Rapport, Nakamura survive scares in an all-drawn round of the Candidates

Four draws, four very different stories.

Image via FIDE / Stev Bonhage

The third round of the Candidates was a comparatively tamer affair than the previous two, with all games ending in a draw. That isn’t to say there weren’t fireworks to enjoy: though two of the games were fairly tame affairs as the players look to head into the first rest day of the tournament, there were two other ones with enough excitement to make up for the quick draws.

Caruana-Duda and Radjapov-Nepo finish in straightforward draws

After his explosive start in the first two rounds, Fabiano Caruana played a surprisingly toothless and drawish line from the Najdorf Sicilian against Jan-Krzysztof Duda, who was more than happy to oblige and pick up a third draw. The players quickly liquidated into an even position, shuffled the pieces around a little while longer and called it a day after 51 moves and very little excitement.

The same pattern emerged in the game between Teimour Radjabov and Ian Nepomniachtchi as the Azerbaijani player didn’t seize any sort of initiative from the Open Catalan opening, opting for a mass trade of pieces on move 20 that led to a symmetrical rook endgame. It only took ten more moves for the players to call it a day. This result is fine for Nepo, who’s done very well for himself in the first two rounds, but an oddly passive approach from Radjabov, who is currently joint-last after three games, having already used up two of his games with the White pieces.

Ding Liren misses a chance as Rapport hangs on

Shockingly, Radjabov is joined by Liren on the bottom of the standings after the first set of games. Arguably, his situation is even worse: at least Radjabov’s defeat came with the Black pieces. Liren lost to Nepomniachtchi in spectacular fashion in the opening round despite wielding White.

Once again, he was the first to make a move in this game against Richárd Rapport, another player with a shaky start to the event. The Hungarian GM survived a scare against Duda and failed to capitalize on his chances against Firouzja in the first two rounds – this time, it was once again time for a miraculous save (or a bit of luck depending on your perspective) as Liren managed to massage a very even position from the Grünfeld Defense into a large advantage, spending 25 and 18 minutes on back-to-back moves to find the perfect continuation and emerge with an edge.

This is why it was all the more shocking when he played 23. Qxe2, recapturing an invading knight instead of taking a rook on d8. The ensuing position would have been very favorable for him, and though he was still better after this sequence as well, having a rook for a bishop and a pawn, Rapport found a way to consolidate and save a valuable half point heading into the rest day.

Nakamura puts on incredible defense against Firouzja’s deep preparation

For casual chess fans, this game made it clear just how deep the elite players’ preparation goes an the highest level of play – and what incredible tenacity and precision is required to hold a difficult position to a standstill. Calling this game a fighting draw would be a real disservice: diving deep into a line from the Nimzo-Indian Defense that Nakamura played multiple times and held comfortable draws, Firouzja unleashed an incredible piece sacrifice with 16. Nxg5, ripping open the Black king’s defenses and gaining a lot of initiative in the process.

The position remained messy and exciting throughout, and it seemed like the young Frenchman found a way to get into a promising endgame, but his decision to trade rooks on move 37 turned out to be just the opportunity Nakamura needed to find a way out of the jungle. Having found 41. c3! to tactically stop the avalanche of passed pawns on the other side of the board, Nakamura held what seemed to be unholdable with human eyes and precisely calculated out the perfect sequence of Stockfish-approved moves to steer the game to a draw.

Candidates Tournament 2022 – standings and round 4 matchups

  • Fabiano Caruana – 2/3
  • Ian Nepomniachtchi – 2/3
  • Jan-Krzysztof Duda – 1.5/3
  • Alireza Firouzja – 1.5/3
  • Richárd Rapport – 1.5/3
  • Hikaru Nakamura – 1.5/3
  • Ding Liren – 1/3
  • Teimour Radjabov – 1/3

The event continues with Round 4 on June 21 after a rest day.

Rapport vs. Nakamura

A spicy match if there ever was one, Nakamura threw some shade at Rapport in the past, only to walk it back later when they got matched up in the first leg of the Grand Prix. Ultimately, they were the two players to qualify from that particular competition, and back then, it was Nakamura who triumphed in their Leg 1 semifinal match. Both players are on 1.5 points out of 3 and Rapport is still looking for a win: a combination of having the White pieces and going up against Nakamura’s somewhat predictable opening repertoire could give him an opening – but Nakamura has been playing very well so far, though at 34 years of age, being the player with the longest matches in the first three rounds might take its toll at some point.

Nepomniachtchi vs. Firouzja

Two of the most exciting attacking players face off against one another in Round 4, and Nepo still has the opportunity to take the lead outright in the event should he find a win against Alireza who’s clearly in piece-sacrificing super-prepper mode. Fireworks are 100% guaranteed on this one!

Duda vs. Radjabov

Neither of these players has exactly set the world on fire so far in the Candidates, but a win here could reinvigorate their respective campaigns. Duda went for some easy draws after missing a huge opportunity in the opening round – a reset in mindset after the rest day could be just what the doctor ordered. Meanwhile, Radjabov still needs to prove that he deserved his wildcard spot, and even though the Black pieces are not the ideal tools to do so, Round 4 in a winner-takes-all event is about as late as you can push it, especially with just one out of three points to your name so far.

Ding Liren vs. Fabiano Caruana

Two of the pre-tournament favorites meet up in Round 4 with very different trajectories. Caruana is still undefeated and is the joint leader of the tournament, while world #2 Ding Liren is struggling at the back of the pack with just one point and a bruising defeat.

Much like Radjabov, if Liren wants to have a shot at winning this event (since the world champion challenger status the only meaningful prize on offer), stopping the Caruana train would be a great way to get started.