeating is understandable – but in doing so, both players overlooked a hidden resource. 38.Nc2 Rd5 39.Ne3 Rd7 40.Rdd2?? Ding blunders on the infamous final move 40 before the time control and now loses. However, it seems as if both players missed a saving resource with 40.d4! as 40…Rxd4 41.Rxd4 cxd4 42.Nc2 Kd5 backfires to the tactical trick of 43.Nxd4! Kxd4 44.Rd2+ Kc5 45.Rxd8 Rg1 46.Rf8 and what looks an easily drawn R+P ending. 40…Bxh4! 41.Rg2 The only try, because, as noted above, if 41.Rh2 Rg3+ 42.Ke2 g5! is winning. Ding is hoping to trade a set of rooks and try and hang on with pressure on the h5-pawn – but Wang has a sensational riposte. 41…Rg4!! [see diagram] 42.Rh2 White is doomed. If 42.Nxg4 hxg4+ 43.Ke2 Rd4 and there’s no way to protect the f4-pawn. 42…g6 White is caught in a bind and can do nothing constructive. If he doesn’t take the the rook on g4, then Black will forcibly come in with …Rd4 forcing matters. 43.Nxg4 fxg4+ Closing off the h-file and preparing the strategic retreat of the bishop to make way for …h4. 44.Ke3 Be7 45.Rac2 h4 0-1 Ding resigns, as 46.Rc4 g3 47.Rg2 Kf5 and there’s no stopping …Kg4 pushing those passed pawns ominiously further up the board.