Ian Nepomniachtchi sealed his victory in the Candidates tournament by securing a draw with the white pieces against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The Russian Grandmaster wins the event with a round to spare and will challenge the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen in the World Championship Match at the end of the year in Dubai, with a prize fund of two million euros at stake.
Nepo's draw left the Frenchman definitely out of the race, but the decisive result came just a few minutes later when Anish Giri resigned his game against Alexander Grischuk. Despite showing some of the best chess in his career during this second half of the Candidates Tournament, Anish did not have his best day today. Grischuk scored a victory that helped his countryman 'Nepo' to achieve his goal.
Nepomniachtchi, who won the 2002 World Championship in the under-10 age group ahead of Magnus Carlsen, will have a chance now, two decades later, to take the crown from the hands of the Norwegian.
"It's a huge milestone in my career and perhaps in my life. I am extremely tired. It was one year of thinking about this tournament, one year of preparation. I am extremely happy to qualify for the match and I am extremely thankful to all and everyone who supported me, especially to my team," said Ian Nepomniachtchi.
Fabiano Caruana defeated Wang Hao, who played unsuccessfully in the symmetrical roughly equal position. In a complex double-edged struggle, Ding Liren tricked Kirill Alekseenko with a risky tactical blow and managed to win the game.
Ian Nepomniachtchi (½ - ½) Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Ian Nepomniachtchi changed his opening choice once again to surprise his rival, and started the game with 1.Nf3. In response, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave played a rare variation of the English Defence, in which Black fianchettoes both bishops, but at the same time completely gives up control over the centre.
Ian Nepomniachtchi pointed out that, as someone who plays the Gruenfeld Defence himself, he knows very well that 1.Nf3 is an annoying option for the black player. "One of the variations that I prepared at home was played today."
In fact, Ian introduced some improvements compared to a recent online game between Grischuk and Dubov, and he achieved a very promising position. White exchanged the potentially dangerous bishop on g7, while the other bishop remained locked on b7. After that, Nepomniachtchi slowly began to prepare a pawn avalanche on the queenside.
"I was playing today with a fighting mindset, I tried in every possible way to complicate the position, to be tricky. But of course, winning on-demand with Black is not an easy task and it can very easily backfire", said Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
Maxime went for a pawn sacrifice and managed to sharpen the position. But at the moment when Black had some chances to seize the initiative, the French grandmaster decided to exchange all the heavy pieces - both pairs of rooks and queens. In an ending with an extra pawn for White, Nepomniachtchi could play for a win without any risk, although objectively the position was closer to a draw.
At that moment, it became obvious that the closest pursuer Anish Giri had reached a hopeless position against Alexander Grischuk, so Nepomniachtchi offered a draw and secured the victory in the tournament.
Alexander Grischuk (1-0) Anish Giri
The Dutch grandmaster, playing with black against Alexander Grischuk, did not burn the bridges in the opening and opted for a Queen's Indian Defence. After the exchange of both pairs of bishops, a calm position arose on the board with a small but stable advantage for White.
Alexander Grischuk pointed out that he was terrorizing his opponent with a draw, considering that if Anish decides to take a risk he can get a worse position. He added that he analyzed this variation together with Vishy Anand.
According to Anish, at some point, he lost his sense of reality and stopped noticing the threats of the whites. In particular, he underestimated the move 25.Qe2, after which it turned out that Black's hopes for counterplay with f7-f5 would not be the best idea. Out of despair, Giri still went for this continuation, but Grischuk "killed" all Anish's hopes. After the exchange of Queens, Anish had to defend the ending with two pawns down and resigned on move 51.
"It was a very poor game. I think it was the combination of a mindset that does not suit the position and a heavy lack of understanding. I made a lot of terrible mistakes." "Ian put me under a lot of pressure," said Anish Giri in the press conference.
Wang Hao (0-1) Fabiano Caruana
In the Alapin system of the Sicilian defence, a position with a symmetrical pawn structure emerged on the board, with isolated central d-pawns blocking each other. White had a minimal advantage since his opponent had to defend the d5-pawn, but there were no other weaknesses in Caruana's position.
Around move 23-24, Wang Hao suggested moves repetition in order to finish the game in a draw. However, Caruana chose to continue the fight and started to advance his pawns on both sides of the board. Vladimir Kramnik, who was commenting on the game, criticised this decision, feeling that only Black could have problems here. The Chinese grandmaster, in a tense situation, began to act extremely unsuccessfully and allowed his opponent to activate his pieces. He ended up in the position with a pawn down and had to resign on the 42nd move.
Kirill Alekseenko (0-1) Ding Liren
Kirill Alekseenko chose a solid system with d2-d3 in the two knights defence. Ding Liren responded with a very ambitious plan. First, he pushed d6-d5, and then sacrificed the central pawn but got some pressure in the centre and on the kingside as compensation.
In a difficult middlegame struggle, White outplayed his opponent and got an advantage. Trying to complicate the position, the Chinese grandmaster started a very risky operation. He sacrificed his bishop, tying up the opponent's pieces and threatening checkmate on the back rank. Alekseenko failed to find a beautiful tactical blow, which would help him to defend against all the threats and achieve a decisive advantage. After that, the Chinese grandmaster restored the material balance, pinned White's knight and hid his king away from the queen's checks.