Candidates R13: Gukesh beats Firoujza, enters final round as sole leader

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/21/2024 – Gukesh D, at 17, is a win away from becoming the next World Chess Championship challenger. The Indian prodigy beat Alireza Firouzja on Saturday to go into the final round of the Candidates Tournament as the sole leader. Three experienced contenders, who are also the top seeds in Toronto, stand a half point behind: Ian Nepomniachtchi, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana. Caruana joined the chasing pack by beating Praggnanandhaa R with the black pieces. | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

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It all comes down to two games

Sunday’s final round of the Candidates Tournament will decide who gains the right to face Ding Liren in the next match for the World Championship. Four players (half the field) remain in contention, and given the round-14 pairings, only two games will decide the winner:

  • Hikaru Nakamura v. Dommaraju Gukesh
  • Fabiano Caruana v. Ian Nepomniachtchi

After beating Alireza Firouzja on Saturday and thus becoming the tournament’s sole leader, Gukesh will enter the final round knowing that a win with black over Hikaru Nakamura will secure him overall victory. Achieving the feat of becoming a World Championship challenger at 17 would be astounding, as illustrated by Olimpiu di Luppi on his X account:

There is still one round to go, though, and three experienced fighters — who are also the top three seeds in Toronto — stand a half point behind the youngster: Ian Nepomniachtchi, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana. Caruana, the top seed and a former World Championship challenger, joined the chasing pack by beating Praggnanandhaa with black on Saturday — Caruana tenaciously managed to break down a fortress in an 89-move encounter.

As luck would have it, Caruana is paired up against Nepomniachtchi in the final round. Since a draw would leave them both out of contention for first place (given the Nakamura v. Gukesh pairing), we can expect the long-standing elite GMs to create imbalances right out of the opening. Similarly, a draw is worthless for Nakamura, though he might have more trouble trying to create asymmetries, since Gukesh has the black pieces and getting a draw will secure him at least a spot in a potential playoff.

Another consequence of the way the final-round pairings have been arranged is that a 3-way tie for first is now impossible. After Sunday’s round, we will get either an outright winner or a 2-player tiebreaker (set to take place on Monday).

The potential playoff would consist of:

  • Two rapid games with a 15’+10” time control
  • If still tied: Two blitz games with a 3’+2” time control
  • If still tied: One blitz game with a 3’+2” time control until finding a winner (the colours will be determined by a drawing of lots and then reversed)
Round 14 on 2024/04/21 at 14:30
Rtg Name Result Name Rtg
GM Nakamura, Hikaru GM Gukesh, D
GM Firouzja, Alireza GM Vidit, Santosh Gujrathi
GM Abasov, Nijat GM Praggnanandhaa, R
GM Caruana, Fabiano GM Nepomniachtchi, Ian

Results - Round 13

Hikaru Nakamura

Hikaru Nakamura | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Gukesh 1 - 0 Firouzja

In the battle of prodigies, a Ruy Lopez with 4.d3 led to a lengthy middlegame battle. Sound positional play by both sides saw Firouzja expanding in the centre, while Gukesh maintained a solid pawn structure and harmonious piece coordination.

Engines give Black a small edge here, since even a slight miscalculation by White might get him in trouble on the kingside. However, White’s pawn majority on the queenside would be a great asset in a potential endgame.

Gukesh realized he had to do something to prevent his opponent from simply developing an attack on the kingside and played 31.f4, which was followed by 31...Nf6 32.Rd2 and the questionable (according to the engines) 32...g5

The less impatient 32...h5 is suggested by the engines, though Firouzja’s decision is surely understandable from a human point of view.

After 33.Ne3 gxf4 34.gxf4, the g-file was opened up, but the tension was also somewhat relieved on that side of the board. In hindsight, pushing the h-pawn on move 32 might have created more practical problems for Gukesh.

In the ensuing manoeuvring battle, the position remained dynamically balanced — until Firouzja faltered by offering a queen trade on move 45.

It is surely difficult to find a plan for Black here, as he is stuck defending the f5-pawn, and the pawns on a3 and b7 will be difficult to defend in a potential endgame.

Engines show that Black can keep the dynamic balance with 45...Ne6 46.Qxf5 Qg7, threatening to infiltrate on the g-file and entering convoluted lines that end in perpetual check. But we cannot blame Fiouzja for not finding this idea — he probably considered it, but calculating all the ensuing lines is all but impossible with just over 20 minutes on the clock.

Thus, the 20-year-old went for 45...Qg6, inviting a queen trade that, unfortunately for him, led to a losing endgame — 46.Qxg6 hxg6 47.Rd6

White is clearly for choice here, as Black no longer counts with threats on the kingside and defending the pawn weaknesses without making major concessions is no walk in the park.

Instead of trying to defend passively, Firouzja tried to create counterplay by activating his knight, but his desperate attempt did not prosper, as Gukesh calmly converted his strategic advantage into a momentous victory.

63.Kg3 was the final move of a game that Gukesh — and many Indian fans — will certainly remember for years to come!

Dommaraju Gukesh, Alireza Firouzja

The critical position after 47.Rd6 | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Game analysis by Robert Ris

Praggnanandhaa 0 - 1 Caruana

Much like Gukesh, Caruana came from winning his round-12 game, while Pragg had fallen out of the race for tournament victory by losing 2 out of his last 3 encounters.

An experienced fighter (this is his fifth consecutive participation in the Candidates), Caruana chose a line with black that led to a position that secured him a lasting battle — and he quickly proved to be better prepared than his opponent out of the Rossolimo Sicilian that appeared on the board.

Pragg made a crucial strategic mistake on move 15.

Black is planning to expel the knight with ...f7-f6, so going for 15.f4 would allow him to play 15...f6 16.Nf3 — and the forcing sequence 16...g6 17.Qh3 exf4 (diagram) would give way to a sharp, complicated struggle.

Pragg rejected this line (in which he would need to follow with 18.e5 in the diagrammed position) and went for 15.Qh3 at once. The problem with this move is that after 15...f6 16.Nf3 g5, Black has managed to expand on the kingside — his main idea out of the opening — much more quickly.

Moreover, White here made yet another backward move with 17.Nd2, when 17.Qf5 was stronger, and Black continued pushing his army with 17...Ne6 18.Re1 g4 19.Qe3 0-0-0

Pragg was clearly on the defensive, and Caruana did not hesitate to increase the pressure via ...Rdg8, ...h5-h4, ...Nd4 and ...h4-h3.

And it was at that point that the Indian prodigy rightfully chose to give up an exchange by going for 20.g3

In fact, any move other than g2-g3 was clearly losing, as Black would be able to create deadly attacks after opening up the position on the kingside. On the other hand, after 20...Nf3+ 21.Kh1 Nxe1 22.Qxe1, Caruana was “playing for two results”, a dream scenario for the U.S. grandmaster given the tournament situation.

The manoeuvring battle started, as Black needed to open up lines to make the most of his material advantage, while White’s only job was to keep his fortress-like position intact with correct piece play.

The queens were traded on move 44, and Caruana managed to create an open file for his rooks ten moves later.

54...b5 changed the nature of the position, and created the kind of imbalances that Black was looking to produce for a long time.

Both contenders played imprecisely at different points in the ensuing battle, though Caruana never quite lost the initiative. In the end, the top seed’s persistence was rewarded with a memorable 89-move victory.

To get the coveted title, Caruana will need to first obtain a third straight victory on Sunday and then win the tiebreaker on Monday — which will take place only if Gukesh draws or loses in the final round of classical chess. But there is still hope!

Praggnanandhaa, Fabiano Caruana

It has been a long tournament, and this was a long game! | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Nepomniachtchi ½ - ½ Nakamura

The clash of co-leaders finished in a rather quick draw, though there were plenty of interesting strategic ideas behind the contenders’ choices, as explained by IM Robert Ris.

Standings after round 13

All games

Vlog: The legend of Dommaraju Gukesh

Hikaru on fire!

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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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