(Originally posted here, yesterday. Please subscribe to my Substack blog, where my posts will be published first.)
Round 1 of the 2022 Candidates lived up to the spectators’ hopes. All four games were exciting, two finished with a winner, and all four could have been decisive. Moreover, there was a significant upset, the openings were exciting - really, there was a bit of everything today.
The first game to finish was between the co-favorite (with Fabiano Caruana), Ding Liren, against the winner of the last Candidates tournament, Ian Nepomniachtchi. While I didn’t expect Nepo to win the event (and it’s a still long ways off, though if he wins tomorrow he’ll already be the favorite) I did warn that he probably had a big stock of opening ideas from his preparation for the match with Magnus Carlsen. Ding played the English, and Nepo chose a very aggressive line in reply. Ding seemed uncertain and inadequately prepared for the variation, and his passivity in the face of Nepo’s attack soon proved fatal. As Caruana put it afterward, Ding was blown off the board.
That game finished in just 32 moves; the other games all lasted well into the second time control. The second game to finish was the other decisive affair, the all-American battle between Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura. Caruana obtained an advantage from the opening, but let it slip. The critical moment came on move 21, when Caruana played 21.b3 to scare Nakamura away from castling by hand to the queenside. He should have done so anyway, but instead played 21…0-0?, allowing White to enjoy good attacking chances until forever against Black’s exposed king. Both sides made inaccuracies from time to time, but Black’s chronic king problems eventually proved his undoing.
The other games were long, exciting, and will leave the white players with some regrets. Jan-Krzysztof Duda surprised Richard Rapport in the opening, and when Rapport played the awful 8…g6? he was already practically lost after 9.c5! (and unquestionably lost after 12.0-0). Over the next 20-25 moves or so Duda would give away his advantage, a bit at a time, only to get a fresh opportunity to play for a win (and achieve it with good play). His last big chance was missed on move 33, and while Rapport still had to defend for another 36 moves, Duda never got another chance to play for a win.
Finally, the battle between the oldest player, Teimour Radjabov, and the youngest player, Alireza Firouzja, was full of action in the first time control. With Black, Firouzja chose a strategically risky line, and then on move 18 essayed a very interesting exchange sac. Radjabov found a great response, offering a pawn and then the exchange back in pursuit of a kingside attack, and when Firouzja erred on move 25 Radjabov obtained serious chances to play for a win. Firouzja recovered well, and when Radjabov’s 31st move let most of the advantage slip. He managed to reach a pawn-up rook ending, but holding it was child’s play for Firouzja, and the game was drawn after 71 moves.
(All four games, with my analysis, are here.)
Here’s what we have to look forward to tomorrow (Saturday) in round 2:
Rapport (.5) - Firouzja (.5)
Nakamura (0) - Radjabov (.5)
Nepomniachtchi (1) - Caruana (1)
Duda (.5) - Ding (0)