It’s all over bar the shouting, as Ian Nepomniachtchi, with an unassailable lead atop of the Fide Candidates Tournament in Madrid looks to be cruising to an easy victory, with an unbeaten score of 8½/12 and a full two-points clear of his nearest rivals – and with it, another world championship match with Magnus Carlsen beckons, should the Norwegian opt to defend his title.
With just three rounds left and a commanding lead, Nepomniachtchi – who won the 2020/21 pandemic-delayed Candidates – is now on the cusp of joining a very select club that includes Vasily Smyslov (1953 & 1956), Boris Spassky (1965 & 1968), Viktor Kortchnoi (1977 & 1980) and Anatoly Karpov (1987 & 1990), by becoming only the fifth player to have won back-to-back Candidates.
But the big unanswered question though is will Carlsen defend his title? Late last year, the world No 1 indicated he may decline to go through the ordeal of preparing for and playing yet another title match – at least unless his challenger is someone who inspires him, or comes from a newer generation emerging, such as Iranian exile Alireza Firouzja, who now plays for France.
The psychological burden of being singled-out by Carlsen heading into his first Candidates may have proved too much of a strain for teenage debutante Firouzja, as the 18-year-old rising star has crashed dismally in Madrid with a string of four losses, and he’s now playing on tilt to find himself languishing at the foot of the table.
And with the geopolitical situation of Russia after invading Ukraine, the rumour mill is speculating that Carlsen will decline to play Nepomniachtchi again, whom he humbled 4-0 in the World Championship Match in Dubai in 2021. In the event of such a scenario of Carlsen declining to defend his title, the Fide rules stipulate that the Candidates winner and runner-up will then go forward to play in a title match.
And with Nepomniachtchi so far ahead, all eyes now are on the race to become second best in Madrid. At one stage, it looked like a straight all-American fight between Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura – but the former fell off the pace after losing to Poland’s Jan-Krzysztof Duda in round ten, and then followed that by inexplicably over-pressing against Ding Liren for a second successive loss.
The unexpected win for China’s Ding Liren though put him back in with a chance of securing the second spot – and indeed, it rounded off a three-game winning streak for the world No 2, who held a nominal half point lead over Nakamura going into the final rounds, as the US speed maven-turned-streamer took an easy Petroff’s Defence draw against Nepomniachtchi in today’s round twelve. The now notorious theory repetition led to an outcry from the online fans looking for nothing but blood and guts – but this late in the tournament, it turned out to be a wise move from Nakamura, as Ding crashed to a heavy loss to Teimour Radjabov.
1. I. Nepomniachtchi (Fide) 8½/12; 2-3. H. Nakamura (USA), Ding Liren (China) 6½; 4-5. T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan), F. Caruana (USA) 6; 6-7. JK. Duda (Poland), R. Rapport (Hungary) 5; 8. A. Firouzja (France) 4½.
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Alireza Firouzja
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (10)
Sicilian Najdorf, English Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 The English Attack, as popularised by John Nunn, Nigel Short, Mickey Adams, and Murray Chandler et al. – but long before England’s finest had refined it as a potent weapon and it being re-christened, Robert Byrne, the New York Times columnist and former US champion, was really the first to deploy this easy-to-play, more positional system in praxis as it avoided all the tricky big Najdorf mainlines. 6…e5 A very old-school Najdorf reply, avoiding the sharper continuation 6…Ng4!? that was once popular. 7.Nf3 Nc6 8.Bc4 The main strategic battle from the opening for control of the d5-square – and Nakamura stakes his claim. 8…Be6 9.Nd5 Rc8 10.Nxf6+ gxf6 The game now takes on a Sveshnikov appearance of sorts with the doubled f-pawns and backward d-pawn. 11.Bb3 Ne7 12.0-0 Bxb3 The voluntary trade of bishops only highlight the light-squared weakness on Black’s kingside. But it seems that Firouzja thought he could play around this. 13.axb3 d5 14.exd5 Qxd5 15.Qe2! The trade of queens would certainly have helped Black – but Nakamura rightly senses that there’s trouble looming for his young opponent on the kingside with the light-square problems there. 15…Nf5 16.Rfd1 Qc6 17.c4 Bg7 In view of what comes next, perhaps Firouzja should have tried 17…Be7 18.Rd5! 0-0 and made his stand here? It is still much easier for White to attack than Black to defend, but with the bishop on g7 it is almost impossible for Firouzja to defend the kingside. 18.Rd5! 0-0 19.Rad1 The d-file is dominated – and with it, Nakamura probably couldn’t believe his luck here as the attack all comes with relative ease now. 19…Rfe8 20.h3 b5 Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Firouzja is quite prepared to sacrifice a pawn just to trade the queens and reach a salvageable endgame – but Nakamura isn’t playing ball! 21.c5 Stronger and better first was 21.Bc5! and Black has problems stopping the attacking plans of Qe4 or simply Nd2-e4. Either way, Black is in trouble. 21…Bf8 Our Silicon Overlords will tell you that best is 21…a5 to stop White playing b4 – but the human instinct kicks in and tells you you might be in trouble on the kingside, so best try and find a tactical solution. 22.b4 Nd4 I don’t blame Firouzja – this looked the only show in town to save the game. 23.Nxd4 Qxd5 24.Nf5! The warning signs of the mating patterns are all there for Firouzja – one slip, and he’s a dead man walking. 24…Qe4 Also no good was 24…Qc4? 25.Qf3 Rcd8 26.Rd6!! and Black is in deep trouble on the kingside. 25.Qh5 Red8 26.Ra1! With the Black queen covering against Qg4+, this time 26.Rd6? doesn’t work because of 26…Bxd6 27.Nh6+ Kh8 28.Nxf7+ Kg7 29.Nxd8 Rxd8 30.cxd6 Qc2! (A crucial intermezzo, as 30…Rxd6?? allows 31.Bh6+ Kg8 32.Qe8#) 31.Qh6+ (Not 31.d7 Qg6!) 31…Kf7 32.Qh5+ Qg6 33.Qf3 e4! 34.Qd1 Qf5 35.Bc5 and White should just have enough to hold on. But now Nakamura doesn’t need Rd6 tricks, as the tempo gained to cover a6 allows another unusual route to Firouzja’s king. 26…Rc6? Allowing Rxa6 would have been a massacre – but Firouzja has clearly missed something, as the only possible defence now is 26…a5 27.Rxa5 Ra8! but after 28.Rxb5 Rdb8 29.Rxb8 Rxb8 30.Bd2! and White will just “bank” the queenside pawns and should go on to easily win. 27.Bh6! Kh8 So why not 27…Bxh6 28.Nxh6+ Kg7, you might ask? The trouble is, as the penny finally drops for Firouzja, the real reason for Nakamura’s 26.Ra1 comes into play with 29.Ra3! Qb1+ 30.Kh2 Qg6 (There’s no defence. If 30…Rd3 to stop Rg3+, there comes 31.Nf5+ Kf8 32.Qxh7 Ke8 33.Rxd3 Qxd3 34.Ng7+ winning the queen.) 31.Rg3 and Black is hopelessly lost. 28.Ra3! [see diagram] With Black’s king paralysed, Nakamura’s ingenious rook lift via a1-a3-g3 now wins in all lines. 28…Qxb4 And hopeless is 28…Bxh6 29.Nxh6 Rc7 30.Nxf7+ Rxf7 31.Qxf7 Qg6 32.Qxg6 hxg6 33.Rxa6 etc. 29.Bxf8 Rxf8 30.Qh6 Rg8 31.Rg3 Rxg3 32.fxg3 1-0 And Firouzja resigns with no answer to Qg7 mate.