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Caruana, Nepomniachtchi Win To Set Up Clash Of Leaders
Hikaru Nakamura resigns his game with Fabiano Caruana. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Caruana, Nepomniachtchi Win To Set Up Clash Of Leaders

PeterDoggers
| 160 | Chess Event Coverage

An exciting first round at the 2022 Candidates Tournament saw two winners. GM Ian Nepomniachtchi defeated GM Ding Liren while GM Fabiano Caruana beat his compatriot GM Hikaru Nakamura. The two winners play each other on Saturday in round two.

How to watch the 2022 Candidates Tournament

Coverage of round 2 begins on June 18 at 6 a.m. Pacific, 9 a.m. Eastern, and 15:00 Central Europe. You can watch the 2022 Candidates live on Chess.com/TV and on our Twitch, or catch all our live broadcasts on YouTube.com/ChesscomLive. You can also keep up with all the details here on our live events platform.


While a heat wave is raging over Spain, with 37 degrees Celsius (99 Fahrenheit) in Madrid today, the chess boards in the sixteenth-century Palace of Santoña were on fire as the first round of the 2022 FIDE Candidates Tournament started with a bang. Two games ended decisively, but all four could have.

Before these heated battles took off, the general atmosphere among the players seemed rather friendly. Three of them had shared a taxi from the Principal Hotel Madrid to the venue, an eight-minute drive.

Six of the eight players are in the Principal; Caruana chose the Iberostar (a nine-minute walk away), and Firouzja stays in the Four Seasons, just five minutes from the venue, with both his parents and his brother.

On arrival in the playing hall, lots of smiles were exchanged with the photographers and officials, especially between Caruana and Nakamura when the latter's score sheet had to be replaced before the game. The reason was that the print was a bit faint.

All in all, there was a general atmosphere of excitement that the tournament finally started, but as soon as some officials made the ceremonial first move and the clocks were started, things got serious instantly.

After about an hour of play, the chess fans couldn't complain as all four positions were quite exciting. As co-commentator GM Jon Ludvig Hammer noted: "I wouldn't rule out the possibility of four decisive games."

FIDE Candidates 2022
The 80 m2 playing hall has little space for spectators or media. Photo: Stev Bonhage/FIDE.

Ding-Nepomniachtchi 0-1

In a way, this was one of the top clashes of the tournament, with the top seed facing the winner of the previous Candidates. It ended up being the shortest game of the round as the Chinese number-one resigned after a bit over three and a half hours shortly before he was about to get checkmated on the board.

It was definitely a surprising result, and not just because wins for Black are relatively rare at this level. (Nepomniachtchi also started his victorious 2020-2021 tournament with a black win in the opening round.)

No, it was the fact that Ding losing as White is even more uncommon. In his last 50 classical games with the white pieces, the ultra-solid Ding lost only twice—one of these, by the way, being his first-round game in the previous Candidates Tournament in March 2020.

Ding Nepomniachtchi 2022 Candidates
Ding and Nepomniachtchi meeting at the board. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Today's game saw a rather theoretical opening phase in the English Opening (1.c4), where on move 12 Nepomniachtchi deviated from a recent online game Ding had played. As the popular chess commentator GM Danny King suggested, Nepomniachtchi might have benefitted from the months-long hard work he has done to prepare for the 2021 world championship as GM Magnus Carlsen is not a stranger to 1.c4 either.

As an omen of things to come, the Russian grandmaster was the first player in the tournament to threaten checkmate, on move 13. That was easy to parry, but Ding took his time.

For 20 minutes, the Twitch chat went "take the knight!" but eventually Ding decided on pushing his h-pawn, thereby weakening his king's position a bit more. With the knights soon traded anyway, that didn't seem such a big issue. But it would be soon.

Ding must have underestimated the pawn break 25…g5!, which his opponent could actually already have played four moves earlier. It was the start of a kingside attack that quickly netted Nepo the full point as White's 26.Nxb7 was just too slow for counterplay. Nepomniachtchi's bishop sacrifice on the final move was cute.

Ding Nepomniachtchi Candidates 2022
Nepomniachtchi is not impressed by Ding's last move. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

"A win is always a win, but I guess it was quite smooth. I didn't analyze, but I am quite pleased with the game," said Nepomniachtchi.

"I was very surprised by that game, it looked like he just blew him off the board," Caruana would later say about this encounter.

It looked like he just blew him off the board.
—Fabiano Caruana

Game of the Day by Sam Shankland

It has been suggested that Ding isn't completely over his jetlag yet, having arrived to Madrid only a couple of days ago. Two years ago, he also lost his first game and then went on to lose his second as well, so getting on the scoreboard tomorrow will be crucial for the top seed.

Nepomniachtchi in this first round showed improvement over his general style of play and composure at the board, taking more time on his moves and staying at the board during the opponent's time. If he manages to continue this way, he should be considered a top favorite.

Ding Nepo Candidates 2022
Another tough start to the tournament for Ding. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Caruana-Nakamura 1-0

It wasn't a coincidence that the first round included the clash between the players who played more head-to-head games than any other two players in the field (a total of 45 classical games, with a 7-5 score for Caruana with 33 draws). According to regulations, players from the same federation meet each other as early as possible in the tournament, to avoid any possible collusion, as might have happened in the 1962 Curacao Candidates, as the late GM Bobby Fischer argued at the time. For decades to come, it was usually multiple Russians playing in the event, but this time around, only the U.S. has more than one representative.

Caruana Nakamura handhake Candidates 2022
Caruana and Nakamura starting their game. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

It was suitable to see a Spanish Opening played in this first round in Madrid, and unsurprisingly, Nakamura chose the solid Berlin Defence, marked by 3…Nf6. Ever since GM Vladimir Kramnik used it to grab the world title from GM Garry Kasparov 22 years ago, it has been one of the most solid options for Black.

Most top players these days avoid the endgame Kasparov was hanging on to and choose 4.d3 instead. Caruana's 8.Nb3 was the slight first surprise, after which Nakamura spent almost 12 minutes on his reply. Caruana later revealed that he knew Nakamura had only faced this move in online games. 

Nakamura's reply 8…Qe7 nonetheless had been played before, most recently by another American top player: GM Leinier Dominguez, in 2019. 

Caruana: "I'm sure he knew the move, but he decided to improvise."

Nakamura's 9…Rb8 was the first new move; Dominguez had castled queenside which was a bit more logical according to Caruana. "I was very happy with the position I got."

Caruana strolling Candidates 2022
Caruana felt good out of the opening. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The game seemed to get sharper when Nakamura decided to push his pawns on the kingside, whereupon Caruana brought his g3-bishop into "safety" by trading it off. At this point, it was a double knight vs. bishop pair battle with White having the better pawn structure.

For a while, it felt like Black was comfortable as it was a position difficult to navigate for White. Caruana felt confident again when he saw his opponent castling kingside, instead of putting the king on d7 to start castling queenside "by hand."

The position where Caruana suggested 21...Kd7!?

From that point, White could play for an advantage again and it helped that on move 24 Nakamura played a somewhat surprising pawn push in the center.

The world champion himself, who is watching the games and awaiting his next challenger, tweeted about 24…d5: "Literally does not care about king safety."

Caruana got his queen into the enemy position while beautifully blocking Black's e-pawn with his knight. "Hikaru is NOT down a pawn currently and that is also the nicest thing you can say about his position," was another spot-on remark by Hammer.

Nakamura thinking Candidates 2022
Trouble at the board for Nakamura. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Although Nakamura defended resourcefully, the position proved too difficult to hold for a human (the engine suggested there was a moment Black could have held). Right after 50.Qg4+ was played, Nakamura resigned, having seen the winning lines for White.

Annotations by GM Rafael Leitao

After the game, Caruana joined commentators IM Almira Skripchenko and IM Danny Rensch in the Chess.com studio and said:

"I'm definitely not letting myself get super excited about this because it's still the first game, but it's always nice to start well. Before the tournament, there's a lot of nerves and you don't really know how to feel. There's a lot of preparation but then you have to go from that preparation mindset into the playing mindset and it's totally different. So I was trying to be relatively calm today, take my time, and not rush any decisions. It was still a very nerve-wracking game, I'm sure with many mistakes, but overall, it's great."

Caruana Candidates 2022
A good first win for Caruana. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Nakamura streamed directly after the round and then posted this youtube video where he breaks down his thoughts on the game:

Radjabov-Firouzja ½-½

If there was a clash of generations in this first round, it was this one, with the oldest player in the field playing the youngest. When Radjabov, a former child prodigy himself, famously beat Kasparov in the 2003 Linares tournament at the age of 15, Firouzja was to be born only a few months later.

Fast forward 19 years, and we see Firouzja as the third-youngest player ever to start a Candidates Tournament (behind Carlsen and Fischer), having already reached a peak rating of 2804 at this young age—he'll turn 19 tomorrow. The live peak rating for Radjabov, who turned 35 in March, was 2799.6 in September 2012.

Radjabov Firouzja Candidates 2022
Firouzja faced Radjabov for the first time in a classical game. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In the first-ever classical game between these players, Firouzja's choice against 1.d4 was a line from the Queen's Gambit Accepted (by transposition) that could be seen as a sign that the French-Iranian player wants fighting positions from the get-go with both colors. It should be noted that the players had played the same first seven moves in a blitz game last year in the Paris leg of the Grand Chess Tour—a game won by Firouzja.

Soon after the opening, Firouzja decided to go for a positional exchange sacrifice that's part of any top player's arsenal these days. The times are long gone when certain players would be connected to this theme, most famously Tigran Petrosian and Veselin Topalov. In fact, many amateur players these days would understand that Black's beautiful bishop wasn't worse than a white rook. 

Every Sacrifice To Destroy Your Opponent

Soon, there was a 40-minute time advantage for Firouzja, but Radjabov came out well from a very tactical sequence that followed. He gave back the exchange for an attack and ended up with an extra pawn in an endgame with only a queen and rook for both.

Firouzja's king was remarkably safe, and after the queens were traded, the only thing left for him was to defend this pawn-down rook endgame. Some viewers started wondering about the youngster's technique, having in mind his shocking blunder in a pawn endgame against Carlsen in 2020.

This time, Firouzja was up to the task and held the position without much trouble. A draw, but a very exciting one!

Annotations by GM Rafael Leitao. 

Radjabov Firouzja Candidates 2022
Solid endgame play by Firouzja this time. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Duda-Rapport ½-½

In this clash among the new generation, Duda came into the battle with a two-to-one lifetime score, with two draws. Notably, he had won their last mutual game as White, when they played this January in Wijk aan Zee.

Rapport's initial opening moves were not as off-beat as we sometimes see from this highly creative player, as he played the rather mainstream Taimanov Sicilian. No, it was Duda who went for a sideline as early as move five, but it's a sideline that might become a major variation soon.

The position after 5.Bf4!?

This 5.Bf4 move is one of many remarkable discoveries by modern engines. It has been played a few times by the up-and-coming Dutch GM Max Warmerdam (and by this author, ahum) who shared on Twitter his surprise about Rapport's hesitating reply, taking into account that it was Rapport himself who had played that move as White. 

Duda Rapport Candidates 2022
Duda put Rapport under pressure in the opening. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

7…Ne7 already looked a bit peculiar and 8…g6 (after a 15-minute think) was tactically unsound, as the engines immediately pointed out. Duda's next 16 minutes were well spent as he found the strong 9.c5! push that led to a big positional advantage. Black was left with an isolated pawn on the open c-file, an easy target. Rapport was not looking happy, while the Polish fans had reasons to smile.

So far so good for Duda, but it wasn't his day after all. Keeping the advantage throughout the game, he failed to capitalize while Rapport did a very good job coordinating his pieces and defending his weaknesses. The engine claimed a win for White with the super-subtle 33.a4 and 34.b3, playing for zugzwang, but Duda tried something else, and it wasn't enough. All in all, a great defensive performance by the Hungarian player.

Annotations by GM Rafael Leitao. 

Duda Rapport Candidates 2022
Duda realizes that the win isn't going to come. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

All in all it was a great start to the most important tournament of the year. ¡Hasta mañana! We can't wait. 

Round 1 Standings

2022 FIDE Candidates Chess.com standings

Round 2 Pairings

Round 2 18.06.22 6 a.m. PT/15:00 CEST
Rapport - Firouzja
Nakamura - Radjabov
Nepomniachtchi - Caruana
Duda - Ding


Previous coverage:

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