Candidates R11: Nepo sole leader, Naka beats Pragg

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/18/2024 – An exciting round of chess saw Ian Nepomniachtchi winning a rollercoaster game against Vidit Gujrathi to regain the sole lead at the Candidates Tournament in Toronto. Nepo stands a half point ahead of Gukesh D, the former co-leader, and Hikaru Nakamura, who obtained a remarkable victory over direct contender Praggnanandhaa R. With three rounds to go, we can expect more thrilling games in the fierce fight to become the challenger in the next match for the World Championship. | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

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A third consecutive victory for Nepo?

Ian Nepomniachtchi is now the favourite to win the 2024 Candidates Tournament in Toronto. The 33-year-old remarkably won the last two editions of the event, and him getting a third triumph in a row would surely be a record extremely difficult to break in the future. Unlike what happened in Madrid 2022, though, Nepomniachtchi will need to work hard in the remaining three rounds to win the tournament again — back then, after 11 rounds, he had a 1½-point advantage over Ding Liren, who stood in sole second place.

After beating Vidit Gujrathi in a tense, hard-fought game, the Russian grandmaster regained the sole lead, as he now stands a half point ahead of Gukesh D and Hikaru Nakamura. On Wednesday, Gukesh drew top seed Fabiano Caruana with the white pieces, while Nakamura showed his class to take down direct contender Praggnanandhaa R with black.

Caruana is now in sole fourth place, at a 1-point distance from the leader, while Pragg, standing a half point further back, still has outside chances of claiming overall victory.

Out of the four main contenders for the title, only Gukesh has yet to face underdog Nijat Abasov for a second time — the Azerbaijani grandmaster has a 3/11 score after losing to Alireza Firouzja in a 24-move game. Nepomniachtchi, on his part, will face Praggnanandhaa, Nakamura and Caruana in the final three rounds of the event.

It is still all to play for in Toronto, and we are likely to enjoy more tense-filled, enthralling encounters in the final three rounds of what has turned out to be a memorable contest!

Results - Round 11

Alireza Firouzja

Alireza Firouzja grabbed his second win of the event | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Praggnanandhaa 0 - 1 Nakamura

Tied for third place a full point behind the leaders (with three rounds to go), both players knew that a win against a direct contender would be huge. Moreover, Pragg and Naka have shown throughout this event that they are vying for first place, as they have employed their best weapons both in terms of preparation and general strategy.

On Wednesday, it was Nakamura who set the pace in the opening battle, as he surprised his opponent with an early 3...c5 out of a Queen’s Gambit Declined, the Krauzer Variation.

A great technical player, Nakamura entered a line that led to a quick trade of queens, and then played the sneaky 10...a5, prompting his young opponent to think for 12 minutes before replying by 11.Nb5

The pawn push to a5 has only been seen a couple of times in GM games — after all, it moves the pawn for a second time in only 11 moves while leaving the b5-square open for the knight.

Nakamura continued to play quickly and confidently, as he amassed a 37-minute advantage on the clock while getting a slight edge with the black pieces. The 5-time U.S. champion only stopped to think carefully on move 18, when he spent 27 minutes on 18...Ra5

Again, moving a piece for a second time — from a6 to a5! There followed 19.Bxc6 bxc6 20.Nc3 Bb3 21.Nb1 Ra6

Notice how Nakamura has employed subtle manoeuvres to get an advantage, moving the rook from a8 to a6, then to a5, then back to a6, while his bishop has landed on a great outpost on b3, leaving White struggling to find ways to make progress.

Pragg kept finding apt manoeuvres, though, despite being on the defensive.

Only on move 29 did the Indian prodigy falter, as his 29.Ke3 gave way to a forced sequence that increased Black’s advantage.

It is really difficult to figure out why 29.Ke1 is the way to go here — in fact, going backwards with the king might not even be considered by an amateur player. Moreover, Pragg only had 9 minutes for 12 moves at this point.

The problem with 29.Ke3 is that after 29...Nd5+, White simply does not have a good way to escape the check:

  • 30.Nxd5 fails to 30...Bxd5 31.Rc2 Rb3+ 32.Kf2, and White has an extra pawn, full control over the position and is likely to grab the b2-pawn later
  • 30.Kd2 fails to 30...Nf6+, gaining the knight
  • 30.Kd4 fails to 30...c5+ (among other moves), and the king will be hunt down
  • 30.Kf2 fails to 30...Nxc3 31.Rxc3 Bd5, with lines similar to the ones after 30.Nxd5

So Pragg played what he had prepared when he entered this line: 30.Kxe4, placing his king in the middle of a board full of pieces.

Tactics favour the player with the better-placed pieces, and Nakamura’s conversion from this point on was flawless. It started with 30...Nxc3 31.bxc3 c5, and ended with him trapping the white knight on the kingside!

This is how the position looked after 33...h5

It is now apparent why placing the king on e3 four moves earlier was such a deciding mistake. White cannot play 34.Nf2 due to 34...Re6+ 35.Kd2, and the threat of a discovered check with the rook from d8 is lethal.

Pragg tried 34.c4 Ba8 (another precise manoeuvre by Naka!) 35.Nh6, but soon saw his knight running out of squares to escape as Black transferred his rook on the back rank to the h-file.

On move 40, White finally decided to give up his knight for a couple of pawns.

Once he received 30 extra minutes on the clock, Nakamura showed his class to convert his advantage into a remarkable (and crucial) 54-move victory.

Hikaru Nakamura, Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu

Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu resigns, Hikaru Nakamura joins the fight for first place after obtaining a brilliant win | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Vidit 0 - 1 Nepomniachtchi

Similarly to the game above, the encounter between Vidit and Nepomniachtchi reached a queenless-yet-complex middlegame position, with White placing his king on e4 amid a tense struggle. This position arose out of a Petroff Defence, Nepomniachtchi’s favourite system with black in this tournament.

Unlike the other game, however, White is for choice here, with his active king looking much better than the black monarch on h8. But Black still had an extra pawn, and two (doubled) passers on the a-file.

After 32.Ke4 a4 33.Ra1 Rb3, Vidit missed a chance to vastly increase his advantage for a first time in the game.

With 9 minutes for 7 moves, Vidit played 34.Kd3 here, simply defending his pair of doubled pawns on the c-file. Instead, 34.h5 would have left Black struggling to deal with an annoying passed pawn on the kingside.

An even bigger opportunity was missed after 34...a3 35.Bc1 a5 36.Bxc3 d5

Black played this critical pawn break counting with a potential ...c5-c4, which opens up an attack against the bishop on a3.

However, the straightforward 37.Nxd5 is winning for White at this juncture — e.g. 37...Nxd5 38.Nxd5 c4+ (the idea) 39.Kxc4 Rxa3 40.Rxa3 Bxa3 (diagram) and the endgame with two pawns for a bishop is winning for Vidit, thanks to his stronger king.

Failing to find such a line under the circumstances is completely understandable, though White also had 37.Bc1, taking the bishop out of the line of fire — this move is not as strong but keeps White in the driver’s seat.

Vidit played 37.Kc2 instead, again going for a cautious approach — entering a position that engines now evaluate as balanced.

In the ensuing battle, Black still had an extra pawn, and once the players received 30 extra minutes on their clocks, Nepomniachtchi got enough time to find ways to create problems for his opponent.

Nepo eventually gave up both his a-pawns to get a passer on the c-file, and remarkably managed to activate the king that had been sitting on h8 earlier in the game.

Note how much progress Black has made, while the white king is cut off along the b-file and the white pawns on the kingside are completely neutralised.

It is in this position that Vidit faltered decisively with 60.Nb2+, instead of 60.Ne5+. As it turns out, the knight will find itself too restrained near the corner on the queenside, while it could have been more useful as a defensive pieces from the centre.

Black continued to push his c-pawn, and resignation came seven moves later. Remarkably, the game ended after a king was placed on e4!

67...Ke4 was followed by resignation. Surely a tough loss for Vidit!

Vidit Gujrathi, Ian Nepomniachtchi

Two tough fighters dealing with a double-edged position | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi knows that he is in trouble... | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Vidit Gujrathi, Ian Nepomniachtchi

The tables have turned, and Vidit Gujrathi resigns the game | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Game analysis by Robert Ris

Standings after round 11

All games

Alireza Firouzja: “Gukesh and Pragg are more focused than me!”

Hikaru Nakamura explains why he lost both his games to Vidit Gujrathi

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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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