Stressful Games, No Safe Leads as Candidates 2024 Enters Final Weekend

“Only” half of the eight games played during Thursday’s 12th round of the 2024 FIDE Candidates and Women’s Candidates tournaments ended in decisive games (down from six on Wednesday), serving to illustrate just how high the “baseline” for drama and suspense has risen over the course of the last few weeks in Toronto. Enjoy a number of annotations from WGM Gulrukhbegim "Begim" Tokhirjonova, including incredibly detailed and instructive analysis of Nakamura – Firouzja and Salimova – Tan!



In the Open, literally half of the field still has a legitimate shot at first place. While GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, who entered the round in sole first, drew his game against GM Praggnanandhaa R., three decisive results narrowed the gap. First, here’s Pragg’s surprising opening choice followed by astute defense at the key moment:



In a humorously similar opening, GM Alireza Firouzja was not so lucky in his deployment of the French against a determined GM Hikaru Nakamura.


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All eyes on the content creator as he rejoins the top of the standings (Photo courtesy Michal Walusza/FIDE)


The American once again struggled with the conversion phase, but still displayed overall phenomenal chess to gain a share of the lead.



Next, the 17-year-old Indian prodigy GM Gukesh D. still refuses to go away, becoming the first player to win both of their games against lowest-rated GM Nijat Abasov.



With Nepomniachtchi, Nakamura, and Gukesh leading with 7½/12, the other American, GM Fabiano Caruana, took down an up-and-down GM Vidit Gujrathi to stay on the leaders’ heels with 7/12.



Tomorrow, Nepomniachtchi plays with the white pieces against Nakamura, while Gukesh also has the first-move advantage against Firouzja. Caruana plays Black against Pragg, but then he has the white pieces against Nepomniachtchi on Sunday in their final-round encounter. Also on Sunday is Nakamura, as White, against Gukesh.


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Courtesy FIDE


Expect some fighting chess after today’s rest day, with several key match-ups over the weekend. Note that even though Pragg only trails the leaders by 1½ points, it is not possible for him to tie for first. This is because, if he wins both of his games, he will end on a score of 8/12, but Nakamura’s games are against both of his co-leaders. This means that if he draws both, he ends up on 8½/12, while if he loses either, then whoever beat him ends up on (at least) 8½/12. So, it is “only” a four-horse race!



In contrast to the numerous decisive results of the Open, the Women’s section was a round of what could have been. GM Tan Zhongyi entered the day with a half-point lead and a game against the tournament’s lowest-rated player.


Salimova Tan
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One of the more impressive games of the tournament ended with a somber reminder that, sometimes, the hardest game to win is still a won game (Photo courtesy Michal Walusza/FIDE)


But IM Nurgyul Salimova elected to “just play chess,” taking her opponent out of book early and starting to uncork her own immortal game over the next 30 or so moves of perfect play that commentator GM Daniel Naroditsky even described as “Karpovian.” But a couple of slight hesitations made Salimova’s conversion more difficult, and then…



Even with Tan’s escape, GM Lei Tingjie still had a very legitimate chance of tying her atop the standings.


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You win some, you lose some. Or, in Lei's case: you draw both! (Photo courtesy Michal Walusza/FIDE)


Playing against GM Kateryna Lagno a day after being fortunate to escape with a draw, Lei evened the Karmic score by failing to find the knock-out blow today.



Although it’s too late to catch up to first place, GM-Elect Vaishali Rameshbabu won her third consecutive game to improve to 5½/12 after a rough start. All it took was one error from GM Anna Muzychuk in the middlegame, and from there it was all Vaishali.



Finally, GM Humpy Koneru took a draw against a struggling GM Aleksandra Goryachkina (who lost back-to-back games after chasing the leaders for most of the tournament). The result was not shocking, but the circumstances were: Humpy was much better and, even if she could not find the knock-out blow, had no risk in playing on.



As a result, Goryachkina and Humpy both join Lagno in a tie for third with an even score of 6/12. Lei is in clear second with 7½/12, a half-point behind Tan.


Courtesy FIDE
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Courtesy FIDE


Tan’s final opponents are Goryachkina and Muzychuk (as White, then Black), while Lei’s are Vaishali and Humpy (with Black, then White). A few days ago, it appeared as if Tan’s pairings were tougher, but now with Goryachkina fading and Vaishali surging, it’s much harder to say. Still, Lei will need a half-point more than Tan over the course of these two games if she is to tie her countrywoman.

Mathematically, the three players tied for third could also join a tie for first if both Tan and Lei lose both of their next two rounds. Given the number of unexpected results in this event already, it feels worth mentioning this possibility, as unlikely as it seems.


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