The Candidates tournament is underway in Madrid, where eight of the world’s best players vie for the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen in the World Championship. As the event began, Carlsen gave his judgment on each player’s prospects, dividing them into three tiers.
Tier 1: Fabiano Caruana and Ding Liren are ‘the best and most consistent’.
Tier 2: The ‘dark horses’ are Ian Nepomniachtchi, winner of the previous Candidates event, and Alireza Firouzja, whose meteoric rise last year took him to no. 2 in the world rankings (though since overtaken by Ding).
Tier 3: The rest – Richard Rapport, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Hikaru Nakamura and Teimour Radjabov.
Of course, none of the latter players is an easy mark. But winning the Candidates, a gruelling 14-round event where every player is supremely motivated, calls for something special. In the second half of the event, when the pressure ramps up, good preparation and good chess are not enough.A steely disposition, along with a dash of luck, will be essential too.
To my eyes, the game of the tournament so far was played in the third round. Firouzja, who turned 19 the day before, had prepared a dangerous piece sacrifice in the opening. Nakamura sank into deep thought, and steered the game into a difficult but defensible endgame. It called for great precision, and from 37…Kxf8 until 49…Nd5, every one of Nakamura’s moves was the only way to escape defeat.
Alireza Firouzja–Hikaru Nakamura
Fide Candidates, Madrid 2022
1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 Qc2 O-O 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 Qxc3 d5 7 Bg5 dxc4 8 Qxc4 b6 9 Rd1 Ba6 10 Qa4 h6 11 Bh4 Qe7 12 Nf3 Rd8 13 Qc2 c5 14 e4 Bxf1 15 Rxf1 g5 16 Nxg5 hxg5 17 Bxg5 Nc6 18 Qc1 18 e5 Nxd4 yields sufficient counterplay. Firouzja’s transfer of the queen to f4 creates deeper problems, and Nakamura spent more than 40 minutes considering his reply. Rxd4 18…e5 is a plausible alternative, but 19 d5 Nd4 20 Rd3 creates dangerous threats of Rd3-g3 and f2-f4. 19 Rxd4 Nxd4 20 Qf4 Nc2+ 21 Kd1 Qd7+ 22 Kxc2 Qa4+ 23 Kb1 Qxe4+ 24 Qxe4 Nxe4 Nakamura has avoided a calamity, but White’s kingside pawn majority is more mobile, and soon poses fresh problems. 25 Bf4 Nf6 26 h4 Nd5 27 Bd2 f5 28 g3 Kf7 29 f3 Rh8 30 Bg5 c4 31 g4 b5 32 Rd1 fxg4 33 fxg4 a5 34 h5 Rg8 35 Rf1+ Ke8 36 h6 The bishop is immune: 36…Rxg5 37 h7 wins Rf8 Very well judged – the pawns will advance even further, but Nakamura has seen that he can hold the line. 37 Rxf8+ Kxf8 38 Bd8 a4 39 g5 Kf7 40 h7 Kg7 41 g6 (see diagram) A critical position, with a strange standoff. The knight is tied to its outpost, on pain of Bf6+ followed by h8=Q. And yet it also dominates the bishop, which cannot reach e5 or d4 by a direct route. c3! 41…e5 looks safe at first sight, since a future Bd8-h4-g3 is met by Nd5-f4. But White wins with precise play, charting a route for the king via e1-f2-f3-e4 to dislodge the knight. This exchange of pawns brings Black a step closer to a passed a-pawn, which buys time later on. 42 bxc3 Firouzja thought for more than an hour, but there is nothing better. 42 Bh4 e5! 43 Bg3 Nf4 draws Nxc3+ 43 Kc2 Nd5 44 Bg5 e5 45 Kd2 45 Kd3 Nf4+ 46 Bxf4 even loses: 46…exf4 47 Ke4 b4 and White’s king is overstretched. Kh8 46 Ke1 b4 47 axb4 a3 48 Bc1 Nxb4 49 Kd2 Nd5 50 Bxa3 Nf4 51 Bb2 Nxg6 52 Bxe5+ Nxe5 53 Kc3 Kxh7 54 Kd4 Draw agreed
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