Candidates 2024: Blood, tears and a sole leader

Candidates 2024: Blood, tears and a sole leader

How do you reckon with a defeat after you’ve frittered away your winning chances? How do you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and show up for three more rounds, when the dream has withered? Vidit Gujrathi must be a cauldron of emotions – agony, regret, despair, swirling together. The 29-year-old Indian missed two winning chances with White and declined repetition against two-time Candidates winner Ian Nepomniachtchi. It led to the Russian carving a win out of the endgame, taking the sole lead in the Candidates tournament at the end of Round 11.

Vidit Gujrathi during Candidates tournament(X/FIDE_chess)
Vidit Gujrathi during Candidates tournament(X/FIDE_chess)

The other two Indians in the Open section – R Praggnanandhaa and D Gukesh lost and drew their respective games and the standings saw a churn.

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As the Indians tripped up, an American resurgence brewed. Hikaru Nakamura – who’s now won three of his last four games after a pretty slow start in the tournament – surprised Praggnanandhaa with the Krause variation in the Queen’s Gambit. “I had this surprise ready from the start of the tournament. I chose not to play it against (Nijat) Abasov because I thought it was too drawish,” said Nakamura, “I figured I wanted to use it somewhere that I’d be happy with a draw. I used it against Magnus Carlsen. If it’s good enough to be played against the best player in the world, why shouldn’t it be good enough to be played against someone else?”

The 18-year-old Indian who’s been unfurling opening surprises and novelties through the Candidates, was caught unawares. He retreated into extended periods of thought and burnt significant time on his clock.

Later, he regretted not going over the line. “We (together with second, GM Peter Svidler) just discussed it verbally, but I should have looked at it… I started to play for a win which was a horrible decision.”

Nakamura who’s playing his third Candidates had advice to dole out in the post-game press conference. “I have a lot of experience in this tournament. The way to play this tournament is to play solidly, play good moves and not go crazy.”

Gukesh was the only Indian who did not suffer a defeat in the Open section. He found himself in a comfortable position and a tiny advantage with White in the Queen’s Gambit Declined early. The task of breaking through though looked tricky. His opponent Fabiano Caruana managed to drum up some counterplay and Gukesh fell dangerously low on time. With 27…fxg5 White’s pawn structure seemed to suffer.

The 17-year-old Indian was soon staring at under 10 minutes on the clock for as many as 11 moves. Taking the Black pawn on f5 with his bishop rang in trades and White had no way to stop Black from escaping with a perpetual check. Gukesh is now joined by Nakamura in shared second place.

“I had a slightly worse position throughout the game, so I can’t be upset,” the world No. 2 American said after the game, “It’s not a bad result. The main thing was not to lose. I can’t say I’m disappointed since I didn’t get any winning chances. Since I played poorly for a large part of the tournament it’s not 100 per cent in my hands anymore. I’ll have to look at others’ games.

Amid the sombre mood of the Open section results for India, the women brought a glimmer of joy. R Vaishali pretty much put paid to Aleksandra Goryachkina’s first-place hopes with an underpromotion to a knight in a Queen endgame, while Koneru Humpy won against Nurgyul Salimova with White.

As players on most other boards wound up their games and filed out, a protracted battle ensued between Vidit and Nepo.

The Queens were off the board in the Petroff and under severe time pressure before they hit the 40-move mark, the Indian missed two critical opportunities for a win at 34. h5! and 37. Nxd5. After they made the time control, Vidit conveyed that he was playing for a win with 43…Ng3 (Nd2 would have led to a repetition and a draw).

Nepo went on to slide into the initiative and his King marched towards the centre while White’s King remained stranded in the flank. The Russian offered up two pawns in a clever ruse to hunt down White’s King. Vidit defended well and with his 58…Bg3 and the game was still objectively drawn. Hustled by an unforgiving clock, the Indian struggled to calculate his options and played 59…Ka3 which left him on the brink and his next move 60…Nb2+ was fatal. The Indian had been cut open and left to bleed.

Above the playing area, a smattering of spectators leaned onto the balcony rails, watching the tragic opera unfold.

At the end of 67 moves and a nearly six-hour-long game, Vidit shook his head, seemingly gulped back tears and staggered off the empty playing hall in grief. Nepo sat back in his chair briefly, processing his feelings. Three more rounds and possible multiple upheavals await. Chess is hard, and the Candidates is a woodchipper.

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