Aagaard on the Candidates: Round 6

For the sixth installment of his “Candidates Game of the Day” series, GM Jacob Aagaard has analyzed Ian Nepomniachtchi's Round 6 victory over Ding Liren as only he could – deeply, extensively, definitively. This is the analysis that the experts will be quoting tomorrow, and we have it exclusively here at Chess Life Online. Below we provide Aagaard’s analysis in replayable format. For those who prefer paper, boards, and pieces, we have created a pdf version. You can also check out an alternative replayable version posted in the ChessBase Cloud. Aagaard writes:
The results of the sixth round of the Candidates was as shocking as those of the previous rounds. Caruana blew a serious advantage against Grischuk and Wang Hao once again failed to convert a pawn up, this time against MVL. What is becoming more and more apparent is that a number of the players are not enjoying being there, even though they are playing decent chess. Wang Hao, Grischuk and Nepomniachtchi all seem as interested in playing the tournament as Radjabov. But the show is marching on. Ding Liren is of course disappointed, MVL appears entirely absent minded, Caruana cool, collected and out of shape. Finally, Alekseenko is arguing for the absense of wild cards with his play, as Giri is doing to the rating spot. The game of the day is not that great a game, but it had a really great moment we shall not ignore.

[Event "FIDE Candidates Tournament"]
[Site "chess24.com"]
[Date "2020.03.23"]
[Round "6.3"]
[White "Nepomniachtchi, Ian"]
[Black "Ding, Liren"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C77"]
[WhiteElo "2774"]
[BlackElo "2805"]
[Annotator "Aagaard"]
[PlyCount "79"]
[EventDate "2020.??.??"]
[WhiteTeam "Russia"]
[BlackTeam "China"]
[WhiteTeamCountry "RUS"]
[BlackTeamCountry "CHN"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. d3 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. a3
O-O 9. Nc3 Na5 10. Ba2 Be6 11. b4 Bxa2 12. Rxa2 Nc6 13. Bg5 Qd7 14. Bxf6 Bxf6
15. Nd5 a5 {[#]} 16. Rb2 $1 $146 {An unimpressive novelty from
Nepomniachtchi's team. This could mean GM Potkin, who has seconded Ian since
his junior days, but is a strong player in his own right, having won the
European Championship about a decade ago. The same did his previous neighbours
and close friends Motylev and Najer, as well as Nepomniachtchi himself. The
move is not achieving much, but it does create some new problems for Black and
does not offer the Chinese player a direct way to kill off the game, despite
having played this line endlessly.} axb4 17. axb4 Bd8 18. c4 Nd4 $5 {It is
easy to criticise this move, as the black bishop is poor in what follows. But
we should also recommend that it is the advice from the engine.} (18... Ne7 {
is the alternative. But after} 19. Ne3 $5 {White is a bit better. Black may
play} {And if Black plays} h6 {, White can play} ({The idea behind of this
move is shown in the following line:} 19... f5 20. cxb5 Qxb5 21. Qb3+ Kh8 22.
Ng5 f4 23. Ne6 Rf6 24. Nf5 $1 (24. Ng4 $2 Rxe6 $1 25. Qxe6 h5 {would leave the
knight trapped, making} 26. Nf6 {necessary. White only has perpetual here.})
24... Nxf5 25. exf5 Rxf5 26. Ra2 $1 Rxa2 27. Qxa2 Qe8 28. Rc1 {and White has a
slight pressure.}) 20. Qb3 c6 21. cxb5 cxb5 22. d4 $14 {and at least push a
little bit.}) 19. Nxd4 exd4 20. Qc2 {[#]} Re8 {Here we exit Nepomniachtchi's
preparation.} ({Against} 20... c6 {Nepomniachtchi wanted to play something like
} 21. Nf4 Rb8 22. g3 $14 {, when he felt that White's position was pleasant,
although not very much. I think this is quite accurate.}) 21. g3 $1 {Again
establishing white presence on the dark squares. All White has achieved is to
prevent an immediate draw and have a game with a nice position. We are back in
plus equal mode, as yesterday. In the following Nepomniachtchi does very
little, while Ding shows that he is not in shape at all.} bxc4 (21... c6 22.
Nf4 g5 23. Ne2 Bf6 {is how the engine suggests Black should play. I find it
hard to believe that this is the path to equality.}) 22. Qxc4 c6 23. Nf4 Bg5
24. Ne2 $14 {Black has real problems with the d4-pawn.} d5 {Black cannot avoid
this move, but now his position is unpleasant.} 25. exd5 cxd5 26. Qb3 {[#]} h5
$1 {Ding reacts in the only way he can given that he has a poor structure, by
creating active counterplay.} ({Nepomniachtchi mentioned} 26... Ra6 27. b5 (27.
Kg2 h5 $1) (27. Nxd4 Bf6 28. b5 Rb6 29. Qb4 Reb8 $11) 27... Rb6 {, but after}
28. Ra1 {White is definitely better.}) 27. b5 ({The creative way for White to
play for an advantage was} 27. Kg2 $5 h4 28. Ng1 $1 {to keep the counterplay
at bay and then focus on the queenside. White is better, but very little. The
main thing is that the bishop is close to useless.}) 27... h4 28. b6 h3 $2 {
This is too basic. Amusingly the main problem with this move is that the pawn
becomes a weakness. We have talked about the AlphaZero h6/h3 pawn in several
games, but in this case, the pawn is just a target, without dominating the
white king at all...} ({Black should have balanced his play.} 28... Rab8 29. b7
Re7 30. Rfb1 Qg4 31. Qd1 $5 (31. Qxd5 Rxe2 32. Rxe2 Qxe2 33. Qxg5 Qxd3 34. Rc1
Qa6 {leads to a draw. White will have an extra pawn, but as it is the h-pawn
and not the f-pawn, the winning chances are close to none.}) 31... h3 32. Qf1
Bh6 33. f4 Rbxb7 $1 34. Rxb7 Rxe2 35. R7b2 Re3 {Black has full compensation
for the exchange. White is too passive to do anything.}) {[#]} 29. Kh1 $3 {
Preparing Ng1, putting pressure on h3 and defending the f3-square. To me this
is really the move of the tournament so far.} Reb8 30. Rfb1 $16 {White has a
serious advantage. We could look at the different ways Black could play and
how he would suffer no matter what.} Bd8 31. Qb5 $2 (31. b7 Ra7 32. Nf4 {
was much stronger. The move in the game allows Ding his first chance to escape
with active counterplay.}) {[#]} 31... Qg4 $2 {This is a really bad move. Not
so much because there was an escape, more because it loses to badly.} (31...
Qf5 $1 32. Nxd4 Qg4 {holds in the most amazing way:} 33. b7 {Clearly the most
critical move.} (33. Qxd5 Bf6 {holds easily.}) 33... Ra7 34. Qe8+ Kh7 35. Qxf7
Bf6 36. Rb4 Bxd4 37. Qxd5 {[#] White looks winning, but as in the game. Black
has an amazing resource.} Ra5 $1 38. Rxd4 $1 Rxb7 $3 39. Qxb7 Qxd4 40. Qe4+ (
40. Qf3 Ra1) 40... Qxe4+ 41. dxe4 Ra2 42. Kg1 Re2 {Black manages to get into
an endgame with a pawn less. White can do nothing to with the h3-pawn, so the
advantage is an illusion.}) 32. Qxd5 $2 ({The real tactical mistake is this.
After} 32. Qe8+ Kh7 33. Qxf7 $1 {White is able to eliminate all
counter-chances. If Black does nothing, he will take on d5 next.} {So let's
try:} Rxb6 $5 34. Rxb6 Bxb6 {, where White can win with both 35.Ng1 and} 35. f3
Qg5 36. Nf4 Bd8 {[#]} 37. Qe6 {and we are getting close to the end. What we
have to understand is that Nepomniachtchi did not see the dangers in the way
he played. To speculate that he had to predict them would be illogical. They
might as well hide in the line where he did not win a piece.}) 32... Ra5 33.
Qc6 ({The path towards the end has narrowed significantly for White. Only} 33.
f3 $1 {was still winning. After} Rxd5 34. fxg4 Rb7 35. Ng1 Rd6 36. Nxh3 {
White would have a technically winning endgame.}) {[#]} 33... Rc5 $2 {Ding
misses the second chance to escape. This time with glory beyond measure.} ({
Nepomniachtchi found it incredibly hard to believe that Black had an escape
route here, although he knew that the journalists had checked it with an
engine. Still his eyes would not agree to what his head knew. The escape
starts with an excange sacrifice:} 33... Rxb6 $3 34. Rxb6 Qxe2 35. Rb8 (35.
R6b2 $2 Qxb2 $1) {[#] But the truly unbelievable move was:} 35... Re5 $3 {After
} 36. Rxd8+ Kh7 {the mating threat on e1 is obvious. After} 37. Rg1 Qxf2 {
it is very difficult for White to improve his position. Sooner or later he
will have to play} 38. Rh8+ {to deliver a perpetual. Nepomniachtchi joked that
if his opponent had found this, he would have been disqualified for computer
cheating. But is it really so outlandish? Black is entirely lost as the game
went. If Ding had not left his heart and his mind in China and was fighting
for something, he would have had a real chance to find it. As it was, it is
hard to imagine that he cared too much one way or the other. The chance to
qualify was gone already after two rounds and in a time like this, who can
fully concentrate on surmounting the greatest comeback in chess history since
Karjakin was lost in the third match game of the 2015 World Cup?}) 34. Qe8+ Kh7
{[#]} 35. Ng1 {White wins.} Rxb6 36. Qxd8 Rxb2 37. Rxb2 Rc1 38. Qh4+ Qxh4 39.
gxh4 Rd1 40. f3 1-0

Previous "Aagaard on the Candidates" installments: Round 1 - Giri-Nepomniachtchi Round 2 - Caruana-Alekseenko Round 3 - Ding Liren-Caruana Round 4 - Vachier-Lagrave - Grischuk Round 5 - Nepomniachtchi - Wang Hao Round 6 - Nepomniachtchi - Ding Liren