Candidates Day Four: Nepomniachtchi Takes The Lead

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The 4th day of the Candidates Tournament in Madrid has concluded – with the highlight of the day being Ian Nepomniachtchi’s win against Alireza Firoujza – a win which makes him the sole leader, and Berlin Defense reclaiming (for now) it’s reputation as a reliable draw weapon. 

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.

The FIDE Grand Prix 2022 runner-up and winner faced each other for (only) the 6th time in their career in classical tournaments, with Nakamura having three wins and two draws against Rapport. With Berlin Defense played, we had to wait and see if we would have three out of three decisive Berlin Defense games involving Hikaru in this Candidates Tournament, or the opening would slowly reclaim its drawing (on top level) reputation. Well, it turned out to be the second. Rapport played 5. Bg5, which is a fairly uncommon variation in anti-Berlin, with Nakamura going for the h6 – g5 idea like in his round 1 loss against Caruana. This time, however, he played much more accurately throughout the game until the end, securing the draw.

Credits: FIDE/Stev Bonhage

If we were to expect a sharp game in today’s round, it would definitely be Nepomniachtchi versus Firoujza; and indeed the game stood up to these expectations! With the two players following the main line of Najdorf (albeit with a slightly different move order), the first major deviation came at move 15 when Firoujza replies to f5 with the extremely uncommon 15…Bc4, followed by Nepomniachtchi’s Kb1 preparing to continue his march on Alireza’s kingside a few moves later with 18.f6. The balance already started tipping in favor of white when Firoujza

spent 70 minutes for three moves, including the sub-optimal 20…Bxc1 – ending up with 37 minutes on the clock and still a complicated position to handle for 18 moves more until the time control. (remember, there’s no increment until move 61!). To make things worse, he played 23… Nd6; it’s hard to imagine what compensation Firoujza expected for the pawn he gave up, but he had none, and doesn’t have a way to threaten white’s king or take advantage of the semi-open files. In fact, after a few more moves, with some piece maneuvering exploiting several tactical motifs, Nepomniachtchi has an overwhelming attack on the kingside while Firoujza is left with uncoordinated pieces and one minute to defend a losing position! The final blow struck soon, after black’s 35…f5, allowing white to execute a beautiful combination: 36. Rxh7+! Kxh7 37. Qh5+ Kg8 (37… Qh6 38. Qxe8 would also just be losing, you can see some possible lines in the annotations) 38. Nxf5 Bf6 39. Rg1+ and Firoujza resigned with 5 seconds in sight of Kf8 40. Qh6+ Kf7 41. Rg7+ Bxg7 42. Qxg7#

Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Teimour Radjabov have faced each other only once in a classical tournament, specifically in the 81st edition of Tata Steel Masters tournament in 2019, with the game being drawn. Their 2nd ever classical endgame was also to end in a draw; this time in the Candidates. Like in Rapport v Nakamura, 5. Bg5 was played; in this game though the two players entered unexplored territory already by move 8. Na4. Radjabov’s response, 8…Bb4+allowed Duda to get an edge, which never got converted into something more. With 17. Qf3 f5! Black managed to equalize; the two players shortly thereafter got into an equal rook endgame, and the game ended in a draw by move 40.

Credits: FIDE/Stev Bonhage

The current World’s No.2, Liren Ding, faced the former (for quite a long time) No.2 and Candidates veteran Fabiano Caruana, in a game with the Ragozin Defense on the board. Ding goes for the quite trendy 5. Qa4. Fabiano chose to play 7…Na4, which has been played on high level only once, and not in a classical game. White manages to get an edge out of the opening, due to dominating the c file, with Caruana deciding to sacrifice a pawn to contest it. However this one pawn advantage was proven insufficient. The two players entered a rook endgame on move 26, with Ding being a pawn up and still pushing, but Caruana managed to hold fairly easily, and the game ended in a draw. Check out the game to see his technique!

Credits: FIDE/Stev Bonhage

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