Candidates: Wang stuns Ding, Nepomniachtchi beats Giri

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
3/17/2020 – The long-anticipated Candidates Tournament kicked off with two surprising results, as both Ding Liren and Anish Giri lost with the white pieces, against Wang Hao and Ian Nepomniachtchi respectively. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave v Fabiano Caruana and Alexander Grischuk v Kirill Alekseenko were hard-fought games that finished drawn, with Grischuk going into his usual extreme time trouble. Video round-up by GM SIMON WILLIAMS and GM BORIS GELFAND analysed the all-Russian clash. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

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Who saw that coming?

The eight-player Candidates tournament will determine who will challenge the defender Magnus Carlsen for the title of the World Chess Champion. The tournament runs from March 16 to April 4, 2020. No draw offers are allowed prior to move 40. This year’s event has a prize fund of 500,000 Euros, which is the highest ever in the history of the Candidates tournaments.

Results of Round 1
Name Result Name
Vachier-Lagrave Maxime ½ - ½ Caruana Fabiano
Ding Liren 0 - 1 Wang Hao
Giri Anish 0 - 1 Nepomniachtchi Ian
Grischuk Alexander ½ - ½ Alekseenko Kirill

Round two takes place on Wednesday, March 18 at 4:00 p.m. local time. Pairings:

Name Result Name
Caruana Fabiano   Alekseenko Kirill
Nepomniachtchi Ian   Grischuk Alexander
Wang Hao   Giri Anish
Vachier-Lagrave Maxime   Ding Liren

Each of the previous two Candidates Tournaments (Moscow 2016 and Berlin 2018) had a single player finishing the fourteen rounds undefeated — four years ago, Anish Giri famously drew all his games, while in Germany a certain Ding Liren left a strong impression after winning one and drawing thirteen to get fourth place. Both of them kicked off this year's edition with the white pieces, and both of them lost.

Giri and Ding will have a tough task in trying to bounce back immediately, but given their famously pragmatic approach they will surely keep in mind that this is a long event — in fact, Sergey Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana both lost a game on their way to tournament victory in the previous editions. Round two will also feature a clash between top seed Caruana and the lowest-rated participant Kirill Alekseenko, when the American will have a good chance to get on the scoreboard while marshalling the white pieces.

Anish Giri, Anatoly Karpov, Ian Nepomniachtchi

Former world champion Anatoly Karpov made the ceremonial first move in Giri v Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Maria Emelianova / FIDE

Giri 0:1 Nepomniachtchi

Well-known for his strong theoretical preparation, Anish Giri played his 19 first moves with conviction. Furthermore, he gave up an exchange on move 18, after his opponent had already spent 11 and 18 minutes on two of his previous decisions. It was safe to imagine the Dutchman at least knew how to enter a line that would get him a forced draw, but as the game progressed it became increasingly apparent that Nepomniachtchi had a good grip of the position.

By move 30, it was clear only Black could fight for a win, and Giri decided to enter an endgame with rook and bishop against queen, one that Nigel Short would describe thus:

I think Giri has [a] fortress, if he sacrifices his queen. I cannot believe that there are any serious chances of winning this.  


White entered the suggested position with 31.xe6 xb3 32.g4+ f8 33.xb3. Short's assessment of the position was shared by some other commentators, but holding it over the board against a player as resourceful as 'Nepo' is by no means easy. Eventually, White was left with a rook and two pawns against a queen and a pawn, and slowly but surely Black activated his king until leaving the opposite army corralled on the bottom-right corner of the board (if we think of a computer board). Giri resigned on move 73.


Anish Giri, Ian Nepomniachtchi

Body language says it all | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

Ding Liren 0:1 Wang Hao

If someone had told you Wang Hao would be playing in the Candidates a year ago, it is very likely you would have bet against it. Fast forward to 2020 and the experienced Chinese grandmaster not only qualified but already took down one of the favourites, with Black, in round one. His victim was Ding Liren, a player who is considered to be one of the biggest threats to Magnus Carlsen's hegemony at the top.

The Chinese stars entered a queenless middlegame with seven pawns per side in a closed set up. Ding was the first one to break open the centre with the faulty 30.f4. Wang was already in the driver's seat, but his opponent still had chances, until a decisive error came on the last move before the time control:


The best defensive try would be 40.d4 here, but with little time on the clock Ding went for 40.dd2, when Black gets a strategically winning endgame after 40...xh4 41.g2 and the good-looking 41...g4. White did capture the exchange a couple of moves later, only to resign shortly after.


Wang Hao

Wang Hao showed deep chess understanding once again | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

Vachier-Lagrave ½:½ Caruana

Two of the strongest calculators in the circuit played the kind of game we would expect from them. Some nice tactical motifs were seen right out of the opening:


At first sight, it is very scary to note that White can give a discovered check next move by jumping with the knight anywhere. But Caruana knew why he had entered this line — the world number two was well-aware that after 17...e4 18.d6+ h8 he was completely safe. In fact, Black got a slight edge later in the game. Vachier-Lagrave's defensive abilities were up to the task, though, and the draw was signed after 44 moves.


Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

A draw against the top seed is not a bad way to kick off the event after finding out you will participate a little over a week ago | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

Grischuk ½:½ Alekseenko

With three Russians in the field, we are bound to see an all-Russian pairing in rounds 1-3 and 9-11. Today's 'edition' had fan favourite Alexander Grischuk facing wildcard Kirill Alekseenko. In typical style, Grischuk spent a lot of time digging deep into the nuances of the position. He did get a massive centre and was clearly the one pushing for more, but when the time control was approaching he could not find the way to escape Black's infiltration on the kingside:


Despite being a pawn down, Alekseenko has managed to exchange the rooks on the a-file and is now ready to enter his opponent's camp with 36...xg2 37.xg2 d5+ 38.f2 h4+, soon getting a perpetual.


Alexander Grischuk, Kirill Alekseenko

The compatriots did shake hands before their game | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

Round up show

Simon Williams reviews the highlights of Round 1:

Commentary webcast

Commentary by Evgenij Miroshnichenko and Daniil Dubov 

Standings after Round 1


All games



Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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