Candidates: The final four

by Macauley Peterson
3/27/2018 – The final four games, the final four players who have a chance — Monday's play brought some clarity to the stakes in the last round, but Tuesday is shaping up to be a barn-burner. Sergey Karjakin's late surge (since Saturday) stalled as he made a dry draw against Wesley So from, and he puts all his hopes on Tuesday's game. Fabiano Caruana took advantage: The American won in a wild melee against Levon Aronian and is now half a point ahead of Karjakin. And Shakh is back: the Azerbaijani world number two won Monday against Grischuk and is now equal second with Karjakin. Ding is the dark horse who will have to go all-out to win. | Photo: Niki Riga

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Four crucial games

How do you prepare for one of the most important games if your life? If you're Sergey Karjakin you go to the zoo, which is a short trip across town at one end of the large "Tiergarten" park (Tier means animal in German). As he told the live audience on Monday, he and his second Alexander Riazantsev intended to go inside too, but were dissuaded by the large crowd on an early Spring Sunday. If fighting a crowd was inadvisable, what about fighting with black against Wesley So? The clocks changed to Summer Time in Europe over the weekend, so the first order of business was just to get to the game on time.

Karjakin was the last to arrive at the board, as has typically been the case, and the first to leave. "When you're opponent plays very solidly there's not much you can do", was the Russian's verdict. And indeed, already after the first hour, all games were almost exactly level, but complicated — except for Karjakin vs So, which was quickly simplifying and heading for a draw. When the pair reached a symmetrical rook and knight endgame, commentator Judit Polgar still felt the position was easier for Black to play and that therefore there was no reason for Sergey to press for a win, risk-free. But So gave him no such chance, trading first the knights, then the kingside pawns, a pair of rooks, and finally the remaining pawns before offering a handshake.


Karjakin's make or break game postponed to Tuesday | Photo: Niki Riga

That result already made the chance of a Wednesday playoff match virtually impossible. It also left an opening for Fabiano Caruana, in his final game with the white pieces. Against the struggling Levon Aronian, he took full advantage and, with a win, takes a half point lead into Tuesday's finale. Mamedyarov too, by beating Alexander Grischuk, pulled equal with Karjakin, thereby giving him excellent chances in any tiebreak situation. Even Ding, a full point behind Caruana has chances, should the American stumble. Ding's head-to-head game with Karjakin leaves his fate in his own hands, but he will have to go all-out for a win.

For a detailed look at the standings and what's at stake, see Candidates tiebreak scenarios.

Standings after round thirteen


So ½-½ Karjakin

Karjakin's play indicated that he was satisfied with a draw. And Wesley So, for his part, was fine with playing no role, even indirectly, in deciding on the winner of the Candidates Tournament. For Karjakin, the draw would put pressure on Caruana to win, especially since the American has black in the last round, while Karjakin has white.

As the game wound down, GM Daniel King, had a chat with visiting guest GM Miguel Illescas, a veteran of three World Championship matches as a second to Vladimir Kramnik.

Daniel King chats with Miguel Illescas for Power Play Chess


After the game, we grabbed Karjakin for a further comment:

Caruana 1-0 Aronian

Caruana prepared the mild-mannered move 9.Bd2 in the Ruy Lopez, instead of more common 9.c3. The same move had been tried in Grischuk's game with Aronian in round twelve, and Caruana calls it "a brilliant opening invention...a small chapter in the Anti-Marshall". He and his second Rustam Kasimdzhanov checked the line for an hour or so on Sunday before adjourning to see a film, "The Shape of Water", writer/director Guillermo del Toro's latest fantasy drama, "which was excellent", according Caruana. "For two hours I could just forget about chess, which is what I needed."

The shape of the game rather quickly trended in White's favour after the opening phase. Caruana pointed to 18.g3 as an important prophylactic move, preventing a lot of Black's ideas for counterplay. Black could never organise the f5-break, and Aronian resorted to more drastic measures.

A few moves later Caruana was faced with a pleasant choice, though one not at all simply in such an important game.


White has the option to win a pawn on b5, which the computer favours, but requires calculating several complicated lines. Watching the game alongside Daniel King, he remarked that "Magnus would probably go 23.Nh4 and save 15 minutes". Caruana ended up playing the latter after about 12 mins. The expectation was that Caruana would hack off the g6-bishop and have an excellent position. But as Polgar noted, "just because you have a great position, it doesn't mean you're going to win the game."

Instead after 23...Qe6, Caruana spent a further 14 minutes on 24.Bd3, proviking Aronian to sacrifice a piece after 24...Bh5 25.g4 ("Here we go boys and girls, strap in!" was Lawrence Trent's take) 25...Bxg4! Levon pondered the sacrifice for a full 20 minutes.


"Three rounds ago, Levon would have found Nxb4, when he was still focused on tournament victory," was Polgar's take. Now the Armenian will have a relatively meaningless game against fellow tail-ender Wesley So.

After his press conference, Daniel King also cornered Caruana for a final thought on the final round:

Mamedyarov 1-0 Grischuk

Many players ditch their semi-formal jackets at the first opportunity but Mamedyarov stayed in his suit jacket throughout the opening, hunched over the board such that it has begun to bunch up in a small triangle at the back of his head. He seems perfectly focused, oblivious to the noise that still regularly emanates from the spectator entrance a few meters away behind a black curtain. He badly needed to rebound after his catestrophic loss to Ding the day before, which had kept him awake through the night.

Grischuck laid out the stakes going into the game this way: “It was a stupid situation, we both needed to win. For me, draw was almost the same as a loss”. 


Interestingly, Grischuk's assessement of this being an absolute must-win game isn't quite right. A draw would still have given him chances with White in the last round against Caruana. Instead, by self-destructing, he's officially eliminated from contention, and the best he can do is help his teammate Karjakin by knocking off his main rival.

Mamedyarov's task is a hard one. Although favoured by many tiebreak scenarios, his main chance lies with beating Vladimir Kramnik with Black, a tough game to win on-demand. But the way Kramnik had been playing, he's liable to give Shakhriyar chances to mix things up, and stranger things have happened.

Ding ½-½ Kramnik

The draw of Ding Liren, was not really inspiring for the Chinese grandmaster. Although Kramnik has never beaten Ding before (five draws between them), he became significantly better after an oversight from White on move 20:


Ding grimace

Tactics on the long diagonal allows Black to play 21...Rxa3! After the recapture 22.Nxa3, Trent observed, "you saw for the first time a facial expression from Ding that shows how unhappy he is here."

All in all, Ding, who was significantly worse, had to work hard to salvage a half point and keep a glimmer of hope alive for a tiebreak win tomorrow. It's possible, but unlikely.

Kramnik can play spoiler for Mamedyarov, even by holding him to a draw. A three-way tie on 8 points would favour him, but he can't count on both Caruana losing and Karjakin drawing.

As with all the games, the calculation changes as round fourteen progresses, so the players will all have to keep one eye on their opponents even as they focus on their own efforts.


All games


Round-up show with GM Erwin l'Ami


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register