Today In Chess: Candidates Round 7 Recap

By IM Eric Rosen

The 7th round produced just one decisive result, but it was a crucial one. GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave took down the sole leader, GM Ian Nepomniachtchi in a thrilling game. As a result, the two players are now tied for the lead with 4.5/7 points. Four players trail with 3.5/7 and are surely hungry to catch the leaders in the second half of the event. 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave - Ian Nepomniachtchi: 1-0

Just as it seemed Nepomniachtchi was going to run away with the lead, MVL stopped him cold in his tracks. For the second time this tournament, Nepomniachtchi unleashed the Winawer Variation of the French Defense. Such an opening can be considered quite risky at the top level. Today, MVL showed why. On move 18, Nepomniachtchi took a 30-minute think and erred with the dubious c4?! His idea was to close down the queenside, but after the game MVL called this “the wrong plan”. The Frenchman proceeded to build up an impressive space advantage and dominate all areas of the board. The positional advantage was eventually converted into a material advantage. With MVL’s 29.g4!, he punctured enough holes on the kingside for black’s position to crumble. It wasn’t long before Nepomniachtchi threw in the towel. With this win, MVL is now tied for first. It is important to note that the first tiebreaker is direct-encounter. So, if the tournament ended today, MVL would edge out Nepomniachtchi on tiebreaks to become the next World Championship Challenger.

The Frenchman bulldozed the French Defense in a crucial game | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

Fabiano Caruana - Wang Hao: ½-½  

This game featured a very solid variation of Nc3 Petroff Defense. The position on move 13 occurred in the 2018 World Championship match where Caruana had the black pieces against Carlsen. Caruana admitted that he wasn’t entirely thrilled to see this variation. He noted “it’s not the most popular line, but it’s a good one.” While the American was hoping to obtain some advantage, he failed to do so. The play from both competitors was incredibly solid. With mistake-free play from both sides, the position liquidated into a balanced endgame. The players agreed to a draw on move 41. With this result, both Caruana and Wang remain at 50% and trail the leaders by one point. 

GM Caruana drew GM Wang is a balanced affair | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

Ding Liren - Kirill Alekseenko: ½-½

This battle between the tournament tail-enders also ended peacefully. If any player had chances, It was Alekseenko. He unleashed the powerful 21...c5! which Ding admitted he overlooked. The move improved his queenside structure and freed up his previously bad light-squared bishop. It then seemed like Ding played a bit recklessly with 22.b4?! The resulting position became quite risky for the white side. However, Alekseenko could not find the right plan to seize the advantage. Once the complications settled, an equal endgame was reached and the players quickly settled for a draw. In the press conference, Ding was clearly not thrilled with his play: “My play was very bad. Today I spent a long time, but couldn't find the best continuations and missed some simple moves.” It is still mathematically possible for either of these players to catch up in the standings if they can string together some wins. However, it does seem unlikely given their quality of play so far. 

GM Ding Liren drew GM Kirill Alekseenko, but was very critical of his play | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

Anish Giri - Alexander Grischuk: ½-½

This game began with a highly intriguing variation of the English Opening. Giri’s novelty 10.Ne3!? sent Grischuk into his usual deep think. 30 minutes later, the Russian veteran unleashed the ultra aggressive 10...h5!? It appeared the middlegame was going to get wild. Unfortunately for chess fans captivated by the opening, it did not. The aggressive nature of the position quickly died down once queens were traded by move 15. Then, in a flurry of even more trades, pieces were seemingly vacuumed from the board. The resulting endgame offered no chances for either side. A draw was agreed, adding to Grischuk’s now 7-game draw streak. “I would be a very happy person if I would be happy with every draw,” said Grischuk in the post-game interview. Giri was quick to add his humorous take on the game: “Today there was a conflict of interest. On one hand I want to win of course, but on the other, I want Alexander to make all the draw, so the spirit leaps within me towards him.”

GM Alexander Grischuk drew GM Anish Giri | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

With half of the tournament officially complete, the race for first is still very much up for grabs. Chess fans can catch all the action tomorrow with round 8 starting at 6am CDT. Today in Chess will air at 8am CDT. Watch live at or on our Youtube, Twitch, and Facebook pages.