Candidates R1: High-quality, fighting draws

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/5/2024 – The much anticipated Candidates Tournament kicked off in Toronto, Canada. The open section featured four draws on the first day of action. In the all-American confrontation between Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura (who are also the top two seeds in the event), Caruana got to put pressure on his compatriot with the white pieces. A fighting draw was also seen in the battle of youngsters between Alireza Firouzja and Praggnanandhaa R. | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

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An all-American classic

World number one Magnus Carlsen considers that the two players most likely to win the Candidates Tournament in Toronto are Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura. The two favourites according to Carlsen are also the highest-rated players in the event and two of the three participants aged 30 or above (with Ian Nepomniachtchi) in the open section.

Caruana played white against Nakamura in round 1, as players from the same country are paired up against each other in the first rounds to avoid potential collusions. Caruana got to put pressure on his compatriot, but Naka found strong defensive recourses, which prompted Caruana to acquiesce to a draw on move 41.

The all-American classic was one of four draws seen on opening day:

  • Gukesh D employed an interesting opening idea with white against Vidit Gujrathi. On move 17, Vidit spent almost 40 minutes before playing a continuation that led to a draw by repetition.
  • Underdog Nijat Abasov understandably chose to play solidly with white against 2-time Candidates’ winner Ian Nepomniachtchi. A 34-move draw was the result.
  • Alireza Firouzja and Praggnanandhaa R played the most exciting game of the day, as Firouzja took some risks with the white pieces. After going for a sharp tactical idea in the middlegame, though, Firouzja failed to find the most precise continuation, and Pragg managed to escape with a draw by perpetual check.

Friday’s second round will see rating favourite Caruana playing white against Abasov in what the U.S. grandmaster surely considers to be a great chance to score a full point.

Vidit Gujrathi

Meditating before the start of the tournament — Vidit Gujrathi | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza 

Caruana ½ - ½ Nakamura

Theoretical preparation plays a big role in elite chess events, and it was Nakamura who got a small victory in his round-1 encounter against Caruana, as his 5...e5 steered clear of the much-studied Najdorf Defence in the Sicilian.

This surprise allowed Nakamura to gain a considerable advantage on the clock. Caruana used his time wisely, though, as he decided to avoid the sharpest continuations (which his opponent had surely prepared deeply) while making the most of the strategic benefits that White obtains in this sideline.

By move 19, Nakamura had 1 hour and 41 minutes to Caruana’s 51 minutes. However, at that point, Nakamura realised that he needed to be careful, and thought for over half an hour before deciding how to continue.

Soon after, Caruana gained a pawn, as Nakamura looked for counter-chances in a position with opposite-coloured bishops on the board.

23...Rxf2 is the best move in the position, as played by Black. The idea is that 24.Kxf2 fails to 24...Qh4+ and White will not be able to escape a draw by perpetual check.

Thus, Caruana replied by 24.Rbxd5 Qh4 25.Qd3, consolidating his position, and a critical point in the game was reached after 25...Rf6 26.g3 Qb4 27.Kg2 Bb2

With 12 minutes left on his clock (for 13 moves), Caruana here decided to get rid of Black’s active rook by playing 28.Rf5. The idea seems to make sense at first sight, but as it turns out, White would have retained reasonable winning chances by keeping all four rooks on the board — with 28.Rd7 or 28.a4.

Once a pair of rooks was exchanged, Nakamura showcased his strong defensive technique to further simplify the position and reach a setup in which White had no real chances to fight for more. The draw was agreed on move 41.

Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura

The all-American clash between Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura ended in a draw | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza 

Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris

Firouzja ½ - ½ Praggnanandhaa

In an interesting theoretical battle, the youngsters explored an exciting line emerging from the ever-principled Ruy Lopez. Firouzja’s 14.Nb3 — the engines’ top suggestion — invited Pragg to double White’s f-pawns by capturing on f3.

Pragg had certainly prepared this line, as he needed less than 3 minutes to play 14...Bxf3, creating a permanent imbalance in the position.

The prodigies continued to play rather quickly until move 22, as both of them brought more pieces to the kingside, with White occupying the open g-file and Black attempting to create a battery along the h-file.

The situation turned sharp rapidly. By move 30, Firouzja had a bit over 4 minutes on his clock, while Pragg had about 10 minutes and a half. Surely, both contenders had foreseen the sharp 30.Nc5 during their deep calculations.

Black cannot capture with 30...Nxc5 due to 31.Re8+ — Pragg was ready to reply by 30...Qh5, counter-attacking on the h-file.

However, engines show that placing the queen on the h-file was a mistake by the Indian GM, since 31.Reg2 would have forced Black to find precise defensive ideas to keep the game going. Nevertheless, Firouzja was also imprecise in his calculations, as he failed to find the correct move order and played 31.Nxe6 instead of doubling on the g-file.

As it turns out, Black can fully justify his previous play after White’s capture on e6 — there followed 31...Qxg4 32.Ng5 Ne5

A brilliant idea. Capturing with the pawn loses to ...Qxg5, while 33.Rxe5, as played in the game, deflects the rook from its defensive spot on the second rank, allowing Black to play 33...Rxh2+ 34.Kxh2 Qh5+, with a perpetual check.

Understandably, the contenders enthusiastically discussed what had just transpired in this exciting battle right after agreeing to a draw. Remarkable!

Alireza Firouzja

Alireza Firouzja | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu

Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris

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Fabiano Caruana and Vaishali at the press conference

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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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