Today In Chess: Candidates Round 5 Recap

 By IM Eric Rosen

After five rounds of play, a sole leader has finally emerged. GM Ian Nepomniachtchi defeated Wang Hao in the only decisive game of the day. He now leads the field with 3.5 points while MVL sits in clear second with 3 points. Although the other games were drawn, chess fans were treated to many hard fought battles and fascinating positions.

Ian Nepomniachtchi - Wang Hao: 1-0

Coming into this round, Nepomniachtchi and Wang (along with MVL) were tied for first. A big spotlight was put on this game, as a decisive result would surely affect the top of the leaderboard. The Russian superstar made this possibility a reality. The game began with a relatively quiet and symmetrical variation of the Petroff Defense. On move 13, Nepo unleashed an adventurous novelty, 13.h4!? This led to a slight kingside space advantage and a nagging edge for the white side. As play transitioned into the endgame, Nepomniachtchi kept exerting pressure. While the chess engines were saying the position was roughly equal, the evaluation didn’t reflect how difficult it was to play for the black side. On move 32, Wang blundered with Qd7? This allowed the white queen to infiltrate and cause havoc in black’s territory. In the post-game interview, Wang explained that he overlooked the powerful quiet move 38.Qd8! which ended the game quite quickly in Nepompniachtchi’s favor. This game illustrates the power in putting the opponent under pressure. Even if you’re not objectively better, it can be wise to keep exerting pressure until a blunder is provoked. Nepo did just this and was rewarded greatly.

GM Nepomniachtchi defeated GM Wang Hao to take the sole lead | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

Anish Giri - Fabiano Caruana: ½-½ 

After a Slav Defense gone wrong, Caruana was walking on thin ice from very early on. Giri built up a dominating advantage in the middlegame and it seemed like he was on the verge of winning quite easily. On move 33, Giri had a number of attractive options, but struggled to find the best move. He explained his situation in the post-game interview: “It turned out to be not so easy to win over the board. I couldn’t calculate a winning line to the end because there were so many resources for black.” Instead of playing the most promising 33.Rf2!, Giri placed his rook on e2. This allowed Caruana to counterpunch by maneuvering his knight into the heart of white’s position. The resulting scenario was highly double edged. Caruana’s king was more exposed than a streaker in a nudist colony. However, Giri had no way to force checkmate and had to protect his own king. Eventually, the players settled for repetition. This was a huge save for Caruana. In the post-game interview he expressed relief that he still holds an even score: “For a number of moves I was probably losing or very close to losing...this was a lucky break so it makes me feel quite a lot better about my situation.” Giri was clearly disappointed, but reflected on the game with some sense of humor: “With everything else nowadays, you should wash away your sins with soap.”

GM Fabiano Caruana held on for dear life against GM Anish Giri | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

Alexander Grischuk - Ding Liren: ½-½   

The longest battle of the round ended in a peaceful draw. In the post-game interview, Grischuk summarized the game quite concisely: “I think it was a very good game, but not a very interesting one.” There is not much need to discuss the intricacies of this draw, but it is worth sharing what Grischuk said in the post-game interview. When asked about his form, he responded with this: “My form is terrible. I don’t want to play at all with this situation. In the beginning, I did not have a clear opinion, but after several days, I have a clear opinion that this tournament should be stopped. The whole atmosphere is very hostile... I don’t want to play. I don’t want to be here.” Such words from a participant in one of the most important events from the year is obviously quite concerning. At this point, we will just have to wait and see if FIDE takes any action to address the overall situation. It is hard to imagine the tournament getting postponed or cancelled and everything remains on schedule.

GM Alexander Grischuk | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

Kirill Alekseenko - Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: ½-½  

The first Sicilian battle of this tournament certainly delivered! GM Alejandro Ramirez called the resulting middlegame position “hot and spicy”, but this was an understatement to say the least. As a Sicilian Najdorf specialist, MVL was well prepared for the sharp and tactical battle. Alekseenko went into the tank after he fell out of his preparation and spent an astonishing 48 minutes on 18.Nxe6! The moves that unfolded were simply mind boggling. Pieces were hanging left and right, and it’s difficult to even fathom how a mere human could sort through the labyrinth of complications. Alas, these grandmasters proved why they are fighting for a spot at the World Championship. After accurate play from both sides, the dust eventually settled. Alekseenko forced repetition and the game ended in a draw. It could easily take several days (or weeks!) for the casual chess enthusiast to grasp what exactly happened in this game. With this draw, MVL sits in clear second with 3/5 and trails Nepomniachtchi by half a point. 

GM Kirill Alekseenko drew Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in a fiery Sicilian battle | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

Chess fans can catch all the action tomorrow with round 6 starting at 6am CDT. Today in Chess will air at 8am CDT. Watch live at or on our Youtube, Twitch, and Facebook pages.