GM Ian Nepomniachtchi is the clear favorite to win the FIDE Candidates Tournament as he beat GM Ding Liren in round six and increased his lead to a full point. GM Anish Giri won his first game as he defeated GM Kirill Alekseenko.

You can follow the FIDE Candidates Tournament with Chess.com commentary on Chess.com/TV during each round. The seventh round is on Wednesday, March 25 at 16:00 local time which is 12:00 Central Europe, 7 a.m. Eastern and 4 a.m. Pacific. You can follow the games live on our dedicated page on Chess.com/events. Find all the information about the Candidates Tournament in our info article.

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Chess.com’s round 6 broadcast.

It was both a surprising and somewhat awkward situation when Nepomniachtchi, after winning his third game in six rounds and seemingly in fantastic form, was coughing frequently during his press conference. Most online viewers must have had one particular question in mind during his analysis: did he contract the coronavirus?

When asked if he was OK, Nepomniachtchi replied: “I am definitely feeling not OK, and actually I wanted to make like some kind of a quick draw today. I was never against it until I got [a promising] position, but I got a couple of these tests and they [were] negative. But again, you know, the whole atmosphere, it doesn’t help you to feel healthy.”

Nepomniachtchi press conference coughing
Nepomniachtchi coughed a lot during his press conference. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

Everyone involved in the tournament was tested for the coronavirus upon arrival in the hotel and will be tested once again on Tuesday. Nepomniachtchi had asked for a second test earlier, which turned out to be negative as well. He will again be tested tomorrow with everyone else.

Meanwhile, more and more players are expressing their discomfort about the situation. Nepomniachtchi has now joined GM Wang Hao, GM Alexander Grischuk and, before the tournament, GM Teimour Radjabov, who all expressed that the atmosphere is not as it should be at such an important event. 

Asked if the organizers are considering to postpone the remainder of the tournament, FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky provided the following comment to Chess.com:

“Well, I think this should not be taken out of proportions. [Alexander] Grischuk’s was not an official statement or something of the kind—Alexander just was answering a question in an interview after five hours of play. Obviously it is difficult for players—as the pressure is high. It is also difficult for us—and actually canceling it all would be the simplest thing to do from the beginning. It would have been considered a ‘responsible step.’ But it is very easy to ruin it all, canceling life altogether.

“I would say that stopping the event would be a huge blow for chess. Not just for FIDE. And most of the players understand it. I saw Caruana’s interview—and he clearly understands why we go ahead with the event. The same for MVL. Does it add additional pressure? You bet. But what is the alternative exactly? How high is the risk?

FIDE Director Emil Sutovsky
FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

“Now, it is very important to understand the details. There is an actual problem in the world—where the situations that only look similar are tackled in a similar way. Here we talk about an event with only eight players—so this comparison with all other sports is largely irrelevant. And actually there is a whole string of measures taken to minimize the risk. Once again, we understand how difficult it is for players, and having been a top-20 player myself in the recent past, I understand them fully. FIDE does its utmost both to minimize the risk and not to overwhelm grandmasters who are already under the pressure with all sorts of check-ups. FIDE really takes it all very seriously. We often talk about one’s responsibility; here we see our responsibility in finding the balance allowing players to compete, at the same time protecting their health. And of course, we will tackle all the issues related to their safe travel home after the tournament.”

Under the weather or not, Nepomniachtchi today played himself into the role of absolute favorite to win. In doing so, he also more or less eliminated one pre-tournament favorite from the fight: Ding. Three wins for Nepomniachtchi is unexpected, but three losses for the Chinese top player is shocking.

Ding Liren FIDE Candidates
Ding Liren is unlikely to win the FIDE Candidates after three losses. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Upon arrival in his hotel room, the loss must have been even more painful for Ding as the computer ruthlessly pointed out that Nepo had actually made a mistake, and there was a brilliant save for Black—which Ding had missed. In fact, “insane” or “ridiculous” might be better words to describe the engine’s discovery:

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Here Black can save himself with 33… Rxb6! 34. Rxb6 Qxe2! 35. Rb8 Re5!! 36. Rxd8+ Kh7 that leads to the following, amazing picture. 

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White is a full rook up but needs to give it back right away to avoid losing himself: 37. Rh8+ (after 37.Rg1 Qxf2, threatening 38…Re1, White needs to play 38.Rh8+ anyway) 37…Kxh8 38. Qc8+ Kh7 39. Qxh3+ Kg6 and Black holds!

Nepomniachtchi, when being told about this: “This was brilliant. 35…Re5 is easy to miss. If you see 35…Re5, you should be disqualified!”

Explaining his good form, Nepo said: “I am just trying to make less mistakes than usual and than my opponents do.”

Ian Nepomniachtchi FIDE Candidates 2020
Nepomniachtchi, feeling bad but doing great. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

After his famous 14 draws in the 2016 Candidates Tournament and his minus-one score so far, Giri finally broke the spell. 

“At the end, I almost had a heart attack because I realized it’s going to be my first ever win at the Candidates,” he said. “I think I’ve never had such a high heartbeat. Today I think we need a good doctor check after this game!”

Anish Giri FIDE Candidates 2020
Giri finally won a game at the Candidates. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

For a long time, it looked like the Dutchman was once again failing to convert a promising position, but after six hours of play and with both players playing on increment, Alekseenko blundered terribly in a drawn knight endgame.

Although it wasn’t discussed in the post-game interview, Giri must have known—as he was playing in the same event!—that GM Magnus Carlsen had beaten GM Viswanathan Anand in virtually the same ending at the 2019 Tata Steel Chess tournament. Giri followed more or less the same plan as Carlsen, and Alekseenko eventually stumbled as well, albeit in a different way.

Alekseenko Giri FIDE Candidates
An Italian in Alekseenko vs. Giri. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Giri had come out of the opening with a slight advantage as Black in a Giuoco Pianissimo, despite the fact that the game saw a first small crack in his famed opening preparation. It’s not that he made a big mistake, but he seemed to be “out of book” earlier than necessary.

The Dutchman thought eight minutes on his 16th move and 28 minutes on his 18th move, despite the fact that the game was still following Grandelius-Hovhannisyan, Reykjavik 2019. Oh well, you can’t remember everything!

Alekseenko Giri FIDE Candidates 2020
Alekseenko and Giri during their Q+N vs Q+N ending. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

While expecting the game to end in a draw, Giri was having thoughts like the following: “This tournament is like a birthday of Ian, except the other kids, they’re coming, they’re giving him presents, but they’re not really happy to be there, nor are they really happy for the birthday boy. They pretend to be his friends, but in fact, he’s the only one happy with his presents.”

Alekseenko Giri FIDE Candidates
Giri couldn’t hide his relief when Alekseenko resigned. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In general, the round was both very exciting for the casual fans as well as important for the opening theoreticians. It seems that in both Wang-MVL and Grischuk-Caruana, something critical was played.

Starting with the Gruenfeld played by GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave against Wang, the players continued the theoretical discussion in the Bc4 mainline as also seen in Caruana-Nepomniachtchi, we once again saw both 10…b6 and an early run with the h-pawn for White. For 17 moves they followed Dubov-Svidler, Hamburg 2019.

As Wang revealed when joining the Chess.com live broadcast, White actually doesn’t have more than a draw. “I was not planning to play for anything special because Black could make some forced draw by very precise moves but probably during the game, Maxime didn’t remember the lines,” he said.

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As MVL played some more inaccuracies, Wang briefly had serious chances in a typical Gruenfeld endgame with a passed d-pawn for White vs. a queenside majority for Black.

While commentators GM Simon Williams and IM Danny Rensch were wondering why Scottish GM Jonathan Rowson had chosen to name that d-pawn “Delroy” in his 1999 classic “Understanding the Gruenfeld,” this author decided to contact Rowson and a few minutes later he joined the show from London to give his explanation:

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As Wang missed his chance, Vachier-Lagrave managed to get away with a draw thanks to building a fortress. For the first time in the tournament, the Frenchman wasn’t happy with his play.

“I was blundering so many things today that I feel like, first of all, I was lucky to make a draw. Also, clearly some things I did in the middlegame and in the endgame were just not right. Too many things were blundered but it turned out OK because my position was so solid at some point. I really cannot be happy about this game, especially when you compare it to every other game I played so far.”

Wang Hao Vachier-Lagrave FIDE Candidates handshake
Another handshake as Wang Hao and Vachier-Lagrave start their game. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The king of preparation in this round was GM Fabiano Caruana. In his second …Bc5 Ruy Lopez, he came up with the surprising move 12…Re8, not strictly a novelty but rare, and according to the American grandmaster theoretically important.

“I think it’s very clever,” Caruana said. “It looks like it’s tactically losing, but it sort of works out for Black.”

In what followed, he could definitely rely upon prior knowledge while Grischuk, once again, was burning time. While the Russian player spent less than a minute for only half of his first 24 moves and, for example, took 27 minutes on his 15th move, Caruana made each of his first 22 moves in under a minute.

Caruana: “Of course, it’s easier when you have some prior knowledge about the position, and I also had a big time advantage.”
Grischuk: “When you play half of the game clearly against the computer, against preparation, it’s hard to have big ambitions.”

Grischuk Caruana FIDE Candidates
Another race against the clock and preparation for Grischuk. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

With the second rest day coming up, Nepomniachtchi now has a full point lead, and the other players need to hope that he’s not going to run away any further. Interestingly, on Wednesday the tournament resumes with the last round of the first half, with runner-up MVL playing the leader.

Round 6 Standings

# Fed Name Rtg Perf 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Pts SB
1 Nepomniachtchi, Ian 2774 2965 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 4.5/6
2 Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 2767 2832 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 3.5/6
3 Caruana, Fabiano 2842 2764 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 1 3.0/6 9
4-5 Giri, Anish 2763 2774 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 3.0/6 7.75
4-5 Wang Hao 2762 2764 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 3.0/6 7.75
6 Grischuk, Alexander 2777 2775 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 3.0/6 9
7 Ding Liren 2805 2661 0 0 1 ½ 0 ½ 2.0/6 6
8 Alekseenko, Kirill 2698 2661 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ ½ 2.0/6 7

Round 7 (Wednesday): Caruana-Wang, Vachier-Lagrave-Nepomniachtchi, Ding-Alekseenko, Giri-Grischuk. See full pairings here.

2020 Candidates Highlights

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Previous reports:

https://www.chess.com/news/view/2020-fide-candidates-chess-tournament-round-6