Candidates R6: Vital wins for Pragg and Vidit

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/11/2024 – Praggnanandhaa R (pictured) and Vidit Gujrathi scored full points in round 6 of the Candidates Tournament. Pragg inflicted a second consecutive defeat on Nijat Abasov, while Vidit got the better of an overly daring Alireza Firouzja. The remaining two games ended drawn, which leaves Gukesh D and Ian Nepomniachtchi still tied for first place in the standings. Pragg now stands a half point back, with as many points as Fabiano Caruana. | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

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Firouzja and Abasov crumble

Both Praggnanandhaa R and Vidit Gujrathi played white in back-to-back rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday. Coincidentally, the two compatriots missed winning chances in round 5 and went on to grab full points in round 6. Throughout the event, they have also been two of the most courageous players in the opening, either showing novel ideas in well-known systems or bravely entering sidelines that lead to double-edged struggles.

While Pragg has so far collected 2 wins and 1 loss for a +1 score, Vidit has collected 2 wins and 2 losses for a fifty-percent score. In their round-3 direct confrontation, Pragg played an early ...f7-f5 in the Ruy Lopez to surprise his opponent and eventually get a remarkable win.

On Wednesday, the Indian duo defeated the two players who were sharing last place in the standings, Alireza Firouzja and Nijat Abasov. The losses suffered by Firouzja and Abasov have now left them a full two points behind co-leaders Ian Nepomniachtchi and Gukesh D. Most pundits had predicted that Abasov, the clear rating underdog in the event, was going to have a tough time in Toronto, but Firouzja was considered by some to be a contender for the title.

In round 6, Firouzja lost after playing an over-confident line with black, but given his combative spirit, it is likely that he will continue to take risks in the coming rounds, as he is not one to go down without a fight.

In Thursday’s seventh round, the last one before the second rest day, co-leaders Gukesh and Nepomniachtchi will both play with the black pieces — against the ever-dangerous Firouzja and Hikaru Nakamura, respectively.

Results - Round 6

Dommaraju Gukesh, Hikaru Nakamura

Co-leader Gukesh D and Hikaru Nakamura signed a 40-move draw in round 6 | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Vidit 1 - 0 Firouzja

Firouzja was visibly looking to get a fighting position right from the start, as he played a rarely seen manoeuvre out of a Sicilian as early as on move 8.

Clearly the most natural move here is 8...Ne5, while 8...Qd8, as played by Firouzja, moves the queen for a second time in the game, inviting White to quickly employ the usual plan in the Sicilian — i.e. Qd1-d2 and 0-0-0, not only getting ready to expand on the kingside but also attacking the d6-pawn.

Three moves later, Firouzja again played an imprudent move in 10...Bb7, already leaving White in the driver’s seat.

Things went from bad to worse for Black when 13...Qxf2 appeared on the board.

In his excellent game recap (find it below), GM Daniel King noted that Firouzja’s play in the opening demonstrates that he was clearly on tilt — i.e. a state of mental or emotional confusion or frustration in which a player adopts a suboptimal strategy, usually resulting in the player becoming overly aggressive.

Black’s king is unsafe on e8, as White counts with ideas connected to Bxb5, opening up lines for a potential attack. Vidit rightfully felt that he had good chances of getting a full point here, and spent 17 minutes before playing 14.e5, the strongest move in the position!

There followed 14...Nd7 (14...Nxe5 fails to 15.Bxb5+, grabbing the queen on f2) 15.exd6 Qb6 16.Be3 Qd8

Note that the black queen has gone to b6, back to d8, back to b6, captured on f2, back to b6, back to d8 — 6 out of the 16 moves played so far in the game, only to return to its initial square. In the meantime, the black king remained in the centre and the dark-squared bishop cannot be developed due to the extremely troublesome pawn on d6.

Firouzja had prevented his opponent from ending the game quickly, but could not avoid entering a strategically lost position. Vidit began playing positionally sound manoeuvres, and eventually emerged with an extra exchange and two extra pawns.

Understandably, Black here went for 25...Nxg5, since trying to save the rook on a8 at this point seems very artificial — nevertheless, after 26.Nxa8 Qxa8 27.Qe2, White had unpinned his bishop on a7, fully consolidating his big advantage.

Vidit took advantage of his opponent’s risky, mistaken opening play and was at this point completely winning. Firouzja continued playing until move 40, when he resigned a game that had gone for too long on a steady downward course.

Vidit Gujrathi

Vidit Gujrathi | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Expert analysis by GM Daniel King

Praggnanandhaa 1 - 0 Abasov

Pragg’s victory was not as straightforward as his compatriot’s, though he did get to keep the initiative on his side throughout the opening and the early middlegame. Only on move 30 did Abasov make a mistake that prompted the commentators to assess the position as clearly favourable for White.

30...Bf4 looks quite natural, as the bishop might need to defend the kingside later on and White does not count with an immediate tactical refutation. Abasov went for 30...Bb8, though, perhaps playing ‘on principle’ instead of taking the time to calculate the ensuing lines carefully (at that point, he had 36 minutes on his clock).

Pragg noticed that Black’s pieces were rather uncoordinated and played the strong 31.f6 after thinking for a bit over 4 minutes. Notably, Abasov replied by 31...Bf4, realizing that he had wasted a tempo with his previous manoeuvre.

A strong technical player, Pragg chose to simplify the position into a slightly favourable endgame, as he avoided entering deep time trouble before reaching move 40.

Abasov’s 38...Rxf6 turned out to be a decisive mistake.

Much like in the aforementioned ...Bh2-b8, the Azerbaijani GM was hasty in grabbing the white pawn with 38...Rxf6. Better would have been 38...Rd6 39.Rxa6 Rd2, creating counterplay as quickly as possible.

After 39.Rxa6 Rf5, Pragg found the elegant 40.Nd7

By covering the f6-square, White prepares to play Ra6-a5, all but forcing a trade of rooks — which will result in White getting a winning minor-piece endgame with his outside passers on the queenside.

And, indeed, the rooks left the board three moves later.

43.Rxf5 Kxf5 was followed by the straightforward 44.a5 gxf2 45.a6, and Black resigned.

45...Be3 loses to 46.Nc5. Game over.

Nijat Abasov

Nijat Abasov | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Standings after round 6

All games

The Vidit Gujrathi vlog on beating Alireza Firouzja

An absolutely stunning finish

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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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Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 4/12/2024 07:45
Regarding Pragg-Abasov Charles Sullivan adds:
Dear Karsten,

I realize that move 32 is probably in the "middle game" (not the "endgame"), but I would like to point out that the cleanest win is 32.Rh1 (the ChessBase website suggests 32.a4) Rc7 33.Rdh5 Bh6 34.Nc3 Bb7+ 35.Nxb7 Rxc3 36.R1h4 Rc6 37.fxg7 Bxg7 38.Rxg4, etc.

Zoran (Petronijevic) is probably right about 40.Ne4, but 40.Nd7 also wins comfortably.

Best wishes,