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Candidates Round 9: A position that is tough even for the Grandmasters to solve!

by Sagar Shah - 21/04/2021

With just five rounds to go for the Candidates, it seems as if only four players are capable of winning the tournament and becoming the Challenger. Ian Nepomniachtchi leads the tournament with 5.5/9 after his uneventful draw against Grischuk. Caruana, MVL and Giri are half a point behind Nepo with 5.0/9. While Fabiano and Maxime drew their games, it was Anish who scored the only decisive win of the round by beating Wang Hao. MVL escaped from a completely lost position against Ding Liren to keep his chances in the tournament alive. We bring you the entire round 9 report of the Candidates 2020-21 along with seven extremely tough positions which even GMs will find it difficult to crack.

A position that will challenge even grandmasters!

Are you in for some hard core chess calculation? Well, here's the position from the game between Anish Giri and Wang Hao. I will call it the 2500+ club, because it is going to challenge even the GMs. If you are rated much lower, do not worry, give it a go! It's a chance for you to improve your calculation through the series of questions.


2500+ Question 1

Black to play

Anish has been dominating throughout the game and now plans to pick up the b4 pawn. Not only is the b7 pawn weak then, but so is the f7 one. But White king is also not 100% safe. This is where you need to wear your calculation hats and find the best way for Black to hold.


Answer to 2500+ question 1 :

Black begins with Rd1. The idea is to begin weaving a net around the White king. But there are many things that need to be considered. Let's first begin with Rxb4. How do you continue?


2500+ Question 2

Black to play

Answer to 2500+ question 2 :

It is very important to begin with Qd8 or Qd6 in this position. The idea is that after Rxb7 you do not care about your f7 pawn but instead go Qd5! This helps to build a mating net around the white king. At the same time you have to be sure that the black king is not checkmated. So after Qd6 Rxb7 Qd5 Rxf7+ Kh6 we now come to a position where White must choose. Suppose in order to avoid mate we go Kg3. It's time for our next question.


2500+ Question 3

Black to play

Answer to 2500+ question 3 :

The right move is Rh1! and we will come to concrete lines in a bit. The idea is to take on h3 and then after Kxh3 Qh1+ Kg3 h4 is a mate. But suppose instead of Rh1, Black goes Ne4+ in the above position which looks the most logical. White now plays Kg2 and Black has many ways to give a discovered check but the most obvious one is Nd6+. Time for the next question.


2500+ Question 4

White to play

Answer to 2500+ question 4 :

White's best move now is e4!! After Qxe4+ you go f3! attacking the queen and White is completely winning. While e4 might not seem such a difficult move when presented with the move diagram, imagine a black player who has to decide whether to play Ne4+ or Rh1. To see this defensive resource from such a distance would of course be very difficult.


Let's go back to the line with Rh1 (instead of Ne4+) White goes Nf3 Rxh3+ Kxh3 Qxf3+ Kh2 Ng4+ Kg1 Q1+ Kg2. Is White winning now? Because there are mate threats on g7 and h8.


2500+ Question 5

Black to play 

Answer to 2500+ question 5 :

The only move to hold the draw here is ...Ne5! The aim is to interfere White's queen activity and after Qxe5 Qg4+ followed by Qd1 is a perpetual check and a draw!


Before we move on, What happens in the absolute first position when after Black's Rd1, White decides to take on b4 with queen (instead of the rook)?


2500+ Question 6

Here's another challenge for you. Black to play.

Answer to 2500+ question 6 :

This time the plan has to change a bit. Black goes Qd8!! and after Qxb7 you have to now figure out the final move to save the game.


2500+ Question 7

Black to play

Answer to 2500+ question 7 :

Black plays Ng4+!! You cannot take with the pawn as Qh4+ followed by Qh1 is a mate. On the other hand if White takes Nxg4 then after hxg4 the position is extremely complex and Black has excellent chances to hold the draw, because the white king is quite weak!


Were you able to solve these positions? Well, don't worry if you weren't able to. They were anyway not easy! But for the sake of understanding the position well, you can replay it below.


Complete Solution:

Back to the Candidates!

After that mind boggling bit of calculations, let's return to what's happening at Ekaterinberg. At the end of round 8 of the Candidates 2020-21, things had opened up a bit because MVL who was leading the tournament along with Nepo after seven rounds had lost to Caruana. In round 9, things have become even more interesting as Anish Giri managed to win his game against Wang Hao and is now pursuing the leader by just half a point.

Standings after round 9

While Nepo has half a point lead, he is being followed by three players, Caruana, MVL and Giri. Unless someone really starts to win a lot of games, it seems very likely that the Challenger for Magnus Carlsen is going to be one of these four players.

Results of Round 9

Anish Giri played a very nice game putting constant pressure on Wang Hao. The Chinese GM eventually succumbed to time pressure and lost his cool and the game | Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE Candidates

The move Ne5!? was a very interesting one. It had only been played in three games before and one of them was Arjun Erigaisi vs Nihal Sarin from the finals of the Super Juniors Cup. Anish was one of the commentators of the finals and it is quite possible that he had liked the way White had built up his position in that game and decided to try it in his own games!

The move h3!? was Giri's innovation. Instead of putting the king on h1 and the rook on g1, White tried to push the pawn to h3 and tuck his king away at h2.

It's easy to reprimand Wang Hao for playing the move ...c5 as it weakens the b5 square. However, it's not so easy for humans to just sit and do nothing!

Although slightly passive, Wang Hao's defensive idea with Qd8-a8 was very innovative. It helped him to gain some much needed stability on the queenside

Speaking about the queen manoeuvre to a8, Karlovich, the press officer asked the players if it was inspired by Alpha Zero. To which Anish responded, "No no, that was the victim of Alpha Zero. Alpha Zero wouldn’t do that. But it’s also quite solid. I didn’t see how to break because my queen cannot go to f3 and and b5 at the same time. So I didn’t really see how to put pressure. If 22.Qb5 he has Nc7. If I play 22.Qf3 which felt weird at first. I am not sure how I am putting pressure on the queenside."

Wang Hao showed quite some creativity in defence | Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE Candidates

Under time pressure + game pressure, Wang Hao went wrong with the move ...g6 and Anish managed to convert it into a full point with slow and steady pressure on the a1-h8 diagonal and the f7 point.
IM Sagar Shah analyzes the game

All the players were offered to choose the type of chair that is the most comfortable to them. When Anish was asked about his chair, he said, "It’s not so bad. It’s just a very very unusual chair. It's very big. I am you know more of an Ikea kind of person. I just asked for a normal chair and they gave me something. It was indeed an Ikea chair. So yeah that’s my kind of taste. I think the green chair is really very special and there is a lot going on with the branding and it’s really really spectacular. So I can understand that it’s very unpleasant to invite someone you know home, bake a beautiful cake. Your wife spent all day baking it and you also bought some chocolate chip you know. You go for the tea and then you say, would you like the cake? Then you look, no I will just have the chocolate. The green one is a beautiful chair and it deserves more love. But at the end of the day, we want to focus on the game and if possible to have the usual chair. At home, I am always used to the same kind of chair. This (green) one is very big and you know if I would be the king or something I’d be there but right now I am just a participant of the Candidates…!" Typical Anish Giri sense of humour!

Anish skipped the huge green chairs and went for a... | Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE Candidates

...simple Ikea like chair that is more to his taste | Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE Candidates

What are Anish's thoughts after winning the game? "It was very important for me to win this game. To realistically stay in the race at least. Otherwise would have been very hard. In my previous Candidates I kept the chances until the end but you have to win some games at some point. It’s not enough that the tournament goes well, nobody’s pulling ahead. You also need yourself to win games at some point. So it’s good to win one and we will see what happens later."

Ding Liren's knight sacrifice vs MVL

Ding Liren vs MVL

What do you play in this position?

Here's a hint from another game that will help you find the right answer:

Vishy Anand vs Wang Hao, Tata Steel 2011

What is the move Vishy Anand played here? This example was shown by GM S.P. Sethuraman during the live commentary

Vishy played the brilliant move Nd4!!

The idea is to take on d4 and after cxd4, White's pawns in the center are monstrous

Back to Ding Liren vs MVL

The right move was Nd4!! which was found by Ding Liren pretty quickly!

After cxd4 the knight on e5 either has to give up its life or move away when Re1 followed Bg4 or Bd3 is going to be extremely powerful. MVL decided to give back the piece. But that only meant that his position was extremely bad.

At this moment Ding Liren was totally winning because not only does he have a passed pawn, but also the b6, e5 and h6 pawns are weak and also the Black king is exposed.

When Ding Liren pushed the pawn to d6, it was a mistake that led him to losing the pawn after Re6 d7 Rd6. The game ended in a draw after a few moves. Quite a depressing result for the Chinese considering that he dominated the entire game.

After saving the game MVL said, "I just got into a lot of trouble and at some point it become extremely tough to move. I found move after move, trying to keep on the fight. In the end I managed to save this game but it’s not gonna go in my best games collection for sure." Ding Liren wasn't happy about his miss, "I think I played a good game except 37.d6 is a blunder. I missed Re6 especially d7 Rd6 Rxd6 Qxd6 Rxe4 Rxd7 I missed that he can take with the rook." 

Ding Liren's bad form continues to create issues for him | Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE Candidates

MVL lost the first game after the resumption against Caruana and it's great for his chances that he didn't the second one in a row | Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE Candidates

Alekseenko vs Caruana

It was a game where both players tried hard, but the evaluation didn't shake very far away from equality. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE Candidates

Speakng about the opening Caruana said, "I think I was well prepared. I only knew that 10.d4 Nc6 is supposed to be decent for black but I either couldn’t remember or just didn’t analyze 11.a4. I was just trying to get some sort of stability."

The black knight had just moved from c6 to e7, and after d3-d4, it goes back to c6

11.a4!? was a move that was new for Caruana

After Nxb6, White has several options - to take on b6 to push c2 or to take on b2

Karlovich: "You passed this moment quickly but I think it was kind of quite critical. I mean how did you make this decision to play 14...c2? Did you also consider 14...cxb2?"

Caruana: No cxb2 I didn’t consider at all. I saw that it’s possible but… Alekseenko: “Looks quite dangerous”. Karlovich: "It’s interesting how you save time. Like just not even considering the moves. Caruana: "I thought 14...c2 is nice because the queen is lured to a square from where you will have to move anyway because my knight will come to b4.


Karlovich: "Were you happy with your opening preparation in the game?

Alekseenko: "Yeah definitely. Finally some extra time in the opening. I didn’t know the move 14...c2 but still it looks like I have some initiative.

The black queen moved to e8 and defended the e6 pawn

Karlovich: "Was it difficult to find 18...Qe8?"

Caruana: "No. I mean, this was logical because the most natural move is 18...Qe7 but after 19.Qxb6 I don’t have Nd7 because of 20.Qxb7. So Qe8 came naturally. In the game after 20...e5 Black is over the worst of it. It looks extremely solid for black all of a sudden. I mean it was more interesting later because I suddenly felt like I had very large advantage somewhere around 23.Be3.

Although White is two pawns down, his activity is immense and according to Caruana, "It’s so difficult to handle white’s activity here (after 30.Rd5) that it looked like draw is already."

There was an interesting moment in the rook endgame where getting the extra time after 40th move helped Alekseenko to draw the game without too many difficulties.

White to play

The most natural move can be to play Ra1, but after Kf6 the Black king penetrates via d4. Hence, it is important to begin with f3 when a3 can be met with Rb1 and Kf6 with Kf2 and the black king is stopped from entering on d4.

Karlovich: Are you satisfied with the chair you have now?

Caruana: Yeah I am glad that I don’t have to sit on those green chairs. We used those chairs last year and nobody really liked them if I remember…

Karlovich: In which sense? Like it’s too comfortable or it’s…

Caruana: I wouldn’t call it comfortable. I was really glad to get a normal chair.

Alekseenko: Yeah I am also a bit… Last year was too big.

Grischuk vs Nepo

On the surface it would seem that nothing special happened in this game and the players agreed to a draw after 41 moves. However, that is not the entire story. Grischuk tried a new idea in the Grunfeld. Ian responded quite well. At some point Grischuk even sacrificed an exchange, hoping to muddy the waters. Ian could have accepted it, but decided to play it safe and took the game to a double rook endgame and drew.

Grischuk vs Nepo, an all Russian encounter ended in a draw | Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE Candidates

Not at his 100% fitness, but Grischuk is a fighter! | Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE Candidates
A very animated post game discussion between Nepo and Grischuk

Pairings for round 9
Follow the live commentary of round 9 by IM Sagar Shah, Amruta Mokal and guest S.P. Sethuraman and B. Adhiban

Shahid Ahmed contributed to the article.

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