Nepomniachtchi Beats Firouzja, Storms To Sole Lead

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi stormed to the sole lead in the 2022 Candidates Tournament as the Russian grandmaster swiftly beat France’s GM Alireza Firouzja, whose Najdorf preparation backfired as he got both checkmated and flagged. The other three games in Tuesday’s fourth round ended in draws.

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The Palacio de Santoña had some special guests on Tuesday before the fourth round started. At 9 am, eight lucky children aged under 12 had the chance to sit down on the same chairs and behind the same chess boards used by the top grandmasters, to play the first two rounds of the Intercontinental ChessKid Candidates, for which they had qualified via online qualifiers. The tournament, played at a 25 + 5 time control, runs two more days and can be followed here.

Chesskid Candidates tournament
Imagine playing a tournament in this playing hall! Photo: Stev Bonhage / FIDE.

Also today, a special character paid a visit to the playing hall: Rey Enigma, the mysterious chess player covered in checkered black and white, who is not revealing his identity but who is definitely a strong chess player. Rey has already appeared on Spanish television and has been especially successful on Tiktok.

Rey Enigma Candidates
Rey Enigma at the Candidates. Photo: Stev Bonhage / FIDE.

The identity of GM Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger is not known yet either, but chances have increased that it will be the same name as last time — that is, if Carlsen is willing to play him again. Nepomniachtchi defeated Firouzja, Carlsen’s preferred opponent, in dominant style in a game where preparation played a big role.

Candidates chess 2022 playing hall
A shot from below shows how beautiful the Candidates playing hall is. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

Nepomniachtchi-Firouzja 1-0

Before this game, the score was 1-1 each with one draw, with Nepomniachtchi winning their last classical game as Black at the recent Superbet tournament in Romania. That was a crazy tactical skirmish and today Nepo once again showed to be comfortable in razor-sharp positions.

The difference, however, was that we hardly got to see a real fight this time. Firouzja came to the board with some special preparation in the Najdorf that completely backfired as soon as his opponent played something he did not expect. Two inaccuracies followed, and he was virtually lost by move 23.

It was all about this highly theoretical position, where White just pushed 15.f5 attacking the black bishop. In hundreds of earlier played games, Black continued 15 … a4, while 15 … Bxb3 has been played by grandmasters as well, but Firouzja chose the third option: 15 … Bc4.

Nepomniachtchi said the move confused him, but even so, he spent just nine minutes on his reply 16.Kb1.

“I just decided to go for some logical moves,” he said. “Obviously his idea was to play 17 … d5 18.exd5 Nd6, so I decided to just interrupt with 18.f6. I am not sure if it’s objectively good, but I thought I just give a pawn, put my knight on g3, and at least I should not be worse. “

Nepomniachtchi standing Candidates
Nepomniachtchi taking a different perspective. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

As GM Rafael Leitao points out, 19.gxf6 might have been the move that sidestepped Firouzja’s prep because a few correspondence games followed with 19.Ng3.

It was Firouzja’s turn to be confused, as he spent half an hour on his 20th move, and another half hour on his 21st. Tucking the king away on h8 is good but would make sense without swapping the light-squared bishops. Nepomniachtchi called 20 … Bxf1 “quite unfortunate” as it gives away an important tempo.

Black’s position was still playable until he dropped his b-pawn, or as some said, blundered it. Nepo: “I am not sure if he blundered it because somehow I felt he was quite desperate.”

Nepomniachtchi’s face showed that he knew he was doing very well. As IM Danny Rensch put it: “OMG, he gives the frowny face; I’ve seen that frowny face before. That’s a Ian who thinks his opponent just blundered big time.”

The Russian GM had no reason not to be materialistic, took the pawn, and walked away, while Firouzja sat at the board with both hands along his cheeks, the most nervous we have seen him so far in Madrid.

How to Be Materialistic In Chess

Already under time pressure with 22 minutes left until move 40, Firouzja made another inaccuracy on move 24. Nepomniachtchi, with an hour more on the clock, spent just five minutes to find the strong intermediate move 25.Bb6 !, a flimsy-looking square but with the simple idea to block the black queen from accessing the c7-square (where it would go after eg 25.Qe1).

Firouzja needed almost seven minutes for 25… Qd7, when Nepo was at his best: quick and powerful play. He immediately threw 26.Qe1 on the board. Bang! Your turn.

Nepomniachtchi frowning Candiates
Nepomniachtchi playing confidently. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

Firouzja then had a bit over three minutes left for 14 moves, and halfway through them, he had 35 seconds left for his last seven moves until the time control. He’s a good bullet player, but this was just too much. It was a three-result game: resign, flag, or get mated.

After 35 … f5, Nepomniachtchi calmly poured in some more tea, looked at his opponent, and then finished off the game in style with a rook sacrifice on h7.

Nepomniachtchi Firouzja Candidates 2022
Nepomniachtchi is about to sacrifice on h7. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

Half a year ago, Nepomniachtchi may have been a broken man, losing his match with Carlsen without a chance. Today he’s on top of the world again.

Sam Shankland: Game of the Day

Rapport-Nakamura ½-½

Opening preparation also played an important role in this game, as it helped GM Hikaru Nakamura to equalize straight out of the opening against GM Richard Rapport. Afterward, the American star pointed out that he had lost a game to GM Fabiano Caruana in the Chess.com Rapid Chess Championship a few months ago in a similar line with Bg5 in the Anti-Berlin.

“Then I looked at this thing that I came up with in the game, this 7 … h6, 8 … g5, and 9 … Be6. It was all prep until about move 20, it was not very difficult, “Nakamura said.

Rapport was not satisfied at all with the game, saying about the opening: “Another kind of disaster. Not a major disaster, but I did not get anything as White.”

Richard Rapport 2022 Candidates
Rapport was not too thrilled about his game today. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

The players quickly reached an endgame where Black was just fine despite the doubled c-pawn. White would be winning the pawn endgame if all rooks and knights would magically be removed from the board, but that would never happen.

Nakamura found a good setup on the kingside and things actually got sharper as he was toying with the idea of ​​pushing h4-h3 and using the f3-square for his knight. Rapport, who felt he was even a bit worse at some point, made sure that did not happen while keeping his pieces active.

Report by Nakamura Candidates
Nakamura felt comfortable out of the opening. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

Nakamura actually felt he could have been more precise and his opponent briefly had some chances, so perhaps the draw was justified. The two GMs smiled while shaking hands, and Nakamura was already wearing his jacket, having been ready for a while for the game to end.

Annotations by GM Rafael Leitao.

Duda-Radjabov ½-½

The first two games had ended right after each other, and not much later, GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda and GM Teimour Radjabov also called it a day. It was only their second classical game, after they also drew at the 2019 Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, when Radjabov was White.

Faced with another sideline (5.Bg5) of the Anti-Berlin variation, Radjabov again needed more time on the clock in the opening phase than his opponent and seemed to be slightly under pressure. Duda, however, lost the advantage that the engine claimed for him and Black was completely fine when he played 17 … f5 !, a move Duda “kind of forgot about.” It’s a good way to keep some kind of initiative before White has time to push his a-pawn.

It led to a lot of exchanges and a very drawish double rook endgame, and on move 41, the draw was agreed upon.

Duda Radjabov Candidates 2022
Duda vs. Radjabov. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

“The most important thing is actually not to lose in this tournament. I managed to do relatively well so far,” said Duda, who revealed he has GMs Grzegorz Gajewski and Kamil Miton as seconds with him in Madrid.

Annotations by GM Rafael Leitao.

Ding-Caruana ½-½

GM Ding Liren has been a difficult opponent for Caruana in classical games. The Chinese number one won five of their 13 mutual games, against just two for the American. Their last over-the-board games were the ones in the previous Candidates tournament, where Ding scored 1.5-0.5 in their “mini-match.”

Caruana’s choice of the Ragozin variation, named after the Soviet player Viacheslav Ragozin (1908-1962), was not such a surprise as he had played it plenty of times last year, and also once in a Titled Tuesday tournament this year. The move, 7 … Na5, however, was unexpected.

This odd-looking knight move had been played just once over the board, and twice online.

Ding’s calm response was solid but not too ambitious, and Black seemed completely fine out of the opening. But was his pawn sacrifice on move 17 really necessary?

The engine suggests the simple 17… Qd7, as the pawn on b6 does not really hang anyway (b2 would fall), followed by 18… Rfc8, and Bob’s your uncle.

Ding Liren 2022 Candidates
Ding put Caruana under slight pressure but is still looking for his first win. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

Caruana did get lots of activity with the queen and knight, which also kept White’s rook passive for the moment. Still, the rook endgame remained a bit unpleasant, until around move 36, when the job was basically done for Caruana.

The American GM, who is now in sole second place behind Nepomniachtchi, will be playing the white pieces vs. Rapport tomorrow while his compatriot Nakamura could be of much help if he were to win his white game vs. Nepo. Let’s see!

Annotations by GM Rafael Leitao.

Round 4 Standings

FIDE Candidates 2022 round 4 standings

Round 5 Pairings

Round 5 June 22, 2022 6 am PT / 15: 00 CEST
Caruana Report
Radjabov Ding
Firouzja Duda
Nakamura Nepomniachtchi

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