Lessons from the Candidates

Lessons from the Candidates

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With the Candidates Tournament in Toronto underway, I'd like to share some inside information from the previous one in Madrid in 2022, especially as I had a priviledged position to follow it from.

As I wrote in my blogpost, I had the priviledge to share the same stage with the players in Madrid.

It never ceases to amaze me how different the games look when I follow them in the playing hall, using my head, and at home, even without an engine turned on.

I think the reason for this is that when I am in the playing hall I  subconsciously adopt the player's mindset and I am more finely atuned to the psychological aspects of the moves and what the players want to achieve with them. This makes a world of difference when it comes to my perception of the games. The ideal scenario for me is then to check the feelings, ideas and impressions I have during the games with the engine and understand if I had been right or wrong about them.

I learned a lot during the Candidates and here I'd like to share one characterstic of Ding Liren that I noticed during the event.

He loves to squeeze water from stone.

In round eight he was Black against leader Nepomniachtchi and he was ready to fight, but the eventual leader found a line that practically leads to a draw (incidentally, Nepomniachtchi used the same line to draw with Caruana yesterday!). Soon after the usual moves in the Four Knights the following position arose:

White's last move was 16.b3, which frees the knight from d1 to go to e3 and f5, forcing a transposition to a dead-drawn opposite-coloured bishop endgame.

Ding Liren couldn't do much about it , played 16...f5 and the game was easily drawn.

In the penultimate round, needing a win with Black, Ding faced tail-ender Firouzja. He hoped for a big fight and was visibly disappointed when Firouzja went for exactly the same line, hoping for a quick draw.

It was curious to see Ding agonise over his choices as the game approached the position from the diagram. He just didn't want to draw this game, at least not without giving it a try. Therefore, after spending some time, he varied with 16...Kg7, out of sheer desperation to change something and find a way to continue the game.

It has to be said that he had played this move in 2019 in two games, so this shouldn't have been a surprise for Firouzja, but in fact it was! He didn't expect that Ding would vary from the easy draw he made several rounds earlier in a position that is an obvious draw.

They continued along Ding's previous games and when Firouzja played a new move Ding finally got a chance to play a move to keep the game going.

To my utmost surprise, here he played 20...h5!

Firouzja was also surprised and after a while he took the pawn by exchanging on e5 and taking on h5 with the bishop. After Ding's next move 22...f5 it became clear to me what his idea was.

Ding obtained a huge centre that he can push forward while White's extra pawn on the h-file is largely irrelevant. Firouzja was unpleasantly surprised and started spending a lot of time. What was supposed to be an easy draw with White turned out into a serious fight where if imprecise he risked losing!

Ding continued to put pressure on White and things became so close that on move 35 Firouzja had to find the only (!) way not to lose, a way which involved a sacrifice of his bishop.

Look at the progress Black had made!

The pawns are rolling so the only way to draw was the bishop sacrifice on d3, destroying the powerful pawn chain. After that the game was soon drawn.

I found this game eye-opening. It showed me that even in the dullest-looking positions one can find creative ways to continue the game and put pressure on his opponent. It also showed me how capable these players are, to actually find and implement these ideas. Ding's ability to outplay Firouzja from a totally harmless position and to manage to come so close to a win that White had to find an only (!) way to survive amazed me - he didn't outplay somebody who has 500 rating points less than him, he outplayed a fellow candidate, a prodigy who many think will become a World Champion one day.

As a more general understanding, I (again) realised how good these players are. Every single move they make is a move of high quality and it is the thinnest margins that decide the win when they play. It's naive to think that it's not that difficult to beat them when you see them err, forgetting that they err when faced with these high-quality moves, moves that a lesser player would never make in a long succession, so those mistakes will never happen when they play these lesser players.

Ding didn't win the game against Firouzja, but he won the next one - his last round must-win effort against Nakamura was also a result of squeezing water from stone.

The rest, as we know now, is history.

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The above article was accompanied with an impressive "water from stone" squeeze by none other than Magnus Carlsen: Check it out for real Carlsen Magic!

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