The Fide Candidates Tournament in Madrid was easily won at a canter by a resurgent and regenerated Ian Nepomniachtchi – who now gets to challenge Magnus Carlsen once again for his crown – but the Russian ended his campaign undefeated with a final round draw against Jan-Krzysztof Duda to finish on 9½/14. Yet with the Norwegian top dog talking up the possibility of abdication, all eyes were on the big fight between Hikaru Nakamura and Ding Liren for second, as the runner-up spot could come with the added bonus of an unexpected title match.
In the end, despite a disastrous start to his Candidates campaign with a first round mauling by the eventual victor, top seed Ding Liren eventually ground down Nakamura as China’s great hope came good with a string of second half wins to dramatically snatch the coveted runner-up spot, ending with 8/14 and a half-point ahead of nearest rivals Teimour Radjabov and Nakamura.
Despite being pleased with his strong second-half performance to grab the runner-up spot, Ding, at the final press conference, was sanguine as only Ding can be, feeling that a comprise/change of heart will see Carlsen defend his title. “There are chances he might not play. I guess he lacks motivation to defend the title again. Also it takes a lot of energy and a lot of preparation compared to the other tournaments, so maybe that’s a reason he’s not sure if he’ll play or not, but I believe when the World Championship is approaching maybe his inner heart will start to burn with fire, so I guess he’ll play in the end.”
If so, we discovered by accident that could well be Ding’s last appearance at the board this year. With COVID still making travelling difficult in his homeland, the world #2 let it slip earlier in the Candidates that China – despite being double defending Olympiad champions – will not be competing in next month’s 44th Olympiad in India. A strange decision that will only boost America’s chances of regaining the Hamilton-Russell Cup.
1. I. Nepomniactchi (Fide) 9½/14; 2. Ding Liren (China) 8; 3-4. T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan), H. Nakamura (USA) 7½; 5. F. Caruana (USA) 6½; 6. A. Firouzja (France) 6; 7-8. JK. Duda (Poland), R. Rapport (Hungary) 5½.
GM Ding Liren – GM Hikaru Nakamura
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (14)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c5 5.e3 A quiet sidelined aimed to avoid the mainline of the Tarrasch/Semi-Tarrasch Defence popularised by both Boris Spassky and Garry Kasparov. 5…Nc6 6.a3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 a6 8.Bd3 b5 9.dxc5 Bxc5 10.b4 Be7 11.0-0 Bb7 12.Bb2 0-0 13.Ne4 Nxe4 14.Bxe4 f5 15.Bb1 Qxd1 16.Rxd1 The consensus among the online fans was that this game was now heading for that peaceful town of “Drawsville” – and hard not to disagree with that assessment with the queens coming off and we are left with a near symmetrical position. 16…Rfd8 17.Ba2 Kf7 18.h4 The only thing Ding has going for himself is more space and better pieces for now – but nothing you would think he could make the most of to beat Nakamura to snatch second place. 18…h6 19.Rdc1 Bd6 Slightly inaccurate. Better was 19…Bf6! which seems to solve all of Black’s problems with the dark-squared bishops soon to be exchanged. 20.Rc2 Ne7 21.Nd4 Bd5 22.Bxd5 Nxd5 23.Rac1 Ding just has a little edge here – though nothing you would think that would lead to a win, but boy does he make the most of it. 23…Rd7 24.Nb3 Be7 25.h5 Effectively fixing Black’s kingside pawns – but it comes with an element of risk, as the h-pawn itself could well be picked-off. 25…Bf6 26.Bd4 e5 27.Bc5 Bd8 28.Rd2 Nf6 29.Rxd7+ Nxd7 30.Rd1 Nf6 It’s still hard to believe here that Black goes on to lose this – but it just becomes a little too uncomfortable for Nakamura, not helped by his own errors. 31.Bd6 Ng4 32.Bc5 Bh4 33.Rd7+ Kg8 34.g3 Bg5?! The easy solution – as Nakamura himself admitted – that should lead to a draw was 34…Rd8! 35.Rxd8+ (Did Nakamura over-worry about his a-pawn? That’s an all-too human concern, but it seems even if it is lost, it isn’t all bad for Black, such as 35.Ra7 Bg5 36.Rxa6 Rd3!) 35…Bxd8 36.Bd6 Kf7 37.Nc5 Once again the a-pawn is under attack, but after 37…Be7! 38.Bxe7 Kxe7 39.Nxa6 Kd6 40.Kg2 Nf6 Black wins the h-pawn to reestablish the material equilibrium. 35.Kf1 Bd8 By missing his moment by not playing 34…Rd8!, suddenly Nakamura’s pieces are in a bit of a muddle as Ding moves in to seize his big opportunity. 36.Rb7! Effectively stopping …a5 that would at least have eased Black’s worries of weak pawns on the queenside. 36…f4 Given the dramatic changed circumstances, Nakamura’s best hope now is to try to destabilise Ding’s pawn structure and reduce the number of pawns left on the board. 37.gxf4 exf4 38.e4 A tough but right call from Ding. If 38.exf4 Nf6 39.Nd4 Nxh5 40.Ne6 g5! Black good saving chances, as 41.f5 Bf6 Black just has better chances to take this ending to a draw. 38…Bf6 39.Nd4 Re8 40.Kg2 Ne5 The engines will tell you that White’s advantage here is only around “+0.50” and easily within the realms of being saveable – but computer evaluation and practicalities at the board are two different things here, and the reality is that Ding’s active pieces means Nakamura can’t hold his position together. 41.Nf5 f3+ 42.Kg3 Nc4 White’s a-pawn is of no real value in this struggle now. 43.Be7 Bb2? A further error that only compounds Nakamura’s problems here – his only chance was again reducing the material on the board with 43…Bxe7 44.Nxe7+ Kf8 45.Ng6+ Kg8 46.Kxf3 Nxa3 47.Rc7 Nc4 48.Kf4 a5 and put the onus firmly on White to demonstrate how he’s going to convert the win. 44.Kxf3 Bxa3 45.Kg3 Ne5 46.Bc5! The hit on g7 gives Ding the vital tempo needed to convert the win. 46…Nf7 47.f3 Bc1 Black is just dead in the water and no better was 47…Bb2 48.Ra7 Ng5 49.Rxa6 Rb8 50.Be3 Nh7 51.Ne7+ Kf8 52.Bf4! Re8 53.Nd5 eventually Black’s b-pawn will fall and with it the game. 48.Ra7 Bd2 49.Rxa6 Be1+ 50.Kg2 Bc3 51.Ra7 Ng5 52.Ne7+ Kh8 53.Ng6+ With Nakamura at his mercy, Ding simply take a little timeout with a two-move repetition to double-check his win. 53…Kg8 54.Ne7+ Kh8 55.Nd5 Bb2 56.Ra2! Seemingly retreating the rook from its most active square on the seventh, but it’s a strategical retreat that embarrasses Nakamura’s bishop that now finds itself chronically short of squares. 56…Bc1 57.Rc2 Ba3 58.Be3! 1-0 Nakamura throws in the towel with no way of stopping Ra2.