Luke McShane

Half measures

Half measures
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Would you slice a book in two? I learned of this peculiar practice in January, and I can’t fault its brutal pragmatism. Undeniably, half of War and Peace is more portable than the whole thing, and perhaps even less intimidating. When you finish the first chunk, you just swap it for the second. Books want to be read, not fetishised. For all that, I recoil from the idea, and I’m not alone.

The Candidates tournament in Yekaterinburg, a 14-round epic, was put on hold after just seven, but not due to illness among the players. When the Russian government announced that international air traffic would be suspended indefinitely, Fide’s president Arkady Dvorkovich, a former deputy prime minister of Russia, halted the event while there was still time for the players, their seconds, arbiters, organisers and journalists to get back home.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that ‘if anybody does become ill, it is hard to imagine how the tournament could be fairly concluded’. Fide’s solution was for the players to agree beforehand that results hitherto will remain valid, and remaining rounds will take place at a later date. There is no better way, but the tournament is fundamentally altered. The leaders have months to redouble their analytical efforts, and a stronger incentive than the tail-enders. But can they maintain their form after a hiatus?

Fide still insists that starting the event was justified based on their information at the time. Even if the risk was modest, filling the auditorium at the opening ceremony looked like tempting fate. The players, inevitably, were uncomfortable throughout the event. Teimour Radjabov, who argued that the event should be postponed, and subsequently withdrew in protest before the event began, is at least partly vindicated, and is now considering legal action.

The situation, like a severed book, is frayed and disappointing to behold. But there has been a week of thrilling chess, and fitting seven remaining rounds into the calendar will surely be more tractable than rescheduling the whole event. Let’s wait and see how it ends.

At present, the tournament is led by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi with 4.5/7. Vachier-Lagrave has every reason to be happy — he was a last-minute replacement for Radjabov, and won a crucial game against Nepomniachtchi in round 7. They are followed by Caruana, Wang, Grischuk and Giri with 3.5/7. Ding and Alekseenko have 2.5 points each. Ding’s poor showing is a real surprise, as he was considered one of the favourites at the start.

An impressive game from one of the leaders. ‘Nepo’ gains just a minimal edge from the opening, but conjures a vicious attack with queen, knight and pawns.

Ian Nepomniachtchi–Wang Hao

Yekaterinburg Candidates, March 2020

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nxe5 d6 4 Nf3 Nxe4 5 d4 d5 6 Bd3 Bf5 7 O-O Be7 8 Re1 O-O 9 Nbd2 Nd6 10 Nf1 Bxd3 11 Qxd3 c6 12 Bf4 Na6 13 h4 Nc7 14 Ng5 Bxg5 15 Bxg5 f6 16 Bf4 Qd7 17 Ng3 Rae8 18 Bxd6 Qxd6 19 Nf5 Qd7 20 Qh3 Kh8 21 h5 Rxe1+ 22 Rxe1 Re8 23 Rxe8+ Nxe8 24 g4 a6 25 b3 Qe6 26 Ne3 Nd6 27 h6 g6 28 c4 dxc4 29 bxc4 Kg8 For 29…Nxc4 30 Nxc4 Qxc4 see this week’s puzzle. 30 Qh2 Kf7 31 c5 Nb5 32 Qb8! Qd7 Black had to find 32…Nxd4! 33 Qxb7+ Qe7 34 Qxa6 Qe4! which promises enough counterplay to draw after White picks off the h7 pawn. 33 Qh8 Ke6 (see diagram) 34 f4! Closing the net. Nxd4 35 Qg8+ Qf7 36 Qc8+ Qd7 37 Qg8+ Qf7 38 Qd8! Qd7 38…Nb5 39 a4! 39 f5+ gxf5 40 gxf5+ Nxf5 41 Qxd7+ Kxd7 42 Nxf5 Ke6 43 Ne3 Black resigns