Candidates R9: Giri back in the race

Anish Giri won what Magnus Carlsen described as a “very, very, very good game” to beat Wang Hao in Round 9 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg and move to within just half a point of leader Ian Nepomniachtchi. Fabiano Caruana had a great chance to catch Nepo but was held to a draw by Kirill Alekseenko, while MVL is also just half a point back after narrowly avoiding a second loss in a row. He escaped with an 88-move drawn that Magnus called the “last nail in the coffin” of Ding Liren’s chances of winning the tournament.

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

And here’s the day’s live commentary for which Tania Sachdev and David Howell were again joined by World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen.

Giri 1-0 Wang Hao

Anish Giri went into this game determined to make something happen. As he said afterwards, referring to his 14 draws back in Moscow 2016:

It was very important for me to win this game to realistically stay in the race at least – otherwise it would have been very hard. I had already the experience once I played the Candidates and I kept the chances until the end, but you have to at some point win some games, I found out. It’s not enough that the tournament goes well and nobody’s pulling ahead, you also need yourself to win games at some point, so it’s good to win one and we’ll see what happens later.

He had the white pieces, but alongside the flamboyant openings we saw in some of the other games his Catalan looked modest. Magnus Carlsen couldn’t resist a quick jab.

When later he added, “Anish Giri – teaching us chess!” however, there was a good dose of genuine admiration for the subtle 16.h3 and the way the Dutch star went about quietly squeezing the life out of Wang Hao’s position. The Chinese star was struggling for moves and very low on time when 27…g6!? left him in trouble, and a few moves later it was just a question of how Giri would pull the trigger.

37.Rxf7+ here was almost certainly enough, but Giri said he believes in fortresses, and, as Carlsen also pointed out, 37.Ra7! Rd5 38.Qb7! was much more clinical, with 39.Nxf7! provoking resignation.

Magnus summed up:

A very, very, very good game. He managed to showcase all of his strengths in this one, both in terms of finding a little idea in the opening there with h3, and after that just finding little ways to improve his position all the way, and then also converting it in style, so overall, excellent game and he made Hao look really, really bad.

Wang Hao joined Giri for the post-game press conference, with Magnus speaking from experience when he talked about how hard such ordeals can be after a loss. 

Wang Hao seemed to take it in his stride, however, while there was celebration in Yekaterinburg and beyond for Dutch chess players and helpers of Anish.

Check out full analysis of the game from French GM Adrien Demuth.

And here’s the post-game press conference.

That victory saw Anish join a 3-player chasing pack behind Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Grischuk ½-½ Nepomniachtchi

This game was yet more evidence of how difficult it is to exhaust chess openings, since Alexander Grischuk managed to unleash a novelty on move 9 of the Gruenfeld, if “unleash” is a word you can apply to the modest 9.h3!?

As Grischuk explained:

h3 is pretty much a novelty, I think. Not a single competent player played it. There were some games of complete amateurs…

The surprise paid off as Ian Nepomniachtchi immediately sank into thought, and Grischuk felt the line that followed with 9…Nc6 10.d5 Bxc3+ was a pawn grab that was dangerous for Black. A tense struggle ensued, but it would be naïve to assume that being the one to spring the surprise would help him on the clock. When Magnus was informed that Sasha was down to only 3 minutes the World Champion shot back, “In other news, the ocean is full of water!”

It seemed Grischuk would have to bow to the inevitable and take a draw that would leave his Candidates winning hopes all but gone, but he found what he called one last spin of the roulette wheel.

26.Rxf7!? was clearly not the kind of move Nepo was hoping to see…

…but he had plenty of time to hunker down and a find a way to avoid the potential madness of something like 26…Bxf7 27.Rxf7 a4! 28.Bd5! d3!. Instead 26…Bxb3 proved a solid path to a drawn rook endgame, with the result of the game much more satisfactory for Ian.

Grischuk still rules in the post-game press conferences.

He explained he’d broken a finger but didn’t offer any details, while when the situation with all the players using different chairs was raised he responded:

Everything about this tournament is absurd, so we’re adding another dimension of this absurdity – everyone has a different chair!

When Anastasia Karlovich asked if a movie about the interrupted Candidates Tournament would be a drama or a thriller, he responded with one word – “farce”.

Alekseenko ½-½ Caruana

This was a fascinating game right out of the opening, with Kirill Alekseenko’s 11.a4 catching world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana off-guard. 

The short answer was that you could indeed take the pawn in various different ways, but White would retain strong compensation after all of them. The game went 11…a5 12.Ba2 exd4.

Kirill confirmed afterwards that he was in home preparation, until 13.Nc4 dxc3 14.Nxb6 c2!?

Despite the scepticism of the World Champion and computers, Fabi later explained that this was the only move he considered and that he simply didn’t want to allow a white pawn to come to c3 and restrict his c6-knight. 

Magnus was a big fan of Kirill’s position and was rooting for him to keep the positional advantage of the bishop pair, even if it meant playing such strange manoeuvres as Bb1, Qd1 and then Ra3. To Carlsen’s disappointment, however, Kirill soon exchanged off light-squared bishops and grabbed back a pawn on b6. 

It was Fabi’s turn to shine, and he impressively manoeuvred until it seemed he would grind out a trademark win, but in hindsight the US star felt his best hope to get an advantage had gone when he didn’t take the pawn on a4.

Fabi explained he didn’t want to allow White to coordinate with 26…Nxa4 27.Nh2, so he prevented it with 26…Raf8, but he later realised that if he’d simply allowed Nh2 and responded 27…Nc5 it’s very much up to White to prove compensation for the pawn. 

As it was, Kirill Alekseenko once more got to demonstrate impressive positional understanding as he ignored pawns in favour of piece domination and held a draw with relative ease – even if his chosen way to draw the ensuing rook endgame raised eyebrows among his elite colleagues. 

Here’s the post-game press conference with Fabi and Kirill.

Ding Liren ½-½ MVL

The final game to finish saw Ding Liren make his intentions to breathe life back into his Candidates Tournament campaign obvious as he went for 3.h4 against Maxime’s intended Gruenfeld. The Frenchman had played and defended the position himself, but what followed was a wild opening with moves that Magnus said “reek of deep computer prep”. Ding took a very long think on his 11th move, however, which suggests his 15.Nd4!! may have been thought up over the board.

You could only feel sorry for Maxime, getting hit by a full piece sacrifice for a second day in a row. Maxime took the piece with 15…cxd4 16.cxd4 but then chose to give it back with 16…0-0, a move he later regretted. 16…Nf7 is very risky, but looks better than what happened in the game, since MVL found himself having restored the material balance only to land in a strategically hopeless position.

You could suggest even better alternatives to some of Ding’s choices, but it was hard to argue with him that he’d played a good game except for one blunder.

After 37.Qc2 or various other moves, Black’s weak pawns on b6 and e4, together with a chronically weak king, would likely have been fatal, but instead Ding quickly went for the immediate 37.d6?, later admitting he’d simply missed 37…Re6! 38.d7 Rd6! and suddenly the worst was over for Black. 

There was still a very long and tricky defence ahead, but this time Maxime didn’t falter as he held the draw.

Magnus pointed out that Maxime has been showcasing both his worst and best qualities in Yekaterinburg – the worst are his opening preparation and sometimes shaky positional judgment, while the best have been his calculation and defensive skills. Maxime himself summed up:

Generally I just got into lots of trouble and at some point I was sure my position would just collapse in a matter of two moves, and then I found move after move to try and prolong the fight and in the end I managed to save this game, but it’s not going to go in my best games collection, for sure. 

0.5/2 was perhaps 0.5 points less than Maxime was targeting from his games with Black against the world nos 2 and 3, but the draw left him very much still in the race to win the event, with the top four clear favourites.

Every round is massive now, and in Wednesday’s Round 10 we have a clash between two of the chasing pack, MVL-Giri, while Nepomniachtchi-Alekseenko is a game Ian is probably targeting for a full point, despite Kirill’s excellent restart. Caruana-Ding Liren, it goes without saying, is a heavyweight clash, though Fabiano by now has a lot more to play for. 

Magnus Carlsen warned us off making any predictions for the final result, since he recalled how the final four rounds of his only Candidates Tournament, in London 2013, had been pure mayhem. “Something weird always happens,” he noted – in short, you don’t want to take your eyes off this event!

Don’t miss all the Round 10 action, with Magnus commentating alongside Tania Sachdev and David Howell, from 13:00 CEST exclusively here on chess24.

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