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Round eleven report: Nepomniachtchi on the verge of winning the Candidates as Ding breaks to second place

In a rollercoaster game, Ding Liren beat Fabiano Caruana after six and a half hours of play and is now alone in second place with 6.5/11. Leader Ian Nepomniachtchi beat Alireza Firouzja with black pieces and with 8/11 is 1.5 points ahead of the field.

It was a day of twists and turns in the Candidates. The results of this round may prove to be key for the remaining part of the tournament.

The biggest fight of the day and possibly the biggest upset of the tournament was the duel between Fabiano Caruana and Ding Liren. After six and half hours of play, where both sides gained and dropped advantages, it was Ding whose nerves were steadier and who defeated Caruana in a stunning game.

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

In a popular line of Anti-Marshall in the Ruy Lopez, which has been extensively tested lately (including the World Championship match) Caruana introduced a novelty on move 15, aiming for the f5-square with the knights. An unusual position transpired where White put his knight in the centre of the black king’s fortress, on g7! Black started his counterplay on the queenside and the centre forcing Caruana to evacuate his knight. Following exchanges, a roughly equal position emerged on the board in which Ding overestimated his chances and then miscalculated with 30…exf4 followed by 31…g5 and 32…Qe5. Caruana immediately jumped on f5 with his knight and it turned out that Black had to sound the retreat and switch to defence. Ding was defending very well, hanging by a thread in some lines. Then Caruana made a few imprecise moves allowing Ding to equalise, but the position was still very sharp. As the game was nearing its seventh hour, Caruana, still looking for a win, went too far. With one inaccurate move, he ran into a pin and had to give up his e7-passer and maintain defence in an inferior but still holdable position. After 63 moves, Caruana was on 15 minutes while Ding had over thirty. In a very tense exchange, Caruana finally cracked on move 72. He allowed Black to get his rook on the second rank and knit a mating net around his king, handing Ding Liren a victory on a silver platter. Caruana’s shock and disbelief of what he had done were obvious. After resigning, he immediately rushed out of the playing hall.

A remarkable game and a shocking result. Caruana, who was all this time a step behind Nepomniachtchi has lost three of the last four games in the Candidates. With 5.5/11 he is now on fifty percent (!) and in fourth place. On the other hand, Ding Liren’s comeback is spectacular: from the bottom board in the first part of the event, written off by almost everyone, he came back guns blazing. Ding made a record: he won three games in a row (two of them with black pieces!) - which was last achieved in the Candidates in 2013. With 6.5 points he is now alone in second place.

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Tournament leader Ian Nepomniachtchi scored an important and comfortable victory with black pieces against Alireza Firouzja, the youngest participant of the Candidates and the player whom many have thought would show wonders in this tournament. As in all other games in this event, Nepomniachtchi was extremely solid and played very precisely. However, in this game as in some others in Madrid – it was Firouzja who defeated himself: he prematurely started with an advance of his pawns on the kingside, launching an attack which not only brought him nothing but also quickly backfired. Firouzja deserves credit that he played ambitiously – as he did in every other game so far. But ambition which is not rooted in a fair dose of reality is, at this level of play, destined to fail. On plus five and with three more rounds to go, Nepomniachchi is almost impossible to catch.

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Hikaru Nakamura and Richard Rapport ended up drawing their game in the Sveshnikov variation of the Sicilian. In a complex and sharp position the two sides were pushing and looking for chances, but they were evenly matched. The game eventually transpired into a knight and bishop endgame where White had an extra pawn, but all pieces were on the kingside and it was an easy draw for Black. Nakamura decided to test Rapport’s endgame knowledge, so the play dragged on for quite some time, but Black comfortably held White to a draw. Nakamura has six points and still has theoretical chances to reach the top, while Rapport is on 4.5.

Teimour Radjabov and Jan-Krzysztof Duda played a very steady, calm game in the English double fianchetto. There wasn’t any excitement or suspension on board as both opted for a safe route. After massive exchanges, the two moved to an even rook endgame and called it a day. It was the first game to finish. Radjabov is on 5 points while Duda is on 4.5. Neither have reasonable chances for any of the top places and it seems there isn’t much to motivate them further.

Here follows a closer look at the games from round eleven of the Candidates.

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Hikaru Nakamura vs Richard Rapport: Sharp but even

Hikaru Nakamura was seen as the favourite. Rapport lost three out of the last four games as his adventurous play didn’t seem to bear much fruit.

The opponents played the main line of Sveshnikov in the Sicilian and followed a beaten path up to move 17. 

In this position, Nakamura opted for 17.Nxe7 with the idea of taking control over the light squares in the centre after 17…Qxe7 18.Nf5. However, Rapport sensibly sacrificed his d6-pawn - 18…Qd8! and after 19.Qxe7 g6 got a sufficient counterplay on the queenside.

With 26...Bxb3 Black recovered a pawn he gave up earlier. The position was even.
Following exchanges of light-squared bishops, the two proceeded to a rook and knight vs rook and bishop endgame. After trading the rooks White even managed to win a pawn but the ending did not promise much.

Nakamura decided to test Rapport but the Hungarian had no problem holding his ground. Black’s bishop was defending the critical squares and, in coordination with the king and his two pawns, he did not allow any space for White to progress.

The game lasted nearly six hours and was finished after 96 moves.

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Alireza Firouzja vs Ian Nepomniachtchi: A golden gift for Black

In the Petrov, Firouzja essayed a rare move 5.c4 and got some space advantage by pushing his d-pawn to d5. Nepomniachtchi opted to play solidly and keep things calm, which was contrary to Firouzja’s nature of seeking fire on the board.

Here Firouzja’s nature came to the fore: he played 16.g4 – showing he meant business and wanted to attack Black’s king. This was followed by 17.h4 However, the moves weakened White’s king and opened him to a counter-attack by Black.

White is behind in development, he was in no way ready for the pawn advance on the kingside but Firouzja didn’t care. After 18.g5 hxg5 19.hxg5 Nh5 Nepomniachtchi emerged clearly better. In just three moves Firouzja completely wrecked his position and gave Nepomniachtchi a golden opportunity.

Following 20.Kg2 Ng6 21.f4 Nepomniachtchi got a chance to implement some tactics.

Nepomniachtchi sacrificed a knight 22…Nxf4! 23.Bxf4 Qxb2 but after 24.Ne4 did not find the strongest 24…Bd8! and opted for 24…Rc4 which was by no means bad as Black still had mighty compensation.

Nepo proceeded to grind White’s position, collecting material along the way. At some point, there was a glimmer of hope for a draw by repetition for White but Nepo resolutely turned it down. 

After 26…Rxd4! 27.Ra2 Rxd1 28.Bxd1 Bxe3 the opponents transpired to an endgame where Black had three pawns and a bishop for a rook and a won position. On move 30 Firouzja had a chance to put up more stubborn resistance but he missed it and soon was facing an imminent defeat. He resigned after move 35, following three and a half hours of play.

A great victory for Nepomniachtchi with black pieces. With five victories, he is on the path to winning the Candidates with a very wide margin. Firouzja once again proved to be his own biggest enemy as he again set himself up for failure. However, it should be noted that his play was probably also affected by lack of sleep. Firouzja spent the previous night playing a long bullet match against GM Naroditsky, which lasted until the early hours of the morning.

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

 Teimour Radjabov vs Jan-Krzysztof Duda: Playing it safe

After both players had ups and downs in previous rounds, they decided to play calmly today. Radjabov opted for the English opening. Both sides played the opening securely and without much appetite for risk. Duda’s bishops were aiming for the white king’s fortress, but Radjabov was solid and fianchettoed his bishops as well.

Radjabov had an option to keep the position tense, with 14.Rc1 or 14.Nd4. Instead, he went for 14.Nfe5 which was followed by exchanges across the board leading to an even position.

Soon afterwards the a- and b-pawns were exchanged, which was then followed by the exchange of light pieces and a pair of rooks.

By move 29 booth sides had a rook and four pawns each without any weaknesses. After a threefold repetition, a draw was agreed on move 33.

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Fabiano Caruana vs Ding Liren: When the tables turn

It was a very sharp game from the opening. The two opponents know each other well, having played many times (with Ding having a better score). This turned out to be a rollercoaster game.
In the Anti-Marshall system of Ruy Lopez, the game progressed really fast – after the first ten minutes, the two were already on move 15, when Caruana introduced a novelty.

White is eyeing the f5-square and even may consider a knight sacrifice on f5, with potentially serious threats for the black king. Ding spent eight minutes thinking, before playing 15…g6.
Caruana responded with 16.Bh6 and then after 16…Re8 proceeded with putting the h4 knight to f5. Accepting this sacrifice would have been suicidal for Black. With this in mind, Ding played 17…Bd8 and then Caruana put his knight on g7!

Caruana was playing fast, which suggests he was in his preparation. However, things weren’t looking so clear for White.

Ding sacrificed a pawn on b3 with the goal of closing White’s bishop on a2. Caruana opted to take the pawn with the bishop, relieving himself of a weak piece but ended up with a slightly worse pawn structure.

Here Caruana realised that his knight is in real danger and played 23.Ne6. Ding went into a deep think and responded with the strongest move 23..Qxe6. Black temporarily sacrificed an exchange, but he quickly got it back and the opponents reached a balanced and roughly equal position.

A few moves down the line and Caruana decided to open the f-file which was his only active option, although it did not promise much but at this point Ding miscalculated and made a serious inaccuracy.

Ding played 30…exf4? 31.Bxf4 g5 32.Be3 Qe5, attacking both b2-pawn and g3-knight but it turned out that after 33.Nf5! White’s b-pawn is taboo (33…Rxb2 34.Nxd6!). The game took a new turn: White was better and Ding was in trouble.

After an exchange of knights, White proceeded to realign his bishop to c3, pinning the black king and exerting immense pressure on the f6 and g5 pawns. Things were seemingly going well for Caruana but there was no decisive break in sight as Black was holding his ground. Right after reaching the time control, Caruana started losing steam and allowed Ding to almost equalise.

Still, White proceeded to exchange the d-pawn for Black’s c-pawn. Having opened the diagonals towards the black king, Caruana then gave a few checks and pushed his e-pawn towards promotion.

Ding Liren was showing strong resistance, playing very precisely. On move 57, and after five and a half hours of play, Caruana committed his first serious inaccuracy.

White imprudently played 57.Be3 but after 57…Qg3 Ding strongly hinted that he had some threats of his own forcing White to part with his e-passer. Following the promotion of the queen, under time pressure, Caruana made another mistake:

White had a chance to seal a draw with 61.Bxg5 but he missed it. Now it was Ding’s turn and he pushed hard, aware that Caruana had just 15 minutes on his clock. Following the exchange of queens, it was clear that only Black had chances although White’s position was holdable with precise defence. The best plan for White was to evacuate his king to the queenside, but Caruana preferred to keep it on the opposite wing. Apparently, he underestimated Black’s potential threats. 

This is the moment Caruana finally broke. He played the bishop from b8 to c7 and handed the victory over to Ding who penetrated with his rook to the second rank, ending in a completely winning position.

A catastrophic result for Caruana, who has suffered three defeats in the last four rounds, while Ding Liren scored a hat-trick in the Candidates (the last time this was achieved was in 2013).

Round twelve of the Candidates starts on Friday the 1st of July at 3 PM CEST at the Palacio de Santona in Madrid.

The pairings of round twelve are as follows:
Richard Rapport vs Fabiano Caruana
Ding Liren vs Teimour Radjabov
Jan-Krzysztof Duda vs Alireza Firouzja
Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Hikaru Nakamura