Nepomniachtchi Wins Candidates Tournament With Round To Spare

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi secured the victory in the 2022 Candidates Tournament with a round to spare by drawing with GM Richard Rapport on Sunday. Nepomniachtchi has now qualified for the 2023 World Championship against GM Magnus Carlsen.

GM Hikaru Nakamura is in sole second place after beating GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda, while both Firouzja-Ding and Radjabov-Caruana ended in draws.

The final round on Monday will see the clash between Ding and Nakamura, where the Chinese player needs to win on demand in the fight for second place. If Carlsen decides not to defend his title, Nepomniachtchi will play the runner-up instead.

The tournament isn’t over yet, but with the impressive score of 9/13 Nepomniachtchi has already secured himself a second consecutive world championship match. As mentioned here before, he is now only the second player in history to win two Candidates tournaments back-to-back, after his compatriot GM Vasily Smyslov did the same in 1953 and 1956. GMs Boris Spassky, Viktor Korchnoi, and Anatoly Karpov would later repeat that in Candidates matches.

Nepomniachtchi now hopes to be joining the small group of players who became world champions on their second attempt: Smyslov, Spassky, and GM Garry Kasparov.

GM Anish Giri, who was at the venue today and joined the broadcast, pointed out that Nepomniachtchi also won the previous Candidates tournament with a round to spare. This time, the Russian GM did it without a loss (so far) and Giri was impressed: “He showed an insane level.”

According to the Dutch grandmaster it made all the difference that Nepomniachtchi started working on chess much harder a couple of years ago: “Now he’s one of the best prepared players in the world.”

Nepomniachtchi’s own reaction after today’s game: “I feel extremely tired. It’s an insanely difficult tournament. Despite the score, it was never easy. Every game could have some danger, I could never feel safe, maybe until I had two points with two rounds to go; I felt it would give me a good chance.”

Asked if he had a message for Carlsen, he said: “Maybe: stop playing this h4, a4 nonsense!?”

It’s good that the final round has some content as well: we still have that big clash between Ding and Nakamura. Since we don’t know the significance of second place just yet, we just have to assume that it might be very important and so Ding should be going all-in.

Carlsen, also in Madrid, commented: “We’ll see.”

Nakamura, also interviewed in the broadcast, remained down to earth about that game, saying his tournament is already “a success regardless of tomorrow.” The reason? Because he’s been playing “good chess,” which was his main goal going into the tournament.

Nepomniachtchi-Rapport ½-½
Rapport had played the Taimamov and the Sveshnikov before in the tournament, so his choice of the Classical Sicilian must have come as a surprise today, but only a small one. He already played it once this year at the FIDE Grand Prix, but that was the first time in five years.

Unlike in the Najdorf, where there is a huge number of sixth moves, the Rauzer with 6.Bg5 is really the only way to go for White these days, and that’s what Nepomniachtchi did.

Move nine was the first moment of choice for White, and it made sense what he did: taking on c6 and the solid f2-f3. Don’t forget that Nepomniachtchi only needed a draw in this game.

“I knew this f3 system is very solid but I wasn’t sure,” he said afterward, noting that Rapport could have kept his king’s bishop on the board with 13…Ba5 which he assessed as unclear. After the played 13…Bxc3, “White has a very nice position,” said Nepomniachtchi.

Just a few moves later, more welcome developments followed in the form of a lot of trades. “This endgame is the kind of position you can only lose on purpose with White,” said the tournament winner, who had no trouble forcing the draw soon.

Nakamura-Duda 1-0
Nakamura expected the Petroff more than the Najdorf today, but Duda went for the latter. We had a game!

A “strange” game it was, for Nakamura, who felt he was better out of the opening and maybe still after giving up the e4-pawn, but when seeing the engine assessment afterward he was surprised to realize he might have misevaluated the position.

There were further disagreements between the computer and the human: Nakamura called his 28.Ng4 “a stupid move,” even though it’s the engine’s top choice.

A bit later, it did go wrong for him. Nakamura: “I just couldn’t find a plan, I started drifting.”

With 31…Bg5! and 32…b5! Duda found a tactical way to grab the initiative, but then got too optimistic.

Nakamura expected 33…b4 here, when White really lacks compensation for the pawn and is in trouble. After 10 minutes, Duda played 33…d5? instead, and Nakamura grabbed his chance with 34.cxd5 Rc2 35.Bd6! Rxe2 36.Bxc7 Nc5 37.d6

Undoubtedly affected by White’s unexpected 35th move, Duda couldn’t get himself together and with six minutes for four moves, he spent 14 seconds on 37…Nd7? after which he ended up in a lost position.

Nakamura: “The thing is, he thought for so long on 33…d5 and he thought he was much better. And then as soon as I go 35.Bd6 it’s like, wait, what’s happened? And so the shift there, and the fact that he’s already, he wasn’t low on time but he only had like 15 minutes, mentally I think it’s very upsetting. He just couldn’t keep it together here.”

In the position that came on the board, it takes some time to realize that Black can hardly move. White could play it slowly, as Black just had no counterplay. Another very disappointing day at the office for Duda, while Nakamura is now a draw away from finishing in second place.

The penultimate round of the Candidates saw what everyone knew would happen for a while become a mathematical certainty—Nepo won the event. I’m actually very curious to see how he fares tomorrow. Last time, he clinched the tournament with a round to spare as well, played Black in the last round, and got completely crushed. But this time around his play has struck me as much stronger, and I think he will not repeat such a disaster. The fight for second place still is very relevant, and Nakamura came through huge with a big victory today in a messy game.

Firouzja-Ding ½-½
Like Nepomniachtchi earlier in the tournament, Firouzja played the Four Knights vs. Ding. Was it a sign that Firouzja had enough of the tournament, and played for a draw, unlike in every other game before?

In any case, Ding decided to not follow his quick and uneventful draw with the Russian GM. “I deviated from this game and I tried to play something new,” he said, although he still followed a game he played against Rapport in 2019 in China.

That changed when Firouzja went 20.Bg4 instead of 20.Bd7, to which Ding came up with a surprising pawn sacrifice. Would you have considered pushing your h-pawn there?

Ding played 20…h5!? and Firouzja picked up the gauntlet with 21.Rxe5 fxe5 22.Bxh5, winning a pawn but giving Black three pawns in the center. That provided nice compensation, but not more.

“20…h5 was risky but I think after I sacrificed a pawn I shouldn’t be worse but in the end it became very tricky,” said Ding. He felt that if Firouzja hadn’t sacrificed his bishop it might get dangerous for him and when he did, it was a clear draw.

Radjabov-Caruana ½-½
The quietest game of the round saw some deep preparation by Caruana from the black side of a Catalan. A first pawn sacrifice on b4 was followed by another one, and then another one!

Such dynamic play, more often seen in the Grunfeld, is tough to meet when the opponent blitzes out the moves (with the exception of move eight, where Caruana double-checked things for seven minutes) and so Radjabov decided not to go for the critical third pawn grab with 13.Qxb6. After another somewhat timid 16th move by the Azerbaijani, Caruana could equalize right away.

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