406 days after it began on March 17th 2020, the FIDE Candidates Tournament is finally over. Ian Nepomniachtchi had won the prize that mattered with a day to spare, but was taken down by Ding Liren, whose 3rd win in a row saw him regain the world no. 3 spot. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave clinched second place with a win over Wang Hao, before the Chinese grandmaster shocked the chess world by announcing his retirement. Anish Giri lost again, this time to Kirill Alekseenko, but still tied Fabiano Caruana for 3rd place.

You can replay all the games from the 2020-1 Candidates Tournament using the selector below.

And here’s the final day’s commentary from Judit Polgar and Tania Sachdev, with 2012 World Championship challenger Boris Gelfand joining as a guest.

Ding Liren 1-0 Ian Nepomniachtchi: The day after the night before

On Monday Ian Nepomniachtchi had clinched guaranteed first place in what began as the 2020 Candidates Tournament. That meant the right to take on Magnus Carlsen in a World Championship match in Dubai this November, another clash of the incredible 1990 generation, after Carlsen-Karjakin in New York in 2016…

Even the loser of that match will take home at least an €800,000 share of the €2 million prize pot, along with the automatic right to play in the next Candidates Tournament. That dwarfed anything on offer in Yekaterinburg, though there was still €13,000 on the table for Ian on the final day – the players received €7,000 per point, while if Anish Giri could catch Nepo they’d share the prize money for 1st and 2nd place (€48,000 and €36,000 respectively, so €42,000 each).

When the dust had settled, the standings looked as followed.

Also up for grabs in the Ding Liren-Nepomniachtchi clash was the chance for Ian to cross the 2800 barrier for the first time in his career with a win, while if Ding could win he’d regain the world no. 3 spot that Nepo had snatched on the live rating list during the tournament. 

So the stakes were still relatively high, but Ian admitted it was a hard game to get hyped for.

Actually yesterday I was very motivated, but today when I woke up I felt like my motivation significantly went down, so I wasn’t very happy I have one more game to play.  

If the tournament outcome hadn’t been decided it could have been a thriller, with Boris Gelfand noting in the chess24 commentary:

Too many people are looking at the tournament situation, but they forget what a great player Ding Liren is, especially with the white pieces.

Ian might not have gone for the risky line he chose if the fate of the challenger’s spot was still undecided, but he didn’t blink when the almost new move 6.Bd3 appeared on the board. He was led astray by the conviction that he was still in his home preparation. Things became critical after 14.Nxd4.

Ian said he would have gone for the “absolutely healthy” 14…cxd4! here if he hadn’t had the deja vu that he had all this written down in his notes. “That’s the minus of too much knowledge”, he reflected, after playing 14…Nxd3?! 15.Qxd3 Ng3+ 16.Kg1 Nxf1 17.Nc2 Nxh2 18.Qe3 0-0 19.Qg5.

The Russian no. 1 had been optimistic and enjoying “recalculating” all of the lines, but only now realised he was in trouble.

Here I got puzzled, because I finally understood that something is wrong with my file or something.

It was already too late to do anything about it, with the position after 19…Nxf3+ 20.gxf3 Qh3 21.Bf4 beyond repair.

The best Ian could do was enter a hopeless ending, where he failed to put up any resistance.

French Grandmaster Adrien Demuth gives in-depth analysis of a sharp encounter:

Ding Liren had won his final three games to return to the world no. 3 spot, and looked back on an event that had been very much been of two halves for him.

I hope the tournament will be longer because I’m just in form now, but ok, it’s the end. It’s a decent tournament. Of course in the first half I played very badly due to long quarantine and I did not prepare too well in the first half, so the result turned out to be very bad, but I think the second half of the tournament at least I prepared much better and I had many promising positions. If I can play my best maybe I’ll have some chances.

2013 challenger Nigel Short echoed Ding’s sentiments.

For Nepo no lasting harm had been done, and his focus now will turn to the World Championship match. How did Ding see his opponent’s chances against Magnus?

Ian has a very different style to Magnus so it depends on if he can get the positions he likes and Magnus doesn’t like.

Ian himself put the chances in any World Championship match as “plus or minus 50%”.

MVL 1-0 Wang Hao: Chinese star retires

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s hopes of playing a World Championship match had been derailed by losses to Fabiano Caruana and Alexander Grischuk in Rounds 8 and 11, leaving the French no. 1 needing to score 3/3 at the finish to still have a chance. Maxime couldn’t quite manage that, but he did score 2.5/3, ending with a win over Wang Hao.

The Chinese player picked the Berlin Defence, which was understandable but perhaps unwise against the one player in world chess currently renowned for dismantling that particular wall. It felt, however, that the outcome of the game might have been the same in any opening, with Wang Hao going into the clash after collapsing against Nepomniachtchi and Caruana in the previous two rounds. 

MVL said he was “borderline winning” when he got his knight to d6, while Wang Hao lamented that he couldn’t remember anything, played badly and lost easily. The final blow was too easy for a player of Maxime’s strength.

The French no. 1 had ended in 2nd place in his first ever Candidates Tournament, but after leading the event for over a year that wasn’t the result he was hoping for.

Of course when you come with the idea to win the event and only first place matters, it’s not a great result. I’m still proud of the way I fought back after I had a lot of very difficult games, a lot of very difficult losses, so I also take the positives. I hope to be able to capitalise on the work I did prior to the event and the confidence that I at least partly restored with the last few games, and of course there will be a lot of time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, with my whole team.

What the post-game interview will be remembered for, however, was Wang Hao’s contribution. 

I probably will try to do something else other than playing professionally, because I have some health issues and I just don’t think I can continue in this profession. Probably I’ll start to do coaching, I will do investments, but I think I cannot do anything which I have too much stress.

Wang talked about a problem that had got worse since 2019 and required regular checkups, before explaining that his incredible rollercoaster game against Alexander Grischuk (where Sasha thought for 1 hour and 12 minutes on move 11 before Wang sacrificed his queen and slipped into a lost position, but then saved himself tactically) had been the last straw – “After that game I wanted to quit the tournament because I already saw that I couldn’t continue.”

Wang Hao is still only 31, but this feels like the second time he’s quit professional chess. In January 2013, at the age of 23, he was rated 2752, world no. 14 and comfortably the Chinese no. 1, but he suddenly dropped out of elite chess with talk of a health issue. By January 2017 he was rated 2670, world no 75 and Chinese no. 8, but his sheer talent saw him climb back up the rating list through open tournaments, until the event of his life on the Isle of Man in 2019.

That victory in the FIDE Grand Swiss qualified him for the Candidates, where he had a dramatic impact by beating his compatriot Ding Liren in Round 1, but it was clear in advance of both halves of the tournament that Wang Hao was a reluctant participant. We wish him all the best in the future! 

Anish Giri 0-1 Kirill Alekseenko: The underdog strikes back

It’s the hope that kills you! This game had always been one Anish was targeting for a win, and even though he knew all hope of playing a World Championship match was gone, there was still a potential consolation prize.

At some point I wanted to share first place already. I thought it’s going to be better than nothing. At that point, when I saw Ian was in trouble, I didn’t really see how I was going to push, but I was still hoping somewhere I’ll take over.

In Round 10 Kirill’s opening collapse in a Catalan had set Ian Nepomniachtchi on the path to the World Championship match, but if Anish was hoping for a repeat he was sorely disappointed. He reflected:

It was just a very difficult game and I think he played very, very well. Also it was incredible to see the evolution of his Catalan handling in just a week, from losing in 20 moves to outplaying me so impressively. I thought that was remarkable.

Black was slightly better for almost the whole game, with Kirill highlighting move 34 as a critical moment.

He called 37.g4?! “quite a strange move” and said, “after that the square on f4 became very weak and my knight could transpose from g6 to f4 and create some winning chances”. 

Giri felt he’d solved his problems, until 37…Qc7 made him realise the game would continue. From then on, Kirill was trying to avoid blundering in a good position the way he had against Ding Liren the day before, and although the conversion wasn’t flawless Kirill never let his opponent escape.

-3 was of course not the score Kirill was hoping for, but he beat Grischuk as well as Giri in the second half and performed almost exactly as predicted by his rating.

Giri felt Nepomniachtchi can put up a real fight against Magnus if he can up his memorisation and preparation, though he’d said it better during the Magnus Carlsen Invitational – an event where Giri beat Nepo in the final after Nepo had beaten Magnus.

He’s such an ambitious and quick and reckless player that you get, and you end up giving, chances with White, Black, even sometimes when you don’t expect it. Even when you are winning you can lose, or the other way around – it’s a little bit of mayhem against him. So I don’t really have a long-term plan, draw with Black, win with White, I don’t think that’s the case. I think you can win or lose with either colour, and I’ve played him a lot of times. It’s always a complete coin toss. Obviously he shows weakness, of course. If you only look at his strengths you think that this is the best player out there – he’s faster, more dangerous, sharper than Magnus, more tactically alert, there’s much more aggression coming from him. If you look only at his pluses you think he’s the best player in the world, but the other participants also compete, so that means that he also has some vulnerabilities, and you see that sometimes he makes quick judgments, sometimes he’s unprepared a little bit, it’s possible, but we’ll see what happens.

That result was ultimately sufficient for shared 3rd place, since Fabiano Caruana couldn’t quite beat Alexander Grischuk.

Alexander Grischuk 1/2-1/2 Fabiano Caruana

In this match-up, a complex Sicilian where the players had burnt up two hours for 10 moves, both players were jockeying for the top positions in the tournament, with Grischuk putting his poor play down to thinking at some point that he might be able to finish ahead of Giri, MVL (he beat both in their head-to-head matchups) and of course his opponent Caruana.

Instead he got a difficult position where only Fabiano could dream of winning, though Grischuk’s 48th move worked out well. 

The tricky 48…e4!? 49.Bxe4 Nxc3 50.R5d4 Nxe4 51.Rxe4+ traded down into a rook ending that was still unpleasant but ultimately held for Black.

In 2011 Grischuk lost the 6th game of a 6-game Candidates final match against Boris Gelfand, when a draw would have made him the clear favourite in a rapid playoff for the World Championship match against Vishy Anand. As he noted, he hadn’t come close since, saying of Yekaterinburg:

I think it’s my best result ever in this round-robin Candidates. I think I always finished with a minus before, but it’s nothing special.

Fabi, who won the Candidates in 2018 and went into the final day of the 2016 Candidates with a chance of victory, commented, “I don’t think it matters if you’re +3 or -3 if you don’t win – it’s really all we’re here for”.

The final table looks as follows.

The one and only winner of the 2020-1 Candidates Tournament is Ian Nepomniachtchi, who starts the World Championship match against Magnus on November 24 later this year in the Dubai Exhibition Centre. Caruana expects an interesting contest.

I think it’s going to be very close, because he looks really strong now. In this tournament, and not just in this tournament but over the past year, he’s looked incredibly strong, so I think he’s going to be a very dangerous opponent for Magnus.

Grischuk repeated his earlier comments when asked about his fellow countryman’s chances:

Less than 50%, but much more than zero, and regarding his play here, this tournament, I think he played extremely well, except for two games, both games that he lost, but the games that he won I think he played just absolutely excellently.

Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi is going to be the chess event of the year, but for now it’s a huge relief that it was finally possible to complete the FIDE Candidates Tournament. We hope you enjoyed watching it with us!

Meanwhile it turns out we may not have to wait much longer than the time between the two halves of the 2020 FIDE Candidates until the next edition. At the final press conference of the tournament, FIDE Managing Director Dana Reizniece-Ozola revealed, “Next year we’re also planning a Candidates!”

See also:

Chess Mentor

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