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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Chess: Carlsen’s rivals prepare for Candidates as No 1 wins after hiccup | Magnus Carlsen

The field is almost complete for the eight-player 2022 Candidates at Madrid in June, which will decide Magnus Carlsen’s next world title challenger. It promises to be a vintage occasion.

The event which remains in the memory among recent Candidates is London 2013, when Carlsen and Vlad Kramnik battled to become Vishy Anand’s challenger. Both made a hash of the final round before the Norwegian won through. Now, in 2022, there are at least four players who can be argued as favourites.

China’s world No 2, Ding Liren, looks poised to qualify for the final spot in Madrid. Ding had seemed out of contention due to visa issues, but Sergey Karjakin’s ban created a vacancy if Ding could complete a 30 games requirement by the end of April.

This week Ding is at Hangzhou for a four-GM event where he will play 12 games, followed by a six-game match against China’s No 2, Wei Yi, and then a 10-game training tournament. Some days will have two rounds, and Ding’s hectic marathon will be complete by 24 April, before the cut-off date for Fide’s May rating list.

Ding’s 6.5/7 start in Hangzhou has regained his world No 2 spot from the prodigy Alireza Firouzja, who has been inactive recently but is probably at work on preparing opening bombs ready for the Candidates.

A few months ago Hikaru Nakamura seemed to have abandoned classical chess completely in favour of his booming career as a streamer with more than a million followers. Then Fide made its inspired decision to give Nakamura a wildcard for the Berlin leg, and the five-time US champion responded by winning the first Grand Prix leg, before recovering from a poor start in the final leg to score three wins in a row. The Berlin leg will be decided in Sunday’s final, but it is already mathematically sure that Nakamura and Richard Rapport will take the two Candidates qualifier places.

The expected Candidates field, with current live ratings, is: 2 Ding Liren (29, China); 3 Alireza Firouzja (18, France); 4 Fabiano Caruana (29, US); 7 Richard Rapport (26, Hungary) 8 Ian Nepomniachtchi (31, Russia); 11 Hikaru Nakamura (34, US); 12 Teimour Radjabov (35, Azerbaijan); 15 Jan-Krzyzsztof Duda (23, Poland).

Two months ahead of the tournament, who are the favourites and who are the outsiders? Caruana and Nepomniachtchi have already played for the world crown, Firouzja has been breaking age records in his stellar ascent, while Ding has performed creditably in previous Candidates despite adverse circumstances in 2020-21 when he had to quarantine before the start. This quartet have to be the prime favourites.

At the other end, Radjabov has his place as compensation for withdrawing in 2020 due to pandemic concerns, but he was a poor last in the 2013 Candidates. Duda and Rapport are as yet unproven at the highest level, but are young enough for a surge in form.

The enigma of the tournament is Nakamura. He could only manage an even score on his one previous Candidates appearance, and it is a major handicap for a player in his mid-30s to have been away from classical tournaments for so long.

Yet the dream will be there, the chance to fulfil the promise of eight years ago when the American was No 3 in the world. A remark he made in an interview this week shows how seriously he is already taking the opportunity. Playing White against Shak Mamedyarov in the Grand Prix semi-final and confronted with the Petroff 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6, he opted for a tame queen exchange and a speedy draw. Asked why, he replied “the opening is one that many of the people in the Candidates might play”.

Meanwhile Carlsen has won both opening events in the online Champions Tour. The No 1’s victory in the last week’s Charity Cup, designed to aid Unicef and Ukraine, seemed to be going smoothly as he outplayed Ding in the semi-finals, won the first set in the final against Duda, and took a 1-0 lead in the second set.

Then disaster struck in a way which Carlsen recalled from previous events: “This was right out of the playbook of what feels like every tournament after the first few last year. Seems like I’m cruising, then there’s one bad moment and it all falls apart.”

Duda’s resource, which changed the assessment from a white win to a black win, and which visibly rocked the world champion, came after Carlsen advanced 1 a6 in the diagram. What happened next? Solution below.

Carlsen went on to lose the next game then the set as well, but recovered to win the blitz tie-break and the final. Overall, his online form is dominant. His next over-the-board tournament could be the St Louis Grand Tour Superbet Classic in Bucharest, Romania, from 3-15 May, or he may wait until Norway Chess at Stavanger starting 30 May.

3809: 1…Qe7! 2 Qxe7 (if 2 Qe5 f6 and Rxg2+ follows) Rxg2+ 3 Kh1 Rg1++! 4 Kxg1 Rg8+ and mates. Carlsen v Duda: 1 a6?? Qa7! and the threat Qf2 mate forced White to exchange queens by 2 Qb7+ Qxb7 3 axb7 Rb6 after which Black won the ending.

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