After more than a year-long hiatus caused by the global pandemic, the FIDE 2020/21 Candidates Tournament restarted on Monday in Yekaterinburg, Russia – and with a second-half big bang to it as Fabiano Caruana blew the tournament wide-open with a vital win, as he out-prepared and out-played co-leader Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to line up a possible title rematch with old foe Magnus Carlsen.
Caruana – Carlsen’s defeated 2018 title challenger – had more than a year to come up with something ‘special’ against MVL’s expected Sicilian Najdorf. And he didn’t disappoint, uncorking a fascinating new idea in the Frenchman’s favourite Poisoned Pawn variation that he’d kept under wraps for several months – a novelty that, according to the US world #2’s coach, GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov, was too strong to try out in Wijk aan Zee!
“Marriage is like taking a pawn on b2 in the Sicilian Najdorf,” once cryptically observed Vassily Ivanchuk. By that, I think what the irrepressible Ukrainian meant was that it was full of complications and compromises with no one really knowing what the short-term nor long-term outcome will be. But as marriages go, there comes none more faithful in chess than MVL and the Sicilian Najdorf Poisoned Pawn – only today, it would have been wiser for the all-too predictable Frenchman to have been unfaithful with a new mistress!
But there’s no doubting this is a big statement win for Caruana, and one that will give him a massive confidence boost going down the homestretch, as he’s ideally placed just a half-point now behind the Russian sole leader Ian Nepomniachtchi. And after a year of enforced online chess due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was also a highly-creative game that served as a timely reminder of just what top-class “classical” chess is all about.
Magnus Carlsen will be keeping a close watch on who emerges as next challenger, literally! The World Champion will be joining the Chess24 commentary team for their live coverage of the second half of the Candidates, and will be joined by team regulars David Howell and Tania Sachdev for rounds 8-10, with Judit Polgar replacing Carlsen for the remaining four rounds.
Caruana 1-0 Vachier-Lagrave; Wang ½-½ Ding; Nepomniachtchi ½-½ Giri; Alekseenko 1-0 Grischuk
1. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), 5/8; 2-3. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 4½; 4-5. Anish Giri (Netherlands), Wang Hao (China) 4; 6-7. Kirill Alekseenko (Russia), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 3½; 8. Ding Liren (China) 3.
Photo: Fabiano Caruana turns in a big statement win to blow the Candidates wide-open | © Lennart Ootes/FIDE Candidates
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
FIDE 2020/21 Candidates Tournament, (8)
Sicilian Poisoned Pawn
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qb6 The fabled Poisoned Pawn Variation, first pioneered by David Bronstein but made famous by Bobby Fischer. This is one of the most heavily-analysed variations in chess, with the theory of many of the main lines going deep into 30 or more moves. And in today’s modern game, MVL is the recognised Poisoned Pawn guru – but if you live by the sword then you can also die by it, as with it comes the challenge that MVL can be an easy player to deeply prepare a specialised line for, as happen in this game. 8.Qd2 Qxb2 9.Rb1 The alternative is 9.Nb3 that was popularised by Boris Spassky during the legendary 1972 World Championship Match with Fischer in Reykjavik. 9…Qa3 10.e5 In the early days of the Poisoned Pawn, this was all the vogue. It was established many years (and thousands of games) later that pushing the e-pawn is incorrect, so the focus turned to 10.f5 Nc6 11.fxe6 fxe6 12.Nxc6 bxc6 13.e5 dxe5 which was the battleground through the late 1980s and into the 1990s for the likes of Garry Kasparov and Britain’s John Nunn. But Caruana has very dramatically brought the old line of 10.e5 back into fashion – and just how, as we’ll soon see! 10…h6 11.Bh4 dxe5 12.fxe5 Nfd7 13.Ne4 This all known to theory, where White rapidly sacs three pawns and we generally see the game petering our to a draw with some sort of repetition. If MVL was hoping that’s what was coming his way today, then he’s in for a really big surprise! 13…Qxa2 14.Rd1 Qd5 15.Qe3 Qxe5 16.c3 Amazingly, Caruana was blitzing the moves out – and he was still doing so right up till move 28! 16…Bc5 17.Bg3 Qd5 18.Bc4!!?N [see diagram] According to Dominic Lawson, the former Fleet Street editor, columnist and broadcaster, who for his sins also doubles as president of the English Chess Federation, “Nothing excites jaded Grandmasters more than a theoretical novel” – but I can reassure you that the excitement-level can more than double when that novelty comes in a big mainline Sicilian Najdorf as here! Normally we see 18.Bd6 here, but MVL is hit over the head with a massive novelty that’s destined to become one of the TN’s of the year. And as TN’s go, they don’t really come any bigger nor more impressive than this, especially with the stakes being so high and you’ve sacrificed a piece and three pawns, and then go on to squeeze out an epic endgame tablebase win! 18…Qxc4 19.Bd6 Nf6! The computer tells you that black’s best move is 19…Bxd4!? leading to 20.Rxd4 Qb3 21.0-0 Nc6 but alarm bells are ringing in your head that you could be about to fall down down a well-prepared Caruana rabbit hole after 22.Bb4! But Caruana commented after the game that “Maxime played the best way; I was kind of upset that he played this because I thought 19…Nf6 is a very difficult move to find.” 20.Nxc5 Nd5 To be honest, what MVL plays looks to me to be the pragmatic option here – certainly easier to workout than the potential minefield in the above note. 21.Qe5 Rg8 I’m sure that the obvious 21…Qxc3+ 22.Kf2 will walk right into another Caruana quagmire. 22.Ndxe6 fxe6 23.Nxe6 Qxc3+ 24.Qxc3 Nxc3 25.Nc7+ Kf7 26.Rd3 Ne4? Just when the Grandmaster talking heads were congratulating MVL for safely having navigated his way through Caruana’s minefield, he errs at the critical moment. The Frenchman missed the safe move of 26…Ra7! where the rook being awkwardly developed on a7 is a vital resource often seen in many Poisoned Pawn lines. Now after 27.0-0+ Kg6 28.Rxc3 Kh7 29.Nd5 Be6 30.Nc7 Bc8 31.Nd5 Be6 32.Nc7 Black has nothing better than 32…Bc8 repeating the position and a draw, as 32…Bg4 33.h3 Be2 34.Re1 Rd8 35.Bc5 b6 36.Ne6! Rd1 37.Rxd1 Bxd1 38.Bxb6 Rf7 also looks as if it will end in a draw. 27.0-0+ MVL may have temporarily had the extra piece and two pawns, but now Caruana is the one with all the active pieces and all the fun! 27…Kg6 28.Nxa8 Nc6 29.Nb6 Rd8 30.Nxc8 Rxc8 31.Ba3 If it wasn’t for the case of white’s rooks and bishop being so active, then the game could well have ended in a draw – but here, with all the activity, and black’s rook and knights restricted, white has a potential game-winning advantage. But having it and converting it is not an easy task. 31…Rc7 32.Rf4 Nf6 33.Bb2 Ne7 34.Bxf6 gxf6 35.h4 h5 36.Rg3+ Kf7 37.Rg5 And with it, Caruana starts the process of picking off some of MVL’s loose pawns – but it is still not enough to guarantee he’s winning. 37…Rc1+ 38.Kh2 Ng6 39.Rf2 Nxh4 40.Rxh5 Ng6 41.Rh7+ Caruana is going to grab MVL’s queenside pawns now – but to do so, it means he has to trade a set of rooks (which he really doesn’t want to), leaving a very awkward R v N endgame where the pawns are opposing each other. Ideally, to win, white needed it to be a passed h-pawn rather than the g-pawn. 41…Ke6 42.Rxb7 Ne5 43.Rb6+ Rc6 44.Rxc6+ Caruana’s rooks were so active, but to try to convert this, he is forced to trade a set of rooks, and now we are on the verge of entering the realms of ‘Endgame Tablebase-land’. 44…Nxc6 45.Kg3 Kf7 46.Rc2 Caruana will easily pick-off the a-pawn – but the trouble is how to make progress on the kingside to force home a difficult win? 46…Nb4 47.Rd2 Nc6 48.Kf4 Kg6 49.Rd6 Ne5 50.Rxa6 Nf7 51.Ke4 Nh6 52.Ra5 Nf7 53.Ra3 Nd6+ 54.Kf4 Nf5 55.Rd3 Nh6? Of course, we’re only human and not wired up to a mainframe – but plenty of ‘Armchair Grandmasters’ consulting the Endgame Tablebase were, and with their ‘superior’ endgame prowess, were screaming out 55…Ng7! and proclaiming it to be a draw, as if everyone should know this fact. At the press conference, it was also pointed out to MVL that this was a fortress with the critical squares e6, e5, f5, g5, and h5 all now covered, thus Caruana’s king can’t sneak in by the back door, as it does with lethal effect in the game. But now after MVL’s all-too-human error, the tablebase tell a different story, that it’s just a ‘simple’ win in 43 moves! 56.Rg3+ Kf7 57.Ke4 Ng8 58.Kf5 Ne7+ 59.Kf4 Nd5+ 60.Kg4? Naturally it is much easier not defending in this position, as you can momentarily stray off-course and get away with it – but the Endgame Tablebase is ‘God’ here, and for that reason the only winning move is 60.Kf5! But luckily for Caruana, MVL still hasn’t cottoned onto the saving Ng7 fortress resource. 60…Kg6 61.Kf3+ Kf7 62.Ke4 Ne7? You can’t really blame MVL here, as the saving move is not really a move you might see the rationale of, as you are moving it away from the action, but 62…Nc7! 63.Ra3 Ne6! and once again we’re heading for the …Ng7 and …Kg6 fortress and a draw. For MVL’s part, he just thought the R v N ending was a tough draw, but then to his horror discovered that it all “got messy”. 63.Kf4 Nd5+ 64.Kf5 The difference here is that sooner rather than later, Caruana’s king will infiltrate via h5, and black is dead. 64…Ne7+ 65.Ke4 Ng8 66.Rh3 Kg6 67.Ra3 Kf7 68.Kf4 Nh6 69.Rg3 Ever so patiently, builds his ideal breakthrough position – and MVL has now run out of moves and road. 69…Ng8 70.Kg4! Ne7 If 70…Kg6 71.Kh4+ Kh7 72.Kh5 and white wins. 71.Kh5 Nd5 72.Rf3 Ke6 73.g4 Ke5 74.Kg6 1-0 Chess is a cruel mistress. After almost 6.5 hours, and also after surviving the chess equivalent of being hit over the head with a massive novelty, finding your way through the minefield, and then missing an unlikely endgame tablebase fortress, MVL now has to throw in the towel, faced with 74…Nf4+ 75.Kf7 Ke4 76.Rf1 Ke5 (No better is 76…f5 77.g5! and the pawn runs.) 77.Re1+ winning the f-pawn.