The Candidates tournament resumed on 19 April in Yekaterinburg. Eight players competed for a €500,000 prize fund, but only one prize mattered — first place, and the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen in a world championship match. It was Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi who triumphed — more on that next week. But the clash below, a true chess epic, gets my vote for the best game.
At the halfway mark, Fabiano Caruana trailed his next opponent, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, by a full point. Caruana is feared for the depth of his preparation and had a year to prepare for this game, knowing that Vachier-Lagrave is stubbornly principled in sticking to his Najdorf Sicilian (characterised by the move 5…a6), whose intricacies he knows inside out.
What happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force? That’s what this game promised to show us when Caruana dropped an enormous bomb: the move 18 Bc4!! astounded commentators, including Carlsen himself. After 18…Qxc4 19 Bd6 White is a bishop and three pawns down, but the Black king is caught in the centre and White threatens Bd6xc5 followed by Ne4-d6+. Vachier-Lagrave sank into thought for 27 minutes, but knocked back the strongest move, 19…Nf6!, returning the piece immediately.
Caruana blasted through with 22 Ndxe6, and hardly stopped to think before 29 Nb6. The endgame was delicately poised; Caruana’s agile rooks gave him the edge, but Vachier-Lagrave steadily eliminated pieces, counting on the fact that an endgame with just king and rook against king and knight is usually drawn. Apart from that, just one pawn each remained, and endgame databases inform us that the draw was within reach.