Candidates Day Six: Nepomniachtchi and Caruana push ahead

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The sixth round of the Candidates Tournament in Madrid has concluded with two wins and two draws – including a missed opportunity. This leaves, almost halfway through the tournament,  Nepomniachtchi sole leader with 4.5/6 closely followed by Caruana with 4/6; Nakamura and Rapport have 3/6 each, Ding, Radjabov and Duda 2.5/6  while Firouzja is last with 2/6.

Daily, Lichess is providing a broadcast of the games played in real-time. We also have a selection of annotated games by GM Nijat Abasov and video recaps by WGM-elect Jesse February.

Teimour Radjabov has faced Richard Rapport with the white pieces 4 times in his career in classical tournaments, with all games ending in a draw. Candidates 2022 were almost the tournament to change this; however the opportunity was missed and the game was agreed drawn, in sight of a forced threefold repetition. With the Taimanov Sicilian played, the first major deviation from the main lines came already at move 7, when Radjabov played 7. Qd3. The two players followed, until move 15, a game between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi in Grand Chess Tour Rapid, Croatia 2021. Instead of 16. c3 which was played in the aforementioned game, Radjabov decided to play Bg6+ first – with the c3 idea coming a couple of moves later. After 23…Rxb2 24. Nc4 Bb4+ 25. Kf1 and Ng4! (threatening Rfxf2+ – which will also be played if Nxb2, getting in total 2 pawns and a piece for the rook), a series of exchanges begins. The outcome of it is a rook and opposite coloured bishops endgame, in which Radjabov is two pawns down, but in exchange his opponent has a very bad bishop and weak extra pawns, while he can aim to get the initiative. The critical moment struck a few moves later with 37. Rf1. White is ready to take advantage of the black bishop’s uncomfortable placement, with a rook already attacking the bishop from the b-file, and being ready to play Rf7 on the next move. Here 37…c5 would prevent this threat and after 38. Rf7 Rxg2+ 39. Kh3 Re2 40. Bd6 (exchanging the bishop with Rbxb7 is immediately) a forced draw Rd2 41. Rb6 and black would have to give back the exchange with …Rxd6 42. Rxd6 but hold the draw. Rapport instead decided to play 37… Rxh4+ 38. Kg1 Re4; This would allow 39. Bh2, with 40. Rf7 incoming and no way to prevent it. After, 39…Rd8 40. Rf7 Rd2 41. Rf8+ Rd8 42. Rxd8+ Kxd8 43. Rxb7 g6, white would have fair winning chances. White missed this however, and instead played 39.Rf7 immediately, which after 39.Rxe5 Rbxb7 40.Rb5, white only had a forced draw.

Alireza Firouzja, with a lot of pressure to handle in this tournament, was defeated by Fabiano Caruana, against whom he had, in classical tournaments, a negative record of two losses – with the most recent in round 9 of Grand Swiss 2021– and four draws. This was the third loss and first loss with white pieces. Firouzja  played the Catalan, and already by move 6, he went for the extremely rare Qd3 – not the first time in this tournament we witness players choosing very rare continuations. Already by move 12, black seemed to have an easier position – even if it’s objectively close to equal. White plays Nd2 – Nf3, probably to play against Caruana’s dark-squared bishop preparing to offer a trade with Bg5 – which happened a couple of moves later. However this allowed black to get a very comfortable position with 14. Rac8 e5! 15. Qh5 Nb4, while white needs to be very accurate to avoid getting into more trouble. Firouzja indeed offered and traded the dark-squared bishops, but a critical mistake was played a few moves later. In this position, he plays 20. Rxd6, aiming to simplify the position with …Qxd7 21. Bh3 Qd6 22. Bxc8 Rxc8; What he probably missed though, was 21…f5! which Caruana played after thinking for around 10 minutes, and now Firouzja is losing material! With him under severe positional, psychological and soon time pressure failing to find a move that would give him any practical chances, Caruana went on clinically converting his advantage into a win.

Nakamura has faced Ding 7 times in his career in classical tournaments, having lost none. With some extra effort, he managed to maintain this in round 6 of the Candidates as well. The Italian game was played, with the two players being into known territory and until move 13. cxd4 following a game between Anish Giri and (again) Liren Ding in 2019, where Ding had played 13… Bb4 followed by 14. a3 Bxd2 and the game ended in a, for most of the time, uneventful draw. In this game however, he played 13…Bb6 with Nakamura replying, within a few seconds, with 14. a4 Re8 15. Ra3- another idea tested by Giri in The European Teams Championship 2019 in Batumi, against Anton Guijarro. Here, instead of 15… Qb7 and white continuing his plan with 16. Rae3, Ding plays 15…Qa7 and after 16 Nf1 d5  17. e5 (Ng3 would be another, possibly slightly better, option) and the next few moves, Ding ends up with a potentially threatening d-pawn which he went on to push – while white’s e-pawn isn’t really threatening much. Indeed, Nakamura, who had spent only 8 minutes for 26(!!) moves, took his time to figure out how to proceed, spending 75 minutes for his next 4 moves, out of which 50 for 30.Rg3. With Ding still pushing and trying to create something out of his position and the d-pawn, this position is reached, and Nakamura finds a way to force a draw with 35. Bxg7 Nxg7 36. Rxg7+ (move order wouldn’t make a difference) …Kxg7 37. Qg5+ Kf8 38. Qh6+ Kg8 (note that 37…Ke7 trying to escape from the queenside doesn’t help ding because of 39.Qf6+ Kd7 40.Qxf7+) and the game ended in a draw by repetition

In the first game in this Candidates tournament so far with 1.Nf3 played, Ian Nepomiachtchi managed to convincingly defeat Jan-Krzysztof Duda in 35 moves, proving himself as one of the clear favorites to win the Candidates. With both players having followed one of the main lines in Reti, Nepomniachtchi decided to play 9. Ne5, and after …Nxe5 10.dxe5, this pawn will be an asset for his kingside attack, with the pawn march starting soon, after 14. Kh2. Duda’s position started getting increasingly difficult after 20…hxg5 21. hxg5 Bb4 22. Bxb4 Qxb4, and eventually ended up in a position with his opponent having a bishop for three pawns. 26…Kh8 is a common idea, using the opponent’s pawn to protect your own king with the opponent having difficulties making progress, however in this position 26… Kxh7 could have been better; if he gets to collect the a and g pawns and exchange queens, the game would be a draw. The final blow struck after 32…g4, with Nepomniachtchi playing 33. Rg5 Qd6 34. Qf2 Qa3 and 35. Qa3! Duda resigned in sight of the incoming Rfxg7. Note however that 35. Rfxg7 wouldn’t work because of …Qe3! And after the queen exchange – which cannot be avoided – the game would be a draw.

With this win Nepomniachtchi maintains his lead (almost) half-way through the tournament.

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