The major news in round eight is Hikaru Nakamura’s confident victory against Fabiano Caruana, seriously shattering his compatriot’s chances of winning the event.
Following the Open Variation of the Ruy Lopez in which Black trades a knight and a bishop for a rook and a pawn (a line that was heavily tested back in the 1940s), a sharp position developed where black pieces had space but White had the counter-initiative. Both sides seemed well prepared as they were blitzing the opening moves but Caruana gradually fell into time trouble. First, he advanced the ‘wrong’ central pawn and then allowed White to activate his passive bishop which immediately gave Nakamura the advantage. Despite ending in a hopeless situation Caruana refused to surrender, putting his compatriot to serious challenges towards winning a won position. In the end, after over six hours of play (out of which he was winning in the last three), Nakamura succeeded.
A major upset in the tournament as with this defeat Caruana – who until this round was breathing down Nepomniachtchi’s neck – has now fallen a full point behind the leader. Nakamura, on the other hand, is now on 4.5 points and has joined the race for the top.
The round eight defeat puts immense pressure on Caruana as in his next game he will be up against Ian Nepomniachtchi as White. If he wants to win the tournament, it seems that it is a must for Caruana to win the next round game against the leader Nepomniachtchi.
Richard Rapport – who suffered a tragic defeat in the previous round – stood out in round eight not just with his salmon-pink jacket, but also with the result. He made an important comeback as he defeated Jan-Krzysztof Duda with white pieces. In a theoretical debate in the Four Knights Game, where White played a rare 5.g3, Duda exposed himself on the kingside and didn’t defend well against White’s advances. Rapport immediately jumped at the opportunity to force his initiative, creating serious threats to the black king. Duda didn’t have the energy to go through the suffering and resigned on move 29.
With this win Rapport became only the fourth(!) player in this tournament to have a victory on his scoresheet (next to Nepomniachtchi, Caruana and Nakamura) and with 4/8 still has chances for a place in the top ranks. Duda, however, is in serious trouble – his second defeat (the first one was in round six to Nepomniachtchi) sent him to the bottom of the table. Let us hope that he will regain his strength and continue to play as he did in the first part of the event.
Tournament leader Ian Nepomniachtchi had a quiet day on the board as he quickly drew as White against Ding Liren. As in the game against Rapport, Nepomniachtchi opted for a forced line leading to a draw. In the Four Knights Game, there were quick exchanges of heavy pieces early on as the two proceeded to an endgame with opposite-coloured bishops. Following threefold repetition, a draw was called after Black’s 37th move. The game did not last even an hour.
Going for a quick draw was a practical decision by Nepomniachtchi. Before this round, he was half a point ahead of Caruana who is his most serious contender for the top spot and whom he will be playing against in round nine as Black. Following Caruana’s defeat in today’s round, Nepomniachtchi enters day nine of the Candidates in an even better position than he had hoped for.
After eight rounds of play, World No. 2 Ding Liren is still without a victory, but with 3.5 points he has now stepped closer to the middle of the board which represents progress following his poor start.
Alireza Firouzja is still not able to get a break in this tournament. Today he drew as White against Teimour Radjabov following more than six hours of play. It was a positional battle in the Italian Game where Firouzja played the first fiddle while Radjabov was effectively thwarting White’s attempts. The game was full of finesses and manoeuvres but with no fire on the board. It seems that Firouzja’s flame is slowly dying out in this tournament, while Radjabov only lights his to get a draw.
Here follows a closer look at the games from round eight of the Candidates.
Richard Rapport vs Jan-Krzysztof Duda: A salmon-pink comeback
Richard Rapport made a comeback as he defeated the young Polish start in a convincing fashion. Speaking of fashion, Rapport showed up for the game wearing a salmon-pink jacked, which made him stand out from the black and blue the other players were wearing.
Rapport and Duda had a positional struggle in a rare line of the Four Knights Game. The first piece was exchanged after an hour and a half of play. Following the exchanges of a knight and a bishop each, Black managed to gain more initiative – pushing on the queenside but holding White’s advance on the kingside, including the rook on a7 which was defending the black king’s fortress all the way from the queenside.
After 19…Qxg5 20.Qxg5 Nxg5 Black is fine, to say the least, but Duda opted for an ambitious but riskier 19…Nxg5.
Two moves down the road, after Black took the bishop on h3, it seems that Duda missed a zwischenzug from White, 22.Rg1, threatening mate on g7. His reaction to this was not precise.
The best options for Duda to reply were 22…g6 or 22…Qf6. However, after some consideration, Duda played 22…Ng5 – protecting the g7 spot, defending the h3 bishop and forcing white to take on g5, thus closing the file for the white queen and rook attacking the black king.
After 23.hxg5 Bc8 Rapport played a slightly imprecise move 24.Rg2, to which, however, Duda quickly returned the favour with 24…Rae7, immediately giving a considerable advantage to White. Again, Rapport did not choose the strongest move such as 25.Rf1 or 25.Qh4, instead he opted for 25.Qf3, but he was still better. The move was intended to prevent the black king from sneaking away via f8-e7.
Duda did not defend himself well. He pushed his kingside pawns in an attempt to open the squares for his king.
Here Duda made his final mistake 27…b4 after which White had a totally winning position. The white queen and rooks were threatening various mates and the knight was soon to join the conquest.
After 28.exf5 gxf5 29.Ne4 Duda resigned. Indeed, the knight is taboo – 29…fxe5 30.Qh5! with a mating attack. Otherwise, the knight penetrates to f6, creating decisive threats.
A beautiful and important victory for Rapport who bounced back following the unfortunate loss in round seven to Nepomniachtchi. He is now on fifty percent and still has hopes for the top places. Duda, on the other hand, broke. He was not at his level in this game and it seems that the effect of the round six loss to Nepomniachtchi has had an impact on his play.
Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Ding Liren: A business decision
Like in the game against Rapport, Nepomniachtchi went for a line which would lead to a quick draw. As the leader of the tournament, he was more focused on the next round games. ‘A business decision’, as put by GM Jan Gustaffson in his commentary.
In the Four Knights Game, Nepomniachtchi pushed for an early and fast exchange of all the heavier pieces.
Following the first 19 moves, the majority of the stronger pieces on the board were exchanged. Black had a slightly weaker pawn structure but the position was even. Both sides were playing pretty fast. In almost every move that followed, pieces were exchanged, leading to an endgame with opposite-coloured bishops.
In just under an hour of play, the two agreed on a draw. Just before the draw was agreed there was a funny moment: Ding wanted to shake hands after the two-fold repetition, but Nepomiachtchi refused, pointing to the camera and – apparently – reminding his opponent that they have to have a threefold repetition to draw, as it was before the 40th move.
With this quick and easy draw, Nepomniachtchi got both an extra half a point and security that he enters the next round as the leader of the tournament, on plus four. He effectively also got another free day, where he can focus on the round nine derby with Fabiano Caruana who is the only other serious contender for the first place in the Candidates.
As for Ding Liren, the painful struggle continues – after eight rounds the 2800 player is on 3.5 points and without a single victory.
Hikaru Nakamura vs Fabiano Caruana: A major upset
In the Open Variation of the Ruy Lopez, the opponents had a theoretical discussion in a topical line in which Black sacrifices two minor pieces for a rook and a pawn. Both were familiar with the line, blitzing the moves.
The first and probably most important moment of the game happened in this position. Caruana protected his bishop with 21…c4 eventually weakening a critical d4-square, whereas after 21…e4 Black had nothing to worry about.
Nakamura executed fine manoeuvres with his minor pieces, put pressure on the e5-pawn and forced Black to advance it to e4, giving up the d4-square.
Caruana was trying to coordinate an attack on the white king, pinning the weak f1 square where Nakamura was being threatened with a checkmate. But Nakamura didn’t seem phased at all.
After about half an hour of thinking, he played 27.h4 – opening a path for his king but also making a counter-push on the kingside.
After 15 minutes of thinking, Caruana responded with a natural 27…Nc5. However, this move handed a sizable advantage to White, allowing him to push h5, which is exactly what Nakamura did after which he activated his bishop by getting it to g4.
In time trouble, Caruana went for an exchange of queens after which White took Black’s central d5 square and got a decisive advantage as his pair of bishops was now dominating the board and his pieces were well coordinated.
The final portion of the game did not go as smooth for Hikaru as he wanted but his victory was never in doubt.
Still, Caruana played on - until move 93! Along the way, he gave up his rook for a bishop and tried everything to get his e-pawn promoted, but nothing worked. Nakamura’s pieces were where they needed to be and his dominance of the position was unquestionable. Many will be asking should have Caruana played on given the position he had or not.
Alireza Firouzja vs Teimour Radjabov: Persistance
In another example of trying to get blood out of a stone, the game between Alireza Firouzha and Teimour Radjabov ended with a draw but not after White tried everything possible apart from asking Radjabov to just - give up. The 19-year-old Firouzja deserves respect for doing absolutely everything possible on the board to try and get a winning result, but Radjabov - the master of draws - proved his worth.
In the Italian Game, Radjabov opted for a line where he had doubled pawns on e6 and e5, which is slightly inferior for Black but still very solid. In subsequent slow positional manoeuvring White had a little more space to develop his initiative. Black was trying to find his chances on the kingside, but when the opportunity presented itself, Radjabov did not grasp it.
Everything was ready for a 26…Nhf4+ with a more promising position for Black, but Radjabov opted for 26…b5 which was not nearly as effective.
Firouzja consistently tried to get the ball rolling in a roughly equal position and eventually got an edge but allowed Black’s to push d6-d5, equalizing. In the end, Teimour sent his king into the attack and forced Firouzja to maintain equality with precise moves.
The two transitioned into a queen and rook endgame, where Black held a draw despite the best efforts of White to wear him out and bring him down.
After 7 hours of play, Firouzja had to settle for a draw.
Round nine of the Candidates starts on Monday the 27th of June at 3 PM CEST at the Palacio de Santona in Madrid.
The pairings of round nine are as follows:
Alireza Firouzja vs Richard Rapport
Teimour Radjabov vs Hikaru Nakamura
Fabiano Caruana vs Ian Nepomniachtchi
Ding Liren vs Jan-Krzysztof Duda