FIDE Candidates Tournament: Well-Prepared Caruana Moves Up As MVL Stumbles In Endgame
Fabiano Caruana (left) and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave discussing moves after the game. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

FIDE Candidates Tournament: Well-Prepared Caruana Moves Up As MVL Stumbles In Endgame

| 51 | Chess Event Coverage

GM Fabiano Caruana came with an impressive piece of opening preparation but only defeated GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave deep in the endgame as the FIDE Candidates Tournament finally resumed on Monday in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Caruana now shares second place with MVL, half a point behind GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, who drew his game with GM Anish Giri. GM Kirill Alekseenko won his first game of the tournament at the expense of GM Alexander Grischuk while GM Wang Hao and GM Ding Liren quickly drew their game.

How to watch?
You can follow the FIDE Candidates Tournament with commentary on during each round. The broadcast is sponsored by Grip6. Visit and use code CHESS20 for 20% off.

The ninth round is on Tuesday, April 20 at 16:00 local time which is 13:00 Central Europe, 7 a.m. Eastern, and 4 a.m. Pacific. You can follow the games live on our dedicated page on Find all the information about the Candidates Tournament in our info article.'s round 8 broadcast.

A "surreal" tournament, as Caruana put it, is finally underway again. Round seven took place on March 25, 2020, and 390 days later, the players continued in the same playing hall, where just about everything looked the same.

"When I sat on that sofa I felt like just one day passed in that year," said Giri. "I sat in that sofa yesterday in round seven and today I sit in it again and it's round eight."

When I sat on that sofa I felt like just one day passed in that year.
—Anish Giri

What this first round of the second half made clear is that the long gap only increased the tension even further. It was as if, with so much extra time to prepare for only seven games, the stakes were even higher than if things had simply continued last year.

"It's very stressful of course," said Caruana. "The Candidates are always stressful but this one especially. And also it feels very strange being back here."

Caruana Vachier-Lagrave Candidates 2021
A year later, the players are back to shaking hands with each other. In the middle, we see 12th world champion Anatoly Karpov, who made the ceremonial first move. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

Although all players must have come to Yekaterinburg incredibly well-prepared, it was Caruana who really got the chance to show it. He came up with an impressive concept where he first sacrificed three pawns and then also a bishop.

This happened in the Poisoned Pawn variation of the Najdorf, the same opening that these players also had on the board three months ago at the Tata Steel Chess tournament. The idea of sacrificing the bishop came from Caruana's second GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov and had been waiting on the shelf for several months. In fact, Kasimdzhanov himself said today that they felt it was too strong to try out in Wijk aan Zee!

Here Caruana played the amazing 18.Bc4!!? Qxc4 19.Bd6.

Because Vachier-Lagrave had lost two games in the Poisoned Pawn Wijk aan Zee, perhaps it was just as brave for him to try the Najdorf once again. At the same time, it made perfect sense for MVL to return to the most popular of all Sicilians, the one played by GM Bobby Fischer, GM Garry Kasparov, and many other great players, for the simple reason that it's a very good opening.

And, admittedly, the Frenchman was alright out of the opening thanks to finding the excellent 19...Nf6! giving back material right away.

"Maxime played the best way," said Caruana. "I was kind of upset that he played this because I thought 19…Nf6 is a very difficult move to find."

I was kind of upset that he played this because I thought 19…Nf6 is a very difficult move to find.
—Fabiano Caruana

Despite finding that move, MVL, to his own surprise, still had problems to solve. "Then it got down to this endgame which I thought I should be holding quite easily but maybe at that moment I made a few inaccuracies, I don't know exactly," he said.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2021 Candidates
Vachier-Lagrave, deep in the endgame. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

After missing 26...Ra7 as a relatively straightforward way to a draw, Vachier-Lagrave eventually ended up an exchange down in an endgame where he had a fortress. At the press conference, it was pointed out to him quite instructively that putting his knight on g7 would have been a good setup as the critical squares e6, e5, f5, g5, and h5 are all covered.

A position MVL could have reached.

"I really thought this was an easy draw but then it got messy," said Vachier-Lagrave. As it went, he couldn't prevent the white king from reaching h5. After almost 6.5 hours, MVL had to throw in the towel. No single player in the tournament is left without a loss. 

Fabiano Caruana 2021 Candidates
A big win for Caruana. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

For almost 13 months, Nepomniachtchi had been second on tiebreak (mutual result with MVL), but his draw with Giri was enough to reclaim first place.

The Russian grandmaster, who had won the one OTB tournament he played during the pandemic, the national championship in December, called the second half "a completely different tournament" because everyone could prepare for a year, adding: "But sometimes even one year doesn't help you, like today!"

With that, he meant that he didn't get an opening advantage against the Sveshnikov, the line Giri surprised him with today. Normally, the Dutchman plays the Najdorf as well and he even published an opening course about it recently. According to the database, Giri only played it once before in a PRO Chess League game on in 2019.

Max Warmerdam Anish Giri Candidates
Giri showed flexibility in the opening by playing the Sveshnikov. He traveled to Yekaterinburg with GM-elect Max Warmerdam as his second (here the duo is seen during the technical meeting), the same player who helped GM Jorden van Foreest winning Tata Steel this year. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

Nepomniachtchi admitted to being surprised by the Sveshnikov, which was one of the few openings he didn't "repeat" in the morning. "I guess I mixed up everything quite quickly," he said, and called his 16th move "clumsy."

Black had few problems but experts still felt that Nepo accepted a draw perhaps a tad early. "It's, of course, playable but I felt I really have nothing here," he said.

Giri called the game "too subtle" and joked: "I had one year to find an advantage for Black after 1.e4 but I have to say I needed a little bit more time."

I had one year to find an advantage for Black after 1.e4 but I have to say I needed a little bit more time.
—Anish Giri

Giri Nepomniachtchi Candidates press conference
Giri and Nepomniachtchi at the press conference. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

Alekseenko went through the first half of the tournament without a win but scored his first victory today. This way, he dealt a big blow to Grischuk, whose chances to win the tournament are now quite small.

"I was just happy to come back to chess and I was trying to do my best," said the 23-year-old grandmaster modestly.

It was a game between two players who hadn't played a single OTB game since last year. They were quite active in's Titled Tuesday tournaments, but touching the wooden pieces had been a while and both needed a lot of time on the clock, which led to mutual time-trouble, twice.

In a way, Alekseenko was rewarded for his nice play in the queenless middlegame where he put his bishop on d6, centralized his king, and then sacrificed an exchange to keep practical chances. However, Grischuk might still have been able to draw the endgame a few moves after Alekseenko thought he was winning.

Kirill Alekseenko Candidates
Kirill Alekseenko, close to winning his first game. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

The game between Wang and Ding only lasted about 1.5 hours and game ended in a move repetition on move 28 in a theoretical line of the Scotch. (It was the first round in this tournament where all of the games started with 1.e4.)

"The line is so well-known, I think Wang Hao just wasn't interested in playing today," said our daily commentator GM Vishy Anand and that turned out to be close to the truth.

"I had a big problem with the jetlag and I felt I couldn't sleep very well so I decided to play something easier, just try to test the knowledge of my opponent," said Wang.

Ding Liren Wang Hao Candidates
Ding Liren and Wang Hao looking at some variations. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

Round 8 Standings

# Fed Name Rtg Perf 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Pts SB
1 Nepomniachtchi, Ian 2789 2858 ½ 0 1 ½ ½ 1 5.0/8
2 Caruana, Fabiano 2820 2808 ½ ½1 ½ ½ 1 ½ 0 4.5/8 18.5
3 Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 2758 2822 1 ½0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 4.5/8 17.75
4 Giri, Anish 2776 2773 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 4.0/8 15.75
5 Wang Hao 2763 2774 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 4.0/8 14.5
6 Alekseenko, Kirill 2696 2737 ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ ½1 ½ 3.5/8 13.5
7 Grischuk, Alexander 2777 2718 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½0 ½ 3.5/8 14.25
8 Ding Liren 2791 2680 0 1 0 ½ ½ ½ 3.0/8

(Tiebreaks: 1. Mutual score, 2. Number of wins, 3. Sonneborn-Berger.)

Round 9 (Tuesday): Alekseenko-Caruana-Vachier-Lagrave, Grischuk-Nepomniachtchi, Giri-Wang, Ding-MVL. See full pairings here.

At the press conferences, the players were asked what they had been up to in the last year besides playing online. Wang said that one day, he went to the cinema and watched four movies in a row. MVL pointed out that the problem wasn't getting new hobbies, but keeping the old ones. Alekseenko seems to have made use of the available time the best: he finished university and got his driver's license.

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