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Candidates R05: Nepo leads; players worried about the global pandemic

by Sagar Shah - 23/03/2020

The big news of Round 5 at the Candidates 2020 was Ian Nepomaniachtchi winning his game against Wang Hao and taking the sole lead with 3.5/5. It was a game where you can learn a lot about how symmetry doesn't really result into equality every time. Amidst MVL taking the sole second spot and Ding Liren changing his hotels to get fresh air, the most important news is that players are not feeling the most comfortable continuing the event. Grischuk said, "Earlier, I didn't have a clear opinion but now from the last several days I have a strong opinion, I think this tournament should seriously be stopped." Caruana mentioned, "The US State department said that the American citizens have to come back to the US or won't be able to come back later."

There are certain games that make a deep impression on you, and completely change your understanding of the game. One such game for me was Smyslov vs Benko, 1969.


Smyslov vs Benko

It's Black to move

Benko went Rc8 and after Rac1 played ...Nd7.

It would seem like the structure is symmetrical and White really has no advantage, but the knight on d4 is more active than the knight on d7, and this makes a huge difference.

This understanding that in symmetrical positions, activity and initiative assume even bigger importance changed my perception of openings like the Petroff, the Exchange Slav, the Exchange French. What once upon time looked completely boring was now exciting. I would look at those minute differences in piece placement and would try to take advantage of them. This appreciation minute non-static advantages in chess, is what you need when you see the game of Nepo against Wang Hao from round five of the Candidates 2020.

With immense concentration and focus Nepo was able to get the better of his strong opponent | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Nepo is also leading the tournament by half a point now!

The knight on f5 makes all the difference. Combined with the pawn on h5 and the slightly more active queen on h3, White has a nagging edge in the position.

It's very interesting that Nepo, who was subjected to the h6 pawn torture against Caruana in the previous round, resorts to the same measures against his next round opponent! These guys learn fast, eh?!

In positions like these, the pawn on h6 contributes to the game in a big way. The black king is always locked down and the white queen can begin attacking from different sides.

This is what Nepo is really good at. Accurate calculations, tricky chess. The pawn on c4 cannot be taken after dxc4 bxc4 because Nxc4 is met with Nxc4 Qxc4 and now, can you spot the powerful move for White?

The queen is coming to b8 and White is winning! The powerful of h6 pawn is seen in full glory!

Wang Hao was uncomfortable throughout the game and in the end could not save himself | Photo: Lennart Ootes
Press conference with Nepo and Wang Hao

Nepo created quite a masterpiece with excellent handling of the slight initiative and constantly posing problems to his opponent | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Giri vs Caruana

One of the major issues that Giri faces is finishing off his opponents. In terms of understanding of the game he is second to none. But when it comes to calculating accurately and finishing off his opponent, he often makes errors. The same happened with Caruana, when a completely winning position, was drawn in just a few moves. What was even more surprising is that Giri said in the press conference that he couldn't see a clear win for White in any of the lines. Let's have a look.

Anish was the well prepared of the two players today | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Caruana was close to lost for many moves today. but he hung in there and wriggled out with the half point | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Developing the queen directly to c2 is a new direction in this line. White usually develops his queen to b3.

Fabiano's move Qb8 was a bad one. He should have played ...b6 to start his counterplay against White's overextended center. After ...Qb8 Anish simply pushed his kingside pawns with h4.

When you reach a position like this where your king is safe and the black king is weak. And your opponent really doesn't have counterplay, you need to play with purpose and finish off the game. Because getting positions like these against players like Caruana is not going to happen again and again.

There were several instances when White was winning in this game. But the place where Anish went wrong was Re2. Instead the simple idea of Rf2 followed by Rdf1 would have most likely resulted in Black being unable to defend his position.

Anna Burtasova (AB): Anish, it seemed you were really pressing today. Can you tell us what was it like from your perspective?

Anish: Yes I was very happy with my position today. I think Fabi tried to be a bit clever with Qb8 but after h4, there's no real point to it. I mean the inclusion should just favour me and against Nh5 I have Ne2. I think I had a very pleasant position. I was choosing between various options. I mean after g4 I wanted to play simple Be2, maybe it's the most practical. At some point Fabiano was fighting well I thought. The position with this takes and Bf6 looked very bad at first but then it turned out to be difficult to convert over the board. I couldn't quite calculate the winning line all the way to the end because black had plenty of resources. However, I expected that every move should keep the huge advantage but it wasn't like that. What I did was allow this d4 and suddenly the knight came to d5. Probably there wasn't much for me after d4 itself. I think it was a good game until this point. I can't say I saw a win but there were definitely more favourable options there.

Black began to get counterplay because now the knight is jumping from d5 to c3 and as it happened in the game Re5 was met with Ng4-e3 and Caruana had enough counterplay to hold the game.

AB: Do you feel you walked on a very thin ice today?

Fabi: Yeah, I wasn't really happy with the position. I was a bit surprised when Anish played Qc2. I knew it existed but it's quite rare, usually people play Qb3. And this line, although I knew something about it, I didn't know how exactly to play. Tried to sort of improvise with Nd7-Nb6 and Qb8 but it didn't really work out. My position was pretty bad throughout the game. At one point I felt Black was solidifying a bit but then I played c5 which turned out to be a pretty bad move. Probably I should have played Nf6. After c5 Bc3 it was probably borderline lost. For a number of moves I was either losing or close to losing. But then I saw this Rh5 d4 and it started to look like I have counter chances. 

Anish is yet to score a win at the Candidates. From the 19 games he has played, he has 18 draws and 1 loss. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

AB: What do you do to psychologically move forward and not think too much about such missed chances?

Fabi: Well, if you miss a chance and then survive a losing position, you no longer remember the win that you missed. Of course, I missed a number of things and played a few bad games at the start of the event but this was a lucky break and makes me feel better about my situation.


AB: Do you still look at social media during this tournament? Or do you distance yourself not only from people but also the information fuss which is everywhere now? 

Fabi: Well, it would take a lot of discipline to not look at the things going on around the world!

Anish (Laughs): With the stakes so high you actually have to look at it from time to time. There might be some message like, you know, you have to go somewhere to save yourself or something!


AB: Final question to you, as chess players you travel a lot. Do you find this lifestyle stressful?

Anish: I think the coming days will be easier when it comes to travelling. But in general those were the good days when we travelled and got to see new places.

Fabiano: Now I am in a position where I have to stay away from home 3 months at a stretch. But now I am not sure if I would be able to return to US at the end of this tournament. I might be stranded in somewhere, I don't know where. The US State department said that American citizens have to come back to the US or won't be able to come back later. I am not exactly thinking about it, we will have to get to the end of this tournament.

Post game interview with Anish Giri and Fabiano Caruana

Alekseenko vs MVL

There are two ways to look at the Alekseenko versus MVL game. You either say that it was dull and completely well prepared by MVL, or you enjoy the fireworks that occurred in the position where three pieces were often hanging at the same time!

MVL was thoroughly prepared for this encounter | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Alekseenko dug deep into his resources and came out with the half point | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Anna Burtasova (AB): Well obviously you both came very well prepared. MVL you played g6 which is a new move and Kirill you seemed very well prepared. But there were so many tactical lines that didn't happen on the board. Could you please tell about it?

MVL: First of all I played Bf8 against Magnus in the Grand Chess Tour but I think Bg5 Qc7 Rh4 is winning and of course after Rxg4, g6 Rxg6 is a forced draw starting with Rxc3. If he played Qxc3 then Na4 Qb3 fxg6 Nxe6 Qc8 Ng7+ and there's nothing better than perpetual.


AB: Kirill, after Rxc3 you were thinking for almost 45-50 minutes. What crossed your mind? 

Kirill: Actually the only thing I knew about g6 is that you should take on g6 and then when Maxime played g6 I thought that Rxc3 is coming and I wasn't sure about Rxg6. Okay, if I don't take on g6 then I am really not sure about the position.

Kirill took on g6 which was met with ...Rxc3 by Black

AB: Maxime you said after g6 you already knew that this was a forced draw for Black?

MVL: Well, not exactly White does have a couple of options. But if I remember my analysis, I don't think this wasn't a draw.

After 48 minutes of thought Kirill took on e6, but Qc8 was a strong move and Black is fine!

AB: I was wondering how preparation at such a high level works. This is obviously a crazy position full of tactics. Do you just remember the general ideas and figure it out over the board or do you remember everything by heart.

MVL: I try to remember the most important lines but of course, this is just one of many many lines. It's impossible to remember everything. You try to keep the key positions in mind and that helps to figure things out over the board.


AB: Now that the tournament is in full swing, can you estimate your form? How do you feel about your performance?

MVL: I mean apart from a couple of bad decisions, I think I have been playing much better than for a while. Especially in this classical time control. I am close to the lead which is a good thing but it is still only the beginning of the event so there's no reason to rest on my laurels. It's time to consider the nine more games that are to come and here basically only the first place matters.


AB: And what about you Kirill?

Kirill: I feel this was my first normal game in all the five rounds. I am sure it is getting better.


AB: Well, thank you both of you for joining me.

MVL: Before leaving I just want to say something. If my next opponent once again thinks for like 50 minutes then seriously I have to ask the arbiters to bring some board games! (Laughs)


Kirill: Sorry for my think today!

MVL: No at least you had a reason to consider Rxc3 but Sasha really didn't have any reason yesterday!

Post game conference between Alekseenko and MVL

Grischuk vs Ding Liren

Grischuk arriving slightly late to the game! | Photo: Maria Emelianova

AB: Ding were you worried at any moment during the game?

Ding: Yes, I was worried about this line. He repeated the line that Maxime played against me and I forgot my preparation. I tried to remember it and somehow I held on my own. I was very happy to find Nb4 and Bd5 idea after this he played Rc1 which was a good move otherwise he would be worse. I had many choices after this but I went for the safest line which was a bit worse but good enough for a draw.

Ding was very happy to find the move ...Nb4 Bb3 Bd5! when Black has good counterplay

AB: Well, we have five rounds behind us now. How would you assess your form in the event so far?

Alexander: My form is terrible. I don't want to play at all. I mean earlier I didn't have a clear opinion but now from the last several days I have a strong opinion, I think this tournament should seriously be stopped. The atmosphere is just too hostile with all these people wearing masks and security. I just don't want to play and don't want to be here. Considering this I am quite happy with my result. I am not saying the tournament should stop because I don't want to play but I just think it shouldn't be taking place.

When the tournament began Grischuk didn't really have an opinion whether the event should be taking place or not. But now he is sure that it should be stopped. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

AB: Ding what do you think about your form?

Ding: Of course, my form is much better compared to the first two days since I moved to a new hotel and got some fresh air. Life became more beautiful after that.

Grischuk and Ding Liren in the post-game interview with Anna Burtasova

Ding Liren arriving to the tournament hall in a car | Photo: Lennart Ootes

All players were living in the same hotel as the playing venue, but Ding Liren felt quite suffocated. Staying at the new hotel might be risky in terms of security measures for Corona virus, but at least for now, Ding seems to be happy with the fresh air! | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Pairings of Round 6

Satanick Mukhuty contributed to the article

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