After sensationally collapsing and being pummelled 4-0 by Magnus Carlsen in their title match last year, a resurgent Ian Nepomniachtchi re-found his form to cruise to victory in the Fide Candidates Tournament in Madrid. The 31-year-old Russian defied the pre-tournament pundit odds as he sealed the deal to secure his second back-to-back Candidates title with a round to spare, with his reward being the right to once again challenge the Norwegian in the next World Championship match.
A safety-first draw against Hungarian Richard Rapport in the penultimate round 13 gave Nepo – playing under the neutral Fide flag due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine – an uncatchable score of 9/13 that includes an impressive undefeated tally of five wins (three with the black pieces) and a gain of 26.6 rating points to rise up four places in the unofficial live ratings to supplant Fabiano Caruana as the new world #3.
And in a Candidates first, Magnus Carlsen himself turned up in Madrid to witness the final few rounds! No world champion in the past has ever appeared at the gladiatorial contest that decides who is challenger is going to be – and immediately the rumour mill was speculating that a compromise with Fide could be in the works for Carlsen to confirm he’d be defending his title.
A surprise Carlsen meeting with the Fide president, Arkady Dvorkovich, is said to have been arranged on Sunday in Madrid, with the world champion looking for changes to the long-established duel format if they want him to see him defend his title – and one format being heavily touted is 6 classical games scoring 3-points for a win, followed by 6 rapid games scoring 2-points, and concluding with 12 blitz games scoring 1-point each.
And in the present geopolitical situation following the invasion of Ukraine, another problem Fide will have is finding a ‘clean’ host for the match who will raise the prize fund, then present contract details and set a deadline. It’s only then we will know for sure whether Carlsen will carry out his intentions made late last year not to defend his title.
But should Carlsen decline to defend his title, the race for second place in Madrid becomes all the more important, as the Fide rules stipulate that (should Carlsen decline to defend his title) the Candidates winner and runner-up play in the title match – and once again, American hope Hikaru Nakamura has taken a big stake in that race with the only decisive win of the penultimate round, as he held his nerve to beat Poland’s Jan-Krzysztof Duda on-demand.
Going into the final round, Nakamura holds what could well be a precious half-point lead over his nearest second-place rival Ding Liren of China – and the scriptwriters couldn’t have had a better storyline to work with, as both meet in a crunch 4th of July final round showdown in Madrid! There’s live coverage of the crucial final round with top Grandmaster commentaries on the official Fide Candidates Tournament site and also on Chess24.
1. I. Nepomniachtchi (Fide) 9/13; 2. H. Nakamura (USA) 7½; 3. Ding Liren (China) 7; 4-5. T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan), F, Caruana (USA) 6½; 6. R. Rapport (Hungary) 5½; 7-8. JK. Duda (Poland), A. Firouzja (France) 5.
Photo: Nepo wins back-to-back Candidates, but will he face Carlsen or….? | © Stev Bonhage/FIDE Candidates
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (13)
Sicilian Najdorf, English Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 Nakamura repeats the same opening he used to take down an increasingly tilting Alireza Firouzja in round ten, which was highlighted in our previous column. And as explained there, this line was formerly associated with US champion and New York Times columnist, Robert Byrne, before being reworked and rechristened the “English Attack” due to pioneering work from Nigel Short, Michael Adams and John Nunn, to name but a few top English players associated with it. 6…e5 Duda follows on with Firouzja’s preference for the old-school Najdorf reply, rather than the tricky and one-time popular 6…Ng4!? 7.Nf3 Be7 8.h3 Smelling a rat, Nakamura wisely avoids for now 8.Bc4 that he played successfully against Firouzja a few rounds earlier – but the teenager fell into a really bad-line in that game. 8…h6 9.Bc4 Be6 Now we are basically back to Nakamura-Firouzja from round ten with the interpolation of h3 and h6 from both sides. 10.Bb3 Without the two mutual h-pawn moves, here 10.Nd5 was played in the aforementioned Nakamura-Firouzja game – but Nakamura wisely avoids falling into this line. 10…Nc6 11.Nh4 Na5 The big question is what happens after 11…0-0 12.0-0 Nxe4!? It looks harmless, and after the dust settles with 13.Nxe4 Bxb3 14.axb3 Bxh4 15.Nxd6 Qd7 16.Nc4 Qe6 17.Qe2 Bd8! with the bishop coming to c7, Black has total equality. 12.Bxe6 fxe6 13.Ng6 Rg8 It looks a little awkward for Duda, but he does have good possibilities with his central pawn control. 14.0-0 Nc4 15.Bc1 Rc8 16.h4 Rc6 17.Qf3 Kf7 18.h5 The Ng6 is like a bone sticking in Duda’s throat – and one where the Heimlich manoeuvre might well not work! 18…Qc7 19.Nd1 The night hop to e3 just gives Nakamura more than a little edge now. 19…Nb6 20.Ne3 Nbd7 21.c4 Trying to denying Duda the freeing …d5 move. 21…Nf8 22.Nh4 It’s always hard to give up a wonderful knight outpost, but perhaps, on reflection, best was 22.Nxf8 Rxf8 23.b3 b5 24.cxb5 axb5 25.Bd2 and White has a little endgame advantage, though not much to write home about. The trouble now is that Duda gets better squares for his knights. 22…N8h7! 23.b3 Ng5 24.Qe2 Ngxe4 25.Bb2 Nakamura has “some” compensation for the pawn – but nothing that with careful play Black can’t deal with. 25…Re8 26.Ng6 Kg8 27.Rad1 a5 A better defence, as the engine points out, is 27…Qb6 28.Ng4 Bd8! 29.Nxf6+ Nxf6 30.Rd2 Qc5 looking to consolidate with …Bc7 and then …a5. 28.Ng4 Bd8 Duda is in a bit of a muddle right now, but nothing that can’t be resolved with accurate play. 29.Nxf6+ Nxf6 30.Rd2 Nd7 The simple solution appears to be 30…Qf7 31.Ba3 Bc7 32.Rfd1 d5 33.Bb2 e4! 34.Bxf6 Qxf6 35.cxd5 exd5 36.Rxd5 Bb6 with the idea of angling for …e3. But Duda sees a line that promises a good position, so he goes for this. 31.Rfd1 Bg5! 32.Rd3 b5 33.Ba3 Duda has imaginatively resolved his problems – but he wrongly believes he has a winning continuation. 33…d5?! Better for Black was 33…b4! 34.Bb2 a4 and Black is on top here. But for some strange reason, Duda went all-in believing …d5 was a winner, only for it to rebound on him big-time. 34.cxd5 Rc2 35.Bd6! [see diagram] A stunning intermezzo missed by Duda – and it proves to be a game-changer as the Pole goes into a blind panic, believing his position to be compromised. 35…Rxe2? It is a very tricky position to fully assess in the heat of battle with little or no time on your clock – but according to the engine, Black’s only try for survival was 35…exd5! 36.Bxc7 Rxe2 37.Rxd5 Nf6 38.Rxb5 Nxh5 39.a4 (If 39.Rxa5 Kh7 40.Nxe5 Bf4! 41.Nd3 Bxc7 42.Rxh5 Rxa2 and a draw os on the cards with pressure on f2 coming with …Rd8 and …Bb6.) 39…e4! 40.Bxa5 e3 41.fxe3 Bxe3+ 42.Kh2 Bf4+ 43.Nxf4 Nxf4 44.Rd2 Nxg2 45.Rxe2 Rxe2 46.Kg3 Ra2 47.Bc3 g5 48.Kg4 but it doesn’t paint a healthy picture with all of White’s pieces being active and those a- and b-pawns threatening to run up the board. 36.Bxc7 Nc5 37.d6!? A brave call from Nakamura when 37.Rf3! exd5 38.Rxd5 e4 39.Rff5 Nd3 40.Rxb5 Rxa2 41.Rxa5 Rb2 42.Rab5 looks promising for him – but the sudden shock of the sacrifice works in Nakamura’s favour, as it seems to totally discombobulate his opponent. 37…Nd7? Reeling from Nakamura’s bluff, Duda goes from bad to worse now, as he fails to spot that 37…Nxd3! 38.Rxd3 e4 39.d7 Ra8 40.Rd6 Rxa2 41.Rxe6 Kf7 42.Rd6 Ra1+ 43.Kh2 a4 44.bxa4 bxa4 is going to likely end in a draw, as the a-pawn is too far down the board now. 38.Bxa5 The d6-pawn is now the major influence in the game, as Nakamura calmly and skilfully converts his advantage. 38…Rxa2 39.Bb4 Bd8 40.Rc3 Bb6 41.Kh2 Kh7? Duda is in full panic mode now. He had to face the worsening reality of his position with 41…Rxf2!? 42.Rc7 Rf7 43.Rb7 and only now 43…Kh7 44.Ne7 Bc5! 45.Bxc5 Nxc5 46.Rxb5 Nd7 where White has the advantage, but there’s a lot of work still needed to convert this position. 42.f3! The calm move proves to be a rock-solid winner for Nakamura – and the American probably can’t believe his luck in this game, as Duda all but pressed the self-destruct button at the critical moment. 42…Ra7 43.Rc6 Be3 44.Bd2 Bd4 45.Bc3 Be3 46.Rc7 Nakamura’s pieces are just too well placed here. 46…Rea8 47.Kh3 Of course, with no nerves or worries, the engine gleefully points out that the stone-cold killer was 47.Ra1! Rxa1 48.Bxa1 Bf4+ 49.g3 Bxg3+ 50.Kxg3 Nf6 51.d7! Nxh5+ 52.Kh4 Kxg6 53.Rc8 and the d-pawn queens. But when you have positionally crushing position as Nakamura does, you opt for the safe way to bank the full point. 47…b4 At least stopping the killer Ra1 – but Blacks game is now too far gone to be saved. 48.Bxb4 Duda is basically sitting in Death’s Waiting Room, as equally as good was 48.Bxe5 Bb6 49.Rxa7 Rxa7 50.Bd4 which nicely transposes down to a won endgame for White. 48…Rb8 49.Bc3 Rxb3 50.Rc8! There’s a sting in the tail for Duda, as Rh8 mate isn’t the only threat in town. 50…Rb8 51.Rxb8 Nxb8 52.d7! 1-0 And Duda resigns, not waiting for 52…Nxd7 53.Rxd7! Rxd7 54.Nf8+ Kg8 55.Nxd7 with White easily winning being a full piece up in the ending.