In a momentous round, Aronian won when his opponent blundered, Karjakin had a Houdini-like escape, and Anand reminded fans why he has long been known as the “Tiger of Madras”

When the book is written on the 2016 Candidates tournament, Round 6 is likely to be remembered as one of the chapters that was critical in determining the winner.

It was far-and-away the most exciting round of the tournament and not just because it had two decisive games — all four games were interesting.  

Viswanathan Anand of India, the former World Champion, got things started with a miniature (a win of less than 25 moves) over Peter Svidler of Russia to reach a score of +1 for the second time in the tournament. The opening was a Ruy Lopez, but the players reached an unusual position:

Normally Black doesn’t leave the pawn on d7 for so long. But, Svidler, who was Black, has made a great career out of playing funky systems in the Ruy Lopez. Many of them look artificial or dubious, but his results have been excellent over the years. This time though, he may have bit off more than he could chew. After 13. d4!, Anand had started his central expansion.

True to his style, Svidler took with 13. … exd4!?, a capture I mentioned is typical of his style in my pre-tournament profile of him. Normally he can get away with it, but not this time. After 14. cxd4 d5 15. e5 Ne4 16. axb5 axb5 17. Nxe4 dxe4, Anand played the strong pseudo-sacrifice 18. Rxe4!, looking to make use of the b1-h7 diagonal. Black cannot take the rook as it would be too dangerous.

Instead, Svidler looked for active counterplay with 18. … Nb3, but after 19. Rxa8! Bxa8 20. Ng5!, White’s attack was far too strong.

The game was brought to an abrupt conclusion after 20. … Nxc1 21. Qh5 h6 22. Qxf7+ Kh8 23. Rg4!, when Black has no answer to the simple threat of Qg6. After 23. … Qa5 24. h4!, Black was out of tricks and out of luck. Svidler resigned on the spot.

The next game to finish was the encounter between Fabiano Caruana of the United States and Sergey Karjakin of Russia, the leader going into the round.

I was immediately struck by the opening choice — for the third time in three games, Karjakin played the 4. … Ba6 line in the Queen’s Indian Defense, followed by a quick d7-d5. That allowed White to play cxd5, after which Karjakin replied exd5.

This was very interesting. It clearly means Karjakin had prepared the Queen’s Indian Defense for this tournament and fully trusts his preparation and Black’s position. But since his opponents keep trying to test him in that opening, clearly they have a different opinion about how good it is.

In his first game in the tournament in that variation, Karjakin achieved an easy draw against Anish Giri of the Netherlands. In his second game, against Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria, Topalov could have gotten an edge. And in the game with Caruana in Round 6, Karjakin was really on the ropes in the following position:

Black is under pressure, and the computer’s suggestion of 18. … Rc8 19. b5 Rxc3 20. bxa6 looks extremely unappealing to me. Karjakin instead looked for a chance to create a fortress by sacrificing his queen with 18. … Bxb4!?

The game continued 19. Nc6 Bxc3 20. Nxd8 Bxe2! 21. Qb3 Bxa1 22. Rxa1 Raxd8 23. Rxa7 Nc4. Materially, Black is basically fine , but his pieces are uncoordinated and he is under pressure. Caruana had real winning chances, but messed up a bit later:

White will definitely have to give up a piece for Black’s d pawn. But after something like 30. Bf3 d2 31. Kh2 d1=Q 32. Bxd1 Rxd1, I’m not sure if Black can create a fortress or not because White has the f4-f5 advance at his disposal with the idea of attacking the bishop on g6. My gut feeling is Black can hold, but it will require accurate defense.

Instead, Caruana went for the jugular with 30. g5?, but this was a mistake. Karjakin played extremely precisely with 30. … d2! 31. gxf6+ Kh8! 32. Bf3 Be4! 33. Kh2 Bd5! (of course not 33. … Bxf3? 34. Qxf7 with mate to follow), 34. Qg4 Rg8!, and Black had secured equality. The game was drawn two moves later.

While this was an impressive save, if I were Karjakin, I would invest some time during Friday’s rest day to prepare something new against 1. d4, because if this trend continues, his Queen’s Indian Defense will not hold up much longer.

The game between Topalov and Giri had some interesting moments, but ultimately was a reasonably solid and normal draw. That is, except for the third move:

Topalov played the brazen and almost ridiculous 3. h4!?!? I can’t even begin to understand this move. I suppose White wants to play h4-h5, but it seems extremely artificial. Giri responded with 3. … c5 4. d5 b5!?, aiming to play an improved Benko Gambit — up a tempo and with White having already loosened his kingside. I think this was a very sensible response and Giri up pushing for a win before the game finally ended in a draw.

The last game to finish was the game between Levon Aronian of Armenia and Hikaru Nakamura of the United States. The opening was also a Queen’s Indian, which seems to have become the opening of the tournament. Aronian played a fine positional game, but Nakamura defended very well for a long time.

Black is definitely in some trouble here, but Nakamura found the strong defensive resource 46. … Re8! 47. e5 Rb8!, putting his rook on a seemingly passive square. But if black can play b5, he should be able to hold. Aronian pushed for awhile in a theoretically drawn rook and three-pawn vs rook and two-pawn ending, but I believe that should have ended in a draw. But then, in the following position, Nakamura did something inexplicable:

He had been under pressure for hours and this is his first time playing in the Candidates, but still, all he had to do was move his rook to defend against 75. e6, say by playing 74. … Re2, and he should be fine. Instead, as the following video shows, he grabbed his king:

Nakamura tried to say he was just trying to adjust it and had no intention to move it, but Aronian protested and the arbiter sided with Aronian. Nakamura was forced to move his king, which in all respects was a blunder. The game continued 74. … Kf8??, which lost immediately to 75. Kf6! Rb6+ 76. Rd6. Nakamura resigned shortly after.

Karjakin and Aronian are now co-leaders, with 4 out 6. Anand is close behind, with 3.5, followed by Caruana and Giri, who have drawn all their games, despite chances, and each have 3 points. Svidler is now -1, with 2.5 points, and bringing up the rear, both having lost twice, are Topalov and Nakamura.

Friday is the second rest day in Moscow, after which the tournament resumes on Saturday. In a fortunate pairing for fans, the leaders are to square off, with Karjakin playing White, so that will definitely be the game to follow.


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 7 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.