GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave defeated GM Ian Nepomniachtchi in round seven of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg. As the first tiebreak is mutual score, the French player is now the new leader halfway the tournament.

You can follow the FIDE Candidates Tournament with Chess.com commentary on Chess.com/TV during each round. The eighth round is on Thursday, March 26 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 7 broadcast.

“Of course, it was a crucial game, I thought. A win was not vital but very appreciated,” said Vachier-Lagrave after his big win.

The French fans were going wild when MVL substituted for GM Teimour Radjabov shortly before the tournament. Denmark 1992 was readily mentioned as their dream scenario.

Halfway through the FIDE Candidates tournament, this scenario has become more plausible indeed.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave FIDE Candidates
Vachier-Lagrave, now tied with Nepomniachtchi but first on tiebreak halfway through the Candidates. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In hindsight, Nepomniachtchi’s choice to play the French against the Frenchman might have been risky. For starters, it didn’t come as a surprise anymore since he had played it earlier in the tournament, against GM Kirill Alekseenko in round three.

“I thought it was a one-game idea against Alekseenko,” said commentator GM Vidit Gujrathi in the live Chess.com broadcast. “I am really surprised by his opening choice.”

MVL himself was only a little surprised. He had prepared for it, saying: “I had to be ready for it. 1…e6 was definitely an option because very often in the Candidates, when someone plays an opening, he plays it for the whole tournament.” 

Vachier-Lagrave vs Nepomniahtchi FIDE Candidates
Another French by Nepomniachtchi. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Secondly, there’s a reason why the Winawer isn’t the most popular of variations among the world elite. It involves strategic risks, which was beautifully demonstrated by MVL.

His approach, which included the push of the h-pawn to h5, was more consistent than Alekseenko’s and gave White the potential to play on both sides of the board. “I thought I was always better,” he said.

A key moment was move 18, when Nepomniachtchi decided to close the position more with the pawn push …c5-c4—always an important decision in the Winawer.

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The position where Black played 18…c4.

Here, according to Vachier-Lagrave, it was bad timing: “I don’t think this was the right plan. Closing the center makes sense, but I do not think he is in time.”

The French player castled, moved his queen’s rook to b4 and didn’t leave it when it was attacked by a knight—a brilliant concept that helped him to win the game.

Nepomniachtchi had to place his knight back on e7 (a sad move to play), but now White had time to maneuver his “bad” bishop to the great a3-f8 diagonal, and he was clearly better. With less time on the clock as well, Nepo then failed to cope with more blows from the Frenchman.

After his press conference (from which his annotations have been included in GM Dejan Bojkov’s analysis below), MVL was nice enough to join the live Chess.com broadcast.

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MVL pointed out how different he’s feeling compared to the end of that very busy last year: 

“I don’t feel nervous; it’s only halftime, so if I start being really nervous now… I think the important thing is to be fresh,” said Vachier-Lagrave. “I think that the main difference in my play compared to the end of 2019 when I was just playing non-stop and not feeling fresh at all and now I feel fresh, I feel ready to play games against these guys.”

I feel fresh, I feel ready to play games against these guys.
—Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

“I think it’s mostly because I got a big break. And, of course, even though I didn’t have much time, I did prepare more carefully for the Candidates once I knew I was in and with the help of my team. What helps is that my team is doing a great job so far. I more or less caught up with everyone in terms of openings despite having very little time. Then I got good positions, and I think it helps when you have good positions and you’re in good shape. I don’t think it’s about nerves here.”

Vachier-Lagrave vs Nepomniachtchi FIDE Candidates
Vachier-Lagrave and Nepomniachtchi right after the game. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

You’d expect a few players now trailing Nepomniachtchi and Vachier-Lagrave by half a point, but that’s not the case. The two leaders are a point ahead of a group of four players on a 50-percent score: GMs Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, Wang Hao, and Alexander Grischuk.

Caruana and Wang drew in a Petroff, where the American grandmaster faced the same variation that he had played in the 2018 world championship match.

“I wasn’t entirely happy to see this line because it’s not the most popular line, but it’s a very good one,” he said. “If you wanna really test Black, you either go for the endgame, which I went for, or you play some very sharp lines involving Bg5, which I couldn’t quite remember.”

Caruana said his subsequent play was a bit “careless” and he ended up being slightly worse, although it wasn’t much according to Wang.

Caruana Wang Hao FIDE Candidates
Caruana vs. Wang Hao. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Giri and Grischuk had the potential to become quite an interesting game when the Russian GM pushed his h-pawn as a reply to his opponent’s novelty. But as Grischuk also found the strong moves 12…Qd4 and 13…Qg4, the game quickly fizzled out.

“After 13…Qg4 I couldn’t remember what my preparation was but, to be honest, looking at the position, I doubt it was something miraculous. Black is very solid,” said Giri.

The Dutchman also made a reference to his 14 draws four years ago when he said: “It was a conflict of interest. On the one hand, I want to win, of course; on the other, I want Alexander to make all the draws so the spirit leaves from within me towards him!”

Giri Grischuk FIDE Candidates
Giri and Grischuk starting their English game. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The two tail-enders Alekseenko and GM Ding Liren played a Closed Catalan and, according to the Chinese GM, it was not a good game: “I missed 21…c5 when I played 21.Qa4. Then I should be careful not to become worse.”

Alekseenko: “I was quite happy with my position, but Liren found quite solid moves, and I didn’t find any plan to improve my position.”

Ding Liren Alekseenko FIDE Candidates
Ding Liren vs. Alekseenko. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Round 7 Standings

# Fed Name Rtg Perf 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Score SB
1 Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 2767 2876 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 4.5/7 15.25
2 Nepomniachtchi, Ian 2774 2875 0 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 4.5/7 14.25
3 Caruana, Fabiano 2842 2764 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 1 3.5/7 12.25
4-5 Giri, Anish 2763 2775 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 3.5/7 11.25
4-5 Wang, Hao 2762 2775 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 3.5/7 11.25
6 Grischuk, Alexander 2777 2773 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 3.5/7 12.25
7 Ding, Liren 2805 2667 0 0 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ 2.5/7 8.25
8 Alekseenko, Kirill 2698 2683 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 2.5/7 9.25

Round 8 (Thursday): Caruana-Vachier-Lagrave, Wang-Ding, Nepomniachtchi-Giri, Alekseenko-Grischuk. See full pairings here.

2020 Candidates Highlights

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Vachier-Lagrave Nepomniachtchi FIDE Candidates
Vachier-Lagrave, unlike Alekseenko, pushing his h-pawn a square further. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Ian Nepomniachtchi Nepomniachtchi FIDE Candidates
Nepomniachtchi in the early middlegame… Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Ian Nepomniachtchi Nepomniachtchi FIDE Candidates
…getting into some trouble… Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Ian Nepomniachtchi Nepomniachtchi FIDE Candidates
…and maybe more trouble… Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Vachier-Lagrave Ian Nepomniachtchi Nepomniachtchi FIDE Candidates
…and resigning. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave press conference FIDE Candidates
Vachier-Lagrave giving his press conference. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Previous reports:

https://www.chess.com/news/view/2020-fide-candidates-chess-tournament-round-7