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The early rounds of the 2022 Fide Candidates Tournament in Madrid is living up to the spectators’ hopes of the eight-player contest turning into a veritable street-fight to see who will go forward to meet Magnus Carlsen in a World Championship Match next year, with lots of aggressive games, tough duels, remarkable saves, not to mention some early bad mishaps.

But through it all, the last two Candidates’ winners and unsuccessful title-challengers, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana, have impressed the most early doors and look like the players to beat, as they lead the field by just a half-point going into Monday’s first rest day of the contest, boosted by opening round wins over top seed Ding Liren and outside dark horse Hikaru Nakamura respectively.

In the last Candidates Tournament, favourite Ding Liren handicapped his chances with a brace of  opening round losses from which he never recovered from – and his early, rusty loss to Nepomniachtchi – playing under the neutral flag of Fide, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine – history could well be repeating itself as the world No.2 looks to be completely out-of-form.

In the all-American clash, Nakamura suffered with a loose king which Caruana exploited for the full-point – but Nakamura immediately struck back by beating Teimour Radjabov and then pulling off “The Great Escape” to stave off what looked like certain defeat to the young teenage pretender to Carlsen’s crown, Alireza Firouzja.

Round 4 gets underway again on Tuesday, with the following pairings: Rapport-Nakamura; Nepomniachtchi-Firouzja; Duda-Radjabov; and Ding-Caruana.

There’s live coverage throughout, with top Grandmaster commentaries on the official tournament site and also on Chess24.

Standings:
1-2. F. Caruana (USA), I. Nepomniachtchi (Fide) 2/3; 3-6. JK Duda (Poland), A. Firouzja (France), R. Rapport (Hungary), H. Nakamura (USA) 1½; 7-8. T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan), Ding Liren (China) 1.

Photo: Nepo got off to a bright and breezy start | © Stev Bonhage/2022 Fide World Candidates

GM Ding Liren – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (1)
English Opening, Keres Variation
1.c4 e5 2.g3 More usual in the English Opening is 2.Nc3 followed by g3 and Bg2 – but this was the recommended set-up endorsed by English GM Tony Kosten (mainly to avoid the rather annoying 2…Bb4) in his wonderful 1999 book, The Dynamic English. 2…c6 This is one of the drawbacks to Kosten’s way of playing the English Opening – this line, named after the Estonian, then Soviet, perennial World Championship Candidate, Paul Keres. The idea behind it is not too dissimilar to the Alapin Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.c3). If not disturbed, Black will play …d7-d5 and answer Nf3 with … e5-e4. 3.Nf3 e4 4.Nd4 d5 5.cxd5 Qxd5 Basically, Black has achieved a good reversed Sicilian Alapin. 6.Nc2 Nf6 7.Nc3 Qe5 8.Bg2 Na6 9.0-0 Be7 10.Ne3 0-0 11.a3 Re8 12.b4 Ng4 13.Bb2 It’s dangerous to snatch the pawn with 13.Bxe4 as the game begins to open up to Black’s advantage after 13…Bf6 14.Nxg4 Bxg4 with strong pressure for the pawn. 13…Qh5 14.h4 Ding looks rusty, out-of-sorts, and is caught in the opening between a rock and a hard place here, as the kingside attack is inevitable now from Nepo. 14…Bf6 15.Qc2 Nxe3 16.dxe3 Bf5 17.Na4 Bxb2 18.Nxb2 Nc7! The knight is heading to the wonderful outpost on d5 to help spearhead Nepo’s attack. 19.Nc4 Re6 If this isn’t an indication of what’s coming, then I don’t know what is – Nepo plans simply to prise open the h-file for a brutal caveman mating attack. 20.Rfd1 Ding isn’t lost per se, but his position is so precarious that it will take just one minor slip and Black’s attack will come crashing through. 20…Nd5 21.Rd4?! It all starts to go horribly pear-shaped for Ding from this moment. More resilient was 21.Na5!? as the straight caveman approach with 21…g5 sees 22.hxg5 Qxg5 23.b5! that, according to our Silicon Overlords, allows a saving resource with 23…Rh6 24.bxc6 bxc6 25.Nxc6 Nxe3 26.Qc5! and the Qxf5/Ne7+ fork threat turns out to be a table-turner, with White better, and the best Black can hope for is 26…Rxc6! 27.Qxc6 Rc8 28.Qd6 Nxd1 29.Rxd1 Bg6 30.e3 Qc5 and I dare say a draw will soon be on the cards. 21…h6 22.Qd2?! It’s complicated, but according to the engines, White simply had to try 22.Rc1 Rae8 23.b5!? g5 24.bxc6 bxc6 25.Bf3!? exf3 26.Qxf5 fxe2 27.Re1 Ne7 28.Qc2 c5 29.Rd6 gxh4 30.Rxe6 hxg3 31.fxg3 fxe6 32.Rxe2 Rf8 33.Rh2 Qg4 34.Ne5 Qg7 35.Qe4 and Black is clearly better with the extra pawn, but it is far from clear if he’s winning. 22…Rae8 23.Kh2 Ding is on the morphine drip here – it is just a matter of time for Nepo to find the best way to crash through with the attack. 23…Bg4 24.Na5 Rf6 25.Kg1 g5! [see diagram] This time the caveman approach is just brutal. 26.Nxb7 gxh4 27.Nc5 h3 28.Rxe4? Better was 28.Nxe4 Rfe6 and Black is clearly winning – but by now, I suspect that Ding had decided he’d rather hang for the sheep than the lamb. 28…hxg2! Nepo can afford to give up the rook even with a check, as Ding’s king is caught in a mating net. 29.Rxe8+ Kg7 30.f4 There’s no defence: If 30.Kxg2 White’s world falls apart after 30…Rxf2+!! 31.Kxf2 Qh2+ 32.Kf1 Bh3+ 33.Ke1 Qg1#. 30…Qh1+ 31.Kf2 Qxa1 32.Kxg2 Bh3+! 0-1 And Ding resigns, not wishing to see his king mated after 33.Kxh3 Qh1+ 34.Kg4 h5+ 35.Kg5 Qh3 36.Ne6+ Rxe6 37.Qb2+ f6+ etc.

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