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Candidates Round 8: Don Fabi's poisonous new idea in the Najdorf

by Sagar Shah - 20/04/2021

The resumption of the Candidates 2020-21 was filled with great drama and luckily it was all on the chess board! The tournament has restarted from the halfway mark and the 8th round witnessed two decisive games! Caruana vs MVL and Alekseenko vs Grischuk, both of them bordered very closely on the edge of a draw but in the end it was Caruana and Alekseenko who came out on top. The remaining two games ended in draws. The game of the day, and perhaps of the event was Fabiano Caruana's amazing preparation from the white side of the poisoned pawn variation in the Sicilian Najdorf. We have detailed breakdown of the game along with analysis, images, videos and more!

After a break of a year, the Candidates tournament has resumed! Seven rounds have already been played and seven remain to be played. Surely, the dynamics of such an event is something that no player is well-versed with. You go to an event with some sort of preparation and then all of a sudden you have to stop halfway. While your points are carried forward, the momentum, preparation, ideas, and the flow is lost. Hence, it is very interesting to see how the tournament pans out. Before the start of the eighth round, this is how the standings looked:

MVL was in the lead along with Nepo. The duo were followed by four players on 3.5 points and two players on 2.5

While the Corona virus was something new the last time around, and there was a lot of tension in the air, this time around, things were more relaxed.

Happy to be in Russia is Anish Giri!

The Dutch GM was seen with his second. Can you recognize who he is? Hint: He recently helped another Dutch GM score the biggest performance of his life!

Fabiano Caruana is in Ekaterinberg with his trusted second Rustam Kasimdzhanov. Rustam is a tremendous second and always has a bagful of new ideas! More on this later in the article!

MVL was seen with his second Sebastien Maze!

One of the important pre-tournament routines for players before such a crucial event is to check the comfort of their chairs.

The tournament hall entrance

The tournament hall requires minimum infrastructure as only 8 players fight it out. The ambience is perfect for a high stature chess event.

The feel of holding chess pieces in your hand while moving! Players have started valuing it much more after the Covid-19 pandemic!

Everything is set! Players have to remember that writing down moves is compulsory. Online chess does have its luxuries!

The results of round 8

Caruana vs MVL

The most explosive game of the day and perhaps the entire event was Caruana vs MVL. It happened in the poisoned pawn variation of the Najdorf. The game showcased brilliant opening preparation by Caruana, tenacious defence by MVL, a very complex middlegame and and even more complex rook vs knight endgame. Let's break down the game bit by bit.

The 12th World Champion Anatoly Karpov kicks off the game

When you face MVL, the chances of a Najdorf happening are very high! Before the event, MVL was playing the Sicilian Classical in the online events. But it was clear that this was an approach to avoid revealing his Najdorf preparation.

The poisoned pawn variation in the Sicilian Najdorf! Caruana and MVL had already discussions in this line at the Tata Steel Masters 2021 earlier this year. MVL had lost that game due to an opening mistake. This time he wanted revenge!

The first new move of the game! A position where almost everyone goes Be2, Caruana played c3. This has been played 12 times before in correspondence play. So it's not totally new. The idea of this move is to block Qa5+ as many times Black uses that tempo to solidify his position.

The most shocking move of the game was Bc4!! by Caruana. What is amazing about this move is the fact that this has not been played in correspondence chess as well. Bd6 was what was previously played by White players. Also this is not even a top choice of the engines!

In the post game conference Fabiano revealed that this was an idea found by his second Rustam Kasimdzhanov, "Most of these ideas, it’s a one time thing. Then you can’t play it again. Like this one, firstly black has many ways to play it. Actually Maxime played the best way. I was kind of upset that that he played this because I thought 19...Nf6 is a very difficult move to find."

With the move Bd6, White is preventing 0-0 and also plans to take on c5 and then fork on d6. But here MVL found the move Nf6! which is the best defensive move in the position.

MVL added, "I couldn’t remember the details but yeah in general (after Bc4!!) I surprisingly couldn’t find an easy way and it came down to this endgame which I thought I should be holding quite easily but maybe at that moment I made a few inaccuracies."

MVL definitely had a hard time during the game trying to find all the defensive manoeuvres!

Another move that was a testament to MVL's brilliant defensive skills. He defends the g7 pawn and asks White what exactly can he do with his activity. Fabiano had to sacrifice on e6, but it led to a queen exchange.

The most critical moment of the game. Until now MVL has defended tremendously. How would you continue as Black. Your knight on c3 is hanging and so is your rook.

Here it was important to save the rook with Ra7! Yes, it might seem a bit passive after 0-0+ Kg6 and Rxc3, but with precise play Black holds the game. MVL saved his knight by moving it to e4 and gave up his rook on a8. This gave Fabiano a small but nagging edge.

This position looks much closer to equality that an advantage for White. However, the modern engines seem to disagree. They think that Black's two queenside pawns are not potent and sooner or later will fall. At the same time, the two rooks and bishop can coordinate to launch a decisive attack, especially on the g7 square.

MVL is confident about his theoretical endgames and decides to liquidate into a rook vs knight endgame

What is the objective evaluation of this position?

We reach a position which is a theoretical draw according to the six-men tablebases. But it is important to understand where is it that we should placing our knight. The right spot for the knight is to be on g7 where it defends the f5 square. But then why not knight on e7. Let's figure it out.

The knight is best placed here for several reasons. Firstly the knight and the pawn coordinate perfectly to keep the White king out. But then why not the knight on e7. The reason is that imagine the knight is on e7 and the black king on f7. At this point in order to make a move you would have to play Kf8. While if the knight is on g7 and the king on f7 and a rook checks from a7, you can simply go to g6. From this I believe a good rule of thumb can be that it is important to place your knight closer to the file of the white pawn.

This was Maxime's last chance to hold the draw. Where do you move the knight?

You have to choose the right circuit here. Nc7! is the correct move as after Ne8 or Ne6 and Ng7, the knight reaches where we want it to be. Fabiano Caruana speaking about the endgame said, "I actually don’t know. I wasn’t sure if this was a draw or not. I didn’t really see a way to make progress but it wasn’t a 100% clear to me. I guess it’s a theoretical endgame that should be a draw." MVL was insistent on placing his knight on h6 during the game and failed to understand that g7 was the best square: "For some reason I thought this would lose (55...Ng7). I really thought that the knight on h6 was the way to play but maybe I just misunderstood simply," said MVL.

White now played Kg4! and the king penetrated on the kingside via h5. The important point is that after Kg4 Kg6 Kh4+ the Black king has to move backwards to defend his knight on g8. After this the white king simply moves to h5.

The final move of the game. The black king has been smoked out and the f6 pawn is about to fall.

The silent assassin: Fabiano Caruana

A sign of a great chess player lies in the fact that even after such a painful loss, MVL is interested in knowing where he went wrong and discussing the details with Caruana.
Round 8 press conference with Caruana and MVL

Alekseenko vs Grischuk

The all-Russian clash for most of the part was just equal. In fact the engines did not change their assessment from 0.00 for such a long time that it was easy to assume the game was just a dull and boring one. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Alekseenko showed immense fighting spirit to down the experienced Alexander Grischuk.

Not so averse to handshakes!

The position has been repeated and here Alekseenko could go Kd4 when Grischuk would have most probably accepted the draw offer with Rf8 Ke3 Re8 Kd4. However, Alekseenko was in the mood for a fight and he played his king to f4. It's not easy to breakthrough, and it is not even clear why White should be trying here. However, try he did and he was rewarded!

At this moment the game is still a draw because the e-pawn is not queening and the g-pawn is pretty irritating. However, Grischuk didn't defend this well and lost the game.

The look of a man who is deciding whether to go for a draw, or keep pushing!

With this win Alekseenko makes a comeback on the standings and is now on 3.5/8.

Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Anish Giri

The game between Nepo and Anish was quite an important one from the perspective of the standings as Ian was leading the event with 4.5 points while Anish was a point behind him. The opening choice of Anish was the most interesting moment of the game, but apart from that there wasn't really anything special that happened. When both the players were asked about their feeling of resuming the event, Nepo mentioned it being extremely stressful. Giri was a bit more elaborate, "I played the Wijk aan Zee tournament which was a similar experience for me. So I am used to putting suit on already! It was my first flight in over a year. Usually I learnt how to pack without forgetting anything but now I was very worried about flying again, but yeah whole new experience. Actually in the playing hall, it looks exactly the same as last time. So when I came to the end and sat on the sofa, I felt like just one day has passed in the year. I sat on the sofa yesterday Round 7 and today I sit again and it’s Round 8. So in a way it feels like, nothing happened in that year.”

According to Anish nothing has changed in a year! Shaking hands is definitely one of the big changes!

This is from a year ago! No one wanted to shake hands!

Anish further clarified, "To be honest, last time, in order to concentrate, I stopped reading news completely at least the quality news and so it was a shock to me, because in my mind everything was fine. I was getting up for breakfast and was like in the mood to go all-in. Now of course everybody is used to Covid. Though I have to say if you think about some things, it’s quite surreal. Like I was in the VIP lounge of Moscow airport and I felt like the difference between lounge and normal area is that in the lounge you can take off the mask and no one will tell you to put it on. There are bunch of these movies about post-apocalyptic world but okay we are used to it, so it’s fine." Nepo also chimed in about how it felt to resume the half completed event, "Obviously it was I guess a big shock for the participants. Since I was like really sick by the time the tournament finished and I also had lost the previous game in this tournament. So overall I think I am not the right person to be completely disappointed but well what is true is that it’s a completely different tournament so one year of preparation is something new."

Anish Giri gave up his favourite Najdorf and went for the Sveshnikov. Anish in his typical humour mentions, "I did have one year to find advantage for black after 1.e4 and I have to say that I needed a little bit more time."

If you look at the position, you will realize that although d6 is a weakness, there are no real pawn breaks for either side. Hence, the position is round about even. The players found a way to repeat the position after Bd1 Be6 Bg4 Bb3 Bd1 and so on.

Wang Hao vs Ding Liren

Ding Liren and Wang Hao completed their game in a hurry! 

Speaking about his year between the two halves of the Candidates, Ding Liren mentioned, "This was a difficult year. Most of my tournaments were played online and especially late at night. So it’s very difficult to play. For daily life, I spent most of my time at my home and it was kind of boring. Sometimes I trained very hard and sometimes I didn’t want to train at all. Sometimes it’s very hard to lead a normal life for a professional chess player. Somehow I forgot how I played like a professional chess player." Anastasiya Karlovich, who was interviewing the players asked an interesting question to Wang Hao, "Hao, what you have been doing, I remember in the first part of the event you said that maybe you could have chosen a different profession if you were not a player. So did you have a chance to do anything you want this year?" Wang Hao replied, " Well I had to spend a lot of time not only in China. I like travelling a lot… I really like travelling and I mean just as a tourist. Then I realized that I can do something else, without traveling and so I did something which I already like to do. I like to watch movies! Once I went to cinema to watch movies, one day I saw four movies… I wouldn’t say that I spent too much time on chess."


About his chances in the event, Ding Liren mentioned that he felt quite relaxed as he wasn't a favourite any more, "I didn’t play well in the first stage so, my chance of winning this tournament is very low. I feel very relaxed."

Ding Liren continued ...Na4 and Wang Hao responded with Qf6 after which the game ended in a draw. Ding Liren adds, My first my idea was to take 22.Rxe8 (instead of Na4) 23.Qc3 Kg8 and now 24.Kc2 is a good move. So 22...Na4 might be the only move that leads to a draw. So nothing happened, nothing too much."

Team FIDE has put in an immense effort to make sure that the event is smoothly conducted

Standings after round 8

Pairings for round 9
Follow the live commentary of round 8 by IM Sagar Shah, Amruta Mokal and Surya Ganguly

Shahid Ahmed contributed to the article.

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