The world championship Candidates in Ekaterinburg was abruptly stopped on Thursday morning, with seven of 14 rounds played, after the Russian government announced that international air traffic would be suspended from Friday. Fide, the global chess body, planned a charter flight to Amsterdam enabling the Chinese, Dutch, French, and US grandmasters plus their aides and tournament officials to leave before the deadline.
Fide’s intention is to complete the tournament later this year, still in Russia and with points already scored counting, so that its winner, the official challenger for Magnus Carlsen’s crown, can play the Norwegian in Dubai in December. Whether coronavirus will permit this schedule remains to be seen.
The Candidates had been the only global sports event to continue under the threat of the virus. The eight GMs had daily medical checks, and the games were played behind closed doors. They could still be watched online, and with no competition from other sports chess sites reported a surge in viewers.
Seven of the 14 rounds have been completed, and these scores will stand when it becomes possible to resume the postponed tournament. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) and Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) led with 4.5/7, ahead of Fabiano Caruana (US), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) and Wang Hao (China) all 3.5/7, Kirill Alekseenko (Russia) and Ding Liren (China) 2.5/7.
Vachier-Lagrave was a late substitute after Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan withdrew, but the Frenchman played well and scored a significant win over Nepomniachtchi in the seventh round,especially as head-to-head is the first criteria in a tie-break situation.
The Winawer French 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 is rare nowadays in top-class tournaments, but Vachier-Lagrave was ready for it as his opponent had already used it earlier in the tournament and might be tempted to use the French Defence against a Frenchman.
Seventy years ago the French was the staple weapon for Mikhail Botvinnik in his title matches against Vassily Smyslov,and the patriarch also used it against lesser lights, even against myself at Hastings 1961-62. Most present day grandmasters distrust the French as too passive, and reasons for this emerged in the game. White’s AlphaZero-inspired advance of Harry the h pawn was met by an ugly defensive front of Kf8/Rg8, while Black’s central lock c5-c4 was mistimed.White took advantage by opening up the f file and infiltrating via the strong 35 Qa1!
Ding and Caruana were the pre-tournament favourites, but China’s No 1 is too far behind to recover. The weeks of lockdown in his home city of Wenzhou followed by two weeks quarantine in Moscow took their psychological toll. Ding lost three games, contrasting with the 2018 Candidates where he was unbeaten and his record, later surpassed by Carlsen, of 100 elite games unbeaten
Caruana was also subdued despite appearing with a full repertoire of planned opening surprises. The world No 2 so is still only one point behind the leaders, and has the favourable white pieces against Vachier-Lagrave in round eight. If round eight ever happens.
3664 1 Rhe8 g5 2 Rd2! Kxd2 3 Bb4 mate.