French Grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave defeated overnight leader leader Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia in the top of the table clash in the Candidates chess tournament in Yekaterinburg.
Both players are now on 4.5 points after seven games with a group of four players, all on 3.5 points, within striking distance.
Vachier-Lagrave and Nepomniachtchi have met 13 times prior to yesterday’s match with the score clearly in favor of the Frenchman – seven draws, one loss and five victories against Nepomniachtchi.
However, it was Nepomniachtchi who won their last game before the Candidates, in Jerusalem last year.
The position was sharp from the very opening, with Nepomniachtchi opting for the French Defence. Both players demonstrated a good level of preparation.
British Grandmaster Daniel King pointed out that the line, which Black chose to play, was very sharp suggesting it was a very brave but risky decision of Nepomniachtchi.
It seemed it was more the latter than the former as the Russian gradually got into time trouble while White managed to open up his pieces more. The Frenchman launched an attack on the Black king and Nepomniachtchi had to be very careful about his move choices. Eventually, Black’s defenses collapsed as White was dominating all over the board. Black resigned.
Nepomniachtchi now might be regretting his choice of opening and for deciding to play a very sharp line. Luck favors the brave, but not always.
Vachier-Lagrave said that he was satisfied with how the tournament was going for him. “Apart from the game with Wang Hao, I played reasonably well. I hope to continue this trend and to be able to stay on this journey”, the Frenchman said.
While both Vachier-Lagrave and Nepomniachtchi have the same number of points, Vachier-Lagrave tops the table as the winner in their direct encounter.
American Fabiano Caruana and China’s Wang Hao drew their encounter. Caruana, the winner of the 2018 Candidates had to pick up speed if he had wanted to be in the running for first place.
However, he was facing Wang Hao, a dangerous and uneasy opponent who already had a good record against the world number two – five victories, four draws, and no defeats. However the majority of these games were played at least seven years ago. Since 2013, the two played just once, a drawn game at the Isle of Man Grand Swiss in October 2019.
Caruana started with 1.e2-e4, suggesting a more open game. Wang Hao responded with his traditional Petrov Defence. Caruana castled on the queenside, and Wang Hao on the kingside, signaling a sharp game ahead.
After an exchange of queens, White launched his g-pawn towards the Black king’s castle. The g-pawn was exchanged and the situation on the board calmed down. The position quickly transpired into an endgame (as Caruana said in the post-game interview, he could not remember all the lines so opted to simplify and go for an endgame). Black was slightly better but not enough to exploit the advantage to a full point. The two agreed on a draw on move 41.
Russian Alexander Grischuk continues to be the king of draws at the Candidates. He had drawn all his games, including the round seven game with Anish Giri of the Netherlands.
The two have played 14 times before this game, and Giri leads by 2:1 with 11 draws. The last decisive game was in 2015 when Giri won.
The English opening was played. As in all previous games, Grischuk spent a lot of time in the opening. However, by move 15 the queens have been exchanged and by move 25 there was a further exchange of pieces in the center leaving both players with a rook, a bishop and five pawns each.
After further exchanges of material, the position transpired into a rook endgame with three pawns each on the kingside. It was an easy draw and the two players soon agreed to split a point.
In the post mortem, Giri said that Grischuk played well and managed to find the most sophisticated moves in the opening, holding the position. The Dutchman confessed to an unusual conflict of interest in this game, saying that although he “obviously wanted to win” he also wanted the trend of draws to go from him to his opponent.
China’s Ding Liren also drew as White with Russian Kirill Alekseenko in a duel between the pre-tournament and the wild-card outsider. The two played twice before and both games had ended in draws.
The Catalan was played and Black quickly managed to equalize and create a stable position. Eventually, Black created a free pawn on the c-file, in a rook endgame. However, White’s pieces were close enough to block Black’s advance to the promotional line and a draw was agreed after a repetition of moves.
Both players were not enthusiastic about the outcome in the post-game analysis. Ding Liren said that it was not a good day for him, that he missed moves and was playing risky, adding that he hoped the tournament would end soon. Alekseenko said that he thought his position was solid but that he couldn’t find a way to improve it further an win.
This draw leaves both players on the bottom of the board, with 2.5 points out of seven games.
After seven rounds in the 14-round tournament, six players have strong chances to take first place to qualify for the world championships match-up against Magnus Carlsen.
ROUND 7 RESULTS
Fabiano Caruana (USA) drew Wang Hao (Chn)
Maxime Vachier Lagrave (Fra) bt Ian Nepomniachtchi (Rus)
Ding Liren (Chn) drew Kirill Alekseenko (Rus)
Anish Giri (Ned) drew Alexander Grischuk (Rus)
STANDINGS AFTER 7 ROUNDS
Round Eight pairings
Fabiano Caruana (USA) vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (Fra)
Wang Hao (Chn) vs Ding Liren (Chn)
Ian Nepomniachtchi (Rus) vs Anish Giri (Ned)
Kirill Alekseenko (Rus) vs Alexander Grischuk (Rus)