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John Henderson
By John Henderson

It’s an event that’s destined to become the subject of trivia quizzes as the longest-running over-the-board tournament in history, as the game’s governing body, FIDE, announced the resumption for next week of the second half of the now retitled 2020/21 Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia, over a year after it was abruptly brought to a halt.

The first seven rounds were completed by the end of March 2020, but the tournament – the second most influential tournament, surpassed only by the World Championship – had to be suspended and rescheduled owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, and now, the concluding seven rounds is set to resume once again on Monday, 19 April in the same venue, with the eventual winner going on to challenge World Champion Magnus Carlsen.

To refresh your memory, the eight contenders vying for a crack at Carlsen are Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, 29, France; Ian Nepomniachtchi, 29, Russia; Kirill Alekseenko, 22, Russia; Alexander Grischuk, 36, Russia; Fabiano Caruana, 27, USA; Anish Giri, 25, Netherlands; Wang Hao, 30, China; and Ding Liren, 27, China.

The Russian world #4 Nepomniachtchi sprang into the early lead. But fate and coronavirus intervened, as Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – a last-minute substitute for Teimour Radjabov, who withdrew due to growing pandemic fears – beat the front-runner in round 7 with an impressive win to tie for the lead, both on +2 with a full point lead over the field. But with that timely win, MVL also grabbed what potentially could be a big advantage, because, in the event of a tie at the end, the deciding tiebreaker will be head-to-head results.

The tournament is a double round-robin event with each player meeting twice, once with the black pieces and once with white. And what is usually regarded as a demanding and grueling 14-round event has now turned into a dramatic 7-round sprint – a sprint where anything is now possible, and even someone emerging from the chasing pack with a winning run to record a famous come-from-behind victory.

Standings:
1-2. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 4½/7; 3-6. F. Caruana (USA), A. Giri (Netherlands), Wang Hao (China), A. Grischuk (Russia) 3½; 7-8. Ding Liren (China), K. Alekseenko (Russia) 2½.

Carlsen not only has a vested interest in who his eventual challenger will be, but he’ll also be doing live commentary for Chess24 on the second half of the Candidates! The World Champion heads the Chess24 commentary team alongside David Howell and Tania Sachdev for rounds 8-10, with Judit Polgar replacing Carlsen for the remaining four rounds.

Round 8 starts 13:00 CEST (16:00 Yekaterinburg, 07:00 New York, 04:00 Seattle, 16:30 New Delhi) on Monday 19th April.

 

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
FIDE Candidates Tournament 2020, (7)
French Defence, Winawer
1.e4 e6 Playing the French against the Frenchman seems a bit like waving a red rag at a bull. 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 for White to exploit. And it is a more aggressive plan than Alekseenko’s choice of 8.Nf3 against Nepo that occurred in Round 3, that continued 8…b6 9.Bb5+ Bd7 10.Be2 Ba4! with an easy game and Nepo having the better side of a draw. 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 faces a difficult defence in the long-term: he still has to get his king to safety and his kingside rook into the game, while White has the relatively straight-forward plan of a4, 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 strategic 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 facing long-term problems about how he unravels on the kingside to get his rook into the game. 18.Ne2 c4? Bad timing, as MVL explained in his post-game presser – and from here, he thought he stood better. 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 – certainly this was a decisive moment in the game that Nepo missed, and from here in, his position just gets more and more complicated. 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! and 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 being 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 Rhb8 Finally Nepo gets his rook into the game – but it is too late now, as MVL has his pieces strategically well-placed to now strike at his opponent’s king. 28.Bxe7 Kxe7 29.g4! This is the breakthrough MVL had patiently planned for. 29…Rxb5 If 29…fxg4 30.Qh7. 30.axb5 Rxb5 31.gxf5 Rxb1+ 32.Qxb1 exf5 33.Ng3 MVL was still winning the ending after 33.Qxf5 Qe6 34.Ng3 Qxf5 35.Nxf5+ Kf8 36.Kf2 Nb6 37.Ke2 a5 38.Ne3 a4 39.Nc2 etc (see note below), but 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] Again, White is likely winning the ending with the trade of queens and 35.Qxb6 Nxb6 36.Ne3 a5 37.Kh2 a4 38.Nc2 with 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 now in the game. 39.Qa3+ Kd8 40.Qd6 g5 It’s desperation time. The slimmest of slimmest hope for Nepo is trying to engineer a perpetual with his queen – but that saving scenario is always 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 White easily converts 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 with all the bases covered, Black has run out checks and moves.

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