Ian Nepomniachtchi took another big step towards a World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen when he gave Fabiano Caruana no chance in a draw in their Round 11 game of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg. Fabi still trails by a full point with three rounds to go, but Anish Giri moved to within half a point with a sparkling finish to beat Ding Liren. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s hopes are now hanging by a thread after he lost a bruising battle to Alexander Grischuk. Both players are now 1.5 points behind and need to finish with three wins to have a decent chance of winning the event. 

You can replay all the games from the FIDE Candidates Tournament using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from the new team of Judit Polgar and Tania Sachdev, who were joined by Vidit for Round 11.

Nepomniachtchi ½-½ Caruana

We’re getting to the stage of the FIDE Candidates Tournament when the players have to ask themselves before every game, ‘should I go all-in?’ All the players, that is, except leader Ian Nepomniachtchi. His dilemma in Round 11 was only whether he wanted to try and go for a knockout blow against Fabiano Caruana, who was trailing him by a full point. Instead solidity won the day, with the Four Knights Variation.

It’s a line that became very topical a couple of years ago, with Jan Gustasfsson releasing a series here on chess24 on how to handle the opening with Black, including the Scotch Four Knights that we saw in the game. There are pitfalls for both sides, but by now most things have been worked out at the highest level. Fabiano commented:

I thought Ian might have two approaches, one to get a complicated fight, and another to play a more or less safe position with some very minor chances that I mess this position up, but 99% of the time this line will turn into a draw. Players have had difficulties with Black here, I remember Shakh [Mamedyarov] lost with Black against Yu Yangyi, and I think there was another game where Black was struggling, but it is a very drawish line.

Nepo commented, “One could call this a tournament strategy, but in general I expected Fabiano to play some Sicilian or some sharp lines”. Why hadn’t he?

If this was the last round I would. I did consider of course playing something a bit more double-edged than e4-e5 – e4-e5 can lead to very double-edged positions anyway – but it’s still three rounds to go, so I thought, why would I burn my bridges? I didn’t think that it was a must-win or anything like that.

All Fabi got from the game was a minor scare.

He explained that this position was a dead draw, but regretted playing carelessly with 23…Qc5?!, when after 24.Qxc5 Rxc5 25.a5 the a-pawn advances and Black needs to play precisely to hold the draw.

That’s just what Fabi did, and although the US star no longer has his fate in his own hands, he does go into a final three game with two Whites, against Giri and Grischuk, before Black against Wang Hao.

Giri 1-0 Ding Liren

For this crucial game Anish Giri came up with a surprise for his Chinese opponent.

Here he went for the Delayed Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez with 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.d3, later commenting, “as for my rest day, this is how I spent it, Bxc6, dxc and c3!” Anish had never played it before, while Ding Liren seems to have played it once, in a blitz game where he defeated Magnus Carlsen in India in 2019

The Chinese no. 1 commented after the game:

I played this line before with 7…Nd7, but I didn’t prepare it seriously, didn’t consider it seriously, so I just came up with another idea over the board. 

After 12 minutes of thought Ding instead went for 7…Bd6, surprised Anish by castling queenside, and then went for the potentially weakening 13…c6!?, that left Giri, in his own words, “very surprised/confused/impressed”. 

It soon looked as though it was Black who was taking over, and Anish said that after 19…g5!? it crossed his mind that he was getting crushed, but although 19…fxe4! might have been an easier way to play, it seems only 20…g4? (20…Qxf5!) was a real mistake by Ding Liren.

The Dutch no. 1 could now seize the initiative with 21.Ng5 Qxf5 22.h4!  the move Ding had missed. 22.Ne4? would have been losing to 22…gxh3, but now, with the kingside secured, the threat of Ne4 is so big that it turned out it could even be played at the cost of a piece. Ding spent almost half an hour but could find nothing better than 22…b6.

Giri struggled afterwards to explain why he didn’t just play 23.Be3 here, which is also strong, but some moves are just too tempting, and here he played the move of the game, 23.Ne4!

Ding should have tried 23…g3, but as Giri explained, if you’re going to suffer you want to suffer for something, and instead he took the piece with 23…bxc5. From there “everything flows”, as Anish put it, and after 24.bxc5 Nf6 he followed up with 25.Nd6+!, forcing open the position around the black king.

There wasn’t long left for Black to suffer, since after 25…Bxd6 26.cxd6 Rxd6, the move 27.d4! opened up the queen’s path to the king. Trying to run with the king may have been more resilient than 27…c5, but would be unlikely to change the outcome, while after 28.Nxc5 Judit Polgar was already singing the praises of a game she felt could both inspire Giri and scare his rivals.

The game ended 28…Re8 29.Qc4 Black resigns.

For in-depth analysis of the game check out French Grandmaster Adrien Demuth’s analysis below.

The game was all the more impressive for being played at one of the most important moments of Giri’s life, with Alexander Grischuk later pointing out that extreme pressure can at times lead to brilliant chess.

Look at some great players like Kasparov when he needed a draw against Karpov in Game 24 of their second match – he played one of the best games of his life. So sometimes it can help.

Giri was playing down the achievement, since he was acutely conscious of the risks he’d been running in the first part of the game.

A few people already told me it was a great game, but I don’t think it was as great as it looked at the end. At some point he was the one who had all the play, he was dictating the course of the game…

The result meant another shake-up at the top of the live rating list, with the 3rd win for Anish, and 4th loss for Ding, seeing the Dutchman leapfrog his opponent into 4th place.

Giri’s post-game press conference was almost as impressive as the game, with the only misstep perhaps a comparison of his second in Yekaterinburg this time round, Max Warmerdam, to Erwin l’Ami a year earlier. He paraphrased something Hikaru Nakamura had said about going back to work with the computer-powered analysis of Kris Littlejohn after working with Garry Kasparov: “He [Max] comes to the same conclusions, but does so 10 minutes earlier!”

Grischuk 1-0 MVL

You have to feel sorry for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. After 7 rounds of the Candidates Tournament he was unbeaten, leading on tiebreaks after taking down Ian Nepomniachtchi in Round 7, and Ian, notorious for collapsing at some point in long events, was struggling with his health. Maxime was fresher than the rest of the field after only finding out he was going to play at the very last moment. True, he didn’t have much time to prefer, but his opponents didn’t have much time to prepare for him either.

Fast forward a year and it’s all gone wrong for the French no. 1. The resumption was always going to be tough, since he started with three Blacks in four games, but his decision to stick to his usual opening repertoire has left him wide open for prepared novelties from his opponents. This time it was Grischuk who came up with the new move 9.Nge2 (9.g3 is the computer’s first choice and the move everyone had previously played) in the 4.Qxd4 line against MVL’s planned Najdorf. 

Grischuk explained:

9.Nge2 is a novelty – the computer is laughing! Black has 10 good ways, but also he has like 20 bad ways. I thought I’ll give it a try. [9…0-0 10.0-0-0 Be6 11.Kb1 a5 12.a4] 12…Qb6 I could not remember, maybe it’s already inaccurate. Actually I spent the whole morning and the whole evening yesterday trying to remember all these things and still failed!

It took almost 30 minutes, but Grischuk’s 13.h4! looks to be the best option, even if Maxime wasn’t too worried until 18.g4! appeared on the board. 

From afar he was planning 18…Nxf4, but then decided that was simply bad for Black after White takes twice on f4. It was still the best option, however, since after 18…Nf6 19.g5 Nh5 (again, MVL didn’t like 19…Nxe4, but it was the lesser evil) 20.f5! Black was getting overrun on the kingside. 

Maxime should have been dead and buried, but on move 31 he once again got to demonstrate some brilliance in defence. Few are better at finding dynamic counterplay in bad positions.

31…Rd4!! was the move of the game. If White plays 32.Bxd4 then after 32…Qa3+ 33.Kb1 Rxd4 Black is forcing a draw by perpetual check, based on a similar idea to the one we saw in the game. 32.Rh1 (32.Rh3! turns out to be a trick way to keep an edge) ran into 32…Rxa4+!, when 33.bxa4? would lose to 33…Qd5+, hitting the king and the h1-rook. 

After 33.Kb1 Qd5 34.Qh5 Qxh1+ 35.Qxh1 Rg4 Black was right back in the game, but 36.Bxe5 Rxg5 37.Qxb7! rocked Maxime.

He’d completely overlooked this trick that after 37…Rxe5 38.Qg2+ Kh7 39.Qh2+ White picks up the rook on e5. Maxime admitted he started panicking at this point, even adding, “I just lost my mind”, though the tricky sequence he went for almost worked… and what he felt was a terrible mistake probably changed nothing. The moment came on move 42.

The point after 42…Ba3+ 43.Kb1 and only then 43…Rxc2+ is that the king can then go to f8, and as Grischuk explained, the whole key to the position is whether Black can get his king to the b7-square in time. He revealed he’d seen the move:

Yes, that’s why I usually go to smoke after 40 moves and here I stayed to induce playing fast – that was my trick!

Maxime said he’d just collapsed and assumed it made no difference, but while it was certainly a practical mistake not to play the bishop check, objectively he was right! After 42…Rxc2+ 43.Kxc2 the all-knowing 7-piece tablebases announce it’s mate-in-33 for White. After 42…Ba3+ 43.Kb1 Rxc2+ 44.Kxc2 Kf8 the only move 45.Kc3! is mate-in-34.

In the game Grischuk could take his time and safely pick up a win that saw him join Maxime on 50%.

Alekseenko-Wang Hao had the least at stake, but was in fact the longest game of the day, with Wang Hao managing to create chances with the black pieces but unable to break through. 

That left the standings as follows with just three rounds to go:

So Ian Nepomniachtchi is absolutely in the driving seat. Anish Giri is not quite as close as he looks since if he finishes level with Nepo he’d lose out on the tiebreak of having lost their mini-match. On the other hand, the Dutch no. 1 could also end Round 12 as the sole leader, and even MVL would have decent chances of winning the tournament if he could win his next two games – the first is against Alekseenko and the second against Nepo!

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p class=”p1″>Caruana-Giri is the stand-out game in Round 12, but by this stage all the games can end a player’s hopes or put him on the verge of a shot at greatness. Don’t miss all the action, with Judit Polgar and Tania Sachdev joined by Surya Ganguly, from 13:00 CEST here on chess24.

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