Sat. Jun 6th, 2020

‘Nepo’ emerges as a clear leader after five rounds

8 min read

After five rounds of play, Russian grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi emerged as the clear leader at the chess Candidates in Yekaterinburg, after defeating Chinese underdog Wang Hao.

It was a battle between two of the three leaders, with Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave the third player sharing the lead after four rounds. The meeting between Nepomniachtchi was their fifth career meeting.  They had met four times with the result even at two wins each.

The last time they faced each other in a game of classical chess was at the Danzhou super tournament in 2016, and it was a draw. Not this time, however.

Wang Hao started with the Black and he played the Petrov Defence (also known as the Russian Game). White quickly started pushing his h-pawn towards the black king’s fortress. The move is considered to be a novelty and was a cause for Black to go into deep calculations.

Commentators – including world champion Magnus Carlsen – noted that pushing the h-pawn has become more common in top games as a clear sign of how AlphaZero (the powerful chess computer, which patented the idea behind the move) was affecting the play at the top ranks of the chess world.

Both players demonstrated a high level of preparation and the position was mostly balanced. However, a slight imprecision by Wang Hao towards the end endangered his king. Nepomniachtchi was quick to notice that, rapidly placing his queen on Black’s back ranks. Eventually, Black was forced to give up a piece. Although he had two pawns for a knight, White had sufficient material and the spread of the pawns on both flanks made it impossible to hold the position. Wang Hao had no choice but to resign.

The complexity of the game was shown later in the analysis, where both players spent well over 10 minutes in live commentary analyzing the lines previously seen by computers.

Wang Hao did not seem disappointed after the match, while Nepomniachtchi, currently ranked as the fifth strongest player in the world and the only one at the top to have a better score against world champion Magnus Carlsen (4 wins, one loss, and six draws), was very calm and reserved about his lead, saying it’s still early days.

One of the favorites to win the event –Fabiano Crauana – is counting his lucky stars after he managed to escape with half a point from Anish Giri who created a very uncomfortable position for the World number two.

From the very opening, Giri, who played White, pushed and came down hard on his opponent. The devil is in the detail and this was noticeable in the Giri – Caruana game. The American later confessed that he didn’t remember the right line after Giri surprised him with a move and that he was forced to improvise.

The improvisation, however, led to Giri achieving a dominating position, making Black feel quite uncomfortable. “I was borderline lost”, said Caruana after the game.

However, it is the resilience and the will to fight on at even the toughest of times that sets the best from the rest. Caruana kept defending well and hoping for his luck to turn. Then came a turning point in the game: Despite having created a better position – deemed by some as almost winning –Giri opted for a safer approach and Caruana was quick to seize on that.

This was met with a lot of criticism by top Grandmasters following and commenting on the tournament in online shows around the globe. As Indian Grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi noted, “there is a perception that he (Giri) lacks the ability to put his advantages away and pocket a victory”. Caruana somehow managed to reach the time control and improve his position. After a repetition of moves, a draw was called.

This was not the first lucky escape the American had at the hands of Anish Giri: When Giri had White against Caruana in Candidates 2016 in Moscow, he was completely winning but – as now in Yekaterinburg – the position was sharp, Giri missed his chances and then tried to break through for 96 moves with no avail.

In the interview after the game, Giri gave the following assessment of the outcome: “I was better, but… I cannot say I saw a win but there were options there”.

One of the most exciting duels of the day was between Russian Kirill Alekseenko and Vachier-Lagrave.

A double-edged Najdorf Sicilian was played. A very sharp and tense game developed with a lot of tactical opportunities for both sides. Then the game reached its crescendo when White (Alekseenko) sacrificed a rook for a pawn on the kingside, which was immediately met by Black sacrificing his rook for a knight on the queenside.

Both players were very well prepared, but the number of tactical lines available forced the less experienced Alekseenko to spend an hour more than his opponent did.

Interestingly, this was the second time in this tournament that Vachier-Lagrave experienced his opponent spending almost an hour on a single move. In the fourth round Grischuk spent almost an hour for an obvious move.

The Frenchmen later commented that if this happens to him again, that he will ask the Chief Arbiter “to bring some board games out” so he could amuse himself.

However, in the game between the two the pressure was high on both players. This put Alekseenko in serious time trouble. Vachier-Lagrave tried to exploit this by thinking on his opponent’s time trying to set a thinking-trap for the Russian. However, the Russian managed to find the right moves just in time and the two called it a draw.

Both players noted that sharp positions demand that the players remember the lines clearly and not overlook them later on.

 “I try to remember the main lines by heart, but you can’t remember everything. Also, when you know some key positions, you don’t need to remember everything by heart”, said Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

Explaining why he spent 50 minutes on one move, Alekseenko said that he knew that he had to sacrifice his rook when he did, but could not remember the rest of the line.

This outcome left the Frenchman in a comfortable second place, with three points out of five.

“I think I have been playing much better, especially in terms of time control. I am close to the lead and we’ll see what happens”, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave said after the game.

His opponent, Kirill Alekseenko, also felt buoyed after the game: “I feel better than in the first rounds. This was the first ‘normal game’ for me, without any big mistakes. I’m sure it’s getting better”. Alekseenko is now on two out of five, the same as Giri and Ding Liren.

In the last game of the day between Grischuk and Ding Liren, the former was, as in all previous rounds, a couple of minutes late for the start. As other players started their games and their board was empty, it was noticeable that Grischuk and Ding Liren are the only two players to have different chairs from the rest. It turned out that both players at the start of the event replaced the special luxury chairs with the more “simple” ones, which were meant for the audience.

Ding Liren patiently waited for his opponent to start. After 1.e4 the game transpired into the Ruy Lopez Opening. The game was a long uphill struggle for both players with Black managing to successfully balance out the initial advantage of White’s first move. There was a lot of maneuvering and positioning of pieces, with both sides testing each other’s weaknesses. Finally, the position transpired into a rook endgame. After some further positional discussions, the two agreed on a draw.

“It was a very good game but not a very interesting one”, said Grischuk afterwards, while Ding Liren lamented on having forgotten his opening preparation.

This was the 11th game the two played in their careers: Ding Liren leads Grischuk by two points, while nine games, including this one, ended in draws.


1Ian Nepomniachtchi2774
2Maxime Vachier-Lagrave32767
3Fabiano Caruana2842
4Hao Wang2762
5Alexander Grischuk2777
6Liren Ding22805
7Kirill Alekseenko22698
8Anish Giri22763


Alexander Grischuk (RUS)  vs Fabiano Caruana (USA)
Kirill Alekseenko (RUS)  vs Anish Giri (NED)
Ian Nepomniachtchi (RUS)  vs Ding Liren (CHN)
Wang Hao (CHN) vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (FRA)
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June 2020