Tue. Jun 2nd, 2020

Nepomniachtchi on fire

7 min read

(Photo FIDE)

Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi increased his lead atop the leaderboard at the 2020 Candidates in Yekaterinburg with a defeat of pre-tournament favourite Ding Liren of China.

The victory puts Nepomniachtchi in a very strong position to qualify from the tournament to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the chess world championships.

It was a day of long and edgy play in the sixth round of the championships with 1.e2-e4 played on three out of four boards with the Black responding 1…e7-e5, suggesting more open, sharp play. Only China’s Wang Hao decided to play 1.d2-d4 and that game developed into a very dynamic match-up.

The clash between Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren was their tenth. Seven of their previous meetings had ended in draw with the other two seeing them win once against the other. The last decisive game between the two was a decade ago, at the Zagreb Grand Chess Tour, with the Chinese grandmaster emerging victorious.

The Russian ace demonstrated excellent opening preparation as White. Grandmasters commenting on the game in various online chess shows noticed that Ding Liren was repeating lines he previously played, suggesting that his opening preparation was not as sophisticated.

It was pointed out that this approach would open Ding Liren to a risk of walking into his opponents’ game-plan and it seemed that this was what happened. Ding Liren spent considerably more time thinking about the moves than his opponent.

After exchanges in the centre, White created a free pawn runner on the b-file and quickly launched it forward towards the promotion-line. Ding Liren responded by launching an advance on the White’s king fortress, creating mate threats. It was a double-edged game, but it seemed that Nepomniachtchi (White) had better control of the game.

He was also better on time and created more chances, but Ding Liren was not without options. The Chinese, however, needed to play very precisely to keep himself in the game and the race.

The key moment for Black was on his 33rd move when Ding Liren missed the right continuation. The Russian mercilessly took the chance he was given and put his queen behind black’s lines, creating back-rank issues. After a few more moves and exchanges, Ding Liren ended with a piece down and with no chances to oppose White. He decided to put an end to his suffering on move 40, after just over three hours of play.

Nepomniachtchi made his sentiments clear in the post-game interview: “In this tournament, only the result counts, nothing else”.

The game between the Russian wild-card Kirill Alekseenko and Anish Giri of the Netherlands was the longest of the day and the tournament so far. After more than seven hours of play and 98 moves, the Dutchman managed to force his Russian rival to resign.

It was the second time that the pair had cross swords and Giri had also emerged victorious in the match in 2008 when both players had yet to attain Grandmaster status.

Alekseenko opted for the Italian game with both sides trying to stabilize the position in the center and develop without many exchanges. Giri was showing more confidence in his play as he spent less time and seemed more comfortable of his moves.

After several exchanges in the center, the game transpired to a queen and knight endgame where Black had a better pawn structure on the queenside. Alekseenko, playing White, pressed on, understanding that if he wished to stay on in the game he could not afford being passive.

Giri responded with careful, preventive moves. Eventually Black managed to get hold of an extra pawn on the queenside, which was compensated with white having a more open attack on the black king.

Giri defended himself well, preparing his own counter strike. The 2:1 pawn majority on the queenside disappeared and after an exchange of queens, Black had a 3:2 pawn advantage on the kingside with a knight each. Giri pushed forwards in the hope to capitalize on the advantage.

Commentators noted that the position on the board was similar to a 2019 game where World Champion Magnus Carlsen managed to capitalize on the pawn advantage against Visvanathan Anand.

Alekseenko was doing his best, carefully maneuvering his knight and king trying to fend off Black’s advances. Finally, after seven hours of play, the Dutchman managed to break his opponent.

Giri forced the position, exchanging one pair of pawns and then – somewhat surprisingly – deciding to double his pawns on the f-file. Black had two extra pawns (however – doubled) on the f-file. Alekseenko played on but it was to no avail.

It was Giri’s first victory in a Candidates tournament. ,

“In the end, I almost had a heart attack as I realized it was going to be my first ever win at the FIDE Candidates! I think I have never had such a high heartbeat. After this game today, I think we need a good doctor check,” said Giri.

Russian Aleksander Grischuk, the most senior and experienced player in the event, was late for his game against American Fabiano Caruana and this seemed to go hand in hand with his time troubles in the match.

The more aggressive, Archangelsk variation of the Ruy Lopez was played. While Caruana was blitzing out his moves, Grischuk was somewhat struggling: on move 13 he spent nearly 15 minutes pondering on what to do.

Interestingly, it was after Grishuk’s 13th move that Caruana offered a repetition. After a further half-hour of thinking, Grischuk decided to refuse the repetition. Eventually, the Russian offered and Caruana took, a pawn in the center, leading to complications on the board.

It was Caruana’s turn to make an offering as he left his knight up for grabs on a7. After 13 minutes of thinking, Grischuk refused the poisonous gift. The position was tense and required a lot of precise and detailed calculation, which demanded time.

This is exactly what Grishuk did not have as he was down to two and a half minutes and needed to make eight moves to reach the first time control. Grischuk managed to achieve just that.

After further maneuvering in the knight vs bishop endgame, the two agreed on a draw.

In the match between China’s Wang Hao and France’s last-minute entry Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the Gruenfeld Defence was played.

Wang Hao opened aggressively, pushing his h-pawn towards Black’s castle. It was the Frenchman who had to spend more time calculating and finding his way out of tricky situations.  After the h-file was opened, both sides exchanged both pairs of rooks as the Chinese player continued to have a good command of the center. It followed an exchange of queens, taking the game to a knight and bishop endgame.

Having a more active position and a centralized knight, White managed to achieve an extra pawn. Black’s king, however, quickly got to the center, supporting his bishop and knight in holding the position.

Wang Hao pushed and a long endgame battle transpired. Despite being a pawn down and with a knight against a bishop in the endgame, Vachier-Lagrave managed to hold the position. The two agreed to share a point on move 83.

This was a fourth game played between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Wang Hao. Before this tournament, the two met three times: they drew twice. The Frenchman had defeated Wang Hao in 2004, at the Under-14 World Championship.

In the post mortem, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave said that he was “lucky to make a draw” adding that it was not a game that he would remember proudly.

STANDINGS AFTER 6 ROUNDS

 Playerpointsrating
1Ian Nepomniachtchi2774
2Maxime Vachier-Lagrave2767
3Fabiano Caruana32842
4Anish Giri32763
5Wang Hao32762
6Alexander Grischuk32777
7Liren Ding22805
8Kirill Alekseenko22698

ROUND SEVEN PAIRINGS

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