Chess: Nepomniachtchi and Caruana lead in Madrid with Carlsen in sight

After six of the 14 rounds at the world championship Candidates in Madrid, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana, the 2021 and 2018 title challengers, have broken away from their rivals. The pair will meet in Monday’s ninth round (2pm start, live and free to watch on major chess websites) in what could be the tournament decider.

It is a surprise result so far, and one which may test the resolve of the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, who has said that he is unlikely to defend his crown again if the opponent is from his own generation. Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi are both 31, Caruana is 29. If the Norwegian, widely regarded as the No 1 chess player of all time, refuses to play, then under the rules the top two in Madrid will meet in a world championship series.

Carlsen’s reluctance to compete is due to the heavy workload and boring grind of two months of intensive preparation, plus a month for the match itself. After four successful title defences, he prefers his new self-imposed challenge of setting a new record of 2900 rating points for overall performance.

Scores after six of the 14 rounds and before Friday’s rest day were Nepomniachtchi (Fide/Russia) 4.5/6, Caruana (US) 4, Hikaru Nakamura (US) and Richard Rapport (Hungary) 3, Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan), Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) and Ding Liren (China) 2.5, Alireza Firouzja (France) 2.

The pre-tournament favourites Ding and Firouzja have both failed, and are already too far behind the leaders for realistic recovery hopes. Ding arrived in Madrid only two days before the start, and his crushing round-one defeat to Nepomniachtchi seemed to stem at least partly from jet-lag.

Firouzja, 19, came ready with sharp openings, but his opponents had prepared better. Teenagers have a poor record in the Candidates, and Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky and Carlsen all failed at their first attempts.

Nepomniachtchi had seemed a broken man at Dubai in December when his title challenge to Carlsen, which had begun promisingly with five successive draws, collapsed with four defeats in the next six games. But this week he has been effectively recycling some of his Dubai preparation, and has scored by impressive tactical play.

All three of Nepomniachtchi’s wins have involved incisive attacks down the h file against the opposing king. Looking fitter at the board than in 2021 and without his trademark manbun, the Muscovite has dominated his opponents. The conclusion of his win against Firouzja, who tried to blitz with Black in a sharp Sicilian but found White fully ready, is shown in this week’s puzzle.

Carlsen had harsh words when he appeared as a Chess24 commentator during round five, when Nepomniachtchi got into trouble against Nakamura after the American surprised him in the opening by a rare sideline against the Petroff 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6.

The No 1 was particularly scathing when Nakamura spoilt his advantage and offered to bail out by a repeated position draw, which Nepomniachtchi quickly agreed to. Carlsen thought that it was a moment to take advantage of a tilted opponent: “How do you play Qd6 in one second? That’s so undisciplined. Smell the blood in the water, dude, be a shark!”

If either Nepomniachtchi or Caruana wins in Madrid and thus becomes the world crown challenger for a second time, it will test a notable statistic among a select group. Vasily Smyslov in 1954 and 1957, Boris Spassky in 1966 and 1969, and Vishy Anand in 1995 and 2007, all failed at their first championship attempt but succeeded at the second, while Viktor Korchnoi, after losing a de facto title match in 1975, came close to winning in 1978.

When decision time arrives, Carlsen may yet change his mind and play the Madrid winner. Otherwise there will effectively be two world champions and clamour for a unifying match. If that is with Nepomniachtchi, Carlsen might resist it; but the financial incentives for playing Caruana in St Louis are likely to be too compelling to resist.

England’s over-50 and over-65 teams are both in pole positions before Friday’s fifth round (of nine) of the World Seniors in Acqui Terme, Italy. Play starts at 2pm, and is viewable at livechess24.com.

USA led England 2-1 in Thursday’s key 50+ match between the two top seeds, but then Michael Adams won a brilliant knight and four pawns each ending against Gregory Kaidanov to ensure that England stayed ahead of their rivals on game points.

Play from the diagram went 60 g4! Nb5+ 61 Kd2 hxg4 62 h5 Ke6 63 Nxc5+ Kf7 64 Ne4! Kg7 65 Kd3 Na7 66 Ng3 Nc8 67 Nf5+ 1-0. The white king will help the a6 pawn queen, whlle the black king is movebound on the other flank. This is a fine example of the general principle that rook pawns are the most difficult to defend against in knight endgames.

3821: 1 Rxh7+! Kxh7 2 Qh5+ Kg8 (if 2…Qh6 3 Qxe8 threatens Bxe5 and Qf7+ mating) 3 Nxf5 Bf6 4 Rg1+! and Firouzja resigned because of 4…Kf8 5 Qh6+ Kf7 6 Rg7+ Kf8 7 Qh8+ Qg8 8 Qxg8 mate.