Candidates Round 8: Gukesh Back in the Co-Lead As Lei Beats Tan

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After round 7, one could imagine a scenario where Nepomniachtchi and Tan solidify their lead and maintain it till the end of the tournament. Round 8, though, flipped the script completely. Gukesh bounced back brilliantly after his round 7 loss and joined Nepomniachtchi in the lead once again, while in the Women’s section, Lei defeated Tan to open a three-way tie for first. In close pursuit to the leaders in the Open section are Nakamura, after today’s victory against Caruana, and Praggnanandhaa; in the women’s, Lagno is just half a point behind the leaders. As the tournament progresses, the excitement will build further and more spectacular chess will be played before two challengers in the Open and Women’s get crowned.

As well as broadcasting the live games from the two tournaments, Lichess is providing a live stream for every day of the Candidates. Make sure to tune in to our Twitch or YouTube channels, with streams starting from 14:15 Toronto time (18:15 UTC).

*We’re also providing daily annotations on some of the games from GM Brandon Jacobson and IM / WGM Padmini Rout. The full study can be found here.

Schedule

Round Recap

Open Section

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Today’s round was marked by innovations in ancient openings. Gukesh and Nakamura, breathing new life into the Italian and Ruy Lopez, respectively, won against Vidit and Caruana. Nepomniachtchi put immense pressure on Abasov, but Abasov was up to the task and defended well. Meanwhile, Praggnanandhaa introduced a rare opening idea against Firouzja’s somewhat surprising opening choice, but the game quickly petered out into a draw.

Modern chess is all about playing innocuous moves which aren’t that much worse than the “best” engine moves. In some cases, these subtleties could give rise to unanticipated nuances in typical positions. Gukesh’s preparation clearly had these ideas in mind as he played 4…a6 and 5…h6 in the Italian, steering the game into atypical and nigh on uncharted waters, which is quite a feat, especially at this level. Vidit went for a typical plan in the Italian, gaining as much queenside space as possible. It seemed to overextend his position, though, and he soon found himself worse — Gukesh’s subtleties in the opening worked out quite well. Vidit’s play seemed logical, but it was just marginally inaccurate, and Gukesh was playing perfectly, leaving Vidit no chances to come back. That small fingerhold of a positional advantage was all Gukesh needed to beautifully coordinate and manoeuvre his pieces against Vidit. Under extreme positional pressure, Vidit then blundered in what was a very bad — losing — position, allowing Gukesh’s queen to infiltrate. Gukesh finished off in style with a very pretty checkmate and bounced back brilliantly after what was a very tough loss in round 7. GM Brandon Jacobson analyzes Gukesh’s comeback:

https://lichess.org/study/Mj0wdEVK/gcVcHqVO#0

Nakamura and Caruana also found a way to enter novel territory in one of the most well-studied openings in all of chess, the Ruy Lopez. Nakamura went for a rare move, then Caruana followed up with a novel move (according to our Lichess Masters database). The character of the game wasn’t that of a typical Ruy as Nakamura had an isolated queen’s pawn, and as pieces got traded, it seemed like Caruana was well on the way to equalize, and potentially be better. Nakamura kept finding precise and aggressive moves, though, starting with 26. h4. Caruana did not react in the best way possible and soon found himself at a disadvantage, right before blundering inexplicably. GM Brandon Jacobson showcases Nakamura’s and Caruana’s innovations:

https://lichess.org/study/Mj0wdEVK/OkE4uI8p#0

Nepomniachtchi went into the second leg of the double round robin as the sole leader of the Candidates. Playing against Abasov with the White pieces (a rating difference of 126 Elo between the two of them), some may have expected this result to be a foregone conclusion. However, Abasov has proven to be tenacious and a great predictor of his opponent’s strategy, and today was no different. Against 1. e4, Abasov opted for the Petrov Defence; a weapon Nepomniachtchi himself is particularly fond of and one which this tournament has proven is a fighting opening. For nearly 20 moves, albeit via an (improved) move order, they followed a

https://lichess.org/MYefprCy#0

between GM Anurag and IM Saravana, where White went on to win. Nepomniachtchi had the initiative and the complications, especially in a tense endgame situation, but the underdog found the only equal line and got a crucial draw with the Black pieces. This result could be momentous for the outcome of the rest of the field, with Nepomniachtchi potentially having counted on a win with the White pieces against Abasov.

https://lichess.org/study/embed/nUycmG6L/fpcPYMO0#0

Praggnanandhaa’s preparation in this Candidates has simply been stellar, simply because it is so fresh. With 6. Ncb5 against Firouzja’s Sicilian Taimanov, Praggnanandhaa showed that he was not surprised by Firouzja’s choice of Sicilian and had his own ideas. The game never really got off to an imbalanced position, though, and Praggnanandhaa soon found a way to liquidate, achieving a rather stable and equal position. With more and more pieces getting hoovered off, a draw was the most logical outcome.

https://lichess.org/study/embed/nUycmG6L/v19cTsUv#0

Following these results, our simulations show that Nepomniachtchi’s chances have significantly fallen despite only drawing Abasov and not losing. He remains the favorite, though, but Gukesh and Nakamura are close behind. Caruana still has a chance to make a comeback, but he needs to start stringing through victories soon lest his chances dwindle.

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Women’s Section

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Just as it seemed like Tan would run away with the event, she perhaps let that thought cloud her judgement too much and was, simply, too ambitious. With a spectacular win against Tan, Lei threw the tournament wide open as there are now three leaders, Goryachkina, Tan, and Lei on 5 points, with Lagno in close pursuit on 4.5.

Tan meant business today as she played a very serious opening in the London. After having achieved a symbolic advantage in the opening with the bishop pair, the position was far too closed and thus a repetition of moves made the most sense — both on the board and due to the tournament situation. Showing an overabundance of fighting spirit, though, Tan went for the weakening 21. f4, signaling that she was not at all content with a draw. Of course, in hindsight, the decision seems to be a poor one, but, to use another platitude, fortune favors the brave. Tan perhaps could have survived, but Lei played very accurately and Tan’s position slowly collapsed. IM / WGM Padmini Rout explores shows us how to convert like Lei:

https://lichess.org/study/Mj0wdEVK/LzPUONjV#0

The veteran vs. rookie trope has become commonplace in chess, but, in recent times, it seems like experience is narrowly edging out youth. Vaishali’s tournament hasn’t been going her way, so she was likely hoping to get a win with the Grünfeld today. Her accomplished countrywoman, Humpy, though, knew the ins-and-outs of the Grünfeld variation chosen quite well, gaining a nice advantage after Vaishali reacted poorly to a well-timed e6 pawn push on move 14. An exchange was then won in the best way possible, but Vaishali defended tenaciously, eventually even getting into an equal endgame. Equal does not always mean drawn, though, and Humpy still had the extra exchange to work with. In time pressure, Vaishali went for the wrong plan and was forced to resign a few moves later. IM / WGM Padmini Rout shows what could have been:

https://lichess.org/study/Mj0wdEVK/d1bZoWrr#0

Salimova has so far shown that being the only IM in the tournament would not be of any concern to her, and today saw no different. Playing a very solid variation of the Queen’s Gambit, which went on to transpose to a Catalan position, Salimova’s better-placed pieces gave her a small advantage in the middlegame. There was maybe one moment where Salimova could have capitalized further on her advantage, but the line shown by Stockfish 16.1 is not easy for a human to appreciate and not all that clearly winning, either. After Muzychuk went into a knight + 4 pawns (Muzychuk) vs. rook + 3 pawns (Salimova) position, though, it was clear that only Salimova could win. In a flabbergasting moment of double blindness, Salimova could have won after trading one advantage for another: that of the extra exchange for a winning king and pawn endgame. Unfortunately for Salimova, she did not play 54. Rxe5 and had to acquiesce to a draw on move 120, after playing out the rook vs. knight endgame for a long while.

https://lichess.org/study/embed/LCuAJIx2/A215eD6s#0

Goryachkina is in the co-lead and has been having a very solid tournament. Curiously enough, she has never been much worse in any of her 8 games, a record no one else can boast. The closest she has been to being “much worse” was in today’s game against Lagno, where Lagno had a measly +1 toward the end of the game — remember, though, that Stockfish’s evaluations in late middlegames and endgames are overoptimistic. Achieving the draw in style with 33…Nfg4, Goryachkina must be satisfied with today’s game as she drew a close contender in Lagno.

https://lichess.org/study/embed/LCuAJIx2/VjizoerZ#0

Following these results, our simulations show that for the first time since the start of the event, Tan is no longer the clear favorite — Goryachkina is, with Lei close behind. Lagno is also still in the running, but, otherwise, the four other players have close to 0 chances of mounting a comeback.

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Round 9 Preview

In the Open, the pairings of the all-decisive round 2 are repeated, but with colors reversed. After making a big comeback, Nakamura will be looking to get revenge against Vidit for the round 2 loss. Firouzja will also want to avenge his loss against the player who once again shares the leader with Gukesh, Nepomniachtchi. Praggnanandhaa, only half a point behind Gukesh, will also look to give Gukesh a tough fight as Black. Meanwhile, Caruana, who is just coming off a tough loss, will have to consider his options as Black against the solid and tenacious Abasov.

In the Women’s section, the tournament is truly wide open. Of the leaders, Lei has the best chances to win as she is playing with the White pieces against Salimova. Don’t count out any Black victories, though, as Goryachkina and Tan will play Black against Muzychuk and Vaishali, respectively. For the player hunting the pack, Lagno, she also plays Black against Humpy, who will be regaining her confidence after today’s victory against Vaishali.

Make sure to follow the action with us in Round 9!

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