Candidates R8: Gukesh catches Nepo, Nakamura beats Caruana

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/14/2024 – Two decisive games in Saturday’s eighth round had a big impact on the standings of the Candidates Tournament. Gukesh D beat Vidit Gujrathi to retake the shared lead (with Ian Nepomniachtchi), while Hikaru Nakamura defeated Fabiano Caruana to climb to shared third place, a half point behind the co-leaders. This was Nakamura’s fourth consecutive classical win with the white pieces over Caruana. | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

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A very close race

After Fabiano Caruana’s loss against Hikaru Nakamura on Saturday, only Ian Nepomniachtchi remains undefeated at the Candidates Tournament in Toronto (with 2 wins and 6 draws to his name). The Russian GM was the sole leader going into the eighth round, but saw Gukesh D bouncing back from a painful loss to catch up with him in the standings. Gukesh defeated Vidit Gujrathi with the black pieces.

Standing a half point behind the co-leaders are Praggnanandhaa R and Nakamura. Both Pragg and Nakamura lost their games in the spectacular second round of the event, but rejoined the fight for first place by collecting 2 wins and 4 draws since then.

With six rounds to go, any of the four players with +2 or +1 scores have great chances of winning the event. Moreover, even Caruana, standing on a fifty-percent score (4/8), is much capable of surmounting the 1-point deficit to emerge victorious once the tournament comes to an end next Sunday (or next Monday, if playoffs are needed).

A rather indecisive Caruana suffered a fourth consecutive classical loss with black against Nakamura. In the post-game press conference, Nakamura noted that he had felt during the game that Caruana perhaps got talked out of playing more aggressively — which might have to do with the aforementioned losing streak.

This victory could end up being as significant for Nakamura as his round-10 victory over Caruana at the 2023 Grand Swiss, which is precisely where Nakamura got his ticket to the Candidates Tournament. Coincidentally, Caruana and Nakamura were also the top two seeds at the event on the Isle of Man.

In Sunday’s round 9, Caruana will play black against underdog Nijat Abasov, who held Nepomniachtchi to a 63-move draw — with the black pieces — on Saturday.

Results - Round 8

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Undefeated — Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Vidit 0 - 1 Gukesh

A couple of innocuous-looking pawn pushes out of a Giuoco Piano (4...a6 and 5...h6) allowed Gukesh to get a major advantage on the clock against an overly cautious Vidit. By move 12, Black already had a positional edge as well.

Gukesh’s opening strategy worked wonders, as he seemed to have got into Vidit’s head, who employed a questionable plan in what turned out to be a rather standard setup.

Instead of 12.b5, exchanging bishops with 12.Bxe6 was called for in this position. What is more, later in the game, the opening of the a-file was clearly favourable for Black.

Gukesh played simple chess, preventing his opponent from getting tactical chances on the kingside while cementing his position and taking over the open a-file. This is how the position looked by move 26.

White’s doubled rooks on the f-file will not be able to do much against the black king, as Gukesh went on to create weaknesses in White’s camp by effectively manoeuvring his well-coordinated major pieces.

Vidit began to take desperate measures to get counterplay in the centre, which only worsened matters — Black doubled on the first rank, and got to weave a mating attack after 31.Re2, a game-losing blunder.

There followed 31...Qg1+ 32.Kg3 Nh5+ 33.Kh4 Ndf6

Black had activated his pieces while forcing the white king to venture into a vulnerable spot.

Black is threatening to give checkmate with ...g7-g5.

Vidit tried 34.Nxh6, but after 34...Qh2 35.Nf5 Rf1 36.g4, Gukesh got to end the game in style.

There is no need to deal with the discovered attack against the queen on h2 due to the aforementioned ...g7-g5 threat — thus 36...Rxf5 37.exf5 Qg3+ 38.Kg5 Nh7+

Vidit resigned, not allowing 39.Kxh5 Qh3# to appear on the board. A remarkable performance by the ever-serene Gukesh!

Vidit Gujrathi, Dommaraju Gukesh

The all-Indian confrontation between Vidit Gujrathi and Dommaraju Gukesh | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Expert analysis by GM Daniel King

Nakamura 1 - 0 Caruana

Out of a Ruy Lopez, White left the opening stage with the bishop pair and an isolated pawn on the d-file. True to his style, Nakamura calmly improved his pieces and eventually traded his dark-squared bishop for one of Caruana’s knights.

Engines evaluated the position as balanced when Nakamura played the good-looking 26.h4

Caruana had spent almost 20 minutes before playing ...Ng6-f4 on the previous move, as he had apparently failed to foresee Nakamura’s Re4-e3. After White pushed his h-pawn, capturing with 26...Qxh4 is, in fact, playable, though after 27.Re4 g5 28.Rae1 White is certainly for choice.

The position is by no means winning for White, but Nakamura had surely prevailed in the psychological battle.

There followed 26...Qd5 27.Re4 Ng6 28.Rae1 Nf8 29.Re5 Qd8 30.h5

Note how the black knight and queen have been pushed back, to f8 and d8 respectively, while White has doubled his rooks on the e-file and controlled the g6-square with his h-pawn.

Black could have kept the battle going with realistic chances of escaping after 30...Qb6, while 30...Bd7, as played by Caruana, allowed Nakamura to further improve his position by force via 31.Rxe8 Bxe8 32.Nf5 Qf6 33.Qb4

White’s piece play has been both elegant and effective!

Already in deep trouble, Caruana erred decisively with 33...b5, allowing Nakamura to play ;34.Ne7+ Kh8 and the impeccable 35.Nd5

35...cxd5 fails to 36.Qxf8#, so there is no way to save the queen on f6. Black resigned.

Hikaru Nakamura

An extremely successful streamer, Hikaru Nakamura surely feels at home sharing his thoughts in the post-game press conferences | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris

Standings after round 8

All games

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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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