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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Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 3/18/2020 09:35
The essence of the Giri-Nepomniachtchi ending is that it would be a draw if the king can reach the e-file - 53... Qxh4? 54 Kf1! -, as the Qd3 trick wouldn't work anymore. The way the Russian GM managed to prevent this, is top class. Endgame of the year for me!
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 3/18/2020 09:19
Hoi Bert, the problem with your line is that according to the 6-men tablebases - google nalimov - the position is won for black. I don't think the method is essentially different with an extra pawn on h4. Check on the second rank, after Kf1 either Qe3 or Qg3, then Qe2/g2+, then Qf1-e/g1-f2-e2/g2+. There are some zugzwang manoeuvres involved getting the rook on the right file, but it's not that complicated if you know about it, and you can reckon a top GM does so.
tacticalmonster tacticalmonster 3/18/2020 08:53
Reply to bert344: I also wondered about the same line as you did. I have studied Q vs R plus pawn years ago. If the pawn stays at the 2nd rank, it is a theoretical draw. Any pawn beyond the 2nd rank is a forced win for the stronger side. However, white did have the extra h4 pawn and the assessment could change because of it.
blueflare blueflare 3/18/2020 07:11
based on the lineup, this should be an easy stroll for Caruana for another shot at the title. And, no offense, but, Kirill in the Candidates, this is the first time I saw that name, and how in the world he got qualified
Keith Homeyard Keith Homeyard 3/18/2020 02:05
bert344 I try not to criticise players choices at that late a stage, would you still have had an acceptable position then?
Michael Jones Michael Jones 3/18/2020 01:48
Pretty much every other major sporting event scheduled for the next few weeks/months has been cancelled or postponed. Do the organisers of the Candidates think chess is a lower risk than other sports because it has fewer spectators? Or just that Yekaterinburg is so far away from anywhere else that people can't possibly catch anything there?
Chandan Mahajan Chandan Mahajan 3/17/2020 11:23
Radjabov made a mistake ..... There are lot of health precautions at the venue..... He missed World's second biggest Chess tournament, he already qualified...
But MVL is a great to watch he Drew his First game with Last time Challenger Fabiano Caruana...... Means he is prepared already is a good sign for this Tournament...
Peter B Peter B 3/17/2020 11:14
Wang wins and Alekseenko draws with black. So we can forget about suggestions of collusion at least!
Jacob woge Jacob woge 3/17/2020 10:39
Did Caruana and Wang Hao both reply in post-game interview, when asked about if content with safety measures re. covid-19 virus: “This event should not take place” ?

Who would bet on all fourteen rounds to be played out?

Well I am living in hope. First round was great, and CL is cancelled.
Jacob woge Jacob woge 3/17/2020 10:27
I mean, eliminate black’s last pawn.
Jacob woge Jacob woge 3/17/2020 10:25
I am not sure it is a fortress but I would have done the same. Perhaps f2+h3 vs. e4 is a fortress but it seems at h4 the pawn is lost eventually. And then the position is untenable.
bert344 bert344 3/17/2020 09:57
Why did Giri not try 46. Re5 and 47. Rxe4!? The only serious winning attempt from black would be 47. … Qd5 but after 48. f3 Qxa2 49. Kg3 white still seems to have a fortress with the pawns on f3 and h4.