Candidates Round 6: Nepomniachtchi wins again, widens the gap

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
3/23/2020 – Ian Nepomniachtchi goes into the second rest day of the Candidates Tournament leading by a full point after beating Ding Liren with White on Monday. The only other player with a plus score is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who held Wang Hao to a draw. Anish Giri defeated Kirill Alekseenko in a game that lasted over seven hours, while Alexander Grischuk had to be precise to split the point with Fabiano Caruana. Expert analysis by GM SAM SHANKLAND and IM LAWRENCE TRENT. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

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Giri wins marathon

The eight-player Candidates tournament is one of the most prestigious global chess events, held every two years. The event will determine who will challenge the defender Magnus Carlsen for the title of the World Chess Champion. This year’s event has a prize fund of 500,000 Euros, which is the highest ever in the history of the Candidates tournaments.

All the results from round six:

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

Round seven takes place on Wednesday, March 25 at 4:00 p.m. local time. Pairings:

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

The tournament is approaching its half-way point, and a player has emerged as the clear leader in Yekaterinburg. Ian Nepomniachtchi scored his second straight win to get a full-point lead over Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The Russian grandmaster beat Ding Liren, who entered a strategically risky position in the middlegame and soon found himself on the ropes against an in-form opponent. Ding threw in the towel on move 40. 

The remaining three games saw one of the players trying to squeeze a slight advantage after the time control. Alexander Grischuk survived time trouble and managed to find plenty of only moves to hold Fabiano Caruana to a draw, while Vachier-Lagrave survived an endgame a pawn down against Wang Hao.

The one that got to score a win from what seemed to be a holdable position for his opponent was Anish Giri. Playing Black against Kirill Alekseenko, he was pressing in a queen and knight endgame. Alekseenko strangely rejected capturing a pawn on move 38 and later found himself defending a 3 v 2 knight ending. Giri continued to tighten the screw until his opponent failed to play a simple forcing line that secured a draw — moreover, the move blundered away the game. Thus, Giri scored his first win after 98 moves and over seven hours of play.

FIDE Candidates 2020

Behind the scenes | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

Nepomniachtchi 1:0 Ding Liren

Few would have predicted — especially before the Coronavirus outbreak — that after six rounds Ding Liren would be sharing last place with only two points to his name. After his unexpected losses in rounds one and two, the Chinese seemed to have recovered his usual steadiness, but on Monday he ended up overestimating his chances with Black and lost for a third time. Needless to say, he was facing the man of the hour.

Nepomniachtchi played White for a second day in a row and once again demonstrated strong preparation. Out of a Ruy Lopez, Ding repeated the 13...d7 line he had used to draw Vachier-Lagrave in London last year. The first one to show an improvement, however, was 'Nepo', who prompted his opponent to take the first long think of the game after 16.b2. A few moves later, the Chinese made a couple of risky decisions, which left him with a couple of doubled pawns in the centre and gave White a strong passer on the queenside:


Ding started pushing his h-pawn, which reached the third rank in the next two moves, while Nepomniachtchi advanced his passer on the b-file all the way down to b6. The Russian needed to be careful to avoid falling for some traps with his king stuck on the corner with a black pawn on h3, but he was certainly the one in the driver's seat otherwise. 

As the game progressed, White's advantage increased. On move 33, Ding could have used an unusual yet strong tactical trick to save a half point, which he failed to find. In all fairness, the sequence was hard for a human to detect over the board, as 'Nepo' emphasized later on. After this miss, White went on to get a valuable full point.

During the press conference, the sole leader and "solid favourite to win the Candidates at this moment" (Sam Shankland, see his annotations below) was frequently coughing. When asked about his health, he replied:

I'm definitely feeling not okay, and actually I wanted to make some kind of quick draw today. 

The Russian clarified that he had been tested twice for Corona and that both times he had tested negative, but also added:

The whole atmosphere does not help you to feel healthy.


Ian Nepomniachtchi

The next World Championship challenger? | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

Alekseenko 0:1 Giri

Most of Giri's games in this event have followed a familiar trend: he gets a good position out of the opening and then either lets his opponent turn the tables or is unable to take advantage of his superior preparation. Against Alekseenko, he once again got a comfortable position (with Black), as he was the only one with realistic chances to fight for more in a symmetrical setup with queens and knights on the board:


By this point, however, it seemed like the draw was inevitable. It is White's turn, and he can restore material equality with 38.♕xb7 — apparently, Alekseenko was looking for a more forcing way to end the game peacefully, though, and opted for 38.d7. Giri later commented that perhaps his opponent wanted to trick him, but that he was focused enough to find 38...b6 in order to continue pressing.

Eventually the queens left the board, and the players entered a pure knight ending with 3 v 2 on the kingside. Giri's fans were hopeful, as a similar setup was reached in a Carlsen v Anand game from the 2019 Tata Steel Tournament — which Carlsen won. Alekseenko was showing resilience, though, until he fell at the last hurdle:


White can force a draw immediately with 89.♘h1+, as the black king can only prevent Black's monarch from reaching the key f4-square with 89...♚g4, which would be responded with 90.♘f2+. But once again Alekseenko made a baffling decision by going 89.d3, and Black got an easy-to-convert position. 

Giri later declared that he did not understand why his opponent had missed the 'very easy' check on h1, and did not hide his joy after having won his first game of the event:

I almost had a heart attack because I realized that it's going to be my first ever win at the Candidates — I think I never had such a high heartbeat. I think today we need a good doctor check after this game.


Anish Giri

It took a while, but it was worth it — Anish Giri | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

Grischuk ½:½ Caruana

Caruana repeated the line he had used against Vachier-Lagrave's 1.e4 in the first round, later playing the very rare 12...e8, a move that had not been used in over ten years. Grischuk did not expect this quasi-novelty and spent over forty minutes finding a way to respond. After repeating the position with 13.g5 f8 14.f3 e8 he went for 15.e1, a line that sacrifices a pawn for White:


The game continued 15...exd4 16.cxd4 xe4 17.d5 xe3 18.xe3 a7. Caruana confessed that he "wasn't too happy" when his rival entered this variation, as he thought it was dangerous for Black. However, he had managed to gain a huge advantage on the clock after having blitzed out his first 22 moves.

According to Grischuk, even though he probably had compensation, he still felt under pressure being a pawn down with little time on the clock. At some point, in fact, the evaluation was favouring Black, but the Russian managed to find some only moves that kept things under control. He later confessed:

When you play half of the game against a computer — against preparation — it's hard to have too big ambitious.

Caruana said he had started to feel optimistic at some point, but a couple of inaccuracies prevented him from winning. When asked about whether he will start playing more aggressively given Nepomniachtchi's big lead, the American responded:

Well, I don't know which is a more risky opening than this 6...c5 I've been playing, so if that's my problem then I'm kind of screwed (smiles).


Alexander Grischuk, Fabiano Caruana

Grischuk and Caruana discussing their game | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

Wang Hao ½:½ Vachier-Lagrave

So far, Vachier-Lagrave has stuck to his guns in Yekaterinburg, playing his pet openings against 1.e4 and 1.d4 when marshalling the black pieces. Round six was no exception, as he played the Grünfeld against Wang Hao. After both players showcased their deep preparation, White emerged with a superior position. When the queens left the board, Wang made a decision that he would later regret:


Instead of going for a pawn with 33.b5, Wang thought 33.g4 was a better try. Even though he did manage to get a material advantage after 33...a6 34.c7 d6 35.xa6, Black had enough resources to create a fortress in this setup. Nonetheless, Wang continued trying until move 83, when the draw was finally agreed. 'MVL' was not satisfied with his performance:   

Too many things were blundered, but it turned out okay because my position was so solid at some point. [...] I really cannot be happy about this game, especially when you compare to every other game I've played so far.

A hypothetical question was posed to both contenders — if they could go back in time, what would they change in their general chess preparation? Wang gave a surprising answer:

In this case, I'd probably not start a chess career. I think I would do something related with the financial market.


Wang Hao

The ever-smiling Wang Hao | Photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE

Round-up show

IM Lawrence Trent recaps the action of the day

Commentary webcast

Commentary by Evgenij Miroshnichenko and Daniil Dubov 

Standings after Round 6


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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