Candidates Round 8: Don Fabi's poisonous new idea in the Najdorf
The resumption of the Candidates 2020-21 was filled with great drama and luckily it was all on the chess board! The tournament has restarted from the halfway mark and the 8th round witnessed two decisive games! Caruana vs MVL and Alekseenko vs Grischuk, both of them bordered very closely on the edge of a draw but in the end it was Caruana and Alekseenko who came out on top. The remaining two games ended in draws. The game of the day, and perhaps of the event was Fabiano Caruana's amazing preparation from the white side of the poisoned pawn variation in the Sicilian Najdorf. We have detailed breakdown of the game along with analysis, images, videos and more!
After a break of a year, the Candidates tournament has resumed! Seven rounds have already been played and seven remain to be played. Surely, the dynamics of such an event is something that no player is well-versed with. You go to an event with some sort of preparation and then all of a sudden you have to stop halfway. While your points are carried forward, the momentum, preparation, ideas, and the flow is lost. Hence, it is very interesting to see how the tournament pans out. Before the start of the eighth round, this is how the standings looked:
While the Corona virus was something new the last time around, and there was a lot of tension in the air, this time around, things were more relaxed.
Caruana vs MVL
The most explosive game of the day and perhaps the entire event was Caruana vs MVL. It happened in the poisoned pawn variation of the Najdorf. The game showcased brilliant opening preparation by Caruana, tenacious defence by MVL, a very complex middlegame and and even more complex rook vs knight endgame. Let's break down the game bit by bit.
In the post game conference Fabiano revealed that this was an idea found by his second Rustam Kasimdzhanov, "Most of these ideas, it’s a one time thing. Then you can’t play it again. Like this one, firstly black has many ways to play it. Actually Maxime played the best way. I was kind of upset that that he played this because I thought 19...Nf6 is a very difficult move to find."
MVL added, "I couldn’t remember the details but yeah in general (after Bc4!!) I surprisingly couldn’t find an easy way and it came down to this endgame which I thought I should be holding quite easily but maybe at that moment I made a few inaccuracies."
Here it was important to save the rook with Ra7! Yes, it might seem a bit passive after 0-0+ Kg6 and Rxc3, but with precise play Black holds the game. MVL saved his knight by moving it to e4 and gave up his rook on a8. This gave Fabiano a small but nagging edge.
We reach a position which is a theoretical draw according to the six-men tablebases. But it is important to understand where is it that we should placing our knight. The right spot for the knight is to be on g7 where it defends the f5 square. But then why not knight on e7. Let's figure it out.
The knight is best placed here for several reasons. Firstly the knight and the pawn coordinate perfectly to keep the White king out. But then why not the knight on e7. The reason is that imagine the knight is on e7 and the black king on f7. At this point in order to make a move you would have to play Kf8. While if the knight is on g7 and the king on f7 and a rook checks from a7, you can simply go to g6. From this I believe a good rule of thumb can be that it is important to place your knight closer to the file of the white pawn.
You have to choose the right circuit here. Nc7! is the correct move as after Ne8 or Ne6 and Ng7, the knight reaches where we want it to be. Fabiano Caruana speaking about the endgame said, "I actually don’t know. I wasn’t sure if this was a draw or not. I didn’t really see a way to make progress but it wasn’t a 100% clear to me. I guess it’s a theoretical endgame that should be a draw." MVL was insistent on placing his knight on h6 during the game and failed to understand that g7 was the best square: "For some reason I thought this would lose (55...Ng7). I really thought that the knight on h6 was the way to play but maybe I just misunderstood simply," said MVL.
Alekseenko vs Grischuk
The all-Russian clash for most of the part was just equal. In fact the engines did not change their assessment from 0.00 for such a long time that it was easy to assume the game was just a dull and boring one. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Alekseenko showed immense fighting spirit to down the experienced Alexander Grischuk.
With this win Alekseenko makes a comeback on the standings and is now on 3.5/8.
Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Anish Giri
The game between Nepo and Anish was quite an important one from the perspective of the standings as Ian was leading the event with 4.5 points while Anish was a point behind him. The opening choice of Anish was the most interesting moment of the game, but apart from that there wasn't really anything special that happened. When both the players were asked about their feeling of resuming the event, Nepo mentioned it being extremely stressful. Giri was a bit more elaborate, "I played the Wijk aan Zee tournament which was a similar experience for me. So I am used to putting suit on already! It was my first flight in over a year. Usually I learnt how to pack without forgetting anything but now I was very worried about flying again, but yeah whole new experience. Actually in the playing hall, it looks exactly the same as last time. So when I came to the end and sat on the sofa, I felt like just one day has passed in the year. I sat on the sofa yesterday Round 7 and today I sit again and it’s Round 8. So in a way it feels like, nothing happened in that year.”
Anish further clarified, "To be honest, last time, in order to concentrate, I stopped reading news completely at least the quality news and so it was a shock to me, because in my mind everything was fine. I was getting up for breakfast and was like in the mood to go all-in. Now of course everybody is used to Covid. Though I have to say if you think about some things, it’s quite surreal. Like I was in the VIP lounge of Moscow airport and I felt like the difference between lounge and normal area is that in the lounge you can take off the mask and no one will tell you to put it on. There are bunch of these movies about post-apocalyptic world but okay we are used to it, so it’s fine." Nepo also chimed in about how it felt to resume the half completed event, "Obviously it was I guess a big shock for the participants. Since I was like really sick by the time the tournament finished and I also had lost the previous game in this tournament. So overall I think I am not the right person to be completely disappointed but well what is true is that it’s a completely different tournament so one year of preparation is something new."
Wang Hao vs Ding Liren
Speaking about his year between the two halves of the Candidates, Ding Liren mentioned, "This was a difficult year. Most of my tournaments were played online and especially late at night. So it’s very difficult to play. For daily life, I spent most of my time at my home and it was kind of boring. Sometimes I trained very hard and sometimes I didn’t want to train at all. Sometimes it’s very hard to lead a normal life for a professional chess player. Somehow I forgot how I played like a professional chess player." Anastasiya Karlovich, who was interviewing the players asked an interesting question to Wang Hao, "Hao, what you have been doing, I remember in the first part of the event you said that maybe you could have chosen a different profession if you were not a player. So did you have a chance to do anything you want this year?" Wang Hao replied, " Well I had to spend a lot of time not only in China. I like travelling a lot… I really like travelling and I mean just as a tourist. Then I realized that I can do something else, without traveling and so I did something which I already like to do. I like to watch movies! Once I went to cinema to watch movies, one day I saw four movies… I wouldn’t say that I spent too much time on chess."
About his chances in the event, Ding Liren mentioned that he felt quite relaxed as he wasn't a favourite any more, "I didn’t play well in the first stage so, my chance of winning this tournament is very low. I feel very relaxed."
Shahid Ahmed contributed to the article.