Candidates Round 12: Nepo wins to keep the lead as Giri beats Caruana

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/25/2021 – An exciting round with four decisive results left two players as the main contenders to win the Candidates Tournament. Anish Giri continued his run of excellent form and beat Fabiano Caruana with the black pieces, but could not catch up with Ian Nepomniachtchi, who got the better of Wang Hao. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ding Liren also won. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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MVL bounces back

All the results from round 12:

Wang Hao 0-1 Ian Nepomniachtchi
Fabiano Caruana 0-1 Anish Giri
Ding Liren 1-0 Alexander Grischuk
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 1-0 Kirill Alekseenko

Round 13 will take place on Monday, April 26 at 4:00 p.m. local time. Pairings:

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

Anish Giri continues to impress in Yekaterinburg. The Dutchman, who arrived in the Russian city after two massively successful performances, has won three out of his five games since the resumption of the Candidates Tournament. Unfortunately for him, Ian Nepomniachtchi, who entered the second half of the event as the shared leader, has been showing an excellent feel regarding when to play solidly and when to look for advantages, scoring two wins to go into the last two rounds of the tournament a half point ahead of his Dutch colleague.

In the first round of the event that featured four decisive results, Giri scored a crucial victory over Fabiano Caruana, leaving the American two full points behind the leader. Meanwhile, Nepomniachtchi patiently outplayed Wang Hao from a seemingly harmless position.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who came from losing twice since the resumption of the tournament, bounced back with a win over Kirill Alekseenko. The Frenchman still has an outside chance of winning the event, as he will face Nepomniachtchi in Monday’s 13th round. MVL is currently 1½ points behind the leader, so a win would leave him only a half point back while holding the better tiebreak score going into the last round.

Round 12 also saw Ding Liren getting his second win of the tournament, as he beat Alexander Grischuk with the white pieces. The Chinese grandmaster will be Nepomniachtchi’s last rival and might play a big role in deciding who gets to become Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

The next World Championship challenger? | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Caruana 0 - 1 Giri

It was not a surprise that the players went for a Sicilian, as signing a draw would not have benefited either of them. In fact, in the post-game interview, Caruana mentioned that this was a must-win game. The American got a good position out of the opening, but an unexpected move by his opponent threw him off his game.


Giri played 20...Qf8, and both contenders later identified this as a key moment in the game. Caruana, who was looking for ways to get the initiative, did not react well and slowly lost the thread. The engines think this position is roughly balanced, but the psychological factor played a major role from this point on. Giri explained

I felt he was quite enthusiastic about his position, but after ...Qf8, which is a good move, he probably realized that he was no longer playing for an advantage, and I think, given that he was in a must-win situation, it was a big letdown for him.

Black eventually gained a pawn and the initiative. Giri showed a crucial tactic which prevented Caruana from restoring material balance.


After 35...Ra4, White cannot play 36.Qb6 Rxa3 37.Qxd6 due to 37...Rxf3 38.gxf3 Qe2 and Black wins.


Thus, Caruana opted for 36...Qf2, but anyway had to resign nine moves later. It was yet another brilliant performance by Giri, and his second win in a row. On Monday, after the rest day, the Dutchman will face Grischuk with the black pieces.


Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri

Fabiano Caruana facing the man of the hour, Anish Giri | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Wang 0 - 1 Nepomniachtchi

Nepo did not play ambitiously in the opening, allowing a symmetrical structure to appear on the board after exchanging queens on move 9. The Russian, however, outplayed his opponent in the middlegame, slowly improving his pieces until reaching a superior rook-and-knight endgame.


Endgame specialist Karsten Müller analysed the game from this position, noting that even a slight initiative plays a big role in these setups. Wang’s decision to resign on move 59 was questioned by online spectators, but as Müller shows — and as the players mentioned in the press conference — there was no way for White to hold a draw, especially given how well Nepo had been handling what was a highly technical game from start to finish. 


Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Vachier-Lagrave 1 - 0 Alekseenko

As Magnus Carlsen had mentioned a few days earlier, credit should be given to Alekseenko for showing resourcefulness in difficult positions, but that does not take away from the fact that it is clear he is having trouble facing players who have been atop the world rankings for years. Against Vachier-Lagrave in round 12, Alekseenko found himself a pawn down on move 19. MVL then correctly simplified the position into an endgame.


Once again, Karsten Müller took a closer look into this ending, noting that Alekseenko’s 30...Rd7 was too passive in this position, as Black would have a better chance to defend with 30...Rb8. Replay the full analysis on the interactive board below.


Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

The pressure is off — Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Ding 1 - 0 Grischuk

Already in the early middlegame, the commentators mentioned that the position achieved by Grischuk with the black pieces offer very little chances to play for a win. The Russian’s setup was very solid, nonetheless, but Ding manoeuvred masterfully until getting his second win of the tournament. 

In the post-game press conference, Grischuk, who also plays this line with the white pieces, confessed:

This is what I was always dreaming to get with white, but never could.


Naturally, the engines consider this to be a defensible position for black, but for a human, it is very difficult to keep finding the precise defensive moves while White continues to manoeuvre his pieces around making use of his spatial advantage. The players discussed the possibility of 37...Qa8 at this point, for example, when it is difficult to find a plan for white. 

Grischuk played 37...Ra1 instead and lost the thread shortly after the time control. The Russian resigned in the following position.


After drawing all his games in the first half, Grischuk has lost twice and defeated Vachier-Lagrave since the resumption of the event.


Ding Liren

Ding Liren | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Standings after Round 12


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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lajosarpad lajosarpad 4/27/2021 05:13
@Peter B, I was not aware of this example, thanks for sharing!
Peter B Peter B 4/27/2021 06:07
@lajosarpad that is pretty well what happened in 1959. Tal smashed the tailenders 14.5-1.5, but lost his minimatch to Keres 3-1.
tympsa tympsa 4/26/2021 11:47
If player wants to be World Champion, he has to take time and work hard to qualify for W Ch match . Excuses like : "I have so many money tournaments to play, I dont have time to play Interzonal and 3 candidates matches as well " sounds weird. World Championships is voluntary event, if you dont want to play, dont play . Fischer did not want to complete Sousse Interzonal 1967, which he was leading with 7 wins and 3 draws , left , and it was only his problem. Show went on without him. If we watch 1967-1969 W Ch cycle we see there was reasonable rest periods between matches . Spassky-Geller QF was from 4th Apr-17th Apr, Spassky -Larsen SF from 1st July -20th July and Spassky-Korchnoi final from 6th Sept - 26th Sept . Of course it was quite an effort, lot of work and energy was spent, but W Ch match against Petrosjan started in April 1969, so Spassky had lot of time to recover . No way he was exchausted before W Ch match. And players who dropped out, they found other tournaments to play. Modern candidates tournament is certainly easier than interzonal + 3 candidates matches and modern best of 12 games W Ch match is lot easier than match to 6 wins or match best of 24 games like they had before . But I am convinced easy is not better than hard if we are talking about World Championships. Qualifying formula to Candidates is outright insane and makes field very uneven. 4 players from live top 10 ranking is missing, but world #42 is playing as wild card. If all players earned their spot on Interzonal + last cycle title challenger, it would be understandable, but now this is just weird and unfair.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 4/26/2021 11:38
I think the current format is fair, that is, it consistently provided a challenger who posed great problems for the World Champion. However, I also think that a knockout system with classical matches, like in the good old days would be better. Besides the unmeasurable increased dramatic show of the fight of two brilliant persons' willpower, I have an objective argument: let's imagine a case when player A beats everyone else 1.5-05, reaching 10.5 points and player B losing to player A 0.5-1.5, yet, player B beats everyone else, totalling 12.5 points. Who was the best player in the tournament in this case? Player A, since he has been better individually than everyone else, or player B, who scored the most points, but was clearly inferior than player A? We can come up with the example that player A has beaten player B 2-0 and everyone else 1.5-05, while player B scored 2-0 against everyone except player A. In this case, player A has 11 points, while player B has 12 points, and, again, player A was superior in comparison with everyone else and totally dominated player B, yet, player B still collected more points, as he proved to be more effective against weaker players. The reason I'm saying the current format is fairly reliable is that 1. the aforementioned scenario is rare 2. even player B is a serious challenger to a World Champion.
Phillidor Phillidor 4/26/2021 08:09
I'd say it's a matter of taste to determine the winner with or without tiebreaks. Let's say Nepo, Giri, MVL and Caruana all finish on 8/14. I'd say it's impossible to give a definite answer what would be fair to do in such situation. Usually the tiebreak would suppose the scores as if these 4 players played only against themselves (this would favour MVL) or the player with the most wins (this would favour Nepo) or there could be another tournament for all 4 of them. But in the latter case: who plays who, what is the format, say it's still equal for everyone, then have an armageddon and people complaining about why not just have tiebreaks in the first place? So I'd say it can always go both ways.
Petrosianic Petrosianic 4/26/2021 05:20
The use of tiebreaks makes the tournament much less interesting than it should be. Tiebreaks formerly weren't thought good enough to assign a mere interzonal slot, now we're willing to pick the challenger with them, just because we don't care enough to play until we have a winner.

Bronstein and Boleslavsky played a 12 game match to break a tie in the Candidates, we can't even muster a single 5 minute Armgeddon game.
Peter B Peter B 4/26/2021 03:38
Keres probably would have beaten Tal under a match system in 1959. You can also argue whether Reshevesky was the best player in 1953. I also think the recent Candidates have been too short to truly say who is the best candidate. So I think a match system is better. The only problem is finding the time: I would say they need to be at least best of 8 before going to tie breaks, and it is hard to envisiage finding the time in the schedule for 3 rounds of matches like that. One solution is to play only a single best of 8 match, between the top 2 finishers in the Candidates tournament, with the tournament winner having draw odds.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 4/26/2021 12:16
As a Dutchman, I would have preferred Wang Hao to play on. However, if Giri doesn't win the tournament it is because he lost that game to Nepomniachtchi – nothing else. In any format there are always people not happy with it. But in the end you just have to win your games, not lose them.
Wang Hao wasn't very pleased about this tournament from the beginning. (And – although I can't refind the sources – I read somewhere he wasn't too pleased about being skipped for online tournaments; he even got interested in other things than chess lacking practicing opportunities. Besides, before qualifying he considered himself semi-retired.) Anyway, he may have had some reason to be less motivated to fight in a highly unpleasant endgame. He did fight in other games, but for a win, even beating his countryman Ding. And don't forget his queen sacrifice against Grischuk.
conillet conillet 4/26/2021 12:08
There are good arguments for and against both systems. One drawback of knockouts that hasn't been mentioned is that unless you make the matches as long or almost as long as the final, tiebreaks in rapid or even blitz format will be inevitable, and players may even speculate with them, as Grischuk once famously did and almost succeeded. At present we have the fortunate situation that all the top players seem to be legit, so probably a tournament is the better of two imperfect options.
adbennet adbennet 4/25/2021 08:25
Comments about 3x Russian or 2x Chinese fail to recognize that elite players today are tremendous fighters who got where they are by viciously scrapping over every pawn. It's possible that they may take a 1/2 point rest day against a friend (who by the way might just share nationality). But to throw a full point in order to help a "compatriot" become the challenger? I don't see it.

tympsa wrote: "It worked very well in the past and produced World Champion challengers like Spassky, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov . Candidates tournaments produced Bronstein, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosjan . Not quite the same ."

So Petrosian as a tournament finalist was "not quite the same" as Spassky as a knockout finalist? Then how do you explain the 1966 WC match result between them?

The knockout system is only better for preventing collusion. Russia is not the same as the USSR, players of any nationality may collude but the state is no longer arranging for it.

The primary drawback to the knockout system is the finalist arrives at the WC match exhausted... totally unfair situation when the incumbent has been relaxing in his training camp. The secondary drawback is a player commits to a full knockout schedule in advance, but if knocked out then they have a big hole in their tournament calendar.

The tournament system is better for FIDE, organizers, and players. Slightly more randomizing in the finalist selection is offset by the finalist being in better shape in the WC match.

Ask the players which they prefer.
alphamaster alphamaster 4/25/2021 07:10
To have a wildcard in an eight players final candidates tournament is something that only in chess happens and it adds to the unreliability of the event and the all WC cycle.
malfa malfa 4/25/2021 04:21
@ fgkdjlkag

Yes, I was referring to the candidates tournament, yet from a purely sportive point of view I am inclined to generalize my assertion, though of course I understand the advantages in other aspects.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 4/25/2021 04:06
I would also prefer matches; the same opinion was expressed by the famous Spanish journalist a couple months ago.

It is not silly for the organizer to select a wildcard and happens in many tournaments everywhere, and there is a reason for it: if you organize something in a small country at a great expense, then it gives you an incentive to host because you can pick a local player. If you didn't have any wildcards, it means some organizers would not do it, which means less money for chess and fewer tournaments. Unless you are specifically referring to the wildcard for the Candidates, when it would obviously be better to not have one to have the highest chance of the best player qualifying.
malfa malfa 4/25/2021 03:11
It has been pinpointed ages ago how silly is to allow the organizer to select a wildcard.

Motivation by the players who are out of contention is a different issue: we may see an Ivanchuk who without any hope to qualify shatters all Kramnik's ambitions on the very last round, or a Wang Hao who unexpectedly surrenders without any further try to fight. The certain thing is that I have never seen a player saving half point by resigning :-)

However it is funny to see how many voices suddenly spring up lamenting the tournament format as soon as the American candidate practically goes out of contention ;-)
alphamaster alphamaster 4/25/2021 01:54
There are many ways White can hold the draw with slightly incorrect play by Nepo (evaluation -1,58 at the time Wang resigned) and in any case, the premature resignation was the opposite of sportsmanship.
This Candidates tournament format has many holes and drawbacks and is time to return to pure knock-out matches.
Fischer was right one more time.
fixpont fixpont 4/25/2021 12:38
@tympsa: inviting the 3rd noname russian guy not even 2700 was a hotbed of speculations, i agree it was a huge mistake
tympsa tympsa 4/25/2021 11:53
Unfortunately tournament format is not good. 3 Russian players, 2 of them clearly weaker than their leader, 2 Chinese players both at -2 makes very uneven field and some players are not motivated at all to go all out in every game, especially in 2nd round. Somehow resembles Curacao Candidates 1962 . Candidates quarterfinals, semifinals and final would be much better . Qualifing events zonal and interzonal tournaments . Qualified ranking best four are drawing opponent from ranking weaker four and playing 4 QF matches until someone collects, lets say 4,5 points. In case of 4-4 tie, rapid and blitz games are played to determine the winner .Then after month or two of intermission, winners are playing semifinals and then final . It worked very well in the past and produced World Champion challengers like Spassky, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov . Candidates tournaments produced Bronstein, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosjan . Not quite the same .