Worth the Wait in Gold: Caruana Wins in Candidates Restart

The 2020-21 FIDE Candidates Tournament
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The 2020-21 FIDE Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia. // credit Lennart Ootes, FIDE

Now that was worth the wait. 

American World No. 2 GM Fabiano Caruana made a triumphant return to the board on Monday, powering through a six-hour marathon against French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to earn a full-point victory in the eighth round of the 2020-21 Candidates Tournament – now officially the longest tournament in the history of chess. 

Complete with a 13-month intermission, the Candidates Tournament, the eight-player event to determine the next challenger to World Champion Magnus Carlsen’s title, resumed Monday afternoon in Yekaterinburg, Russia after being halted at its halfway point last March 2020 due to the global pandemic. 


Anatoly Karpov Fabiano Caruana Maxime Vachier-Lagrave FIDE Candidates
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Former World Champion Anatoly Karpov makes the first move between GMs Fabiano Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the eighth round of the FIDE Candidates tournament. // credit Lennart Ootes, FIDE

On the restart, American chess fans got everything they had waited nearly 400 days for – and more. Caruana came out swinging with 1. e4 and followed with a stunning display of preparation, steering the game into a Poisoned Pawn variation of the Frenchman’s pet Najdorf Sicilian, down a path similar to their last meeting in the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, last January – which the American won

But in Russia on Monday, Caruana brought the line anew, unveiling 18. Bc4! for a shocking novelty that temporarily saw the American down a bishop and three pawns, in exchange for a hyper-developed attack on several fronts and the promise of a blistering middlegame ahead for the Frenchman. 

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“With most opening ideas, it’s a one-time thing, and then you can’t play it again,” Caruana said of his novelty, which he credited to his second GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov. “Like this one, of course, Black has many ways to play it ... And actually, Maxime played the best way, I was kind of upset he played it this way, I thought [19. ... Nf6] was a very difficult move to find. 

“I still wasn’t clear if it would work out or not.” 

[pgn][Event "FIDE Candidates 2020"] [Site "Yekaterinburg RUS"] [Date "2021.04.19"] [Round "8.1"] [White "Caruana, Fabiano"] [Black "Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime"] [Result "1-0"] [WhiteTitle "GM"] [BlackTitle "GM"] [WhiteElo "2842"] [BlackElo "2767"] [ECO "B97"] [Opening "Sicilian"] [Variation "Najdorf, Poisoned pawn variation"] [WhiteFideId "2020009"] [BlackFideId "623539"] [EventDate "2020.03.17"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5 e6 7. f4 Qb6 8. Qd2 Qxb2 9. Rb1 Qa3 10. e5 h6 11. Bh4 dxe5 12. fxe5 Nfd7 13. Ne4 Qxa2 14. Rd1 Qd5 15. Qe3 Qxe5 16. c3 Bc5 17. Bg3 Qd5 18. Bc4 Qxc4 19. Bd6 Nf6 20. Nxc5 Nd5 21. Qe5 Rg8 22. Ndxe6 fxe6 23. Nxe6 Qxc3+ 24. Qxc3 Nxc3 25. Nc7+ Kf7 26. Rd3 Ne4 27. O-O+ Kg6 28. Nxa8 Nc6 29. Nb6 Rd8 30. Nxc8 Rxc8 31. Ba3 Rc7 32. Rf4 Nf6 33. Bb2 Ne7 34. Bxf6 gxf6 35. h4 h5 36. Rg3+ Kf7 37. Rg5 Rc1+ 38. Kh2 Ng6 39. Rf2 Nxh4 40. Rxh5 Ng6 41. Rh7+ Ke6 42. Rxb7 Ne5 43. Rb6+ Rc6 44. Rxc6+ Nxc6 45. Kg3 Kf7 46. Rc2 Nb4 47. Rd2 Nc6 48. Kf4 Kg6 49. Rd6 Ne5 50. Rxa6 Nf7 51. Ke4 Nh6 52. Ra5 Nf7 53. Ra3 Nd6+ 54. Kf4 Nf5 55. Rd3 Nh6 56. Rg3+ Kf7 57. Ke4 Ng8 58. Kf5 Ne7+ 59. Kf4 Nd5+ 60. Kg4 Kg6 61. Kf3+ Kf7 62. Ke4 Ne7 63. Kf4 Nd5+ 64. Kf5 Ne7+ 65. Ke4 Ng8 66. Rh3 Kg6 67. Ra3 Kf7 68. Kf4 Nh6 69. Rg3 Ng8 70. Kg4 Ne7 71. Kh5 Nd5 72. Rf3 Ke6 73. g4 Ke5 74. Kg6 1-0 [/pgn]

Ironically, the game with the fastest start was one of the last to finish Monday, as MVL painstakingly resisted Caruana’s relentless attack for nearly five hours before making the smallest of missteps. Caruana found blood from a stone-cold endgame, a rook-and-pawn versus knight-and-pawn dance that stretched the abilities of every chess engine and tablebase that exists. 

Unclear if Caruana could break through MVL’s fortress until the very end, the American ultimately pushed the Frenchman into a state of zugzwang that allowed the white king to enter the position via a flank to the key h5-square. Resignation came at 74. Kg6, with Caruana’s monarch finally touching the remaining Black pawn. 

Standings after Round 8

Caruana’s win has dramatic effect on the tournament standings after eight rounds, breaking him out of a four-way logjam for third place and catching MVL, who had shared the lead during the break. The result ties the two super-GMs in second place with 4.5/8 points, now just a half-point behind sole leader GM Ian Nepomniachtchi from Russia, who drew his eighth-round pairing against Dutch GM Anish Giri. 


Russia GM Ian Nepomniachtchi in the FIDE Candidates Tournament
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Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi leads the FIDE Candidates Tournament by a half point after 8 rounds. // credit Lennart Ootes, FIDE

In that game, Nepomniachtchi as White was unable to find an edge against the Sveshnikov in the Sicilian, seeing Giri's bishop nestled on b3 become a thorn in the Russian’s position. A stubborn challenge by Nepo to force the piece from the board led to repetition after 28 moves. The half-point result maintains both players in the standings, with Giri still tied for third and one point off the leader’s pace. 

[pgn][Event "FIDE Candidates 2020"] [Site "Yekaterinburg RUS"] [Date "2021.04.19"] [Round "8.3"] [White "Nepomniachtchi, Ian"] [Black "Giri, Anish"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [WhiteTitle "GM"] [BlackTitle "GM"] [WhiteElo "2774"] [BlackElo "2763"] [ECO "B33"] [Opening "Sicilian"] [Variation "Pelikan, Chelyabinsk variation"] [WhiteFideId "4168119"] [BlackFideId "24116068"] [EventDate "2020.03.17"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5 6. Ndb5 d6 7. Bg5 a6 8. Na3 b5 9. Nd5 Be7 10. Bxf6 Bxf6 11. c3 Rb8 12. Nc2 Bg5 13. g3 O-O 14. h4 Bh6 15. a3 a5 16. Qd3 Ne7 17. Nce3 Bxe3 18. Nxe3 Be6 19. Rd1 Rb6 20. Bh3 Bb3 21. Rd2 Qc7 22. O-O Rfb8 23. Rc1 Rc6 24. Bg4 h6 25. Bd1 Be6 26. Bg4 Bb3 27. Bd1 Be6 28. Bg4 1/2-1/2 [/pgn]

The lower half of the standings received a shake up from round eight, with Russian stalwart GM Alexander Grischuk falling to countryman GM Kirill Alekseenko, the lowest-rated player in the Candidates who had earned his spot as the tournament wildcard. The two Russians played the second Poisoned Pawn game of the day, this time out of the French Defense, and dove into a complex middlegame that put both players’ notorious clock addictions on display. 


Russian GM Kirill Alekseenko in the FIDE Candidates Tournament
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Russian GM Kirill Alekseenko delivered a surprise win over countryman GM Alexander Grischuk in round 8 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament. // credit Lennart Ootes, FIDE

With the time control not achieved until the 40th move, the scramble was begun 10 moves earlier, during a tactically rich position that had Grischuk’s passer nestled deep into Alekseenko’s territory. With just two seconds left on his clock, Alekseenko bravely sacrificed an exchange with 36. Rxg7, dropping material to help remove the dangerous pawn and create a dangerous passed pawn of his own, which became the focus of the remaining game. 

Both players were playing on the increment again five moves before the second time control, though this time Grischuk stumbled before he got there, finding his rook pair restrained on the back rank due to Alekseenko’s passer. Just before the final time bonus was added, 61. Rxa4 created a second passed pawn for White, ultimately too much for Grischuk to control. 

[pgn][Event "FIDE Candidates 2020"] [Site "Yekaterinburg RUS"] [Date "2021.04.19"] [Round "8.4"] [White "Alekseenko, Kirill"] [Black "Grischuk, Alexander"] [Result "1-0"] [WhiteTitle "GM"] [BlackTitle "GM"] [WhiteElo "2698"] [BlackElo "2777"] [ECO "C11"] [Opening "French"] [Variation "Steinitz, Boleslavsky variation"] [WhiteFideId "4135539"] [BlackFideId "4126025"] [EventDate "2020.03.17"] 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 cxd4 8. Nxd4 Qb6 9. Qd2 Qxb2 10. Rb1 Qa3 11. Bb5 Nxd4 12. Bxd4 a6 13. Bxd7+ Bxd7 14. Rb3 Qe7 15. Rxb7 Qh4+ 16. Qf2 Qxf2+ 17. Kxf2 Be7 18. Nd1 Bd8 19. Ne3 Bc6 20. Rb2 O-O 21. Bc5 Re8 22. c4 f6 23. cxd5 exd5 24. Bd6 fxe5 25. fxe5 d4 26. Nf5 d3 27. Ke3 Bb5 28. Ke4 Rc8 29. Nd4 Bc4 30. Rd1 a5 31. a3 g6 32. Rb7 Bf6 33. Nf3 Bg7 34. Ra7 Rcd8 35. Kd4 Bb3 36. Rxg7+ Kxg7 37. Rxd3 a4 38. Nd2 Be6 39. Ne4 Bf5 40. Re3 Bxe4 41. Rxe4 Rf8 42. Ke3 Rfe8 43. Kf4 Ra8 44. Rb4 Ra7 45. Ke4 Kf7 46. Rb6 Rc8 47. Bb4 Rac7 48. Kd5 Rc2 49. e6+ Kf6 50. Rb7 g5 51. Rxh7 Rxg2 52. Kd6 Kg6 53. Rh3 g4 54. Re3 Rxh2 55. Kd7 Rhh8 56. e7 Rce8 57. Bd6 Ra8 58. Bc7 Rag8 59. Re4 Kf5 60. Rf4+ Kg5 61. Rxa4 Kh4 62. Re4 Ra8 63. a4 Kg5 64. a5 Rh7 65. Kc6 Rhh8 66. Kd7 Rh7 67. Kc6 Rhh8 68. Re3 Rhe8 69. Kd7 Kf6 70. Re6+ Kf7 71. Re4 Kf6 72. Bd8 Kf5 73. Kxe8 Kxe4 74. Kf8 1-0 [/pgn]

In the fourth game of round eight, China GM Wang Hao and World No. 3 GM Ding Liren played quickly through a known drawing line in the Scotch. Wang Hao maintains his even pace in third place, tied with Giri at 4/8, though Ding Liren finds himself at the bottom with 3/8, after being leapfrogged by Alekseenko. 

[pgn][Event "FIDE Candidates 2020"] [Site "Yekaterinburg RUS"] [Date "2021.04.19"] [Round "8.2"] [White "Wang, Hao"] [Black "Ding, Liren"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [WhiteTitle "GM"] [BlackTitle "GM"] [WhiteElo "2762"] [BlackElo "2805"] [ECO "C45"] [Opening "Scotch"] [Variation "Mieses variation"] [WhiteFideId "8602883"] [BlackFideId "8603677"] [EventDate "2020.03.17"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nxc6 bxc6 6. e5 Qe7 7. Qe2 Nd5 8. c4 Ba6 9. b3 g6 10. Ba3 Nb4 11. Bb2 Bg7 12. a3 Nd5 13. Nd2 O-O 14. O-O-O Rfe8 15. Qf3 Nb6 16. Ne4 Bxe5 17. Bxe5 Qxe5 18. Nf6+ Kf8 19. Nxe8 Qa1+ 20. Kc2 Qa2+ 21. Kc1 Qxa3+ 22. Kb1 Na4 23. Qf6 Qxb3+ 24. Kc1 Qa3+ 25. Kc2 Qa2+ 26. Kc1 Qa3+ 27. Kc2 Qa2+ 28. Kc1 1/2-1/2 [/pgn]

The Candidates Tournament continues with round nine on Tuesday, with first moves played at 7:00 a.m. eastern, with Caruana taking the Black pieces against Alekseenko. Grischuk takes White against Nepomniachtchi; Giri against Wang Hao; and Vachier-Lagrave has Black for the second round in a row against Ding Liren.

More information can be found on the FIDE Candidates Tournament official website.