Candidates trials and tribulations

by Macauley Peterson
3/17/2018 – The fifth round of the Candidates Tournament in Berlin brought the first round of all draws, but Levon Aronian missed a huge chance against Alexander Grischuk. Friday was a day full of surprises: Vladimir Kramnik overplayed his hand against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and was dealt a painful loss, while Wesley So managed a fantastic comeback against Aronian, whose confidence looks shaken. Fabiano Caruana played a double-edged game against Grischuk and now shares the lead with Mamedyarov. | Photo: World Chess

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“Beware the ides of March”

That was the soothsayer's warning to Julius Caesar, but even before that, it was notable for the Romans as a time for settling debts. After visiting Berlin for the first round, I returned to “the Coliseum” —  as Garry Kasparov dubbed the playing area in the Kuehlhaus — to see how the gladiators would fare as the Candidates tournament approaches the half-way mark. We’ve certainly seen some dramatic fights, as well as reversals of fortune. And we're not yet to the end of the first of this double-round robin. Lots of excitement ahead.

After six rounds, Fabiano Caruana hangs on to his position as the front-runner but is now joined on 4.0 / 6 by Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who benefitted from overly optimistic play by Vladimir Kramnik. After his game on Friday, Caruana was asked by Lennart Ootes about Kasparov's "Coliseum" comment, but Caruana was unconvinced, saying the theatre-in-the-round style hall was "an unusual venue, but I don't think they had bananas and dates at the Coliseum".

Wesley So's win over Aronian moved him out of last place, and into a tie with his opponent on 2½ / 6, now on a "minus one" score.

And speaking of debts, there were notable improvements at the venue and online, including added carpets (which absorb noise), more staff to manage crowds, and a coffee/snack bar on in the main area for the public. The games became reliably available on the website in round five, although the overall initiative to reinvent the wheel in chess broadcasting proves a challenge.

A round of draws

Round five was the first in which all games ended drawn, but it was more of an accident than indicative of anyone being in a particularly peaceful mood. Karjakin is the exception. He explained following Friday's play that after his fourth-round loss he was already eager for the next rest day, and considered two relatively easy draws with black a constructive aim.


The previous Challenger is ready for a break | Photo: Niki Riga

In the fifth round, Caruana, with the white pieces, did manage a small surprise with 6.Qb3 — a rare guest in this line of the Catalan — but Karjakin efficiently neutralised any white advantage.


Black played in Meran-style, grabbing Caruana's c-pawn and playing b5, then later the c5 break. Karjakin stated in the press conference that he was still safely in his preparation up to 17...Nxc5, when a mass of exchanges ended in a position with opposite-coloured bishops and further liquidation resulted in a draw on move 31.

Safety first

Another Catalan arose in Ding Liren vs Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, although one much closer to the main lines and in which the world number two was quite comfortable throughout.


Mamedyarov took a solid approach to the position, and the game never strayed from equality. He says he's not yet happy with his play in Berlin, but outwardly he seems confident and determined.

Ding and Mamedyarov

Ding vs Mamedyarov | Photo: World Chess

At the post-game press conference, Ding was already expressing regret over his draw offer, not only because the final position is unclear but also because he said he ought to try for more in a tournament of this importance.

Wesley So, after his rough start with two defeats, switched to a self-preservation mode against Vladimir Kramnik. The 14th World Champion chose the semi-Tarrasch variation in the Queen's Gambit and was still in his home analysis through move 20...h6. He pressed for a long time in an opposite-coloured bishops ending, in a game with echoes of his win over Maxim Matlakov in the 2015 Qatar Masters.

"You cannot win this position but White can lose it" he explained. In the end, So held firm. Their post-game discussion felt like a Master Class from the former World Champ, who noted that his first Candidates tournament was in 1993, the year So was born!

So against Kramnik

So vs Kramnik | Photo: World Chess

Aronian's big miss

The most colourful game was Levon Aronian against Alexander Grischuk. What started in a Benoni structure, quickly became unrecognizable as wild complications arose in the middlegame. Kramnik referred to it as "like Fischer random"!


Aronian won an exchange but in a very double-edged position, in which both kings remained in the centre, the following critical position emerged:


Play the moves on the live diagram

Grischuk's last move was a blunder, but neither side knew it at the time. Here Aronian played 28.Rd6, but paradoxically convinced himself that it was a mistake, and that Rxg4 should have been his choice. While that move is also good, the move in the game is better and winning, which surprised Levon, when pointed out to him at the press conference.

After 28...Qf7, Aronian stunned onlookers by passing up the capture of the c8-bishop with check, and instead opting for 29.Qd8+ a move which throws away the advantage after 29...Qf8 30.Bxf4 Ne6 31.Bc4 Qxd8 32.Qxd8 + Kh7 33.Rxh8+ Rxh8. If anyone is better, it's black. Aronian's dismay afterwards was thinly veiled by his jovial character: 

You have to admire Grischuk's nonchalant demeanour; when asked if he felt he was lost, he replied with a sort of shrug, "yes, yes", provoking a laugh among the crowd. But that paled in comparison to the outburst he received with his follow up remark. He opined that the dead-lost position in the middlegame left him feeling as though his quite level ending seemed "almost winning" by contrast! On the whole, he equated the game with his effort a round before — but in reverse.

Analysis by GM Daniel Fernandez

Click or tap a game in the list to switch

Round six: Three great games

"The thing about the candidates is you don't complain about mistakes because the tension is enormous and you're going to get mistakes." That was IM Malcolm Pein's assessment when he visited the live show with Lawrence Trent and guest-commentator Alexandra Kosteniuk.

And what a round it was! The results on Friday would have been tough to predict at the start of play. The only "boring" game of the day was the early draw between Ding and Karjakin. In a g3 Gruenfeld, Ding sacrificed a pawn early on b2 but saw nothing better for himself than to force a repetition after 14 moves.


Ding couldn't hope for more than compensation for his sacrificed b2-pawn and opted for 14.Rb1 and a draw — not a great result for either player as Ding uses up another white game, while Karjakin remains stuck at the bottom of the table.

Significantly more action came from the game between Caruana and Grischuk. Caruana opened his third white game with the queen's pawn, and Grischuk once again angled for a Benoni. After the game, he recalled how the word Benoni means "son of sorrow" (etymologically a Hebrew term from Genesis), and remarked, "I like everything that is connected with sorrow". Grischuk has really been winning over the live audience in Berlin, despite not winning many of his games at the board.

Caruana and Grischuk

Fabiano Caruana and Alexander Grischuk | Photo: World Chess


Kramnik on tilt

Vladimir Kramnik was doing well before this game. Although he suffered a very bitter loss to Caruana in round four after rocketing to 2½ / 3, he did not seem to be distracted by it and played a clean black game against So in round five, with a solid draw. The game looked to be heading that way again Mamedyarov as well, as White got nothing against Kramnik's ultra-solid setup. Shakhriyar made a silent peace offer with the move 26.Bc2 Na5 27.Bd3 Nc6 28.Bc2:


Kramnik took seven minutes and eschewed the expected 28...Na5 but instead uncorked 28...h5 a move that completely changes the position. Kramnik thought the resulting position was good for Black, but with 29.g5 fxg5 Mamedyarov landed 30.e5 and gained a great strategic advantage. It was Kramnik who was already with his back to the wall.


Although the play was complicated and contained some chances for Black, one can't avoid the impression that Kramnik grossly overestimated his position and 34...Rdc8? turned out to be a critical blunder. Kramnik thought the alternative 34...Nc4 would lead to a draw and said he "hallucinated" that his rook was on c8 rather than c7 after the rook exchange. After 36.Rh1 White is winning a pawn and the rest was a matter of technique.

Just for the sake of argument, let's look at Kramnik's version, which the players quickly discussed at the post-game press conference:


Kramnik counted on 37...Bc6 in this hypothetical position, and the pair of super GMs rattled off the following line which you can play through right on the diagram above: 38.Rxh4 Rf8 39.Kg5 Rxf2 40.Nf4 Nd2 41.Rh7 Nf3+ 42.Kg4 Nh2+ 43.Kg3 Rf3+ 44.Kxh2 Rxf4 45.Rxg7.

"You lose the g7 pawn", was Mamedyarov's verdict.

"OK, it's still a draw probably" Kramnik retorted.

Both are right!

Wesley's Comeback

Wesley So had a very bad start to the tournament but in the next three rounds he stabilized with three draws in a row. On Friday, however, it was time to send a signal: anyone who had already written him off, was making a mistake. Strong preparation in Aronian's home territory of the anti-Marshall, was followed by a clean performance to the very end. So outplayed the Armenian and now equals him on points.

Wesley So

Wesley So defeats Levon Aronian | Photo: World Chess


Standings after six rounds


All games


Andre Schulz and Marco Baldauf contributed to this report


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.


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