As we saw in our previous recap column, “Carry on Candidates”, the French #1 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave ended the first half of the ill-fated 2020 FIDE Candidates Tournament on a high by demolishing front-runner Ian Nepomniachtchi, to join the Russian champion in the join-lead on 4½/7 before the global Covid pandemic brought everything to a grinding halt.
And while Nepo and MVL have the big advantage with a full point lead over the chasing pack, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion with the concluding second-half now looming on the horizon.
With the event now shortened to a 7-round sprint, and the FIDE Candidates Tournament set to resume once again on Monday, 19 April in Yekaterinburg, Russia – some 389-days after it first started, back on 15 March 2020 – the player to watch could well be the US world #2, Fabiano Caruana. Apart from having the experience of being a previous Candidates’ victor, and already having an unsuccessful tilt at World Champion Magnus Carlsen, Caruana could hold the key to what happens in the second-half of the tournament.
Psychologically, he could be in better shape than MVL, as the co-leader’s form of late, both online and over-the-board, has been nothing short of disastrous; so disastrous in fact, that the Frenchman sensationally crashed out of the FIDE Top 10 recently, as he dramatically plummeted ten spots to now world #15.
And as the fates would have it, when play does resumes on Monday, the big round 8 match-up is going to be a crucial clash between Caruana and MVL. If Caruana wins, then with his discipline, experience and well-prepared backroom team, then anything can happen down the homestretch. Another major factor going Caruana’s way is that he also has the big colour advantage, having four whites in the last seven games.
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.
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.
And Carlsen’s team of trainers, Grandmasters Peter Heine Nielsen, Laurent Fressinet and Jan Gustafsson, also take an in-depth look at each of the players and their thoughts on which of the eight goes forward to meet “the Boss” in a new Chess24 video.
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Kirill Alekseenko
FIDE Candidates 2020, (2)
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Kmoch variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3 The Kmoch variation, named after the Austrian-Dutch-American IM Hans Kmoch (1894-1973), who became the Secretary and manager of the Manhattan Chess Club, and whose claim to fame is being the author of the acclaimed book Pawn Power in Chess. This is a dynamic opening, akin to the Samisch variation, a sharp and very complicated way for White to try to dominate the center – and definitely something that would have come as a big surprise for Alekseenko, as Caruana admitted he’d never played this before! 4…d5 The solid and safe mainline. The ‘adventurous’ line is 4…c5!? 5.d5 Nh5!? 6.Nh3 Qh4+ 7.Nf2 Qxc4 8.e4 Bxc3+ 9.bxc3 Qxc3+ 10.Bd2 Qa3 where Black has two pawns, but White has good compensation and all ‘the fun’ with the better development and more space. 5.a3 Be7 6.e4 dxe4 7.fxe4 c5 8.d5 There’s also the double-edged endgame option of 8.e5 Nfd7 9.dxc5 Nxe5 10.Qxd8+ Bxd8 11.Be2 Bd7 12.Nf3 Nxf3+ 13.Bxf3 Bc6 14.Ne4 which occurred in Firouzja, A-Anand,V, Wijk Tata Steel Masters 2020. 8…exd5 9.exd5 0-0 10.Be2 Re8 11.Nf3 Bg4 It’s a decent plan as any for Black. 12.0-0 Nbd7 13.d6 Bf8 14.h3 Bh5 15.Nb5 Re6?! This was an “unusual move”, according to Caruana, who felt Black had two good options in 15…Rb8 16.Bf4 a6 17.Nc7 Re4!? or 15…Qb6 16.Nc7 Bxd6 17.Nxa8 Rxa8 with the bishop-pair and a pawn for the exchange. 16.Bf4! This has to be the most logical and best move. Caruana did say in his presser at the time that he looked at the alternative of 16.g4 which, initially he thought looked good for him, but soon realised that after 16…a6 17.Ng5 it was all becoming as bit “murky and messy”. 16…a6 17.Nc7 Re4 This was the point of Alekseenko’s play – but when Caruana doesn’t play ball by going for the messy lines, it’s almost as if he fails to to spot the obvious moves needed to be played to stay competitive. 18.Bh2 Alekseenko was hoping for 18.Nxa8?! Rxf4 19.Nc7 Nb6! 20.Qd2 Qxd6 21.Qxd6 Bxd6 22.Nd5 Nfxd5 23.cxd5 c4 24.Nd2!? c3! 25.Bxh5 cxd2 26.Rxf4 Bxf4 27.Bf3 Nc4 and Black seems to be doing OK. 18…Rc8?! It’s yet another little inaccuracy, and they soon begin to mount up for Alekseenko, as Caruana ruthlessly seizes the initiative. Instead, Caruana thought the best try was 18…Rb8!? where now his game continuation of 19.g4 Bxg4 20.hxg4 Nxg4 21.Bd3 Nxh2 22.Bxe4 Nxf1 23.Qxf1 Nf6! 24.Bf5 and there’s no hit on the …Rc8. All of which makes a big, big difference, as the Russian’s position now collapses with a laser-like attack from Caruana. 19.g4 Bxg4 20.hxg4 Nxg4 21.Bd3 Nxh2 22.Bxe4 Nxf1 23.Qxf1 Bxd6 The only fighting chance Alekseenko has is to admit his mea culpa and still play 23…Nf6 but, as explained above, after 24.Bf5! Rb8 25.Rd1 Bxd6 26.Nd5 g6 27.Qd3! Black, while not dead, faces an uphill task to stay in the game. 24.Nd5 g6 25.Qh3! Not only bringing the queen into the attack, but also threatening Qxd7 with the Nf6+ fork winning another piece. 25…Kg7 Alekseenko had not one but two deadly forks to be wary of: After 25…Ne5? 26.Nxe5 Bxe5 there’s the other with 27.Qxc8! Qxc8 28.Ne7+ Kf8 29.Nxc8 winning. 26.Kh1 Caruana very effectively clears g1 for his rook to pile in now with his attack. 26…Ne5 27.Nh4 h5 28.Rg1 Bf8 Caruana had also spotted the nice win after 28…Ng4 with the forcing line 29.Nf5+! Kg8 30.Rxg4 hxg4 31.Qh6 Bf8 (If 31…gxf5 32.Nf6+ wins) 32.Nde7+ Qxe7 33.Nxe7+ and Black can resign. 29.Nf4 Ng4 30.Nxh5+! [see diagram] So much for that age-old adage that a knight on the rim is dim! 30…gxh5 31.Bf5 Be7 32.Bxg4 hxg4 33.Qxg4+ Bg5 34.Qh5! 1-0 Caruana finds the most accurate move that forces mate, and Alekseenko resigns, faced with the prospect of 34…f6 35.Nf5+ Kf8 36.Qh8+ Kf7 37.Qh7+ Ke6 38.Re1+ Be3 39.Rxe3#.