Candidates R10: Nepo closes in on match with Magnus

Ian Nepomniachtchi has taken a one-point lead over his three pursuers with just four rounds of the FIDE Candidates Tournament to go. He surprised Kirill Alekseenko in the opening and was essentially winning in a dozen moves. Elsewhere Caruana-Ding Liren and MVL-Giri were exciting battles that ended drawn, while Wang Hao-Grischuk was also drawn, but an extraordinary spectacle. Alexander Grischuk spent 1 hour and 12 minutes on move 11, but later had winning chances when Wang Hao gave up his queen and lost his way in the complications.

You can replay all the games from the FIDE Candidates Tournament using the selector below:

And here’s the day’s live commentary with Magnus Carlsen joining David Howell and Tania Sachdev for his final day of full commentary before switching to playing in the New in Chess Classic.

Nepomniachtchi 1-0 Alekseenko

23-year-old underdog Kirill Alekseenko had been under pressure in his first two games back, but his resilience against Alexander Grischuk was ultimately rewarded with a first win, while he pulled off the impressive feat of outpreparing Fabiano Caruana. He called his clash against compatriot Ian Nepomniachtchi an “awful game”, however, and it was hard to disagree. 

Ian’s 1.c4 was already a surprise, and Kirill’s decision on move 8 left him in serious trouble.

Kirill played one of the most natural moves in the world, 8…Be7?!, but as Nepo explained, that was a step in the wrong direction. He summed up the game:

It was optically very easy, but in fact I think it was not. I guess I was lucky that in the opening Kirill quickly got into some position he’s not familiar with… This is all well-known theory, but I guess here the important plan is something like Qc7, b6, Bb7, so the idea is to develop the c8-bishop as fast as possible, because if Black fails to do this he just gets some awful edition of the Catalan. After Be7 I was happy – in the worst case I get a better edition of a known position.

Kirill lamented:

I didn’t remember the opening, probably I didn’t have to play Be7, and I also started to play bad moves and my position became worse and worse, so at some point it was just losing already. It’s hard to say, I made many, many bad moves and I don’t know which one exactly is decisive.

One candidate is that after 9.0-0 0-0 10.d4 Kirill played 10…cxd4, while 10…b5 still seems to give hope – Black will likely manage to develop his rook to a7. In the game, Kirill’s queenside never developed and by the time 16.Qxf5 and 17.Bg5 appeared it was clear disaster was inevitable on the other side of the board.

Kirill was also soon in time trouble, and this time his resourceful defence wasn’t enough. 24…Qd2, attacking White’s bishop and rook, briefly looked promising. 

But Ian had it all worked out. He gave back the exchange with 25.Rxc4!, the only winning move, since after 25…bxc4 26.e4! Qxb2 he’d seen that with 27.Qh8+ Ke7 28.Qc8 the threat of mate would allow him to pick up more pawns and win easily.

For a full analysis of the game check out French Grandmaster Adrien Demuth’s video below.

It was a huge result, and its importance only grew as the other games ended drawn, so that Ian had opened up a full-point lead. Fabiano Caruana pointed out that’s by no means insurmountable with four rounds to go, but past history illustrates how significant a lead can be at this stage in these events. 

We mentioned in earlier reports that it had taken Nepomniachtchi until 2019 to finally break into the Top 10, although he was born in the same year as Magnus and has a 4:1 record in classical wins against the World Champion. His rise has continued ever since, and his win against Kirill Alekseenko saw him move up to world no. 3 on the live rating list. 

What held him back until now? That was a topic Magnus Carlsen went into in detail when Tania Sachdev asked him about training games against the Russian no. 1.

You’re absolutely right that it’s been interesting to play against him since we have different strengths. Ian is somebody who plays very, very quickly, is extremely strong at tactics, can be very, very strong even in simple positions where he can just spot some little tactics, but he has a problem that he can play a little bit too superficially and lose focus.

Certainly for me, it’s been very interesting to play him for many years, since he’s somebody who can definitely outplay me. He cannot always convert, that’s not necessarily his strongest suit, but certainly it’s always been an interesting clash of styles there when we’ve played. I would say that when he’s inspired he can play extremely well, so we would have these training sessions where one day he would feel great and he would have a slight edge or we’d be equal, and then on another day he wouldn’t be in top shape and I would win 7-8 games in a row.

So he’s very much a player who’s very influenced, or at least used to be very, very influenced, by his mood on that particular day, and that’s kind of what’s been setting him back, more than pure chess talent. I remember – I’ve known him for many years – and he couldn’t quite understand why he wasn’t playing in the best tournaments let’s say 6-7 years ago, why he wasn’t consistently playing them, and I said that it’s because you cannot maintain focus, you should be one of the best players in the world, but it’s all up to you, that’s what it is. 

His highest level was certainly already then more than good enough to play these tournaments, and I’m very happy for him that he’s figured things out, and the reason why he’s leading this tournament is because he is one of the most talented players of this generation, without a doubt. 

So inconsistency is the issue?

I think it’s been proven in chess again and again that being consistent and raising your floor is just as important as raising your ceiling, and that’s the only real reason why Ian is not in this position in almost every tournament – that his floor is still very, very low.

If he can maintain his form for another four games we may well get to see a Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi match, but there are three players out to stop that. The two key games for the standings were complex, unbalanced fights where serious advantages never quite grew into decisive action.

Caruana ½-½ Ding Liren

Fabiano Caruana’s miss against Kirill Alekseenko the day before meant it was important to push for a win in any game with the white pieces, even if he was sitting opposite the world no. 3. He chose a Spanish line with 10.d3 where Magnus pointed out that Levon Aronian is a great expert with the black pieces… though even the Armenian no. 1 laments how difficult it is to play. 

Fabiano Caruana echoed those sentiments in the post-game press conference when he admitted, “I don’t understand the line at all!” 

Ding Liren had played the position up to move 16 before, but then varied with 16…Qc8 instead of his earlier 16…Nb4, since he understandably feared some prepared opening novelty. 

The Chinese no. 1 took the pawn on a5 a move later, and although White initially seemed to have good compensation it fizzled out very quickly after active play by Ding, so that the watching Magnus thought Fabi’s kingside pawn pushes were more a necessity than an aggressive choice.

26…Qe8 27.Kg2 h5!? was a bold move based on deep calculation, but Ding admitted he’d overlooked one detail and Fabiano was able to safely navigate the game to a draw.

MVL ½-½ Giri 

This was a game with even more at stake, since the winner would have stayed just half a point behind the leader, while the loser would be almost out of contention. Anish stayed true to the Sveshnikov, which allowed Maxime to be on the right side of an opening surprise for a change. He went for 10.c5, which had never been played at the very highest level, even if Giri’s second in Yekaterinburg, Max Warmerdam, had played it against Aryan Tari in 2019.

Anish himself commented:

On paper it is like a new idea, but I assume most players were aware of this before, and I also was, but as you can see from the game, I wasn’t really having it very clear in my head.

Anish went for 10…Na6!?, which was perhaps already an attempt to avoid Maxime’s ideas in the main lines after 10…0-0. An interesting position arose after 17.Bg5.

17…f6 looks ugly, but would have driven away the bishop while also allowing a black rook to come to d8. The d5-pawn’s days would be numbered. Instead 17…h6!? 18.Bh4 left Black under pressure, and although 18…b5 was a reasonable move it was also reasonable to ask if it would have been better to play it earlier instead of b6 first. 

The d-pawn would eventually make it to d6, but in the end it was safely blockaded and the players agreed a draw on move 40. Some GM-level banter would follow in the press conference…

Giri: You faced great defence… 

MVL: The drawmaster is back at it! 

Giri: Look who’s talking!

That leaves one game, where on paper almost nothing was at stake…

Wang Hao ½-½ Grischuk

Alexander Grischuk began the post-game press conference:

I think yesterday I was watching some stream with Kramnik and Bareev commenting, and speaking about today’s round they said that Wang Hao-Grischuk is the least interesting game of the round, so I wonder if they still think the same. 

Sometimes incredible games can arise out of nowhere, and according to Wang Hao this one was the result of his forgetting his theory in the opening, though it’s curious that the position after 11.Qd2 had occurred twice before, in the 2011 Aeroflot Open (Kamsky 0-1 Ding Liren) and the 2016 Nutcracker rapid event (Fedoseev ½-½ Morozevich). It’s also the position in which Alexander sank into an epic 1 hour, 12 minute think!

Magnus would later comment, “Let’s for a moment not deal with the psycho who has 5 minutes left for 26 moves and probably enjoys it!”, but it got better. Eventually Grischuk did make the only good move, 11…cxd4, and 12.Nfxd4 by Wang Hao was a move Alexander hadn’t been looking at in that 72 minutes!

There was at least some method in the madness, however. Grischuk explained:

The thing is, the white setup is very ambitious, and if he manages to finish his development he will be clearly better because he has a huge centre. So Black needs to play very energetically.

The problem Grischuk faced during his epic think was that he was stumped by the position after 11…cxd4 12.Nexd4 fxe5 13.Nxe6 d4 14.Nxf8 dxe3 15.Bc4+:

Here after 15…Kxf8 16.Qd5 he correctly concluded Black was in big trouble due to the threat of mate on f7 and g8. He instead switched to looking at all kinds of weird and whacky options, before only later realising that he could play 15…Kh8! Instead, and 16.Qd5 is met by 16…Nf6! Magnus showed a very pretty way for White to win that position, but it would require a lot of unnecessary help from Black! (and yes, the mate isn’t quite a smothered mate!)

So in the end Grischuk could play 11…cxd4 after all, only to encounter a different move.

And of course my opponent played 12.Nfxd4 and we have a very complicated position and I have no time. 

As Grischuk also noted, however, his borderline insane time management may have helped to encourage Wang Hao to go for a wild line.

The Chinese star sacrificed his queen for just two minor pieces with 21.exf6!? Bxc2 22.fxe7, and while it seems to be a sound sacrifice it wasn’t better than non-sacrificial options and demanded precision from White as well. 

Wang Hao soon blundered, but the lack time came back to bite Grischuk when he went for 29…Bf7 (29…Bf5!).

You could argue the move was far from a bad choice, since it would have been completely winning if Wang Hao, with just a couple of minutes on the clock himself, hadn’t found the dramatic blow 30.Nxg7!, when after 30…Bxd5 31.Rxe7 Qxe7 32.Nf5 Qf8 33.Bd4+ Kg8 34.cxd5 it’s Black who has to be very careful not to get mated!

34…h5! (34…h6 was the only good alternative) 35.d6 Kh7 36.Ne7 Qe8! (an only move) and the players lived to fight another day!

That left the standings as follows going into the first rest day of the 2nd half of the tournament.

Nepomniachtchi is on +3 compared to the +1 of the rest, but as he commented:

I guess the point is that everyone has seven finals here, seven finals in a row, so that’s my take on this. It’s better to be +3 than +1, but it’s too early to make any conclusions.

The one-point gap can disappear in a single game, though Nepo has the advantage of playing White against both Caruana and MVL, while he has the better tiebreak than Giri after winning their head-to-head mini-match. 

Nevertheless, as we saw in 2018, Fabiano Caruana has a habit of making it look as easy to win with Black as with White, and all eyes will be on Nepo-Caruana in Round 11.

Before that, however, there’s the rest day. On its eve, Magnus played a best-of-24 Death Match against Vladislav Artemiev, which he won 12.5:5.5 without conceding a single defeat. You can replay that action here.

On the rest day itself, at 17:00 CEST, Magnus will take on Daniil Dubov over 16 games! It has the potential to be spectacular, and you can watch with English commentary from both Magnus and Daniil. 

Don’t miss all the Round 11 action, with Judit Polgar and Vidit joining Tania, from 13:00 CEST on Friday here on chess24.

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