Candidates 12: Giri ends Fabi’s dream | Nepo leads

Anish Giri won a 3rd game in 4 rounds to end Fabiano Caruana’s hopes of a World Championship rematch against Magnus Carlsen. The dramatic win might have taken Giri level with Ian Nepomniachtchi with two rounds to go, but Wang Hao misplayed a better position against the leader and then resigned in disgust in a position where he could have prolonged a grim defence. MVL will face Nepo in the penultimate round knowing a win would give him chances after he bounced back to beat Kirill Alekseenko, while Ding Liren ended Alexander Grischuk’s campaign. 

Round 12 of the FIDE Candidate Tournament in Yekaterinburg saw all four games end decisively for the first time. You can replay the games, with computer analysis, using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Judit Polgar and Tania Sachdev, who were joined by Surya Ganguly.

Caruana 0-1 Giri

After Fabiano Caruana drew with the black pieces against Ian Nepomniachtchi the day before, he went into this game knowing it was close to a must-win encounter, and he had no complaints about the opening. A 2…e6 Sicilian saw both players thinking early on, with the weight of responsibility for each move upping the tension by the minute.

Here the computer was recommending 12.Rf1 and later castling queenside, but after 15 minutes Fabi went for the more natural 12.0-0 instead. There was a lot to think about, since after 12…exf4 13.Bxf4 Black was threatening Qb6+ and capturing on b2 in some lines, while White was of course targeting the pawn on d6.

For the next hour or so it looked as though it was all about Fabi, as he found a sharp and seemingly correct continuation with pushing his b-pawn to b5, but suddenly, after 20.Nd5 (20.Nb5 may have been stronger, but also seems likely to fizzle out) 20…Qf8! the computer was giving its infamous 0.00.

Both players felt the importance of this moment. Fabiano commented on the first part of the game:

I wasn’t unhappy – it looked like a fight. I thought I had a very promising position at some point, then after Qf8 I lost the thread. Up to here, I felt that I was pressing and his position was very dangerous, and then I couldn’t quite see how to play it, and unfortunately things just went downhill. I played very badly after Qf8. Maybe White is not much better, but at least I should be able to put pressure on.

Fabi spent 20 minutes looking for something, but as the computer evaluation showed, it seems he was doomed to fail. Giri commented:

You have to be lucky, of course. I think the pivotal moment was here I felt Fabiano was quite enthusiastic about his position, but after Qf8, which is a good move, he probably realised that he is no longer playing for an advantage, and I think given that he was in a must-win it was a big let-down for him, and then it’s hard, when you play a position where you have to defend and you are in a must-win. 

If Fabi had switched immediately to looking for a draw he would have played 21.c4, but he rejected that because he couldn’t see any hope for an advantage after 21…Nxc4. Instead he decided to fish in murkier waters with 21.c3?!, but after 21…Rac8 22.Rc1 it was clear something had gone wrong, with 22…Ng6 taking away the chance to simplify the position with exchanges. 23.Bd2?! was “definitely too soft” according to Giri, and Black had soon taken over. 

The last straw seems to have been when Fabiano went with the natural instinct to bring your queen back to defend with 36.Qf2?, when 36.Qc7! Rxa3 37.h4! would still have retained chances (not 37.Qxd6? Rxf3! 38.gxf3 Qe2! and mate is unstoppable).

In the game after 37…Qe5 Black was winning, though there was time for one small twist at the end, when Giri played a move he thought was winning on the spot, 40…Ra2!?

Given the way he’s been playing it was understandable to want to finish with a brilliancy, and 41.Qxa2 loses to 41…Qh4+, while 41.Bb1, threatening checkmate on e8, loses to 41…Qh5+ 42.Kg1 Ne2+!. Fabiano found 41.Rb1!, however, when Giri’s 41…Qh5+? 42.Kg1 Ne2 would now actually lose to the queen sacrifice 43.Qxe2!

Giri had all the time in the world to take stock, however, and retreat his rook with 41…Ra8. Our commentators had guessed exactly what had happened.

After 42.Re1 f5!, a move Giri could have played on move 40, it really was all over, with Anish getting to end with a small flourish anyway as he sacrificed his knight on g2.

For a deeper look at the game, check out French GM Adrien Demuth’s analysis.

It wasn’t clear at the moment the game ended, but that result left Fabiano with no more hopes of qualifying for a rematch against Magnus Carlsen, while Anish Giri still trails Nepo by half a point, with the worse tiebreaker since he lost their head-to-head mini-match. That’s all because of the following game.

Wang Hao 0-1 Nepomniachtchi

Having reached +3 in the most important tournament of his life, it’s entirely understandable that Ian Nepomniachtchi has switched to safety first, even if seeing him play the Four Knights and now the Petroff Defence still comes as a shock.

Almost the only other game where he’s played the Petroff, curiously, is the first game of the 2019 Moscow FIDE Grand Prix final playoff, where his opponent was Alexander Grischuk. Sasha thought for 4 minutes, picked 3.d3!?, and said afterwards it was the only game of the final where he got any advantage, though the game was drawn and Nepo won the next to take the title. There was a happy ending for both players, as finishing in the top two places in the Grand Prix series is how they reached the Candidates.

In Yekaterinburg, however, Wang Hao went for the old main line of 3.Nxe5 and initially the game promised nothing for Black. As Ian commented:

I only was thinking how not to get into trouble, because I think this position, of course it’s equal, but it can be sometimes unpleasant – two bishops, and White very slowly builds up, especially if they trade a couple of rooks and then try to make a breakthrough. I have very little experience.

Gradually, however, Wang Hao began to drift, with his 21.f3 and 22.b3 not making a great impression, while his pieces were misplaced. On move 23 Nepo said he was “lucky” to find a knight manoeuvre.

23…Nbd7! was the start of the knight’s journey to a better life on e6, and in fact the same knight would be a thorn in White’s side all game, as Ian started to take over. 

“After 40 moves I started to play like a 2200 player”, said Wang Hao, but while that’s an aspiration for most of us, it also looks untrue, since the Chinese star found a number of very tricky moves to keep in the game. 

He was close to salvation, but 54.Rc3?! made his task much more difficult:

54…Nb2! was threatening Nd1-Nf2 checkmate, but also covering the d3-square, so that after 55.Rc8+ Kg7 56.Rd8 Rf2 the rook couldn’t come back to d3 to protect the f3-pawn. Nevertheless, when Wang Hao resigned a few moves later it shocked our commentary team.

Ian Nepomniachtchi said the position was dead lost for White, but the line he showed to back it up wasn’t the most resilient. It’s also worth noting that just a move or two earlier he said he’d nearly blundered into an instant draw (58…Nd3? 59.Nd2! Re3 60.Nf1 etc.). It’s likely Black would have won anyway, but a lot could have happened, and it was clear from the press conference that Wang Hao, with nothing to play for himself, had simply had enough. 

Why exactly had he resigned?

I didn’t want to continue and I think that it’s probably losing. Maybe I can defend somehow, but I didn’t want… I think it’s close to losing.

He’d also said earlier that he couldn’t calculate at all and had no energy left, but the decision simply to resign isn’t likely to see him make it on to his fellow candidates’ Christmas card lists. 

MVL 1-0 Alekseenko

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s path to a World Championship match required him to win three games on demand and get some help elsewhere, and so far he’s on course, at least for the first part of the challenge! 

Kirill Alekseenko has struggled in the opening in most games since the resumption, and this was no exception. His Caro-Kann surprise had backfired horribly by move 6, when he spent under 3 minutes on 6…Nf6!?, later lamenting, “I played quite quickly Nf6 and didn’t see how I could transpose to lines I analysed”.  

Kirill is nothing if not resilient in defence, but the method he chose demonstrated just how bad his position had become. 18…Nd7!? was deliberately inviting what followed.

19.Bxf7+ Kxf7 20.Rxd7 won a pawn, but after 20…Ke6 21.Rc7 Rhc8 Kirill was at least reducing the number of pieces on the board, which Maxime also thought was a good idea given his opponent’s time situation. 

What followed from the French no. 1, however, was a masterclass.

Maxime called this “not a very practical decision” afterwards, but he went on to win the bishop ending very convincingly, with Kirill resigning after 45.Bh6.

One plan is to transfer the white bishop from h6 to f8 to d6 and then to c7, and when the black king is forced to leave e6, White can give up the bishop to collect Black’s queenside pawns and queen his own. Maxime gave a nice summary after the game.

Maxime still has some real hopes, though first it requires beating Nepo on demand with the black pieces in Round 13. He was philosophical about his problems since the resumption.

In general I don’t think it’s been about pressure, I don’t think it’s been about the seriousness of my preparation, I think it’s just come down to a few bad decisions that I took. In every critical moment, in every game, I was taking some sort of bad decisions, and I think this cost me a lot, and I don’t think there was any remedy for that – that’s something that can happen sometimes. It was very, very bad timing, but in general there was nothing I could really have done to prevent that from happening.

It happened in the past, like six years ago, I dropped 50 points in two months, in the same fashion, then I bounced back. Let’s see if I can actually bounce back in the best possible way starting from today.

Ding Liren 1-0 Grischuk

If Alexander Grischuk was going to have any chance of winning the tournament he had to win this game, but the way the opening went he knew it was over. Ding played a system Grischuk usually plays, with the Russian noting, “This is what I was always dreaming to get with White, but never could in 10 games.”

What followed was a locked position that seemed destined to end in a draw, but at some point Grischuk was surprised and went on to collapse, though it felt like Ding Liren was correct that passive defence might still have held. 

That win took pre-tournament co-favourite Ding Liren out of last place, but the whole intrigue is of course now at the top of the table. 

It’s become a 3-horse race, with Nepomniachtchi, who will clinch first if he finishes level with Giri, the heavy favourite, statistically speaking (“weighted” here means taking into account the win/draw/loss percentages for White and Black so far in the tournament). 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave isn’t out of it, however, and we’ll have mayhem if the French no. 1 can beat Ian with Black in Monday’s penultimate round.

A win for Nepo would make him the next challenger unless Giri can beat Grischuk with Black, while if Giri loses it’s also enough for Ian to draw.

If it does go to the final round, however, it could be an absolute thriller. Nepo has a tricky game with Black against Ding Liren, while Giri and MVL will be favourites to win with White against Alekseenko and Wang Hao.

Tune into all the action this Monday from 13:00 CEST here on chess24.

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