Candidates 2018: Caruana beats Aronian to take lead

by Alex Yermolinsky
3/19/2018 – At the midway point, Fabiano Caruana took the sole lead after beating Levon Aronian in a wild game. Aronian seemed to be ina bit of a panic, while Caruana played very precisely, staved off the attack and took the point. Sergey Karjakin won his first game beating Wesley So and moves out of last place. Ding Liren, usually such a fighter, seems content to not lose, and drew Vladimir Kramnik after creating good winning chances. Here is the report and analyses by GM Alex Yermolinsky | Photo: World Chess

Mega Database 2018 Mega Database 2018

The "Mega" is the database every serious chessplayer needs. The database contains 7.1 million games from 1500 to 2017, in highest quality standard, full of top level analyses and completely classified.


Parry and win

Hello, my dear readers! I had to wait a bit for my turn to write a report on the most important tournament of 2018, and it came at the right time. After round seven we're at the mid-point of the event. Let me first go through today's games, then we can take stock and prognosticate.

One of the two highly anticipated encounters that could affect the leaderboard standings turned out to be a dud. Grischuk vs Mamedyarov just did not live up to its billing.

[Event "World Chess Candidates 2018"] [Site "Berlin"] [Date "2018.03.18"] [Round "7"] [White "Grischuk, Alexander"] [Black "Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D38"] [WhiteElo "2767"] [BlackElo "2809"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "31"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. Bg5 h6 6. Bh4 {True to his uncompromising style and with the tournament situation in mind, Grischuk chooses the sharpest continuation.} ({Of course,} 6. Bxf6 Qxf6 7. e3 O-O { is safe for White, but Mamedyarov himself had a hard time proving White's advantage in recent games against Radjabov and Yu Yangyi.}) 6... g5 $5 7. Bg3 Ne4 8. Qc2 (8. Qb3 {is an alternative, but after} Nc6 9. e3 h5 10. h4 g4 11. Ne5 Bxc3+ 12. bxc3 Nxg3 13. fxg3 Nxe5 14. dxe5 {not too many people would find White's pawn structure attractive.}) ({As in a similar position with the exchange on d5 included, White isn't getting much out of a pawn sacrifice with } 8. Nd2 Nxc3 9. bxc3 Bxc3 10. Rc1 {mainly because of the annoying} Bb2 $1) 8... h5 $1 {The point of Black's play. Facing the threat to his bishop White is forced to weaken his pawns.} 9. h3 Nc6 $1 {Shakh demonstrates excellent preparation.} ({The immediate} 9... Bxc3+ 10. bxc3 Nxg3 11. fxg3 Nc6 {allows White to expand in the center} 12. e4 $5 {Dubov-Brkic, 2016}) 10. e3 Bxc3+ 11. bxc3 Nxg3 12. fxg3 Qd6 13. Qf2 {It's OK to repeat the position, but Grischuk was burning time fast, even by his standards.} Qa3 14. Qc2 Qd6 15. Qf2 { Very uncharacteristic of Alexander.} ({With} 15. Kf2 {which already was played in Azmaiparashvili-Nikolaidis, 1996 White continues to fight.} h4 16. g4 Bd7 17. Bd3 {and his king isn't so bad.}) 15... Qa3 16. Qc2 1/2-1/2

It's hard to tell what made Grischuk wrap the game up so soon. From a tournament standpoint, he threw away a chance to catch Mamedyarov. Tomorrow he gets another crack at making something happen, this time facing Caruana with White. One can only hope Alexander will be able to get the game off the ground and start making his moves a bit faster. Nobody can figure anything out by staring at a position after some ten moves.

Alexander Grischuk may be notorious for his clock mismanagement, but he has been taking it to dangerous extremes and is paying the price. | Photo: World Chess

From Shakhriyar's perspective, everything is going according to plan. He doesn't mind taking easy draws with black when they're given to him. Aside from his game against Caruana, Shakh has yet to really see his boat rocked.

Mamedyarov has been living up to his no.1 seed and is showing how he rose to world no.2 | Photo: World Chess


A short interview with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

Fabiano won today by taking full advantage of Aronian's “attacking” game, which, frankly, looked more suited for a last round must-win situation in a weekend swiss.

[Event "World Chess Candidates 2018"] [Site "?"] [Date "2018.03.18"] [Round "7.4"] [White "Aronian, Levon"] [Black "Caruana, Fabiano"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D39"] [WhiteElo "2794"] [BlackElo "2784"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "76"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 dxc4 {An interesting ploy from Caruana. He goes for the Vienna Variation, the line championed by Aronian himself.} 5. e4 Bb4 6. Bg5 h6 ({Karjakin-Aronian from earlier in this tournament, and countless other games, saw} 6... c5) 7. Bxf6 Qxf6 {This line didn't use to be so hot until lately, when efforts of Nisipeanu, Pelletier and Vallejo Pons finally gained recognition.} 8. Bxc4 ({The almost forgotten idea} 8. Qa4+ { makes some sense here. At least the black c-pawn won't be able to hit the white centre right away. After} Nc6 9. Bxc4 O-O 10. O-O Bd7 11. Qb3 Ba5 12. Rad1 Bb6 13. e5 Qe7 14. Qc2 Nb4 15. Qe2 Bc6 16. a3 {White is hoping to translate his spatial gains into something meaningful.}) 8... c5 $1 9. O-O { White states his intention to play for quick development.} ({Alternatively,} 9. e5 Qd8 10. a3 Bxc3+ 11. bxc3 cxd4 12. cxd4 Nc6 13. O-O O-O 14. Qd3 b6 {would lead to a standard pawn structure Kramnik doesn't mind defending as Black.}) 9... cxd4 10. e5 Qd8 11. Ne4 O-O 12. Qe2 Be7 (12... Bd7) 13. Rad1 Qc7 14. Bd3 ( {A straight-forward pawn sac} 14. Nd6 Bxd6 15. exd6 Qxd6 16. Rxd4 Qe7 17. Rfd1 Nc6 18. Rd6 {may succeed but only in blitz.}) 14... Nd7 {This move underlines a general problem with White's concept: his e5-pawn is insufficiently protected due to the absence of his dark-squared bishop. Granted, Black is behind in development, but his kingside defences are quite solid.} 15. Rc1 Qa5 {[#]} 16. g4 $6 {It's hard to blame Levon for trying to turn his luck around, but such moves tend to backfire on you more often than not.} (16. Ng3 Nc5 17. Bb1 d3 {forces White to part with the bishop, effectively ending his attacking chances.}) 16... Nxe5 17. Nxe5 Qxe5 18. f4 Qa5 19. g5 Qd8 $6 {Caruana shows his willingness to defend tough.} ({There's something to be said in favour of the counterattacking plan} 19... Bd7 20. gxh6 Rfc8 ({Fabiano must have seen} 20... g6 21. Nc5 $5 Bxc5 22. Qe5 f6 23. Qxc5 Qxc5 24. Rxc5 {and found this endgame troublesome.}) 21. hxg7 Rxc1 22. Rxc1 Bc6 {but leaving his king without shelter is unnerving.}) 20. h4 Bd7 21. gxh6 g6 22. h5 Kh8 23. Kh2 { Aronian just couldn't stop. Clearly, he was thinking attack, when in reality White should be looking to escape with a draw.} ({The obvious} 23. hxg6 fxg6 24. Nc5 {offers White compensation, albeit Black can survive:} Rc8 {etc.}) 23... Bc6 24. Rf3 Bd6 $1 {The engines may not rate this move as the strongest, but from a human point of view it's more than good enough. Caruana's play is very consistent.} 25. Qf2 Bc7 26. Kh3 Qe7 (26... gxh5 27. Rg3 f5 {Again, the engines try to lead us astray.}) 27. Ng5 e5 28. Rxc6 $5 {Probably, the best chance, although White cannot count on more than a draw in all lines.} bxc6 29. Nxf7+ Rxf7 30. hxg6 Rf6 $2 {Fabiano's only mistake in the overall very solidly played game.} ({He must have rejected} 30... Rxf4 {on account of} 31. Rxf4 exf4 32. Qxd4+ Qe5 33. g7+ Kg8 34. Bc4+ Kh7 35. Qd3+ Kxh6 36. g8=Q Rxg8 37. Bxg8 { and indeed, it seemed White could survive, but only until Black finds} Qh8 $1 38. Bb3 Kg5+ 39. Kg2 Qxb2+ 40. Bc2 Qf6 {with decent winning chances.}) 31. g7+ $2 {In time trouble Levon misses his chance.} (31. Qh4 $3 Qe6+ (31... e4 32. Bxe4) 32. f5 Qe7 33. Be4 {would lead to a crazy position. Black is up a whole rook, but, positionally speaking, White is doing just fine.}) 31... Kg8 32. Bc4+ $2 ({Again,} 32. Qh4 $1) 32... Kh7 33. Qh4 e4 34. Rg3 Bxf4 35. g8=Q+ Rxg8 36. Bxg8+ Kh8 37. Rg7 Qf8 38. Rh7+ Kxg8 0-1

The calm power chess that has been the staple of Aronian's play and success in 2017 is lacking in Berlin | Photo: World Chess

A terrible disappointment for Levon's numerous fans. He just doesn't seem comfortable with his normal chess and keeps on trying to force the issue, only to the detriment of his chances.

Caruana, on the other hand, looks like the man to beat in this year’s Candidates. While his game is not error-free there's a great deal of determination in Fabiano's approach. 


A despondent Levon Aronian analyzes the game with Fabiano Caruana

The battle of tail-enders saw Sergey Karjakin getting his first win of the tournament at the expense of Wesley So, who continues to disappoint. I'm surprised at some of Wesley's opening choices, as he is accommodating his opponents way too easily.

[Event "World Chess Candidates 2018"] [Site "Berlin"] [Date "2018.03.18"] [Round "7"] [White "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Black "So, Wesley"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E51"] [WhiteElo "2763"] [BlackElo "2799"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "80"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 O-O 5. Nf3 d5 6. Bd2 c5 $6 {With this move Black accepts a slightly worse position.} ({Most prefer} 6... b6) 7. a3 cxd4 8. axb4 dxc3 9. Bxc3 dxc4 10. Bxc4 Qxd1+ 11. Kxd1 Bd7 12. Ke2 Rc8 13. Bd3 Nd5 14. Ne5 Be8 15. Bd2 f6 16. Nc4 Rd8 17. Rhc1 Nc6 18. Be4 Ndxb4 19. Bxb4 Nxb4 20. Bxb7 Rab8 21. Rxa7 Rd7 22. Na5 Nd3 23. Rd1 Nxb2 24. Rxd7 Bxd7 25. Bc6 Bxc6 26. Nxc6 {[#] It may seem that having regained his pawn Black is out of danger, but the remote position of his knight and a 7th rank weakness still pose problems.} Re8 ({Staying active with} 26... Rb6 27. Nd4 Nc4 28. f4 h5 {appears to be a better choice.}) 27. e4 Nc4 28. Kd3 Nd6 29. f4 Kf8 $6 (29... h5 $5) 30. e5 fxe5 31. fxe5 Nf5 32. g4 Nh4 ({This position is already quite dangerous for Black, and it can only be held by precise play:} 32... Rc8 $1 {was a good start.}) 33. Kc4 $1 Nf3 34. Ra2 Rc8 35. Kb5 Ke8 $2 {The decisive error.} (35... Rc7 36. Kb6 Rd7 37. Rf2 Rd3 {This is what Wesley missed.} (37... Rf7 38. Nd8 { is, indeed, lost for Black.})) 36. Kb6 g5 37. h3 {Quite a situation: Black cannot save his rook without stepping back with the king to the f-file, which will cost him the knight.} Nxe5 38. Nxe5 Rc3 39. Rh2 Ke7 40. Kb5 Re3 1-0

Karjakin must be relieved to see a win in his scoreline. However, it may be far too late for him to join the battle for first place. Still, to give him credit, it bears remembering that Sergey was at -2 halfway through the 2014 Candidates in Khanty, only to completely turn it around in the second half. Sergey was better in practically every game he played, and won three, vaulting himself to a second place finish. Maybe he can do it again, but for him (and everyone else) only first place matters, and that just seems out of reach. 

Sergey Karjakin had to be greatly relieved to chalk his first win, while Wesley So, quite the player of the year in 2016, continues to struggle | Photo: World Chess

Vladimir Kramnik continues to entertain, perhaps against his best intentions. The way he starts his games appears to be solid, but then Vladimir takes sharp turns and quickly loses control.

[Event "World Chess Candidates 2018"] [Site "Berlin"] [Date "2018.03.18"] [Round "7"] [White "Kramnik, Vladimir"] [Black "Ding, Liren"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A26"] [WhiteElo "2800"] [BlackElo "2769"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "147"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e5 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. d3 g6 5. g3 Bg7 6. Bg2 O-O 7. O-O d6 8. b3 $5 Nd4 (8... e4 9. dxe4 Nxe4 10. Nxe4 Bxa1 11. Bg5 f6 12. Bh6 {favors White.}) 9. Nd2 c6 10. e3 Ne6 11. Bb2 Nc5 12. Qc2 a5 13. Rae1 Re8 14. h3 Bf5 $5 15. e4 Bd7 16. Ne2 b5 17. d4 exd4 18. Nxd4 {With his trademark deceptive opening play Kramnik has achieved a favourable structure. The only piece of the puzzle missing from this picture is his Nd2 that should have really been on c3 to prevent the d6-d5 idea.} Rc8 19. N4f3 $6 ({An attempt to maintain control with } 19. Re3 {could be met with} d5 20. e5 Nfe4 21. f4 f6) 19... d5 $1 {[#] Seeing how solid Ding has been in this tournament so far, we may forget he's an accomplished Kings Indian player!} 20. exd5 Rxe1 21. Rxe1 cxd5 {It looks logical to open the c-file for Rc8 against the white queen.} ({However, the immediate} 21... Bf5 22. Qd1 Nd3 {was even stronger. White then would be facing a grim defensive task down the exchange, as} 23. Bxf6 Bxf6 24. Rf1 { is simply unbearable.}) 22. cxb5 {Now at least White has the favourable pawn structure which should help him to survive when he goes down material.} Bf5 23. Qd1 Nd3 24. Bd4 Rc1 25. Qxc1 Nxc1 26. Rxc1 Ne4 27. Nf1 Bxd4 $2 {Ding misses his chance.} ({Instead,} 27... Bd7 $1 {would have set up a great tactical shot: } 28. a4 ({Likely White would have to grovel for a draw after} 28. Bxg7 Kxg7 29. N3d2 Nxd2 30. Nxd2) 28... Bxd4 29. Nxd4 Nxf2 $1 30. Kxf2 Qf6+ {winning the rook in case of both} 31. Ke3 ({and} 31. Nf3 Qb2+) 31... Qg5+) 28. Nxd4 Qb6 29. Bxe4 $1 dxe4 30. Nxf5 gxf5 31. a4 {Objectively this is a dead draw.} Qe6 32. Ne3 Qxb3 33. Rc4 h5 34. h4 Kh7 35. Kg2 f6 36. Rd4 Kg6 37. Rc4 Kf7 38. Kh2 Kg6 39. Kg1 Qb1+ 40. Kg2 Qb3 41. Rd4 Kf7 42. Rd5 Qxa4 43. Rxf5 Kg6 44. b6 Qb3 45. Rxa5 Qxb6 46. Rd5 Qb2 47. Rf5 Qa2 48. Rc5 Qe2 49. Rc4 Qa2 50. Rb4 Qa5 51. Rb8 Qa2 52. Rd8 Qa5 53. Rd5 Qa2 54. Rf5 Qe6 55. Rd5 Qa6 56. g4 {True to his uncompromising approach to this tournament Kramnik keeps on pushing for a win. This time there's enough safety margin in the position for him to get away with that.} hxg4 57. h5+ Kf7 58. Rd7+ Ke6 59. Rg7 Qe2 60. h6 Qf3+ 61. Kg1 g3 62. Rxg3 Qh5 63. Rg7 f5 ({Of course,} 63... Qxh6 $4 {would seem to be a gross blunder since the queen is lost after} 64. Re7+ Kxe7 65. Nf5+ Ke6 66. Nxh6 { What is funny is that White still can't win after} f5 $1 {The reason is that the knight is trapped.} 67. Kf1 Kf6 68. Kg2 f4 $1 {is the correct continuation.} ({The tempting} 68... Kg6 {would actually lose after} 69. Ng8 Kf7 70. Kg3 $1 {and the black pawns will fall and White will have the opposition to boot.}) 69. Ng4+ Kf5 70. Nh2 Ke5 71. Kf1 Kf5 72. Ke2 Kg5 73. Nf1 Kf5 {and White cannot progress. The minute White tries to free his knight with} 74. Nd2 e3 {instantly draws.}) 64. h7 f4 65. Ng4 Qh3 66. Rg6+ Kf5 67. Rg7 Ke6 68. Rg6+ Kf5 69. Nh6+ Kxg6 70. h8=Q Qxh6 71. Qe8+ Kf5 72. Qb5+ Kg4 73. Qe2+ Kf5 74. Qb5+ 1/2-1/2

Ding Liren is still on track to make 14 draws, emulating Giri’s infamous run in Moscow in 2016. While I don't see this happening, it appears that Ding's ambition is mainly not to embarrass himself with losing games, rather than go for it when opportunities present themselves. With a breezier attitude, he could be a contender.

We have seen Ding Liren when he *really* wants to win, but so far that version has not appeared in Berlin | Photo: World Chess

Looking ahead, I see this as a two-man race between Caruana and Mamedyarov. Simply there's no one else playing near well enough to open up a winning streak. Of course, I have been wrong before...

The spectators are asked who they think will win the Candidates

Standings after seven rounds



Yermo is enjoying his fifties. Lives in South Dakota, 600 miles way from the nearest grandmaster. Between his chess work online he plays snooker and spends time outdoors - happy as a clam.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register