The Candidates tournament resumed on 19 April in Yekaterinburg. Eight players competed for a €500,000 prize fund, but only one prize mattered — first place, and the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen in a world championship match. It was Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi who triumphed — more on that next week. But the clash below, a true chess epic, gets my vote for the best game.
At the halfway mark, Fabiano Caruana trailed his next opponent, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, by a full point. Caruana is feared for the depth of his preparation and had a year to prepare for this game, knowing that Vachier-Lagrave is stubbornly principled in sticking to his Najdorf Sicilian (characterised by the move 5…a6), whose intricacies he knows inside out.
What happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force? That’s what this game promised to show us when Caruana dropped an enormous bomb: the move 18 Bc4!! astounded commentators, including Carlsen himself. After 18…Qxc4 19 Bd6 White is a bishop and three pawns down, but the Black king is caught in the centre and White threatens Bd6xc5 followed by Ne4-d6+. Vachier-Lagrave sank into thought for 27 minutes, but knocked back the strongest move, 19…Nf6!, returning the piece immediately.
Caruana blasted through with 22 Ndxe6, and hardly stopped to think before 29 Nb6. The endgame was delicately poised; Caruana’s agile rooks gave him the edge, but Vachier-Lagrave steadily eliminated pieces, counting on the fact that an endgame with just king and rook against king and knight is usually drawn. Apart from that, just one pawn each remained, and endgame databases inform us that the draw was within reach. But practical play is another matter, and the optimal defence — placing the knight on g7 — was far from obvious. After 69 Rg3, Black was in ‘zugzwang’ and had to give ground. He resigned once the f6-pawn was encircled.
Fabiana Caruana–Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Candidates, Yekaterinburg, April 2021
1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Bg5 e6 7 f4 Qb6 8 Qd2 Qxb2 9 Rb1 Qa3 10 e5 h6 11 Bh4 dxe5 12 fxe5 Nfd7 13 Ne4 Qxa2 14 Rd1 Qd5 15 Qe3 Qxe5 16 c3 Bc5 17 Bg3 Qd5 18 Bc4 (see diagram 1) Qxc4 19 Bd6 Nf6 20 Nxc5 Nd5 21 Qe5 Rg8 22 Ndxe6 fxe6 23 Nxe6 Qxc3+ 24 Qxc3 Nxc3 25 Nc7+ Kf7 26 Rd3 Ne4 27 O-O Kg6 28 Nxa8 Nc6 29 Nb6 Rd8 30 Nxc8 Rxc8 31 Ba3 Rc7 32 Rf4 Nf6 33 Bb2 Ne7 34 Bxf6 gxf6 35 h4 h5 36 Rg3+ Kf7 37 Rg5 Rc1+ 38 Kh2 Ng6 39 Rf2 Nxh4 40 Rxh5 Ng6 41 Rh7+ Ke6 42 Rxb7 Ne5 43 Rb6+ Rc6 44 Rxc6+ Nxc6 45 Kg3 Kf7 46 Rc2 Nb4 47 Rd2 Nc6 48 Kf4 Kg6 49 Rd6 Ne5 50 Rxa6 Nf7 51 Ke4 Nh6 52 Ra5 Nf7 53 Ra3 Nd6+ 54 Kf4 Nf5 55 Rd3 Nh6 56 Rg3+ Kf7 57 Ke4 Ng8 58 Kf5 Ne7+ 59 Kf4 Nd5+ 60 Kg4 Kg6 61 Kf3+ Kf7 62 Ke4 Ne7 63 Kf4 Nd5+ 64 Kf5 Ne7+ 65 Ke4 Ng8 66 Rh3 Kg6 67 Ra3 Kf7 68 Kf4 Nh6 69 Rg3 (see diagram 2) Ng8 70 Kg4 Ne7 71 Kh5 Nd5 72 Rf3 Ke6 73 g4 Ke5 74 Kg6 Black resigns
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