Today in Chess | FIDE Candidates Round 1 Recap

By IM Eric Rosen

Despite the cancellation of so many chess tournaments around the world due to the growing threat of Covid-19, the 2020 FIDE Candidates remains on schedule. The first round kicked off today in Yekaterinburg, Russia with eight of the world’s top players. The eventual winner will earn the right to play current World Champion, GM Magnus Carlsen for the World Championship which is supposed to be held in Dubai later this year. Round 1 produced some unexpected results as two players managed to win with the black pieces. GM Wang Hao took down his countryman GM Ding Liren in a shocking upset. Meanwhile, GM Ian Nepomniachtchi defeated GM Anish Giri in an incredibly rich game that had so many twists and turns. If the first round of play is at all a sign of what’s to come, then chess fans have a lot to look forward to over the coming weeks. 

Ding Liren - Wang Hao: 0 - 1

GM Wang Hao qualified for the Candidates by winning the FIDE Grand Swiss in 2019. He is widely considered to be one of the clear underdogs in the field and admitted to having no seconds to aid him in preparation for this incredibly important tournament. However, he proved today that he is a force to be reckoned with. In this all-Chinese matchup, GM Ding Liren came out of the gate strong. With the white pieces, he achieved a pleasant edge from an English Opening and it seemed like a perfect position for his wheelhouse. However, all it took was one oversight for momentum to shift. After Ding’s somewhat careless 30.f4?!, Wang took control. The powerful 32...f5! followed by the resourceful maneuver of Re6-Rg6 led to a dominant position for the black pieces. It didn’t take long for Ding’s position to crumble. GM Maurice Ashley explained, “It happened very fast… it just like punches to the face, every move and you just go down.” As Ding is considered one of the favorites to win this event, he is certainly hoping to play better chess. With 13 rounds to go, there is still a lot of time to rebound. 

GM Wang Hao defeated his countryman with the black pieces | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

Maxime Vachier Lagrave - Fabiano Caruana: ½-½ 

This matchup displayed some of the most solid play of the day. Caruana out-prepared MVL from the black side of the Ruy Lopez. With an early time advantage, commentators speculated how he could maximize the pressure. However, MVL played quite accurately to consolidate. After mass liquidation led to a completely dead opposite-color bishop endgame, the players agreed to a draw. 

Anish Giri - Ian Nepomniachtchi: 0-1

In what was undoubtedly the most thrilling game of the day, one could say that this duel produced more drama than any season of the Bachelorette. The game began with impressive opening preparation from Giri. He unleashed the riveting novelty 12.Rc1!? in a topical variation of the Symmetrical English. His first 19 moves were all blitzed out. Nepo went into the tank early, but displayed impressive resilience in navigating his way through the chaos. Once the game transitioned into the middlegame, the Russian phenom took control. His feisty jab 24...b5!! was highly tweet-worthy. GM Ashley labeled the struggle an “ocean of possibilities.” Over the course of several moves, Nepo established a clear advantage, however Giri resisted. In the resulting endgame the dutchman attempted to construct a fortress using his rook and two pawns against Nepo’s queen and pawn. However, the fortress was meant to be broken. Nepo converted with stellar technique to join GM Wang Hao for the lead.

Nepomniachtchi defeated Giri with the black pieces | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

Alexander Grischuk - Kirill Alekseenko: ½-½ 

The all-Russian matchup featured an English opening which unraveled quite slowly. GM Alexander Grischuk gradually built up a space advantage which put him in the driver’s seat. However, with both players taking their sweet time so early on, they both fell into time trouble well before move 40. Despite winning two pawns by move 31, Grischuk’s position became difficult to play with the time situation. Any sort of advantage evaporated after 35 Ra1? Which allowed GM Kirill Alekseenko a clear path to a draw. As both the youngest and lowest rated player in the event, Alekseenko admitted that he had some pre-tournament nerves. Although this can be considered a good start for him, the competition certainly does not get easier. Tomorrow he will again have the black pieces against Caruana. 

The playing hall | Photo courtesy of FIDE, Lennart Ootes

As so many people around the world are staying to stay home over the coming weeks, online chess viewership is through the roof. At the end of the Today in Chess:Candidates Edition broadcast, GM Ashley called the Candidates “the greatest show on earth.” He may very well have a valid point as it is one of the most important sporting events taking place this month. Round 2 will commence at 6am CDT tomorrow with Today in Chess airing at 8am. Be sure to tune into all the action at or on our Youtube, Twitch.Tv or watch live on Facebook.