Berlin GP: Nakamura in the Candidates

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
3/29/2022 – All results in round 6 of the Berlin Grand Prix favoured Hikaru Nakamura, as he won pool A and secured a spot in the Candidates Tournament after beating Andrey Esipenko with the black pieces. The four players who could have leapfrogged the US grandmaster in the overall standings of the series had they also reached the semis were knocked out on Monday — i.e. Levon Aronian (also from pool A), Leinier Dominguez, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Anish Giri. The one other player who made it to semis was Amin Tabatabaei, who got a convincing victory over Giri to win pool D. | Photos: World Chess

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Rapport confirmed as a Candidate as well

FIDE Grand Prix 2022The suspense regarding who would get the two spots in the Candidates at the Grand Prix series came to a sudden halt after round 6 of the preliminaries in Berlin. Half the games finished decisively, and everything worked in Hikaru Nakamura’s favour. The famous streamer showed his great defensive skills to fend off Andrey Esipenko’s attack and get the all-important victory that clinched him first place in pool A.

As Nakamura noted later on, perhaps Levon Aronian felt his best chance to win the pool was to go all-in in his classical game against Grigoriy Oparin instead of potentially reaching a tiebreak against him. In doing so, though, the man from Yerevan ended up in an inferior position against an inspired Oparin, who would go on to score his second victory of the event.

When Esipenko resigned against Nakamura, Anish Giri had already lost his game, and Leinier Dominguez had a clearly worse position against Vincent Keymer. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, on his part, had drawn with Sam Shankland, which left him out of contention in pool C.

Soon after, it was official: the 5-time US champion had qualified to the Candidates Tournament. The 34-year-old lost the first game in Berlin, drew the following two and went on to score three consecutive wins to get the coveted spot in the 8-player event which will decide who gets the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen in the next World Championship match.

Curiously, Nakamura, a professional streamer, titled his post-game video on YouTube “Not caring my way to the Candidates”.

FIDE Grand Prix 2022

Levon Aronian and Hikaru Nakamura during round 6

A side effect of Monday’s results in Berlin was that Richard Rapport, the winner of the Belgrade leg, also secured a spot in the Candidates Tournament, as all of the unlikely scenarios that would have left him out of the event in Madrid are now impossible to happen.

The one spot still up for grabs is the one originally gained by Sergey Karjakin in last year’s World Cup. After FIDE’s decision to ban the Russian (pending a potential appeal), the spot will be given to the highest-rated eligible player in the official ranking for May 2022. Ding Liren is the frontrunner, although he will need to play over 20 classical games in the next 32 days to get the minimum 30 games (played between June 2021 and May 2022) required to be eligible.

Pool A: Esipenko cannot break through

Andrey Esipenko had no chances to reach the knockout, but he is not one to avoid a fighting game against a top opponent if he gets a chance. Facing Hikaru Nakamura, the position turned sharp in the middlegame, and the youngster went for a kingside attack while marshalling the white pieces.

 

Twice did Esipenko place one of his knights en prise while trying to open lines against Black’s king. Here, Nakamura could have grabbed the piece with 24...gxf4 and the position is still defensible albeit complicated.

True to his positional style, though, he went for the also correct 24...Qe5, and after 25.Nh6+ Kh8 Esipenko again jumped forward, but now with the other knight.

 

26.Nd5 could have again been responded by the direct 26...cxd5, when after 27.exd5 Black should immediately give back the piece with 27...Bxd5. Nakamura opted for 26.g5 instead, and went on to show better nerves than his opponent during time trouble.

In the final position, Esipenko was an exchange down and did not have enough firepower to continue his attack.

 

White resigned after 38...Rxf6.

In the other game of the pool, Grigoriy Oparin made the most of Levon Aronian’s risky play, as he showed great strategic understanding to defeat his higher-rated opponent in 31 moves.

 
 

Pool B: Keymer beats Dominguez

The player who is having the most eventful event in Berlin still has chances to reach the semifinals. Local hero Vincent Keymer barely saved a draw against Leinier Dominguez in round 2, beat Daniil Dubov in round 3, lost to Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in round 4 and played a fighting game agianst Dubov in round 5.

Finally, in a game that was key for Dominguez, who still had chances to reach the Candidates, the 17-year-old confidently played for a win once his opponent erred in the early middlegame.

 

Things had not gone right for Black in the opening, but Dominguez’s 18...Nce7 was too timid here, with 18...f5 a necessary pawn push at this point.

Keymer was in the driver’s seat, and quickly forced his off-form opponent to give up an exchange. Dominguez continued fighting until move 46, but his young rival was not going to let this opportunity slip by, as he got the win that allowed him to catch Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the lead of the group.

Shakh and Keymer will play a rapid-chess tiebreaker on Tuesday to decide who will face Nakamura in the semifinals.

 
 

Vincent Keymer

Vincent Keymer

Pool C: So and Shankland keep the lead

The two US grandmasters in pool C drew with white in round 6 to remain in the shared lead of the group. Sam Shankland faced an extremely well-prepared Maxime Vachier-Lagrave out of a Russian System in the Grünfeld.

 

While MVL had only three times spent a bit over a minute on a single move up to this point, Shankland had been working hard to deal with the complications arising from the sharp opening. Here 24.Qxh6+ leads to a draw by repetition after 24...Bxh6 25.Rxh6+ Kg7 26.Rg6+ Kh8, etcetera.

A well-known Grünfeld expert, Vachier-Lagrave later confessed that he had not found a single move over the board in this game.

Remembering his unlucky elimination from the Belgrade leg, Shankland was eagerly waiting for the result in the other game, as Wesley So knew a win would get him a direct pass to the semis. However, Alexandr Predke kept things under control, and the players eventually agreed to a draw.

 
 

Pool D: Tabatabaei beats Giri, reaches semis

In the most surprising development of the round, Amin Tabatabaei quailfied to the knockout after beating Anish Giri with the black pieces. The Dutchman later confessed that he did not expect the opening that appeared on the board, which prompted him to mix up his plans in the early middlegame.

Tabatabaei knew that opening up the position on move 19 would be favourable for him.

 

19...d5 and White needs to be extremely careful. There followed 20.g3 Nh3+ 21.Kg2 exd4 22.cxd4 ­— and now came the very strong 22...Ngf4+

 

There are simply not enough defenders around the white king. In what was a great display of active play, Tabatabaei scored a memorable 30-move victory to reach the semis in Berlin.

The Iranian has over-performed both in Belgrade and in this event, gaining 23.6 rating points to climb no fewer than 54 places in the live ratings list!

 
 

Anish Giri, Amin Tabatabaei

Anish Giri facing Amin Tabatabaei

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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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