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Candidates R04: The Pledge, The Turn and The Prestige

by Sagar Shah - 22/03/2020

When a top player thinks for 53 minutes, you begin to wonder what exactly are they doing? What are they thinking about? Why did they take so much of time to decide on their move! And when you realize that the move they came up with has already been played before, you become all the more bewildered! That's what happened in the fourth round game between MVL and Grischuk. Alexander had one of the worst time management bouts of his career, landed in a lost position but managed to save himself by the skin of his teeth. IM Sagar Shah analyzes this and other three games and also tells you what is the similarity between a Christopher Nolan movie and top level chess!

Every great magic trick consists of three parts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige". - From the movie Prestige by Christopher Nolan


I have always found a good game of chess to have three parts - The first one is the "Pledge". The super GM takes some ordinary line which everyone knows and quickly plays out his moves. The second part is "The Turn"! The GM finds a new move at home which no one has played before and springs a surprise on his opponent and follows it up with magical middlegame play. The final part, what we call the Prestige, is usually the hardest and it involves converting a winning advantage into a win!

Results of round 4

A great magician on the chess board like MVL should be able to do all of these three things. But chess is not an easy game to master and even the best falter from time! MVL vs Grischuk from round 4 of the Candidates 2020 was one such instance!

Two gentlemen, two good friends, nothing was going to come in between them and their handshake! Not even Corona virus. Everyone loves Anish! | Photo: Maria Emelianova
Test your chess with Vidit Gujrathi. The India takes you on a journey where he poses you questions related to both MVL and Grischuk's decisions in the game. 

The Pledge:

MVL vs Grischuk, Round 4

This exact position was reached in the game Nepo vs Grischuk from round two of this very tournament. The good news for Grischuk was that we are already on move no. 18 and he just has to make 22 moves in 100 minutes! Quite doable right?

Instead of Kh2, Rb1-b4 idea which Nepo played, MVL was very direct. He went g4! Grischuk took hxg3 fxg3 and now did something quite unbelievable!

Grischuk thought and thought and thought and played his next move after 53 minutes!! | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Grischuk played ...Ne7 after 53 minutes of thought. And the move is also not a novelty. It has been played before by Nakamura against MVL!

Grischuk: "Just like against Alekseenko I did a very stupid thing. I thought for almost 1 hour to find the move Ne7. I was just 100% (not even 99%) sure that Maxime would play g4 but when he pushed h4 I just lost 1 hour. But then maybe it doesn't matter because I would waste this 1 hour anyway, somehow (Laughs). After that there were so many ways for me to blunder something, clearly the position was very tactical despite being an endgame, and things could go either way. "

Instead of g4, MVL chose h4 which was the first new move of the game.

The knight jumped to d5 attacking the bishop on f4 and the pawn on c3

The Turn

The knight coming to d5 attacks the bishop on f4 and the pawn on c3. The most natural move would be Bd2, but MVL has prepared something much better! He went Bc1! Sacrificing his c3 pawn. Grischuk took it and MVL mounted his attack against the f7 pawn.

Black faces difficulties in defending the f7 pawn. Hence, he went Rg6, indirectly defending the f7 pawn by threatening one on g3.

a4! was a powerful move by MVL making a square for the bishop to come out on a3

Grischuk took the pawn on a4 and now MVL had to find the win! Think deep and try to see if you can come up with the solution.

The Prestige

MVL had close to an hour on his clock and had played brilliantly in the middlegame to outplay his opponent. Grischuk had only around a minute left. It was time now for the final act. To dig deep and the convert the winning advantage into a win! | Photo: Lennart Ootes

The winning move was Re4! White's idea is simple. If you defend the bishop on c4 with b5 or Nb6 then White just takes on c4 and then on f7 with his rook. The rook, knight and the bishop combined will spell doom for Black. Hence the only defensive move in the above position is to go ...Be6. After Nxe6 fxe6 comes Bg5+!

The final piece enters the game! Black goes Ke8 and after Rf3 Nc5 Ref4

Black's position is just lost! This would have been a great end to the game for MVL. But he didn't find the right move. Instead of Re4 he went for Ba3+

But MVL's choice wasn't the best as after a few moves, the game simply ended in a draw!

In spite of his poor time management, Grischuk was able to dodge the bullet! | Photo: Lennart Ootes

MVL: "I felt like that I had a very dangerous initiative but I didn't have much time. But to be completely fair, it is possible that Sasha defended very well and I couldn't find more than a draw."


Anna Burtasova (AB): Of course, the all mighty chess engine, tells us everything. So I want to ask you about one specific moment in the game, when Black took a pawn on a4 did any of you consider Re4?

MVL: Sasha did, I just forgot for whatever reasons. Re4 followed by Rxc4 was a threat. Probably that was much more promising. I thought what I did in the game was better but it turned out to be nothing.

Grischuk: Yes, I expected both Ba3+ and Re4. And even after Ba3 c5 I was kind of expecting Re4 but then I think I have some miracle move Be6 and now if Ne6 then fe6 Rg5 Nc3 and somehow my knight is very good at harassing the white rook. And if after Be6 he takes on a4 I take f5 then h5 and it should be okay for me. That's why I thought it was better to start with Re4 because inclusion of Ba3 c5 is clearly in Black's favour. But anyway, I had just one minute left on the clock and this was just something I was thinking and not an educated opinion. 


AB: Some players play the chess pieces instead of their opponents and some player consider the psychology of who they play against. What is it for you? Do you change your style with every opponent?

MVL: Well, you have to consider a little bit in what kind of position you want your opponents to get into.


Grischuk: Well, I think when the technique of the players is comparable then psychology does play a big role. If your technique is worse then you will lose no matter how good a psychologist you are. I would say 90% is your technique and skill, 9% is psychology, and 1% is everything else.

Post-game interview with MVL and Grischuk

The h-pawn push!

In modern day chess, the h-pawn has become a very potent weapon in late opening, early middlegame positions. In the fourth round we saw two games make use of the h-pawn quite well. Let's first check Ding vs Giri.

After beating Fabiano Caruana, the man to watch out for was Ding Liren | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Ding Liren vs Giri

How would you continue here as Black

White has a grip on the position. His next plan is to go Nd2-f3 and then try to take advantage of the pawns on c6 and d5. Giri thought for two minutes and came up with an interesting idea. It is quite possible that he had prepared it at home! He went ...h5!

At first glance this move looks pointless. White has a perfectly fortified kingside structure. What is the point of...h5? Well, if you think about it deeply, you will realize that White is trying to play on the queenside and the centre. Black must create some weaknesses on the kingside. And with ...h5, h4 and ...hxg3 hxg3 we get this structure:

Although white is fortified in nature, now you can imagine a knight coming to g4 and it cannot be moved away because f3 would be too weakening. A knight on g4 combined with a queen on h5 could also launch an attack against the white king. This is the reason why h5-h4 was a strong move and Ding Liren also felt the same in his post-game interview.
Interview with Ding Liren and Anish Giri

Caruana vs Nepomniachtchi

Fabiano has come to the Candidates with an aim to play 1.d4 | Photo: Lennart Ootes

It was a Grunfeld and a well-known position was reached.

Just like Giri, Fabiano pushed his h-pawn down the board. Now did Caruana also have the intention of going h5-hxg6 just like Giri, or he had something else in mind?

Caruana pushed his pawn to h6 and cramped Black's position. This shows another importance of pushing your h-pawn down the board.

This position gives you a good example of how White could have made use of his pawn on h6. The queen can move to d4 and then penetrate to g7 or h8 and pick up the pawn on h7. Qd4 was a very strong move. Instead Fabi went Qf3 which was a clear error. Nepo found the nice idea with Qe1+ Kg2 and f5 and the queen on f3 was trapped.

Quite a picturesque position!

Anna Burtasova (AB): The game between Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi was the last to finish, and it ended in a draw. Could you please tell us something about the game? Fabiano, you had an advantage it seemed.

Fabi: Yeah, I thought White had quite some pressure but when Ian played Kf8 I didn't see anything. I was a bit disappointed that after Qd4, Ke7 I couldn't quite find an ideal way to play for a win and ended up playing carelessly. At least I should have tried something else but Qf3 wasn't good, I missed Qb1 and after that I was already on the worse side of the draw. It was very difficult to figure out which queen move was right after Qb4 because they sort of all looked the same and the position wasn't very concrete. It was difficult to decide to put the queen on c2 or d3 or d1. I thought I chose correctly but after Kf8 I couldn't find anything.


AB: How was it from your side? This f5 move you played very quickly. Probably you were already very happy with your position at this point.

Nepo: Well, I mean all lines were very solid for Black but it required good memory especially starting from move 20. Clearly I didn't repeat this line before the game. This was some kind of a surprise. Okay I knew the general ideas but I think I just misplayed. The position required some precise play for Black to not get into trouble. This shows why you should remain up to date and have a good memory of your files! I felt like it was very suspicious and went for some weird lines with Qb4, Qa3, and Qa5 ideas. Then I found that after Qd1 basically I had only one way to fight, rest were all losing for me. After Bd6 Kf8 somehow I was lucky and was still in for a draw as I calculated. Yes I mean Qf3 would be very clever but fortunately I had this intermediate Qe1+ and then after f5 White can't avoid swapping queens. And then this was a typically drawish ending but somehow I had some small hopes to pull off something but yeah probably I should be satisfied with a draw because clearly I did something very wrong in the opening.

Caruana pressed throughout the game, but couldn't get the full point

AB: What is your way to distract yourself during this tournament? How do you relax after or before the game?

Fabi: Actually the schedule is a bit funny here because we start very late and there's not much to do after the game except watch some series or movies or something. In general I think the mood isn't very light here and we haven't been doing very much besides chess.


AB: And Ian do you have any time or desire to do anything beside chess?

Nepo: Well, it is tough to find time but my daily routine comprises checking Anish on Instagram or twitter and find some new nugget of wisdom (Smiles). Everytime I see no updates from him, I am very disappointed!

Everyone loves Anish! | Photo: Maria Emelianova
Interview with Caruana and Nepomniachtchi

Wang Hao vs Alekseenko

Wang Hao vs Alekseenko was a fighting game where the Chinese player held the advantage for some moves, but Alekseenko held his own and was able to split the point Everyone loves Anish! | Photo: Maria Emelianova

AB: Can you tell us something about how the game?

Hao: I think my opponent went to surprise me in the opening so I wanted to play something very solid. Later it was equal but then he made some quick moves like Ra6 and there I thought I could get some advantage. But in the game I played too soft and got nothing. 

The rook move to a6 wasn't a great idea. White consolidates his position with e3 and Bf1.

AB: Do you agree with this estimation?

Alekseenko: Yes Ra6 was a horrible move. But before that my position was very solid. But after Ra6 it was definitely worse for me and I had to find some concrete moves to hold the position. Probably before the time trouble I could have created more problems but after that I didn't have much time to think.


AB: Which players from the past influenced your games the most?

Hao: For me it is Kramnik for his positional play and preparation.

Alekseenko: I would pick Kasparov. Because I also wanted to play very tough and direct chess.

Interview with Alekseenko and Wang Hao

Standings after round 4

Pairings of round 5

Satanick Mukhuty contributed to the article

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