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John Henderson
By John Henderson

It’s all over bar the shouting, as Russian champion Ian Nepomniachtchi – with the luxury of a round to spare – is now home and dry as the winner of the 2020/21 FIDE Candidates Tournament held in Ekaterinburg, Russia, with the local hero securing the right to go forward to challenge Magnus Carlsen in a World Championship match that’s scheduled to be held in Dubai through November 24/December 16 2021.

Despite a spirited comeback by Anish Giri, Nepomniachtchi sealed the deal in the penultimate round by drawing with Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, as his nearest rival crashed and lost to Russian Alexander Grischuk to leave the final round now something of big anti-climax.

Even if Nepomniachtchi loses, and Giri wins to tie on points, the Russian would still win by having the superior first tiebreak decider of head-to-head score(s); a now fortuitous crucial win against the Dutchman – singled out by Nepomniachtchi in his presser today as his best technical achievement – in the opening round on 17 March 2020 before the Candidates was dramatically halted for more than a year by the pandemic.

“It’s a huge milestone in my career and perhaps in my life,” added Nepomniachtchi of the biggest result of his career during his presser. “I am extremely tired. It was one year of thinking about this tournament, one year of preparation.”

But kudos regardless to Giri for re-inventing himself as he set the second half of the Candidates Tournament ablaze with his barnstorming performance, beating Wang Hao, Ding Liren, and Fabiano Caruana in almost quick succession to give Nepomniachtchi something to worry about going down the homestretch.

Remarkably, even if Giri does win Tuesday’s final round match-up with back-marker Kirill Alekseenko to make his final tally 8½/14, you do really feel for him, as in the past this score would have been enough to win the right to go forward to challenge for the World Championship.

Round 12: Caruana 0-1 Giri; Ding Liren 1-0 Grischuk; Vachier-Lagrave 1-0 Alekseenko; Wang Hao 0-1 Nepomniachtchi.

Round 13: Wang Hao 0-1 Caruana; Nepomniachtchi ½-½ Vachier-Lagrave; Alekseenko 0-1 Ding Liren; Grischuk 1-0 Giri

Standings: 1. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), 8½/13; 2. A. Giri (Netherlands), 7½; 3-4. F. Caruana (USA), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), 7; 5. A. Grischuk (Russia), 6½; 6. Ding Liren (China), 6; 7. Wang Hao (China), 5; 8. K. Alekseenko (Russia), 4½.

Photo: The man and his ‘man-bun’ goes forward for a title tilt against Magnus Carlsen | © Lennart Ootes / FIDE Candidates

 

GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Anish Giri
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (12)
Sicilian Scheveningen
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.a3 A somewhat timid move, designed to avoid a big-theory battle with the sharp Sicilian Sveshnikov. 6…Be7 And from the Sicilian Four Knights, thanks to Caruana’s less-critical 6.a3, we have now transposed into a Sicilian Scheveningen. 7.Be3 0-0 8.Be2 d6 9.Qd3N A novelty from Caruana, but not a critical one as we saw in in his Poisoned Pawn win over MVL. We are basically in uncharted waters now, as a3 and Qd3 are not commonly seen in the Scheveningen. 9…Bd7 10.f4 e5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.0-0 exf4! A common motif in the Scheveningen, the idea with the capture being to vacate the e5 square for the knight to take a central outpost. 13.Bxf4 Be6 The talking heads on Chess24 wanted to try 13…Bg4!? but Giri firmly keeps it very Scheveningen with 13…Be6. 14.Qg3 Nd7! Once the knight takes up its central outpost on e5, life will get very difficult indeed for Caruana. 15.Rad1 Re8 Pure prophylaxis, looking to avoid a calamity such as 15…Qb8? 16.Bh6 Bf6 17.Rxf6! winning. 16.Kh1 Qb8 17.b4 Caruana’s artificial play in the opening has backfired, and he’s beginning to worry he’s going to be left behind when the …Ne5 comes, so he’s aiming to push on with b5 to try to take control of the d5 outpost for his own knight. It’s an ambition plan, but better might have been the simpler 17.b3 Ne5 and following up with 18.Bh5 g6 19.Ne2 with the plan Ne2-d4-f5 and white also has good play. 17…Ne5 Giri has emerged from Caruana’s artificial play in the opening with fully equality. 18.b5 Rc8 19.bxc6 Rxc6 20.Nd5 Qf8! A powerful and very accurate defensive move, but with it the pendulum firmly begins to swing in Giri’s direction. “Given that he was in a must-win, it was a big letdown for him,” explained Giri in his presser. “Then it’s hard, you know, when you play a position where you have to defend and you are in a must-win. You don’t have any enthusiasm whatsoever.” 21.c3 Giri expected 21.c4 Nxc4 22.Bxc4 Rxc4 23.Nxe7+ Qxe7 24.Bxd6 Qd8 25.Be5 Qf8 with an equal position. But realising time is fast running out on his chances of a second title-challenge, to his credit, with 21.c3, Caruana wants to try and keep his options open and to see if he can find a way to win – but Giri has everything all under control. 21…Rac8 22.Rc1 The alternative is 22.Bxe5 dxe5 23.Qxe5 Bxa3 but black’s bishop-pair gives him the edge – and perhaps a bit more than an edge with the white pawn weaknesses on c3 and e4. 22…Ng6! It’s all just getting a tad awkward for Caruana, and he genuinely begins to fear that Giri could have excellent winning chances if he gets the bishop-pair. 23.Bd2 Better may well have been 23.Bg4!? Nxf4 24.Qxf4 as Giri himself suggested. 23…Bh4 According to Giri, “Now I think I am slightly better. It is just very pleasant for me.” 24.Qe3 Rc5 25.c4 h6! Caruana is clearly in trouble now – once …Bg5 comes, Giri will trade the dark-squared bishops and his knight will be spoilt for choice of which of the glorious e5 or f4 outposts to fill. 26.Qb3 Bg5 27.Bxg5 hxg5 28.Qg3 Qd8 29.Rcd1 Bxd5 Giri has the sort of position you normally can only dream about in the Sicilian: his knight dominates the bishop and white also has pawn weaknesses that can’t be resolved. 30.exd5 The alternative recapture was no better: 30.cxd5 Ne5 and black is going to be following up with …a5 and …Ra3 (or even …Rc2). That said, the engine realises how desperate the situation has become, and wants to try 30.Rxd5!? but after 30…Nf4 31.Qf3 Qc7! black is in full control. 30…Nf4 31.Qf2 R8c7! Much stronger and better than 31…Qc7 this time as white has 32.Bg4! Rb8 33.Bf5!? and some counter-play for the pawn. But Giri’s stronger move avoids any of this. 32.Rd4 Qe8 Something has to give now due to the weak c4-pawn, as Giri finds the right way to make his breakthrough. 33.Bf3 Rxc4 34.Rxc4 Rxc4 35.Qxa7 Ra4! 36.Qf2? In dire straits, Caruana misses his only chance to try and cling on, that Giri pointed out, with 36.Qc7! Rxa3 37.h4!? and white may well have just done enough to think about saving the game with his queen better placed on c7 rather than on f2. 36…Rxa3 37.h4 Qe5! Black’s forces now assemble for the kill. 38.hxg5 Qxg5 39.Re1 Ra8 40.Be4 Ra2 In time-trouble, Giri misses the clinical kill with 40…f5! 41.Bb1 but the Dutchman can be excused for not seeing this the first time of asking, because it involves a very unlikely key move of 41…Kf7!! paving the way for the brutality of …Rh8+ mating. 41.Rb1 Ra8 With time to reflect now, Giri admits his mistake, regroups and comes up with the right winning plan. 42.Re1 f5! It’s ‘game over’ when …Kf7 comes. 43.Bb1 Kf7! [see diagram] And Giri doesn’t miss the prosaic winning king move the second time of asking! 44.Re3 Caruana can’t escape the carnage down the h-file by running his king, as 44.Kg1?? Nh3+ wins on the spot. 44…Rh8+ 45.Kg1 Now the …Nh3+ fork is covered, but alas Giri now has another winning knight move. 45…Nxg2! 0-1 Caruana resigns as 46.Rg3 Qc1+ 47.Qf1 Rh1+! is hopelessly lost.

 

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