With 8.5/12, tournament leader Ian Nepomniachtchi is just half a point away from winning his second Candidates in a row. He is due to play Rapport and Duda in the last two rounds (he beat both of them in the first part of the tournament). Nepo just needs one draw from those two games to secure total victory.
Today’s game between Hikaru Nakamura and Ian Nepomniachtchi was very short. After just eight minutes of play, following a forced drawing line in the Berlin, they agreed to split a point. The way this draw was achieved will be criticised by many. In the post-game interview, Nakamura said that he didn’t think ‘the risk-reward was there’ and that, had he lost, ‘there’s no shot at second place’ (which has become ever more important in this tournament in light of the prospects of Magnus Carlsen deciding not to defend his title, as this will lead to the top two players from the Candidates playing the match for the world title).
Teimour Radjabov stunned Ding Liren with a crushing victory as Black in 26 moves. After three consecutive victories (not seen in the Candidates since 2013), Ding Liren was unrecognisable in today’s game. He played well below his 2800 level and was completely shattered by the motivated Teimour Radjabov. Already after 21 moves, with a lot of help from Ding, Black had an overwhelming position. With this defeat, Ding Liren’s miraculous recovery from the bottom of the table in the first part of the tournament to the top has now hit a dead end. He is tied in second place with Hikaru Nakamura and the two will be playing in the final round.
Jan-Krzysztof Duda missed several opportunities to win with white pieces against Alireza Firouzja today. In a sharp line of the Semi-Slav Firouzja again - like in some previous games - started outplaying himself by weakening his castle and launching his pawns on a goose chase on move 22. Duda responded with an energetic f-pawn push and grabbed the initiative. However, as in some other previous games in his case, he just couldn’t find the right moves in several critical moments and dropped the advantage. Firouzja was again offering winning chances to White and he took them, but when the moment of execution came Duda was not up to the task. In the end, Black forced a line leading directly to a draw. Firouzja was lucky while Duda missed a great opportunity. The Candidates are a long and demanding event and the signs of tiredness were shown by both players today. Duda is on five points, sharing 6-7th place with Rapport, while Firouzja is at the bottom with 4.5 points.
The last game to finish was between Richard Rapport and Fabiano Caruana. In the anti-Berlin, the opponents found their way into a fresh position as early as on move ten. The game was mostly played on the kingside where Rapport advanced his pawns. The Hungarian GM got some initiative but the American neutralized it with several precise moves and equalised completely. After exchanges of heavy pieces, the opponents transitioned into a rook endgame where Black had an extra pawn on the h-file but Rapport’s active rook saved him from trouble and helped him hold Caruana to a draw. Unlike in the previous games where in even positions he pushed for a long time, Caruana was in no mood to force today’s game and the two agreed to split a point. With plus three, Caruana is on a mere 50 percent, in the middle of the table (joined by Radjabov), while Rapport is further below with 5/12.
Here follows a closer look at the games from round twelve of the Candidates.
Richard Rapport vs Fabiano Caruana: Loss of appetite
After suffering three defeats in the last four rounds, which completely wrecked his tournament ambitions, it was interesting to see how Fabiano Caruana comes back in a game against a very tricky opponent.
Rapport was in his salmon-pink jacket which he wore in round eight when he scored a great victory against Duda. As in previous rounds, he delayed making his first move. Psyching himself up for the match, gathering his final thoughts or just trying to play a psychological game against his opponents? Only Rapport knows.
In the anti-Berlin, both sides played very solidly and came out of the opening with sound positions. The two went off the beaten track on move ten, after Fabiano introduced a novelty, parting with his light-squared bishop followed by castling long.
Rapport also built his fortress on the queenside and proceeded to pressure Black on the right flank with 21.f4
White went on the initiative here pressuring Black’s weak f6 and g6 pawns. Black responded by pushing his f6 pawn forward, seeking to ease the pressure.
The position is roughly even but White had a clear attacking plan. Caruana made an inaccurate move with 26…Qe7 which gave Rapport a slight edge. However, feeling danger, Caruana was finding the right moves he needed to hold his kingside line of defence.
After 30.Qe4 Qd6 the two sides traded several pieces which directly lead to an even endgame. It looks like Rapport relaxed on his guard at some point and allowed Black to get his rook and queen down to White’s second rank. Rapport had to exchange the queens and give up his h-pawn, but he had enough compensation in his position.
White had an active rook situated on the sixth rank, preventing the black king from joining his h-runner and attacking the opponent’s pawns when needed. This time Caruana had no desire to grind it and soon opted for a draw. Following several hard and long games where he pressed in even positions and pushed even harder in the ones he lost, Caruana’s appetite for long gruelling games seems to have evaporated.
Ding Liren vs Teimour Radjabov: An unsettling defeat
As in the game with Nakamura, Teimour Radjabov has staged another upset: he ended Ding Liren’s winning streak by bringing him to a lost position in just 21 moves.
In the Nimzo-Indian, Teimour Radjabov ended with doubled pawns on the a-file and an isolated pawn on d5, but he retained a pair of bishops guaranteeing sufficient compensation. Ding, on the other hand, had a solid pawn structure and some prospects of putting pressure on Black’s isolated d-pawn.
Here instead of castling Ding opted for a sharp and committal 12.b4?!, but Black immediately started complications on the queenside using his upper hand in development.
Radjabov pushed his doubled pawns on the a-file. Here, Ding should have played 16.a4 maintaining equality. Instead, he took on a6 and, after recapturing with the rook, Black got a slight edge thanks to more active pieces.
Here Ding made much more serious inaccuracy with 18.Rd2 (18.Ba1 and 18.0-0 were reasonable alternatives) and after 18…Qc8 19.f3 Re8 Radjabov’s pressure was growing rampant.
White was in dire straits but 21.Qc1 was the last straw. Radjabov was spoilt for choice on how to win and he played the strongest 21…Rxe3! Ding continued with his resistance for a few more moves but it was futile – Black’s whole army was just tearing White’s position apart.
It was a shock not just for Ding Liren, but also for the audience: World No. 2, a 2800 player, completely lost in 21 moves with white(!) pieces. An appalling performance by Ding and a great result for Radjabov who has again shown he shouldn’t be written off.
Jan-Krzysztof Duda vs Alireza Firouzja: A game of missed opportunities
In a topical variation of the Semi-Slav which is also called Anti-Meran, the opponents followed the footsteps of Daniil Dubov and Alexei Shirov (Moscow, 2013) up to move 22. Black sacrificed an exchange but got sufficient compensation in the form of control over dark squares and a strong passer on b2. White, on the other hand, had some prospects of advancing his central pawns.
Here, however, Alireza introduced a dubious novelty. As in the game against Nepomniachtchi, he launched a pawn advance, significantly weakening his king and not getting anything in return - 22…g5. In the game-predecessor, Shirov played a much more reasonable 22…c5. Duda responded with a push on f4 (which Firouzja tried to prevent), annihilated Black’s b2-pawn and got the open g and f-files for his rooks.
White achieved a won position. Duda had such moves as 27.Kh1 (securing his king and opening the g-file), 27.Ba2 (to move his bishop to safety and proceed with an attack on Black) and 27.Rff3 at his disposal but he played 27.Rf2 instead, immediately dropping all his advantage. After 27…Be5 28. Qe2 the position was even.
Surprisingly, Firouzja missed the strongest continuation 28…Nf4 and gave White another chance with 28…Nf6. After 29.Kh1 Kh1 30.Rg2 Rb8 31.Ba2 (better was Rf3) Ne8 - White was totally winning. However, Duda mishandled the position - he shuffled his rooks, played some other imprecise moves and after the exchange of queens he was not winning anymore but was still better. However…
Here Duda missed his last chance to put some pressure with 35.Rfg2. Instead, he took with his rook on f7, immediately allowing Black to force a draw: 35.Rxf7 Nxg3+ 36.Kg2 Rb2+ 37.Rf2 Rxf2+ 38.Kxf2 Bd4+. In a few moves, most of the remaining pieces were exchanged and they ended in a three vs two pawn endgame with opposite-coloured bishops. A draw was agreed upon on move 41.
Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Hikaru Nakamura: The 8-minute draw
In the Ruy Lopez, Hikaru Nakamura opted for a Berlin. A solid line in which – statistically – most games end peacefully. This was interpreted as a veiled draw offer by Nakamura. And it was. The two were following a familiar line where both sides quickly split a point.
A draw was agreed after threefold repetition. The game was over in eight minutes.
In an interview shortly after the game, Nakamura explained his reasoning behind the decision to go for a draw:
‘Ian is fortunate for being in a situation where he seems to be playing for draws and then winning with Black… If you’re gonna win every game with Black and you have white pieces, what can I do… I didn't think the risk-reward was there, really… Even if I were to win the game I don’t think the chances of catching Ian were very good since I have Black against Ding in the last round. And then if I lose the game, then there’s no shot at second place… And I had a feeling Ian would do this because let’s be honest, Ding is not going to win the last three games, I don’t think so’.
When asked further whether there should be a tiebreak for second place in case it is shared, Nakamura responded:
‘If it matters there should be a tiebreaker… I think if the players got together and said let’s just play some kind of tiebreaker, I think that would be a reasonable way to resolve it’.
While many will be disappointed by the choice of both players – their decisions made sense from their point of view. Nobody has fared well against Nepomniachtchi in this tournament and by opting for a safe draw, Nakamura is a step closer to second place which may be important should the world champion Magnus Carlsen ultimately decide not to defend his crown, as he has suggested on several occasions. (And while we have heard players saying they don’t really care or think about that and about the value of second place, it seems that isn’t really true.) With this draw, Nepomniachtchi is a step closer to claiming the second consecutive title in the Candidates.
However, with the decision not to fight today, both players have put their fortune in the hands of others and, sometimes, fortune does favour the brave and not the savvy.
Saturday the 2nd of July is a rest day. Round thirteen of the Candidates starts on Sunday the 3rd of July at 3 PM CEST at the Palacio de Santona in Madrid.
The pairings of round twelve are as follows:
Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Richard Rapport
Hikaru Nakamura vs Jan-Krzysztof Duda
Alireza Firouzja vs Ding Liren
Teimour Radjabov vs Fabiano Caruana