- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 20, 2021

It was the longest halftime break in the history of tournament chess and perhaps all of sports, but Round 8 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament to pick a challenger to world champion Magnus Carlsen finally was played Monday, some 389 days after Round 7 was completed. The eight-grandmaster, double round-robin event in Yekaterinburg, Russia, was halted on March 26, 2020, as the spread of COVID-19 was shutting down pretty much everything around the globe.

With his win over co-leader GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave on Monday, American entry GM Fabiano Caruana has vaulted into a tie for second with the French GM, a half point behind Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi’s 5-3 score. Dutch star Anish Giri and Chinese GM Wang Hao are another half point back at 4-4, with six rounds to go.

FIDE’s decision to postpone over-the-board play was completely understandable, although some grumbled at the time that the event should never have started in the first place. But it has produced a weird dynamic in that, as top-level chess switched to exclusively online play, many of the competitors in Yekaterinburg have actually faced one another — multiple times — while the Candidates tournament was still technically in progress. 

Nepo and MV-L, as the two midpoint leaders are popularly known, have played 13 rapid games over the past year online, with the Russian enjoying a 5-2 advantage in decisive games. How that will translate into the play this week and next is an open question, but the chess played during the break was a fascinating exercise in top-ranked players trying to win without giving away too many opening secrets or preparation strategies. Take, for instance, Nepomniachtchi’s win over his rival at the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, played just last month, featuring one of the oddest opening sequences between top players in a long while.

The moves 1. b3 a5!? 2. e4 a4!? could be played only by really good or really bad players. After 3. Bb2 e6 4. bxa4 Nf6, White has an extra pawn, but Black “dominates” the half-open a-file, for what it’s worth. The position becomes a bit more normal — after 17. Ba1 Re8, Vachier-Lagrave has a respectable position, but there’s a lot of pent-up energy in White’s d- and c-pawns: 19. c4 f6 20. d4 Nc8?! (Re7 20. d5 Be8 21. Nh4 Nc5 22. Nf5 Rd7 23. Qc2 Bg6 looks solid for Black) 20. c5! e4 21. d5!, when 21…Bd7 22. c6! bxc6 23. dxc6 Bxc6 24. Nd4 Bd7 25. Bc4+ Kh8 26. Bd5 gives White great compensation for the sacrificed pawn.

Nepomniachtchi breaks decisively on top with 22. dxc6 Rxe1?! (bxc6 23. Qxf3 Rxe1 Ne7 is a tougher defense, though 24. Qg4 is unpleasant for Black) 23. Qd5+! Kh8 24. Rxe1 Ne7 25. Qf7 (also strong was 25. Rxe7! Qxe7 26. cxb7 Rb8 27. c6) Nxc6 26. Bxf6!, when 26…gxf6 27. Re8+! Qxe8 28. Qxf6+ Kg8 29. Bc4+ leads to mate. After the game’s 29…Qf8 27. Qxb7 gxf6 28. Qxc6 Nxc5 29. Qxf3 (White is a pawn up and Black’s position lacks any coordination) Nd7 (grisly is 29…Rxa2?? 30. Re8+! Qxe8 31. Qxf6+ Kg8 32. Bc4+ Ne6 33. Bxe6+ Qxe6 34. Qxe6+ Kg7 35. Qxa2) 30. Qd5 Ne5 31. f4 Ng6 32. g3 Ra7 33. Re6 Kg7 34. Rxd6 Ne7 35. Qe6 Qf7, Black gave up preferring not to play out the two-pawn-down ending.

Giri comes into the resumed Candidates event one of the hottest players on the circuit, with a first and second in the two biggest events of 2021. He may have stolen a psychological march on Caruana with a victory over the American star at June’s Chessable Masters online rapid event.

Despite choosing a more positional Ruy Lopez line, Caruana as White builds up some promising h-file pressure against Giri’s king. But Black defends coolly and when the queens come off, it is the White king who finds himself under siege: 22. Nc5 Rb5 23. Na4 Rb4 24. b3 g4! 25. Rd2?! (better was seeking counterplay with 25. Rh5; White’s move amounts to a self-mating mistake) Rfb8! (see diagram; Black sets two traps, one of which White fails to see) 26. Nc5? (sidestepping the threat of 26…Rxa4! 27. bxa4 Rb1 mate, but Caruana could have stayed in the game with 26. Rdd1 e4 27. fxe4 Rxe4 28. Rde1 Rbe8, limiting Black’s material gain to a pawn) Rc4+!, and White resigns — the knight is lost as 28. bxc4 Rb1 again is mate.

Nepomniachtchi-Vachier-Lagrave, Magnus Carlsen Rapid Online Invitational, March 2021

1. b3 a5 2. e4 a4 3. Bb2 e6 4. bxa4 Nf6 5. e5 Nd5 6. Nf3 Nb6 7. Nc3 d5 8. exd6 Bxd6 9. Bd3 O-O 10. O-O N8d7 11. Re1 Nc5 12. Bf1 Bd7 13. Nb5 Ncxa4 14. Bd4 Bc6 15. Nxd6 cxd6 16. Rb1 e5 17. Ba1 Re8 18. c4 f6 19. d4 Nc8 20. c5 e4 21. d5 exf3 22. dxc6 Rxe1 23. Qd5+ Kh8 24. Rxe1 Ne7 25. Qf7 Nxc6 26. Bxf6 Qf8 27. Qxb7 gxf6 28. Qxc6 Nxc5 29. Qxf3 Nd7 30. Qd5 Ne5 31. f4 Ng6 32. g3 Ra7 33. Re6 Kg7 34. Rxd6 Ne7 35. Qe6 Qf7 and Black resigns.

Caruana-Giri, Chessable Masters Online Rapid, June 2020

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 Bc5 5. Bg5 h6 6. Bh4 d6 7. c3 O-O 8. Nbd2 g5 9. Bg3 Nh5 10. Bxc6 bxc6 11. d4 exd4 12. Nxd4 Nxg3 13. hxg3 Qf6 14. Qh5 Bxd4 15. cxd4 Qxd4 16. Qxh6 Qg7 17. O-O-O Rb8 18. e5 dxe5 19. Ne4 f6 20. f3 Bf5 21. Qxg7+ Kxg7 22. Nc5 Rb5 23. Na4 Rb4 24. b3 g4 25. Rd2 Rfb8 26. Nc5 Rc4+ White resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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