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Round two report: A day of missed chances

The second day of the 2022 Candidates saw just one game ending with a victory and three ending in draws.

Following a loss in the opening round, American Hikaru Nakamura made a recovery and won against Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan, scoring a victory after six and a half hours of play. In the Ruy Lopez, White (Nakamura) got a slightly better position after Black failed to find the optimal moves in the opening. White gradually increased pressure on his opponent who was constantly on the back foot. Most likely it would not have been enough for a victory had Radjabov not given up a pawn on move 35. The rest of the game was not a smooth sail for Hikaru but his patience and determination eventually paid off. After his loss in round one, this is an important victory for Nakamura as it helps him secure a good place early on in the tournament.

The most anticipated game of the day, the duel between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana ended in a draw. The two are the only tournament participants to have won the Candidates once already and are the only players who started with victories in round one. In the Italian Game, Caruana, playing with black pieces, stunned his opponent with a well-prepared surprise early on in the opening. Facing Caruana’s early bombshell, Nepomniachtchi did not lose heart - he sacrificed a pawn and skilfully defended in a very complicated position. Still, in the end, the computer said Black had a sizable advantage. Caruana, however, either couldn’t see it or disliked the complications. After 33 moves the two agreed to a draw. Nepomniachtchi and Caruana enter round three as the leaders, with 1.5/2.

In another Italian Game, the duel between Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Ding Liren also ended in a draw. The Polish player had a slight edge throughout the game, but Ding managed to place his pieces well enough to prevent White from making progress. After careful manoeuvering on both sides, a draw was agreed on move 41. Following a devastating loss in the first round, a draw with black pieces will surely help the world’s second highest-rated player Ding Liren stabilise. As for Duda - he started the tournament with two draws and in both games he had more chances, so it remains to be seen if he can keep the flame going.

Today was a special day for Alireza Firouzja who celebrated his 19th birthday. The youngest player of the Candidates might not be happy with how he played, but he has all the reasons to celebrate after saving a lost endgame against Richard Rapport.

After two rounds, Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi lead the field with 1.5/2, followed by four players on one point: Rapport, Firouzja, Duda and Nakamura. World number two Ding Liren and Teimour Radjabov are on half a point.

Here follows a deeper look at the games from the first round of the 2022 Candidates tournament.

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Richard Rapport vs Alireza Firouzja: A lucky save by the birthday boy

It was a special day for Alireza Firouzja as the youngest player of the Candidates turned 19. For some time the eyes of the chess world have been on the young French superstar whom many are comparing to Fischer. However, the special birthday mood did not reflect on the board as he struggled as Black against the innovative Richard Rapport. Despite this, Firouzja ended the day with a good reason to celebrate, having saved a lost endgame.

In a rare Chekhover variation of the Sicilian, Rapport quickly exchanged his light-squared bishop for a knight, avoiding sharp lines and entering a calm, balanced position with a slightly better pawn structure for White (similar to one Rapport had as black against Duda in game one).
White did a better job in the ensuing manoeuvering play and got a slight edge. By move 32 the two entered a rook endgame but this was when Firouzja committed a grave mistake – 32….Ra1, allowing Black to capture on c6 and then double his rooks along the seventh rank.

By move 37 White was completely winning but then it was Rapport’s turn to err. He could have given a check on g7, followed by an exchange of a pair of rooks, leading to a supported free runner down the e-file and at the same time pinning Black's d-pawn. Instead, he played 38.Ke4, giving some breathing space to Firouzja who was defending well.

Rapport couldn’t find the winning plan and after 47.Rg6 he dropped the rest of his advantage and the position was even. Firouzja then returned the favour with 51…Re7?, but Rapport did not accept the gift (52.Kf5! was winning) and opted for 52.b4 leading to a forced draw. 
Finally, on move 60, the two sides agreed to split a point. A lucky save by Firouzja.

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Hikaru Nakamura vs Teimour Radjabov: Imprecision and pressure

In the Ruy Lopez, Nakamura played d3 and denied Radjabov a chance to enter the main line of the Berlin Defence. Radjabov opted for a rare continuation (5...Nd4) where Black has to make several moves with a bishop in the centre. However, he spent significantly more time in the opening, suggesting he was out of the book.

The price of this was soon felt on the board as Nakamura created a strong edge: Black had doubled pawns and a pawn on d7 which was blocking the development of his c8 bishop. Radjabov opted to sacrifice a pawn by playing d7-d5 to complete development and unlock the potential of his bishop pair.

Having a 60-minute advantage Nakamura gradually simplified the position: he returned the pawn and exchanged the queens but managed to place his rook in the black’s baсk rank and put his knight on d4, towering over the board. The computer said the position was equal, but Radjabov had five minutes on seven moves to reach the first time control.

Nakamura kept his cool: pushing his king forward and skilfully manoeuvring the rook, he was gradually grinding Radjabov, creating problems and traps, hoping Black would fall for one of them. Still, Nakamura’s efforts would not have been enough for a victory had Radjabov not blundered a pawn on move 35.

After 35...Rd5? White won a pawn with 36.Rc6 Re5+ 37.Kf2 Bd7 38.Rxa6

Even after that Radjabov had plenty of defensive options. After 57…Rc8 - which is not that easy to find - Black, most likely would have held a draw. However, he played 57…Bf7? Which was the decisive mistake.

White set his three pawns on the queenside in motion, while his king and heavy pieces were there to hold the black pawns on the kingside from advancing. Nakamura’s victory became imminent and he sealed it on move 65.

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Fabiano Caruana: The clash of the Challengers

This was a game many have looked to with great anticipation. Both Nepomniachtchi and Caruana won the Candidates once already and both started in Madrid with a victory in round one.

In the Italian game, Caruana introduced an aggressive plan: with an h6-g5 manoeuvre on the queenside, he launched a novelty – Ng4 – as early as move ten. A product of deep preparation, this continuation was a direct indication of an attack on the white king, forcing Nepo to react and enter a sharp line.

The discomfort on Nepomniachtchi’s face was obvious: he was forced into a variation deeply analyzed by Caruana, his seconds and the supercomputers. Nepo was, therefore, facing not just his opponent, but his entire team of experts and computers, and had to find a solution right there, on the spot, alone, with the clock ticking.

Nepomniachtchi spent more than an hour searching for the right path but coordinated his pieces at the cost of his d4-pawn. The offering of the pawn was the first time in the game that Caruana stopped blitzing and spent some time thinking.

Nepomniachtchi seemed to have achieved some breathing space, but only for a short while as Caruana pressed on and soon won one more pawn. Despite having a doubled pawn on the a-file, the two-pawn advantage and control in the centre and over the b-file gave Black the edge. Caruana spent even more time thinking, but couldn’t find a precise way to victory in a very complicated position.

Caruana played 30... Rge8. However, one of the most promising ideas for Black was 30…Rxb2, sacrificing an exchange but obtaining more than sufficient positional compensation.

Probably feeling that the situation was getting out of control, Fabiano offered a draw by repetition on the move 32. Caruana wasn’t happy. He staged a big surprise in the opening, had a strong advantage and had two extra pawns but he couldn’t find the road to victory. 

In the interview after the game, Caruana commented on his opening choice: "I knew that Ng4 would come as a surprise. I don't know if many people have analysed this move. It's a novelty. I've played this position myself against Wesley So in blitz or rapid and I played Nh7 which is a common move. And Ng4 is borderline losing, a huge gamble. But I was counting on a surprise factor and I also thought that he would go for what he did which is the most natural way."

Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Jan-Krzysztof Duda vs Ding Liren: A positional affair

The same opening was played as in the game between Nepomniachtchi and Caruana. Ding chose to go with the pawn two steps (a5) forward while Fabi steeled for one step (a6). The idea in both cases is to create an escape path for the bishop. However, unlike the drama that evolved in the Nepo-Caruana game, the Duda-Ding duel was a strictly positional affair.

Following the stabilization of the pawn structure in the centre, White started regrouping his pieces in the hope of penetrating into Black’s camp on one of the wings.

With 25.b4 Duda pushed on the queenside, opening the b-file where he then lined up his rooks but Ding covered all the critical squares and pushed f6-f5 to create some tension on the kingside. 

Both sides were still carefully manoeuvring their pieces, improving their positions and looking for a chance, but the position was even.

Following threefold repetition, the two agreed on a draw after 41 moves and three and a half hours of play.

The third round of the Candidates starts on Sunday, 19th June at 3 PM CEST at the Palacio de Santona in Madrid.

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