Amidst all the online activity that’s witnessed an unprecedented digital renaissance for chess, we have to remember that the ancient game is an over-the-board activity and one that – hopefully – one day will be back to normal, whatever ‘normal’ means in the new normal created by the Covid-19 worldwide crisis. A handful of smaller international tournaments and national championships have dared to tentatively dip their collective toes into near normality with social distancing and safety measures in place – and now two major elite-level events are set to run in October and November.
First will be Norway Chess in Stavanger, running from 5-16 October, where Magnus Carlsen will look to extend his live record-run of 121 unbeaten game streak, all against elite-level opposition. Also included in the double-round six-player field will be his previous title challenger Fabiano Caruana – but the US world #2 could well face a possible quarantine/travel/restriction logistical dilemma with the timing for the second event.
Earlier this week, Fide also announced the resumption of the Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg, the only global sporting event that had to be dramatically suspended halfway due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Fide announced that after a lengthy “adjournment session” battle will once again get underway, running 1-12 November, and intended to be held in the original Russian host city.
But things can happen very suddenly, as we’ve discovered during this strange epidemiological time we are all living through, and Fide also announced a backup ‘Plan B’ for any sudden ‘eventualities’, by designating a reserve venue: the city of Tbilisi, in Georgia, now officially approved as an alternate host city, and is ready to step in at the eleventh hour to host the tournament in the same time frame.
A Plan B looks to be forward-thinking from Fide – but with the present state-of-play vis-à-vis the pandemic, what with it still throwing up sudden restrictions and lockdowns galore, not to mention the likely appearance of a second wave striking through the winter – according to most leading medical and scientific experts – perhaps they also should be investigating Plans C, D & E etc. to go with B!
The winner of the Candidates gains the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world title. Originally, before the Covid pandemic led to a global lockdown and the mass cancellations of all sporting/cultural events, the intention was to hold the World Championship Match during the 2020 Dubai Expo scheduled for later this year. Now, the intended plan is to push back Carlsen’s next title defence to late next year, as part of a now rescheduled 2021 Dubai Expo.
Let’s rewind back to early April and the Candidates before it came to an abrupt halt: Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi looked to be the runaway leader – but in the 7th round, prior to the closedown, he was caught by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, with the dramatic win from the Frenchman blowing the tournament wide-open again.
The leaderboard in the eight-player double-round all-play-all at the suspended midpoint stood at: 1-2. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 4.5/7; 3-6. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Wang Hao (China), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 3.5; 7-8. Ding Liren (China), Kirill Alekseenko (Russia) 2.5.
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (7)
French Defence, Winawer
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7 7.h4 Qc7 8.h5 Against the Winawer, this is always the most logical plan as it immediately gains space on the kingside and threatens to push h6 forcing …g6 with Black having a chronic dark-square weakness on the kingside that White’s bishop will exploit. 8…h6 9.Rb1 b6 10.Qg4 Rg8 11.Bb5+ Kf8 12.Bd3 Ba6 13.dxc5 Bxd3 Alternatively, there’s 13…bxc5 14.Nf3 c4 15.Be2 Nbc6 16.Qf4 and Black will face a difficult defence in the long-term: he still has to find a way to get his king to safety and his kingside rook into the game, while White has the relatively straight-forward plan of a4 and Ba3 and any number of ways to continue the attack, such as g4 or perhaps even something slower with 0-0 and trading a set of rooks on the open b-file. 14.cxd3 Nd7 15.d4 bxc5 16.Qd1 A good strategical retreat, as with …Kf8 and …Rg8, there’s no way to crash the kingside – but lasting damage has been done with those ugly moves, as Black struggles to find a way to connect his rooks. 16…Qa5 17.Bd2 Rb8 It’s easy to steal a pawn with 17…Qxa3 but after 18.Ne2 Qa6 19.0-0 White is in no hurry to regain the pawn, as Black faces a difficult task of how to unravel on the kingside in order to get his rook into the game. 18.Ne2 c4? Bad timing. The reason is that releasing the tension only makes Black’s position worse than it perhaps looks. It was better to keep things ‘fluid’ for now with 18…Rxb1 19.Qxb1 Qa6! with equal chances, as both sides have a little untangling to do for king safety and completing development. 19.0-0 Rb6 If 19…Rxb1 20.Qxb1 Qxa3 21.Qb7 Nb6 22.Rb1! and White has the co-ordinate pieces, the attack and all the space – more than enough compensation for the pawn. 20.Qc2 Rh8 This is more or less an admission from Nepo that his position is in a really bad way. 21.a4 Ke8 22.Rb4 Nc6 23.f4! A wonderfully aggressive move from MVL, who signals that’s he’s going to go ‘all-in’ with the attack. 23…Ne7 The rook is immune. After 23…Nxb4 24.cxb4 Qa6 25.b5 Qb7 26.f5! the White attack is now coming in like a tsunami, and there’s nothing Black can do with his king and rook still unable to unravel.I suppose Black could try 23…Ra6 but after 24.Rb2! Black is still living in ‘Akwardsville’ with Ra1 coming and a major squeeze coming on the queenside, and if 24…Qxa4 25.Qb1! and next is pushing on regardless with f5! with mounting pressure on both wings – and with it, Black still hasn’t resolved how to untangle his king and rook, a likely scenario playing out now is 25…Rb6 26.Rxb6 Nxb6 27.f5! Nd8 28.fxe6 Nxe6 29.Ng3 and White has all his pieces poised to strike. 24.Rfb1 f5 25.Rb5 Qa6 It’s just agony having to defend this horrible position, but this is just another little error that makes Nepo perhaps regret his surprise opening choice of the French Defence. A slightly better way to continue was with 25…Rxb5 26.Rxb5 Qa6 but even here, again 27.Bc1! and Black is basically just waiting around for White to declare his hand for whatever attacking route he wants to take. 26.Bc1! With Ba3 coming, Black’s king is in danger. 26…Kf7 27.Ba3 Finally, Nepo gets his rook into the game – but it is too late now, as MVL has his pieces strategically well-placed to strike at his opponent’s king. 27…Rhb8 28.Bxe7 Kxe7 29.g4! This is the breakthrough MVL had patiently planned for. 29…Rxb5 If 29…fxg4 30.Qh7 is strong and winning for White. 30.axb5 Rxb5 31.gxf5 Rxb1+ 32.Qxb1 exf5 33.Ng3 With Nepo’s king effectively still wandering aimlessly in no man’s land, the Frenchman rightly opts to keep the queens on the board. 33…Qb6 34.Nxf5+ Kf8 35.Qa1! [see diagram] White is likely winning the ending with the trade of queens and 35.Qxb6 Nxb6 36.Ne3 a5 37.Kh2 a4 38.Nc2 and the plan of f5 and Kg3-g4-f4 – but keeping the queens on the board is the more accurate way to win, as the Black king is very vulnerable, and this leads to Nepo having to make ever more survival concessions. 35…Qe6 36.Ng3 Qg4 37.Kg2 Qxf4 38.Qxa7 The shortage of squares for the knight puts Black in an even more awkward position to try to hang on, as he’s now reduced to sitting in Death’s waiting room. 38…Ke7 Black is doomed, with the alternative being 38…Qf7 39.Qa8+ Ke7 40.Qa3+ and a similar ending as happens in the game. 39.Qa3+ Kd8 40.Qd6 g5 This is desperation time. Nepo is trying to engineer a perpetual with his queen – but it is a move or so too late. 41.hxg6 h5 42.g7 1-0 Nepo resigns as 42…Qd2+ (If 42…Qf7 43.Nf5 easily wins.) 43.Kh3 Qg5 and White will easily convert for the full point with 44.Qf8+! Nxf8 45.gxf8Q+ Kc7 46.Qf7+ Kb8 47.e6 Qg4+ 48.Kh2 h4 49.Nh1 Qe2+ 50.Nf2 Qe3 51.e7 Qg3+ 52.Kh1 and Black run out checks, moves and hopes.