In the final round, Karjakin beat Caruana, his top rival for the title

The final round of the 2016 Candidates tournament had a dream match-up: the two tournament leaders — Sergey Karjakin of Russia and Fabiano Caruana of the United States — facing each other and fighting for the chance to become the next challenger for the World Championship.  With such a mise-en-scene, people expected a great show, and the players did not disappoint.

As was previously reported, if the Karjakin-Caruana game ended peacefully, Karjakin would be the tournament winner, unless Viswanathan Anand of India won his game. But Anand had the Black pieces against an on-form Peter Svidler of Russia, so Caruana could not count on an Anand victory. Indeed, it was a pretty lackluster affair, as were the other two games of the round — each of them were drawn around Move 30. In light of that, I hope readers will forgive me for focusing only on the game that would decide who would take up the gauntlet and challenge Magnus Carlsen in the championship match in November in New York City.

Caruana, who had Black, clearly was in no mood to mess around — he chose the Rauzer Variation of the Sicilian Defense, a highly risky line that he has almost never played before.

Normally, one would condemn such an opening choice, but in this case it made perfect sense — there are no long forcing variations that end in draws (like there are in the Najdorf Variation, for example) and it’s very hard for White to dry the game up and reach a symmetrical and lifeless position (as he can in the Berlin Defense, which Caruana had been playing up to this point). Still, Karjakin did not play the most challenging line, as he could have. In fact, he missed a clear chance to gain the upper hand:

Karjakin, Sergey vs. Caruana, Fabiano
Candidates tournament | Moscow | Round 14 | 28 Mar 2016 | ECO: B67 | 1-0
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. Bg5 e6 7. Qd2 a6 8. O-O-O Bd7 9. f4 h6 10. Bh4 b5 11. Bxf6 gxf6 12. f5 Qb6 13. fxe6 fxe6 14. Nxc6 Qxc6 15. Bd3 h5 16. Kb1 b4 17. Ne2 Qc5 18. Rhf1?!
18. e5! This typical pawn sacrifice would have been very strong at this point. The lines to the black king get blasted open
18... fxe5 19. Qg5! and the Black king is already in considerable danger, Bg6 is a mate threat
19... Be7 20. Qg7 Rf8 21. Rhf1 Black cannot castle long due to the hanging bishop on d7, and his king will likely perish in the center  )
18... Bh6 19. Qe1 a5 20. b3 Rg8 21. g3 Ke7 22. Bc4 Be3 23. Rf3 Rg4 24. Qf1 Rf8 25. Nf4 Bxf4 26. Rxf4 a4 27. bxa4 Bxa4 28. Qd3 Bc6 29. Bb3 Rg5

With some less than incisive play, Karjakin allowed Black’s bishop pair and pawn center to promise him decent chances. But soon enough, he realized that he could not play this position passively, and lashed out with the same idea of e5:

Karjakin, Sergey vs. Caruana, Fabiano
Candidates tournament | Moscow | Round 14 | 28 Mar 2016 | ECO: B67 | 1-0
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. Bg5 e6 7. Qd2 a6 8. O-O-O Bd7 9. f4 h6 10. Bh4 b5 11. Bxf6 gxf6 12. f5 Qb6 13. fxe6 fxe6 14. Nxc6 Qxc6 15. Bd3 h5 16. Kb1 b4 17. Ne2 Qc5 18. Rhf1 Bh6 19. Qe1 a5 20. b3 Rg8 21. g3 Ke7 22. Bc4 Be3 23. Rf3 Rg4 24. Qf1 Rf8 25. Nf4 Bxf4 26. Rxf4 a4 27. bxa4 Bxa4 28. Qd3 Bc6 29. Bb3 Rg5 30. e5! A bit late to the party, but White finds the correct idea. Strategically Black has a gorgeous position, so White really has to open some lines to the king
30... Rxe5 31. Rc4
31. Qh7+ Is also fine. The computer claims the game should immediately end in a draw:
31... Rf7 32. Qh8 But Black does not have to play Rf8 now
32... Bd7 33. Qh6 This position is dynamically equal. I like Karjakin's move better  )
31... Rd5 32. Qe2!
32. Qxd5 This was a decent option, trying to trade into a drawn endgame, but I like Karjakin's spirit -- when you need a draw, play for a win!  )
32... Qb6 33. Rh4 And the attack rages on -- white obviously has full compensation for a pawn
33... Re5 34. Qd3 Bg2 35. Rd4 d5 36. Qd2 Re4 37. Rxd5 exd5 38. Qxd5 Qc7 39. Qf5 Rf7 40. Bxf7 Qe5 41. Rd7+ Kf8 42. Rd8+

After this, the position became wild. The computer calls it equal, but probably a draw is the least likely result — both sides have clear trumps and every right to play for a win. This is about as perfect a situation as Caruana could have asked for, but in this wildly complicated scenario, he happened to be the first one to blink.

Karjakin, Sergey vs. Caruana, Fabiano
Candidates tournament | Moscow | Round 14 | 28 Mar 2016 | 1-0
Re4?? In one move, Caruana loses his chance to play for the 2016 World Championship.
36... Bf3 This would keep the game complicated and dynamically balanced. The computer calls it equal, but anything can happen
37. Rxb4 Qc7 38. Rf1  )
37. Rxd5! Well calculated. This rook sacrifice wins on the spot and Karjakin can punch his ticket for New York in November
37... exd5 38. Qxd5 The threat of Qd7 mate is just about impossible to stop
38... Qc7
38... Rd4 This is the only way the computer finds to avoid immediate checkmate, but after
39. Qxd4 Qxd4 40. Rxd4 Black is just a pawn down and with a bad structure -- a resignable endgame  )
39. Qf5! and the queen comes in to h7
39... Rf7 40. Bxf7 Qe5
40... Kxf7 41. Qh7+ Would win the queen  )
41. Rd7+ Kf8 42. Rd8+ And Caruana had seen enough. Congrats to Karjakin on a fantastic final game to complete the tournament of his life!

Here are a few quick notes on the game between Nakamura and Levon, which was the second most interesting game of the round. It became complicated just after the opening, but eventually simplified to a draw.

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Aronian, Levon
Candidates tournament | Moscow | Round 14 | 29 Mar 2016 | ECO: D38 | 1/2-1/2
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. Qa4+ Nc6 6. e3 O-O 7. Qc2 Re8 8. Bd2 a6 9. a3 Bd6 10. h3 h6 11. Rd1 dxc4 12. Bxc4 e5 13. O-O Bd7 14. dxe5 Nxe5 15. Nxe5 Rxe5 16. f4!? This sharp move forces Black to sacrifice a pawn to avoid the e3-e4-e5 advance
16... Bf5!
16... Re8 17. e4 The pawns will crash straight through  )
17. Qb3 Re7 18. Qxb7 White has won a pawn but his position is loose, there are a lot of holes in his structure, and Black has active pieces
18... Bc2! Well calculated
18... Rb8 Was less accurate:
19. Qxa6 Rxb2 20. Bc1! A key resource, expelling the rook and leading to a White advantage  )
19. Rc1 Rb8 20. Qxa6 Rxb2 21. Nd1 Rb6 22. Qa5 Bb3 23. Nf2 Qb8 White's position has too many weaknesses for him to ever make use of his extra pawn -- he soon has to give it back.
24. Bxb3 Rxb3 25. a4 Qb7 26. Qf5 Bb4! Removing the defender
27. Bxb4 Qxb4 With both a4 and e3 hanging, Nakamura pitches a pawn to force an immediate draw
28. e4 Nxe4 29. Nxe4 Qxe4 30. Qxe4 Rxe4 31. Rxc7 Rxa4 32. Kh2 Rb2 33. Rf3

So, when all was said and done, it was one of the more exciting Candidates tournaments in recent memory. It produced a clear winner in Karjakin, who even finished a full point ahead of the field. From start to finish, he played the best chess, making use of the chances he created and fiercely defending when his positions turned sour. He will be the first of the new generation of Russian players to contest a World Championship match, and I am very excited to see what he can do in the match New York in November.

Finally, a side note. I saw one too many negative comments online at literally every single chess site about Anand and Giri, and this rubbed me the wrong way. To paraphrase: “Anand is old and it will just be another boring match, please let someone else win!” And “Giri is so boring, all he ever does is make draws! He drew every game here!” Allow me to rebut such commentary.

Anand has proven time and again that he is a major force to be reckoned with, is still going strong at 46, and was a clear contender for first place up until the very final rounds. His second match with Carlsen was much closer than the first, he won their last decisive encounter, and if he had a chance at a third one, I think it would be even closer still. Plus, it’s very possible that other players would have put up even less of a fight. And to call Anand’s chess boring when he produced the most decisive games of anyone in the tournament, including a tactical blowout against Svidler and one of the best endgame crunches I have ever seen against Karjakin, is pure lunacy.

As for Giri, he may have drawn all his games, but in addition to never losing, he was also never worse. He was very close to wins against Caruana, Nakamura, and Anand. If he had converted a couple of these and gotten a couple more chances, he could have just run away with the tournament, and he will be a major force to be reckoned with next time. So, I will put this as politely as possible, but people should stop writing such nonsense about these elite players.

————————————————————————-

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.