We’ve now come to discover that things move pretty fast in the corona-verse: in the space of a fortnight, we’ve gone from raised awareness of washing hands followed by ironic elbow-bumps, to now an impending fear and the surreality of the entire global sporting calendar being decimated. But chess is still going on at World Championship-level despite the pandemic – and some are even venturing to suggest that this might be the only live coverage left to fill the empty ESPN schedules!
The Candidates Tournament gets underway on Tuesday in Ekaterinburg, Russia – and with a certain amount of controversy, not to mention the new normal of very stringent safety precautions in place. The original eight who won through to decide Magnus Carlsen’s title challenger was: Fabiano Caruana (USA), Ding Liren (China), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Ian Nepomnachtchi (Russia), Wang Hao (China), Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan) and wildcard Kirill Aleeksev (Russia) – but Radjabov withdrew and was replaced by Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
There’s very stringent safeguards in place for the players, with FIDE announcing that they will be tested for Covid-19 on day one and day 10 of the event, and on each subsequent day, they will also have to undergo a medical examination (temperatures taken, we believe) on arrival and departing the playing venue. The same also applies to the organising staff, who will be the only ones having direct contact with the players (arbiters, organising officials, photographer etc). But as yet, still no clear guidelines as to what might happen if one of the players tests positive.
There will be no traditional handshakes at the start and the end of games. The players will also have no direct contact with the commentators and the spectators in the playing venue. And just to be on the safe side, the players also opted – in full agreement with the organisers – not to attending the official opening ceremony that took place at the “Ekaterinburg Expo” congress center on Monday.
In his address, FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich made reference to the most important chess tournament still going ahead during the Covid-19 outbreak. “I would like to note that in terms of medical safety measures, the Tournament organizing Committee fully follows the recommendations of the World Health Organization, the IOC and Rospotrebnadzor and fulfils all the prescribed requirements. We also ask for maximum support from the chess community, the media, and all of you.”
Controversially, many are wondering why the Candidates is still going ahead despite the global pandemic shutdown. Radjabov only withdrew at the eleventh hour after his not unreasonable request for a coronavirus postponement was declined. The latest dissenter is now Vladimir Kramnik, with the Russian former world champion pulling out of the Chess24.com all-star commentary team in protest, stating: “I strongly believe the Candidates Tournament should have been postponed considering the nowadays disastrous humanitarian situation in the world.” But this only strengthened the all-star commentary line-up, with his substitute being the reigning world champion himself, with Magnus Carlsen now joining Peter Svidler for the opening round coverage on Tuesday.
And as one World Championship Candidates’ gets set to start, the process of another qualifier recently finished inside the Olympic Museum in the Swiss City of Lausanne, with the conclusion of the latest leg of the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix. This is the second of three legs that will qualify the top two finishers into the 2021 Women’s Candidates Tournament. Recently re-crowned World Champion Ju Wenjun of China had a nightmare experience, where she finished near the bottom of the standings after some quite horrific loses.
All the running was made by Georgia’s Nana Dzagnidze and Ju’s defeated challenger, Aleksandra Goryachinka, with both finishing tied for first place on 7/11 – but Dzagnidze edged out the young Russian for the title (and bonus GP points) on tiebreak.
1-2. GM N. Dzagnidze* (Georgia), GM A. Goryachkina (Russia) 7/11; 3. IM Z. Abdumalik (Kazakhstan) 6½; 4-5. GM A. Kashlinskaya (Russia), GM A. Muzychuk (Ukraine) 6; 6-8. GM A. Stefanova (Bulgaria), GM D. Harika (India), GM M. Muzychuk (Ukraine) 5½; 9-10. Hu Wenjun (China), GM P. Cramling (Sweden) 4½; 11-12. GM A. Kosteniuk (Russia), GM M. Sebag (France) 4.
Photo: Podium finishers Dzagnidze, Goryachkina and Abdumalik with FIDE Vice-President Lukasz Turlej | © David Llada/FIDE
GM Ju Wenjun – GM Nana Dzagnidze
Lausanne FIDE Women’s Grand Prix, (9)
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Exchange Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c6 5.Bg5 Nbd7 6.cxd5 exd5 7.Qc2 Be7 8.e3 0-0 9.Bd3 Re8 10.h3 Nf8 11.Bf4 Ng6 12.Bg3 Bd6 13.Bxd6 Qxd6 14.0-0-0 A more aggressive line of the Exchange Variation, the more common being the ‘Minority Attack’ with castling kingside followed by Rb1 and a3 to push for b4-b5 to break-up Black’s queenside pawns. 14…b5 15.g4 a5 16.g5 b4 17.Na4 Ne4 18.Rdg1 Ba6 19.Bxa6 Rxa6 With the trade of bishops, Black’s …Ne4 grows in strength. White is hoping for a counter-attack with h3-h4-h5 to try to crash through on the kingside, but it is all painfully too slow, as the world champion has to deal with her opponent’s more rapid queenside attack. 20.Kb1 Ra7 21.h4 Rc7 Aiming for …c5 to open lines down the c-file. 22.h5 Nf8 23.Nh4 Qe6 24.f3 Nd6 The knight may well have been shunted from its e4 outpost, but in doing so, the e3-pawn is now vulnerable and needs to be protected. 25.Re1 Nd7 26.Re2 c5 27.dxc5 Rec8 28.g6 White’s best try to stay competitive, as the engine is quick to point out, is to centralise now with 28.Rd1! and one likely scenario running 28…Nxc5 29.Nb6 Nd7!? 30.Nxc8 Rxc2 31.Rxc2 Nxc8 32.Rxc8+ Nf8 33.Rc5 a4 34.Rcxd5 Qxe3 35.Nf5 Qxf3 36.Ne7+ Kh8 37.Nc6 Qe4+ 38.Ka1 which should all fizzle out to a draw by a repetition of some sort, as there’s no way to stop Black playing …a3 to open lines to the White king. 28…Nxc5 29.gxh7+ It looks as if White is crashing through, but as in most similar circumstances, here the enemy pawn on h7 just acts as a super-strong protector of the Black king! 29…Kh8 30.Nxc5 Rxc5 Dzagnidze now has a decisive advantage with control of the open c-file. 31.Qd3 Qf6 Also good options were 31…a4 and 31…Rc4. 32.Qd4 Ju Wenjun rightly assesses that she has to trade queens now, otherwise her king is going to come under serious attack. 32…Qxd4 33.exd4 Rc4 Dzagnidze may well be a pawn down, but Ju Wenjun has so many weak pawns (d4, f3, h5 & h7) that it is impossible to see how White can’t avoid losing at least a couple. 34.Rd1 R4c7 Better was the immediate 34…Kxh7! 35.Re5 R4c6 36.Rg1 (If 36.Rxd5 Nc4 is kind of hard to meet.) 36…Nc4 37.Re2 (This time, if 37.Rxd5?? Nd2+ mates quickly.) 37…Rf6 and prey on the remaining weak pawns on f3, d4 & h5, as White can’t try 38.Reg2 due to 38…Kh8! as 39.Rxg7 Nd2+ 40.Ka1 a4 41.R7g3 Rfc6 and Black will soon have a mating net. 35.Rg1 Kxh7 36.Reg2 f6 37.Re2 a4 There’s nothing the world champion can do now, as Black takes a total grip of the position. 38.Re6 Nc4 39.Re2 Nd6 40.Re6 Nc4 41.Re2 a3! 42.bxa3 bxa3 The clinical kill was 42…Nxa3+! 43.Kb2 Nc4+ 44.Kb1 Rb8 and there’s no stopping …b3 and Black’s mass of pieces picking off the weak pawns, as White will need to stop any mating threats. 43.Ng6 Nd6 44.Nf4 Nf5 45.Ne6 Rb8+ 46.Ka1 Re7 47.Rb1 Rbe8! The pin on the e-file is decisive, as Dzagnidze now chooses what should really have been her moment to trade down to a winning ending. 48.Rbe1 Kh6 49.Nf4 Rxe2 50.Rxe2 Rxe2 51.Nxe2 Kxh5 It’s not just that Black has won a pawn, it’s the fact that Black’s king and knight are too active and quickly target f3 and d4. The rest of the game should now just be a technicality. 52.Kb1 Ne3 Too cautious by half – the quick wins was the simple king march 52…Kh4 -h3-g2-f2 etc. 53.Kc1 g5 54.Kd2 Nc4+ 55.Kd3 Kh4 56.Nc3 Nb6 57.Nb5 Kg3 58.Ke2 f5 While all roads lead to Rome, you get there a damn site quicker with 58…Na4! where White is now going to either lose to …Nc3+ (if the Nb5 moves) and the a-pawn falling, or to …Kxf3 if White plays Kd2 (to stop …Nc3+). 59.Nxa3 f4 60.Nc2 Na4 Again, quicker was 60…g4! 61.fxg4 f3+ 62.Kd3 Kxg4 and the only way to stop the f-pawn will be sacrificing the knight. 61.a3 Nc3+ 62.Kd3?? Endgames are so tricky with so few pieces left on the board, and you should never give up hope as one accurate move can make all the difference between losing and a miracle save. And with that in mind, this final error from the world champion finally seals her fate as she missed the ‘Hail Mary’ of 62.Kd2! that makes such a big difference between losing and drawing, as now 62…Kxf3? (The only ‘winning’ try is 62…Nb1+! 63.Ke2 Kg2 64.Ne1+ Kh3 65.a4 Nc3+ 66.Kf2 Nxa4 67.Nd3 but even here, Black still has to a lot of work to try and convert her now minimal advantage.) 63.Ne1+ Ke4 64.Kxc3 g4 (Alternatively, if 64…f3 65.Nxf3! Kxf3 66.a4 leads to a drawn Q+P ending.) 65.Kd2! looks as if it holds, as 65…Kxd4 66.a4! Kc4 (if 66…f3 67.Nc2+ Kc4 68.Ne3+ Kb4 69.Nxg4 is an easy draw.) 67.a5 Kb5 68.Nd3 f3 69.Ke3 Kxa5 70.Nc1 Kb5 71.Nd3 and with Ne5 coming, White has all of the pawns covered andheading towards an unlikely draw. 62…Kxf3! [see diagram] The whole rationale for Kd2 saving is that now 63.Ne1+ doesn’t work, as 63…Kf2 and the Ne1 is under attack. 63.Kxc3 Ke2 64.Nb4 f3 There’s no stopping the two passed pawns now; and the remainder of the game needs no further comments. 65.Nd3 g4 66.Nf4+ Ke1 67.Nd3+ Kf1 68.Ne5 g3 69.Nxf3 g2 70.Kb4 Kf2 71.Ng5 Kg3 Just stopping the Nh3+ fork. 72.Kc5 g1Q 73.Kxd5 Qh1+ 74.Kd6 Kf4 75.Ne6+ Ke4 76.d5 Qh2+ 77.Kc6 Ke5 78.Nc7 Qc2+ 79.Kd7 Qa4+ 80.Ke7 Qxa3+ 81.Kd7 Qd6+ 82.Kc8 Qe7 0-1