Candidates Day 14: Nakamura and Ding battle for... possibly nothing?
The Candidates Tournament 2022 concluded yesterday with the last round. It was a day full of action and three decisive results out of for. Ian Nepomniachtchi, having already won the tournament, secured a draw and an impressive 9.5/14 overall score. Ding Liren seized the coveted second place spot at the finish line.
Nepomniachtchi joins an elite club of players who have won the Candidates consecutive times, and will get a second shot at the World Championship. We will have to wait for Carlsen’s decision to see if Ding’s run for the 2nd place spot will yield him something more than an increased prize and glory.
Liren Ding - Hikaru Nakamura 1 - 0
Magnus really did us a favor when you think about it.
If he was definitely going to play there wouldn’t be much to see this round. Nepomniachtchi would have already clinched the only spot that matters, and we’d only be playing chess because they already sold tickets to 14 rounds. Instead, there was still a (potential) World Championship spot on the line! If Naka holds the draw it goes to him, if Ding can win he gets it! What (potential) excitement!
Like many must-win games, the opening was not cut and thrust. The player who needs a draw has obvious reasons for preferring calm waters. The player that needs to win often doesn’t play sharply either. First of all, many sharp openings have instant forced draws lurking in the corners. Secondly, an unreasonable commitment to sharpness often just leads to worse positions, the sort that are even harder to win than even ones.
Early on, Nakamura was able to get the queens exchanged off the board, something that often helps the player aiming for a draw, but all of the other pieces were still on the board, which left Ding something to work with at least. Nakamura’s plan of exchanging bishops on d5 was not the best, and after it was executed Ding seemed to have a small advantage. His rooks were organized on the c-file and ready for action while Black’s d-file was not similarly exciting. Ding managed to get a pawn to h5, which can be hard to evaluate, but the fact that it lived to the end of the game suggests that Nakamura perhaps should have prevented it.
The first real clear error of the game came on move 35 with Nakamura’s 35 Bd8, although Ding quickly returned the favor with 38 e4. Unfortunately for him, Nakamura had a second favor ready to go immediately and it would be the game’s last. 38… f3 would have kept hope alive but it remained unplayed, and things quickly went downhill. Nakamura resigned on move 58.
Jan-Krzysztof Duda - Ian Nepomniachtchi ½ - ½
Perhaps Magnus Carlsen, or other potential World Championship participants were closely watching this game, to see how Nepomniachtchi’s Petroff held up. Duda tried the 3. d4 line and the Petroff seemed to hold up reasonably well. Nepomniachtchi missed a chance to take some initiative with 15…d4. He played it a few moves later, but by then it had lost its punch. Nepomniachtchi then grabbed a spicy pawn, leaving Duda to take advantage of the time wasted as compensation. Duda then sacrificed a piece, but the excitement was short-lived as the game arrived quickly to a drawn endgame. It was formally agreed to be drawn on move 48.
Richard Rapport - Teimour Radjabov 0 - 1
For a round that 75% “didn’t matter” we sure got to see some good games! We had another non-drawn Berlin opening in this game, although this one will hardly hurt the opening’s reputation. White’s 9 Na5 looks strange, but it’s been played before, and with good effect. White is a little bit better in that position. The advantage was carried all the way to move 19 until Rapport gave it away with a dubious piece sacrifice. Radjabov missed his first chance to take a big advantage with 20.. Bxc4, but didn’t miss the second and outplayed Rapport over the next few moves. He resigned on move 33. Perhaps Radjabov is the sort of player who won’t start a fight but is perfectly capable of finishing one if it arrives via the other player.
Radjabov was something of a charity case for this event as he didn’t qualify via the normal means. Instead he was gifted a spot as penance for how poorly he was treated in the previous candidates tournament when he correctly predicted that trying to run the tournament during a pandemic was a bad idea, several months before FIDE non-voluntarily figured it out themselves.
You might be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t quite up to the same level of the other players, but nothing in his games would suggest that, quite the opposite in fact. With today’s victory he took third in the event, significantly ahead of many players that qualified by non-bad-idea-predicting methods.
Fabiano Caruana - Alireza Firouzja 0 - 1
One day when all the hard edges have been sanded off of Alireza, and he’s traded in his Najdorf for the Petroff like Nepomniachtchi has, we may miss this younger version of him. It is such a joy to watch Super Grandmasters before they figure out that they can’t just try to win every game against every player forever.
Caruana’s famous preparation served him well in this one, as he was clearly a bit better out of the opening. However, as the game continued, it slowly turned to Firouzja’s favor. He secured an endgame that was close to winning and while Caruana possibly could have successfully defended himself, 60 Ne4 put an end to things quickly.