Candidates: Drama, drama! Karjakin takes the lead!

by Albert Silver
3/24/2018 – Round twelve had everyone reeling as the event was stood on its head. Sergey Karjakin beat Fabiano Caruana in a powerful game with a superb exchange sacrifice, and now shares the lead with a better tiebreak. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov lost to Ding Liren, who won his first game and thus joins the group a half-point behind the leaders. Read the report and enjoy the analysis by GM Alex Yermolinsky! | Photo: World Chess

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Anything goes

It was hard to predict a more dramatic turn of events than round twelve in the Candidates tournament, and had anyone done so, they likely would have been the objects of derision. The news without any histrionic buildup was that both leaders Fabiano Caruana and Shakhriyar Mamdyarov lost their respective games. A similar turn of events took place in 2013 when the mutual leaders Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik lost their games in the last round, however, it did not change the end-result, and as such was more a curiosity than drama. In this case, it has literally changed everything, and thrown the tournament wide open in far more ways than just giving others ‘mathematical chances’ at a shot.

At the midway point after seven rounds, all the pundits (the author included) considered the fight for the gold, and a match against Carlsen, to basically be between Caruana and Mamedyarov. This was quite understandable as Fabiano, with 5.0/7 led Shakh by a half-point, and a point and a half over the rest of the field. Ding Liren, Alexander Grischuk, and Vladimir Kramnik were all at 50% while Karjakin, Aronian and So seemed to be in a uniquely depressing fight to see who would not be last. So what happened to change all this?

Karjakin’s amazing comeback

Karjakin was no less than two full points behind the leader, and the talk was really of his finishing with a decent result. However, in the next four rounds he was to score two big wins over Kramnik and Aronian, setting up a massive meeting with Caruana in round twelve. The American, on the other hand, seemed to be running out of steam, and an astonishing missed win against Ding Liren in round nine had many wondering whether the tide had turned. Yes, he continued to lead, but the golden opportunity that he held against the Chinese player, missing win after win after win, made one suspect he might live to regret that. Let’s face it, competition and life in general, has a way of making that happen more often than not. Round twelve saw that truism become reality.

The ceremonial opening move | Photo: World Chess


This example of exchange sacrifice and opening preparation help illustrate one quality that Karjakin has shown in the spades: great nerves!

[Event "World Chess Candidates 2018"] [Site "Berlin"] [Date "2018.03.24"] [Round "12"] [White "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Black "Caruana, Fabiano"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "C42"] [WhiteElo "2763"] [BlackElo "2784"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "95"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. Nc3 Nxc3 6. dxc3 {Karjakin has had a lot of success in this line, which he has always played against the Petroff since the early days of his career. Among others, Sergey defeated Kramnik and Gelfand. Interestingly enough, three of his losses came at the hands of another participant of this tournament, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov!} Nc6 7. Be3 Be7 8. Qd2 Be6 9. O-O-O Qd7 10. a3 $5 {Not a very popular move, but Karjakin had a plan.} ({Since Fabiano does not employ the Petroff that often, he has faced this position only once. Vachier-Lagrave (London Classic 2016) played} 10. b3 O-O-O 11. Nd4 {and here Fabiano replied with} a6 $5 12. Nxe6 fxe6 {giving White the Bishop pair. Eventually, the game was drawn, as MVL had to worry about his king safety.}) ({White shouldn't hurry with} 10. Nd4 { as Black can change his plans regarding his king's placement:} Nxd4 11. Bxd4 Qa4 12. a3 O-O) 10... h6 (10... O-O-O 11. Nd4 Nxd4 $2 12. Bxd4 {double attacks a7 and g7.}) 11. Nd4 Nxd4 ({Now} 11... O-O-O 12. Nxe6 fxe6 13. g3 d5 {doesn't look so attractive to Black who doesn't have any play against the white king on the dark squares.}) 12. Bxd4 Rg8 13. Be2 c5 {Practically forced.} ({Else} 13... b6 14. c4 O-O-O 15. Rhe1 {offers White some edge due to the drafty residence of the black king.}) 14. Be3 d5 15. f4 O-O-O 16. Bf3 Bg4 {[#] Fabiano is looking to relieve pressure by trading bishops.} ({Black had} 16... f5 {but that would mean accepting a slightly worse position for many moves to come.}) 17. Bxd5 $3 {Excellent decision from Sergey, who really knows how to handle decisive games. The value of this move lies in creating an extremely unpleasant situation for Fabiano. Objectively Black may not be much worse, but he finds it hard to develop any play.} ({Of course, not} 17. Qxd5 $2 Qxd5 18. Rxd5 Bxf3 19. Rxd8+ Rxd8 20. gxf3 Rd5) 17... Bxd1 18. Rxd1 Qc7 19. c4 Rge8 20. Qf2 b6 ({Perhaps} 20... f5 {was the better choice.}) 21. g4 $1 (21. Bxf7 $2 { falls into a trap:} Rxd1+ 22. Kxd1 Bh4) 21... Bf6 (21... Bd6 {can be answered by} 22. Kb1 {since now} Rxe3 23. Qxe3 Bxf4 24. Qd3 $1 Kb8 (24... Bxh2 $4 25. Bb7+) 25. h3 {offers White long-term attacking chances. With opposite-colored bishops safety of the kings is paramount.}) 22. Kb1 Rd7 23. Rd3 {Imagine yourself in Caruana's place. He has no active play and he has to wait and see while Karjakin improves his position. Eventually White can strike with b2-b4 or advance his h-pawn.} g5 $6 {I can understand why Fabiano played this move, but it's just not good enough.} 24. Ka2 Ree7 25. Qf3 Kd8 26. Bd2 Kc8 27. Qf1 $1 Rd6 {Now White wins the second pawn, and, more importantly, gets a passer on the h-file.} ({On} 27... Kd8 28. Rh3 {breaks down Black's defenses.}) 28. fxg5 Bxg5 29. Bxg5 hxg5 30. Qf5+ Rdd7 31. Qxg5 Qe5 32. Qh6 Kd8 ({The endgame after} 32... f6 33. h4 Kc7 34. g5 Rh7 35. Qg6 Rdg7 36. Qxf6 Qxf6 37. gxf6 Rd7 38. f7 Rd8 39. Rf3 Rf8 40. Rf4 {is near hopeless for Black, as his rooks are doomed to passivity.}) 33. g5 $1 {In mild time trouble (actually, Caruana had less time) Karjakin remains precise.} Qd6 34. Qh8+ Re8 35. Qh4 Qg6 36. Qg4 Re5 37. h4 Ke7 38. Rd2 {Not a bad move,} ({while both} 38. Qg3 Qf5 39. Rf3) ({and the immediate} 38. Bxf7 Qf5 (38... Qf5) 39. Rxd7+ Kxd7 40. Qd1+ {were also winning. }) 38... b5 {[#] Now Sergey finds a techical solution, which wins slowly but surely.} 39. Bxf7 $5 Qf5 40. Rxd7+ Kxd7 41. Qxf5+ Rxf5 42. g6 Ke7 43. cxb5 Rh5 44. c4 Rxh4 45. a4 Rg4 46. a5 Kd6 47. a6 Kc7 48. Kb3 {The white king simply marches on to the K-side, while Black's defenses are hopelessly stretched.} 1-0

The live post-game commentary by Karjakin and Caruana 

This was the second time that Karjakin has snatched his chance at Caruana’s expense, though this time there are still two rounds to go. What is more, they are hardly alone. Right now, the Russian has the best hand, with a share of the lead and the better tiebreak on all accounts.

A quick reminder of what those criteria are bears remembering, as a playoff only takes place ‘after’ all the tiebreak criteria fail to declare a winner.

  1. Results in the games between the tied players;
  2. The most number of wins;
  3. Sonneborn–Berger score;

It is only if these fail to establish a clear winner then the top spot is decided in a rapid and blitz playoff. Right now, the ball is clearly in Karjakin’s favor as he not only beat Caruana in their game, but has more wins. Still don’t for an instant think that is the end of it, since Mamedyarov beat Karjakin in their game.

Ding Liren makes his move

Speaking of whom, the next big game of the day brought in another potential challenger, Ding Liren. In many ways, the Berlin had been very disappointing for Ding Liren’s fans. The Chinese player is renowned for his sharp play, his inspiring King’s Indian, and fighting spirit. Had he not qualified via the World Cup, he could easily have done so through the FIDE Grand Prix, so his participation was looked forward to by all chess fans. Unfortunately, that sparkling fighting spirit was severely lacking, and he seemed more intent on producing a ‘respectable’ result, rather than trying to win it. After eleven rounds he had eleven draws, drawing inadvertent comparisons with Giri’s all-draw campaign in Moscow 2016, which was all the stranger as Ding Liren has never been considered risk-averse.

While (western) chess has certainly gained traction in China thanks to Hou Yifan and the rising success of players such as Ding Liren (above), a win at the Candidates and match for the title would take this to a whole different level. | Photo: World Chess

What changed was that in spite of the draws, the leaders seemed to be on cruise control now, and instead of stamping their authority seemed more intent on just holding on to their chips. A big game between the Chinese player and the Azeri changed all that.

[Event "World Chess Candidates 2018"] [Site "Berlin"] [Date "2018.03.24"] [Round "12"] [White "Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar"] [Black "Ding, Liren"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D41"] [WhiteElo "2809"] [BlackElo "2769"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "86"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 c5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. e4 Nxc3 7. bxc3 cxd4 8. cxd4 Bb4+ 9. Bd2 Bxd2+ 10. Qxd2 O-O 11. Bc4 Nd7 12. O-O b6 13. Rad1 Bb7 14. Rfe1 Rc8 15. Bb3 Re8 16. h3 Nf6 17. Qf4 Nh5 {This move was seen earlier in the tournament in So-Kramnik, played in Round 5.} 18. Qh2 h6 19. Ne5 ({Wesley was unable to get anything going after} 19. d5 exd5 20. exd5 Rxe1+ 21. Nxe1 Qf6 22. Nd3 Ba6 $1) 19... Nf6 20. Qf4 b5 {[#]} 21. Re3 ({White had an interesting possibility in} 21. Nxf7 Kxf7 22. e5 {hoping for} Qc7 $2 ({I'm sure both players saw} 22... a5 23. exf6 Qxf6 24. Qd6 Rc6 25. Qa3 a4 26. d5 Ra6 27. dxe6+ Kg8 28. Bc2 Raxe6 $11) 23. Rc1 Qb8 24. Rxc8 {where Black has no good recapture: } Bxc8 (24... Rxc8 25. Bxe6+ Kxe6 26. exf6+ Kf7 27. Re7+ Kf8 28. Qe3 $18) 25. Qf5 $3 Kf8 26. exf6 exf5 27. Rxe8+ Kxe8 28. fxg7 $18) ({Another plan was the standard} 21. d5 $5 exd5 22. exd5 Qd6 23. Qd4 a5 24. a4 b4 25. Re3) 21... Rc7 22. Nd3 {Shakh appears to be a bit indecisive.} (22. d5 exd5 23. exd5 Qd6 24. Qg3 Rd8 25. Ng4 Qxg3 26. Nxf6+ gxf6 27. Rxg3+ Kf8 28. d6 Rc6 29. Rgd3 a5 $14) 22... Rc3 $1 {A rook trade will come as big relief for Black's position.} 23. Nc5 Rxe3 24. Qxe3 Bc6 25. Rc1 Qb6 26. f3 Rd8 27. Kf2 a5 28. g4 ({The last chance to change the course of the game was represented by} 28. Nxe6 $5 fxe6 29. Bxe6+ Kf8 30. d5 Qxe3+ 31. Kxe3 Bd7 ({A rather unclear situation arises after} 31... Bxd5 32. Rd1 Bxe6 33. Rxd8+ Ke7 34. Ra8 a4 35. a3 g5) 32. Bxd7 Nxd7 33. Rc7 Ke8 34. Kd4 b4 35. Ra7 {Honestly, White doesn't have much in either line, but this is more like Mamedyarov's chess than the sit-and-wait policy he adopted in the game continuation.}) 28... a4 29. Bc2 Nd7 30. Bd3 (30. Nd3 Nf6 31. Bb1) 30... Nxc5 31. Rxc5 b4 $15 {[#] I guess around these parts Shakh came to realize his position was gradually getting worse.} 32. Bc4 $2 { This active attempt only puts White on the brink of disaster.} ({Instead, he could have held on with} 32. h4 b3 33. axb3 axb3 34. Bb1 Be8 35. Qc3 b2 36. e5 Rb8 37. h5 {It's not clear how Black makes progress from this point on.}) 32... Bd7 33. g5 (33. e5 b3 34. axb3 a3 35. Qd2 Ra8 36. b4) 33... hxg5 34. Qxg5 Be8 35. Qe7 $2 {This loses.} (35. Qe3 $142) 35... b3 $1 {Ding has let his chances slip away in some games, but this time he stays focused and brings home his first victory.} 36. axb3 a3 37. b4 (37. Qc7 Qxc7 38. Rxc7 Ra8 $19) 37... Ra8 38. d5 (38. Ba2 Qxb4) 38... a2 {[#]} 39. dxe6 {There will be no miracles as White's Rc5 remains pinned and is unable to join the attack.} ({However, there was no salvation in} 39. Bxa2 Rxa2+ 40. Kg3 Qxb4 41. Qxe8+ Kh7 42. Qxf7 (42. Rc8 Qd2 $1) 42... Qxc5 43. Qh5+ Kg8 44. Qe8+ Qf8 45. Qxe6+ Kh7 $19) 39... a1=Q 40. exf7+ Bxf7 41. Bxf7+ Kh7 42. Qh4+ Qh6 43. Rh5 Qa7+ 0-1

Suddenly, that single win has placed him in a tie for 3rd-5th just a half-point behind the leaders with a better tiebreak than Mamedyarov by virtue of their direct game.

This brings us to the final (and fifth!) player to have real chances at gold: Alexander Grischuk. His game against the luckless Levon Aronian might have placed him in stronger contention had he been able to pull off the full point, a chance that did exist, but a draw in the end left him in the group nipping at the heels of the leaders.

While Alexander Grischuk has never quite seemed to threaten to actually win the Candidates, it would be a big mistake to discount him. His chances are every bit as real as the others. | Photo: World Chess

[Event "World Chess Candidates 2018"] [Site "Berlin"] [Date "2018.03.24"] [Round "12"] [White "Grischuk, Alexander"] [Black "Aronian, Levon"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "C88"] [WhiteElo "2767"] [BlackElo "2794"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "108"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 O-O 8. d3 d6 9. Bd2 Kh8 10. h3 Nd7 11. Nc3 Na5 12. Nd5 Nxb3 13. axb3 Bb7 14. c4 f5 15. Ba5 Rc8 16. Rc1 bxc4 17. bxc4 fxe4 18. dxe4 Nc5 19. Bc3 Qe8 20. b4 Ne6 21. Bd2 c6 $6 22. Nxe7 Qxe7 {[#] The only moment in this otherwise uneventful game that is worth mentioning.} 23. Be3 ({White had to try} 23. c5 $5 {Likely Grischuk wasn't sure how to answer} Rcd8 {He had two good options:} 24. Re3 ({ or} 24. cxd6 Rxd6 25. Rc3 $1 Qd8 26. Qb3) 24... dxc5 25. bxc5 Nxc5 26. Qe2 Ne6 27. Ba5 Rc8 28. Bc3 {winning the e5-pawn.}) 23... c5 24. bxc5 Nxc5 25. Bxc5 Rxc5 26. Nd2 Bc8 27. Nf1 Be6 {Now White's advantage is purely academic.} 28. Ne3 Rc6 29. Qa4 Rfc8 30. Rb1 h6 31. Rb8 Rxc4 32. Rxc8+ Rxc8 33. Qxa6 Qc7 34. Rd1 Rd8 35. Qd3 Qc5 36. Kh2 Qc7 37. Kg1 Qc5 38. Rd2 Qc7 39. Qa3 Qe7 40. Rd1 Kh7 41. Qb4 Qc7 42. Rd3 Kg8 43. Qd2 Qe7 44. Kh2 Qf8 45. Kg1 Qe7 46. Qd1 Kh7 47. Rd2 Qf8 48. Rd3 Qe7 49. Rd2 Qf8 50. Nf1 Rd7 51. Ng3 Qb8 52. Kh2 Qf8 53. Kg1 Qb8 54. Kh2 Qf8 1/2-1/2

The final game of the day was between Vladimir Kramnik and Wesley So. Kramnik has certainly been one of the most entertaining players of the tournament, taking considerable risks to give himself winning chances, some of which have paid off, and some which have backfired in no small terms. After his loss to Caruana as far back as round four, in spite of still being on plus one, his haunted look and extreme displeasure left one wondering whether it had hit and hurt harder than it should, and sadly this fear came true as he never seemed to recover. In round twelve he was pressing against Wesley So, another player who never got into second gear, but ultimately could not close the deal and a draw was agreed.

Journalists and fans await the commentary | photo: World Chess

[Event "World Chess Candidates 2018"] [Site "Berlin"] [Date "2018.03.24"] [Round "12"] [White "Kramnik, Vladimir"] [Black "So, Wesley"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D31"] [WhiteElo "2800"] [BlackElo "2799"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "84"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. c4 e6 2. Nc3 d5 3. d4 Be7 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Bf4 c6 6. e3 Bf5 7. g4 Be6 8. Qb3 $146 (8. h4 Bxh4 $5 {For a long time theory disapproved of this move} 9. Qb3 g5 10. Be5 f6 11. Bh2 Bxg4 12. Qxb7 Qe7 13. Qxe7+ Nxe7 14. Be2 Bxe2 15. Kxe2 Nd7 16. Nf3 {0-1 (47) Giri,A (2785)-So,W (2815) INT 2017}) 8... Qb6 9. f3 g5 10. Be5 f6 11. Bg3 Qxb3 12. axb3 h5 13. gxh5 Rxh5 14. Bd3 Kf7 15. h4 f5 16. Nh3 f4 17. exf4 Bxh3 {[#] This runs into an incredible response.} (17... gxh4 $14 18. Ng5+ Rxg5 19. fxg5 hxg3) 18. fxg5 $1 {Kramnik continues to entertain, bad tournament situation or not.} Bd7 ({Not} 18... Bg2 $2 19. Rh2 $18) 19. Kf2 Na6 20. Bxa6 bxa6 21. Ne2 Bd8 22. Be5 Ne7 23. Nf4 ({Worse is} 23. Rxa6 Ng6 $17) 23... Rh7 24. h5 Kg8 25. Rag1 Nf5 26. h6 Be8 27. g6 Rxh6 28. Rxh6 Nxh6 29. Rh1 Bg5 30. Ne6 Bxg6 31. Nxg5 Nf7 {[#]} 32. Ne6 $2 ({Computers think White should play} 32. f4 $16) ({while I see value in} 32. Nxf7 Kxf7 33. Ke3 Bf5 34. Ra1 { and White can play this forever.}) 32... Nxe5 33. dxe5 Re8 34. Nf4 Bc2 $1 35. Rg1+ Kf7 36. e6+ Kf6 37. Nh5+ Ke5 38. f4+ Kd6 39. Ng7 Rf8 40. Ke3 {[#]} d4+ $1 41. Kf3 Ke7 42. b4 Kf6 $11 1/2-1/2

The Queen's Gambit Declined Exchange Variation

The Queen’s Gambit Declined Exchange Variation is one of the most important opening systems, having been played by most of the great players in history and from both sides of the board. The most outstanding specialists in this method of play include Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Botvinnik and Samuel Reshevsky. The Black side proponents include Anatoly Karpov, Boris Spassky and Paul Keres. It is truly an opening of champions!

The race to the finish

With two rounds left, and no fewer than five serious candidates (pun intended) for first place, everything will be decided in the next two rounds, and it is the player who is able to really play hard and keep his nerve who will ultimately prevail. For the two leaders Karjakin and Caruana, they each have one big game left that can decide their fates favorably or not. Obviously all points count far more dearly at this point, so all games are decisive, but some more than others. In round thirteen be sure to follow Mamedyarov against Grischuk, as a draw will do neither of them any good, so expect sparks to fly! Lastly, in round fourteen the two big do-or-die games will be Grischuk against Caruana and Karjakin against Ding Liren. Drum roll!

Standings after twelve rounds


Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.


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