Aagaard on the Candidates: Round 7

For the seventh installment of his “Candidates Game of the Day” series, GM Jacob Aagaard has analyzed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave's huge victory over co-leader Ian Nepomniatchtchi 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:
MVL shares the lead with Nepomniachtchi after the first half. Having more decisive games is the first tiebreak, which falls to Nepomniachtchi, while MVL would take it on the second tiebreak, having defeated his competitor. I have to say I still find it hard to see MVL winning the tournament. He won this game against feeble play and against Ding Liren who blundered badly in the opening. He needs to show more before the end, I would expect. Any of the players on 50% would catch up with him by beating him. I still think the final winning score will be +3.

[Event "FIDE Candidates Tournament"]
[Date "2020.03.25"]
[Round "7.2"]
[White "Vachier Lagrave, Maxime"]
[Black "Nepomniachtchi, Ian"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C18"]
[WhiteElo "2767"]
[BlackElo "2774"]
[Annotator "Aagaard & Castellanos"]
[PlyCount "83"]
[EventDate "2020.??.??"]

1. e4 e6 {Nepomniachtchi has not really played the French for the last half
decade, and clearly prepared it for this tournament. As he had no doubt not
planned to be in a big lead by the end of the first half of the tournament,
there seems to have been no solid alternative available to him. We should
mention that Nepomniachtchi's main weapon against 1.e4 is the Najdorf, where
MVL is probably the biggest expert in the World.} 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e5 c5
5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3 Ne7 7. h4 (7. Qg4 {is still the main line of course.}) 7...
Qc7 8. h5 h6 ({Many games have been played in the sharp line arising after}
8... cxd4 9. cxd4 Qc3+ 10. Bd2 Qxd4 11. Nf3 Qe4+ 12. Be2 Nf5 13. Kf1 {, where
the black queen can be in quite a lot of danger.}) 9. Rb1 b6 10. Qg4 Rg8 {
As the rook later has to return to h8 to defend the h7-square, I thought it
made more sense to play} (10... Kf8 {immediately. However, after} 11. Rh3 Ba6 {
, played in a bliz game between So and Dominguez in St Louis 2017, White would
have a big improvement at his disposal.} 12. Rf3 $1 $146 {Threatening Qxe6.}
Nf5 (12... Qd7 {defends e6, but after} 13. dxc5 $1 Bxf1 14. Kxf1 bxc5 15. Be3 {
Black is destroyed on the dark squares.}) 13. Bxa6 Nxa6 14. Ne2 Kg8 ({The
following variation is quite impressive.} 14... cxd4 15. cxd4 Qxc2 16. Rbb3 $1
Qe4 17. Rf4 Qc2 18. Rc3 Qb1 19. Ng3 {and Black is busted.}) 15. Qf4 Rf8 16. a4
{White's advantage is immense.}) 11. Bb5+ Kf8 $146 {The preparation. I have to
say I am not impressed.} (11... Bd7 12. Bd3 {with the threat Bh7 is good for
White. After} Nf5 {Bartel – Jaroch, Zgierz 2017, White should play} 13. Bxf5
$1 $146 exf5 14. Qg3 {with the treat of Bxh6. After} Kf8 15. Ne2 cxd4 16. O-O {
Black is about to be ripped apart.}) 12. Bd3 (12. dxc5 $6 Nd7 $1 $44 {would
make sense of Black's play.}) 12... Ba6 13. dxc5 Bxd3 14. cxd3 Nd7 $6 {This
was played immediately.} ({I suspect that it would be better for Black to play
} 14... Qxe5+ 15. Ne2 Nd7 16. cxb6 axb6 {, although White is a bit better after
} 17. Qb4 {.}) 15. d4 bxc5 16. Qd1 $1 {Somehow this was not in
Nepomniachtchi's preparation. Here he spent a long time deciding how to meet
his opponent's preparation.} Qa5 {Nepomniachtchi did not manage to create
counterplay in the game and was defeated very easily. For a game that may
decide who will face the World Champion in a match, this one is a bit of a
disappointment.} ({Together with a friend I investigated other ideas at this
point. We thought it may be possible to fight against putting the bishop on a3
by rerouting the bishop to c4. But White has a very direct way to deal with
this plan:} 16... Nb6 17. Ne2 Ke8 18. O-O Kd7 {[#]} 19. dxc5 $1 Qxc5 20. Nd4
Rab8 (20... Rgb8 21. Qg4 {is painful as well.}) 21. Qf3 Rgf8 22. a4 {White is
totally winning. The bishop will arrive on a3 and Black's position is nothing
but weaknesses.}) 17. Bd2 Rb8 18. Ne2 c4 ({MVL had considered if Black could
try} 18... Ke8 19. O-O Kd8 {, but as suspected White can blow the centre apart.
[#]} 20. c4 $1 Qxa3 21. Rxb8+ Nxb8 22. Qb1 Nbc6 23. cxd5 Nxd5 24. Qb7 Nde7 25.
Rb1 {with mate.}) ({A more realistic try was} 18... Rxb1 19. Qxb1 Qa6 {, where
White has a really fantastic refutation. [#]} 20. a4 $1 {A thematic pawn
sacrifice. Here to make it possible to castle.} Qxa4 (20... Nc6 {goes down in
the standard way.} 21. Qb5 Qxb5 22. axb5 Na5 23. O-O Nc4 {[#]} (23... Nb3 24.
Be3 c4 {is an attempt to keep the rook out of the a-line. But White is
positionally winning with normal moves.} 25. f4 Ke7 26. f5 Rb8 27. Nf4 {
and Black is lost.}) 24. Ra1 $3 Nxd2 25. Rxa7 Ke7 26. dxc5 {and White wins.})
21. O-O c4 {[#] White has a fantastic plan here, illustrating clearly the lack
of urgency White is facing.} 22. f3 $3 {After something like 22...Nc6 23.Be1,
White is ready for Bh4 and only then advance on the queenside. The key point
to understand is that} (22. f4 $2 f5 $1 {and Black would suddenly be better.})
22... f5 {does not work for Black after} 23. exf6 Nxf6 24. Nf4 Kf7 25. Re1 {
with an overwhelming advantage.}) 19. O-O Rb6 20. Qc2 Rh8 {Played to be able
to bring the king to the queenside without being hit hard with Qh7.} ({If
Black takes the pawn, White will use the time gained to bring the bishop to a3.
} 20... Qxa3 21. Bc1 Qa6 22. Rb2 $1 {White comes to the a-line and gets the
bishop to a3. Black just suffers.}) 21. a4 Ke8 22. Rb4 $1 Nc6 ({It is hard to
find anything worth playing for Black. For example:} 22... Nb8 23. f4 Nbc6 24.
Rxb6 Qxb6 25. Rb1 Qc7 26. Bc1 {with a big advantage.}) 23. f4 Ne7 ({It makes
no sense to accept the exchange sacrifice. After} 23... Nxb4 24. cxb4 Qa6 25.
b5 Qb7 26. Bb4 {with f5 and Nf4 coming, White is entirely winning.}) 24. Rfb1
f5 (24... Rg8 {is more sensibly met with 25.Ng3 f5 26.Bc1, but White also has}
25. f5 $5 Nxf5 26. Nf4 Ne7 27. Bc1 {where he has won a bit time in return for
a pawn. It is not something anyone would actually play. But it is fun to
mention it.}) 25. Rb5 (25. Bc1 $5 {was very natural as well.}) 25... Qa6 (25...
Rxb5 26. Rxb5 Qa6 {was a bit more rescilient, but after} (26... Qc7 27. Qb1 {
is even worse.}) 27. Bc1 {White's advantage is overwhelming.}) 26. Bc1 Kf7 27.
Ba3 Rhb8 {[#] White wins with an elementary breakthrough on the kingside.} 28.
Bxe7 Kxe7 29. g4 $1 Rxb5 30. axb5 Rxb5 31. gxf5 Rxb1+ 32. Qxb1 exf5 (32... Qb6
33. Qa1 Nf8 {could be tried, but White is winning.} 34. Kf2 exf5 35. Ng3 g6 36.
hxg6 Nxg6 37. Nxf5+ Ke6 38. Nxh6 Nxf4 39. Kg3 Ng6 40. Qh1 {with a winning
attack. There are many lines like this, they are not especially instructive
and are here only because it would be worse if they were not.}) 33. Ng3 Qb6 (
33... Qa3 34. Nxf5+ Kd8 35. Qe1 Qf8 36. Qh4+ {and White wins.}) (33... g6 34.
hxg6 Qxg6 35. Kf2 Qg4 36. Qxf5 {and the endgame is winning.}) 34. Nxf5+ Kf8 35.
Qa1 $1 Qe6 (35... Qb3 36. Ne3 {is winning for White. The knight is very strong
on e3.}) (35... a5 36. Ne3 {is also hopeless.}) 36. Ng3 Qg4 37. Kg2 Qxf4 ({
MVL believed that his opponent had planned to play} 37... g6 {, but decided in
the end that it did not work. [#] He showed the following long variations at
the press conference.} 38. Qa3+ Ke8 (38... Kg8 39. hxg6 h5 40. Qe7 {and White
is winning.}) 39. Qd6 gxh5 40. e6 {Black is lost in all lines.} Nf8 (40... Nb6
41. f5 h4 42. Qb8+ Ke7 43. Qc7+ Ke8 44. Qf7+ Kd8 45. e7+ {and mate.}) (40...
Nf6 41. Qb8+ Ke7 42. Qc7+ Kxe6 43. f5+ {winning the queen.}) 41. f5 h4 42. Qb8+
Ke7 43. f6+ Kxe6 44. Qe8+ Kxf6 45. Qxf8+ Kg5 46. Qg7+ Kf4 47. Qe5# {However,
it is likely Nepomniachtchi was more afraid of 38.Qa5!, which wins on the spot.
}) 38. Qxa7 Ke7 39. Qa3+ Kd8 40. Qd6 g5 41. hxg6 h5 42. g7 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 Round 7 - Vachier-Lagrave - Nepomniatchtchi