Today In Chess: Candidates Edition Recap – Round 8
After a year-long hiatus, the highly awaited second half of the 2020 FIDE Candidates tournament finally resumed today, with the eight candidates returning to Yekaterinburg, Russia to fight for first place and the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen in the 2021 World Chess Championship.
Before the tournament was halted in March 2020, the standings after seven rounds were as follows, with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi leading a tight field with 4.5/7:
The play resumed today with Round 8 featuring two critical games for the standings: Caruana vs. Vachier-Lagrave and Nepomniachtchi vs. Giri.
Ian Nepomniachtchi was not able to pose many problems in the opening, drawing the game by repetition early on. Caruana snagged the initiative thanks to a powerful novelty against MVL’s beloved Najdorf defense. After a long struggle, Caruana eventually managed to convert a difficult endgame, ending the day just a half-point behind Nepomniachtchi with six rounds to go.
Caruana’s prep earned him an extra hour on the clock and a huge advantage in the endgame. Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes
Standings after Round 8 | 2020/2021 FIDE Candidates
The first game of the day to finish took place between Wang Hao and Ding Liren, who repeated moves out of the opening and agreed on a peaceful result. Not long after, Nepomniachtchi and Giri also drew their game by repetition, taking place in a topical variation of the Sveshnikov Defense.
Despite a year to prepare, Nepo was not able to pose significant problems for Giri. Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes
This shifted all eyes to the critical match-up between Caruana and Vachier-Lagrave. Caruana’s deep prep in the sharp Poisoned Pawn variation of the Najdorf put MVL under heavy pressure from the beginning, forcing the French No. 1 to burn lots of time navigating the complications. Spectators in particular were shocked by 18.Bc4! and 19.Bd6!, leading some to dub Caruana’s play the “opening preparation of the year”.
After Caruana’s novelty 18.Bc4!, a new move in an extremely messy position. 18...Qxc4 19.Bd6! put Black under heavy strain
Needing to spend more than an hour to sort through the chaos, Vachier-Lagrave escaped into a difficult endgame, down an exchange though with decent drawing chances. The players traded a few errors in a tablebase endgame that should have been drawn, though when MVL failed to set up a proper fortress Caruana managed to find the winning maneuver to activate his king decisively.
The endgame confused commentators and spectators all over the world, but once Caruana found a way to transfer White’s king to the kingside with Kf4-g4-h5, it was all over.
This win leaves both Caruana and Vachier-Lagrave a half-point behind Nepomniachtchi, while Giri and Wang Hao remain a full point behind with an even score.
Scoring his first win of the event was tournament wildcard Kirill Alekseenko, who managed to defeat Alexander Grischuk in a highly double-edged endgame.
Despite being down an exchange, White’s active king and bishop provided full compensation in Alekseenko - Grischuk
The 23-year-old Alekseenko narrowly gained the upper hand in a mighty 6-hour struggle. Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes
Our ‘Today in Chess’ coverage of the 2021 FIDE Candidates resumes tomorrow, April 20 at 8:00 AM CDT with live coverage from GMs Alejandro Ramirez, Yasser Seirawan, and Maurice Ashley on uschesschamps.com and on our YouTube and Twitch.tv channels.