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'Nepo-leonic' overture: Vachier-Lagrave crushes Nepomniatchi’s French Defence, joins him as co-leader in World Chess Candidates

'Nepo-leonic' overture: Vachier-Lagrave crushes Nepomniatchi’s French Defence, joins him as co-leader in World Chess Candidates
France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave produced a classical masterpiece to defeat Russia’s Ian Nepomniatchi in a complex French Defence in Round 7 of the World Chess Candidates.

The crucial win creates a two-way race between the pair, who now both lead the field by a full point.

The Candidates tournament in Ekaterinburg reached the halfway mark with the Frenchman – a late substitute after one of the competitors pulled out over coronavirus fears – in equal first position with Russia’s Nepomniatchi (known as "Nepo" to his fans), who had dominated the first six rounds of the 14-round tournament.

Nepomniatchi's previous excellent form, despite suffering from a worrying bout of coughing in Round 6, seemed to abandon him in Round 7.

However, with Vachier-Lagrave (known as "MVL") piling on the pressure and gaining vital maneuvering space against the Russian Grandmaster’s cramped French Defence – prompting World Champion Magnus Carlsen and other commentators to doubt whether "Nepo" could hold it together psychologically in the second half of the tournament.

The winner of the Candidates tournament will qualify to play Carlsen in a World Championship match scheduled for Dubai in December, but the match may be in jeopardy if the current global coronavirus lockdown continues for several months.

The Candidates tournament itself has faced persistent calls for it to be canceled or postponed, including from some of the players, due to fears over Coronavirus. If any of the eight players tests positive for COVID-19 the whole event must be postponed, according to new rules introduced by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) just before the event began.

"MVL" attacked "Nepo’s" French Defence from the word go, first gaining space on the kingside, then opening up play on the queenside – before finally switching back to the kingside for a decisive pawn charge that left "Nepo" vulnerable to "MVL’s" powerful passed pawns.

Faced with a new queen about to appear on the board, Nepomniatchi resigned on move 42 – enabling MVL to join him in the lead as the tournament reaches its halfway point.

The other three games in Round 7 were drawn, leaving MVL and Nepomniatchi a full point ahead with 4.5/7, and the chasing pack of American Fabiano Caruana, Dutchman Anish Giri, China’s Wang Hao and Russia’s Aleksandr Grischuk on 3.5. A further point behind are Ding Liren (China) and Kirill Alekseenko (Russia) on 2.5.

Fears over coronavirus are never far from the surface at the tournament, with Anish Giri ironically upbraiding an American commentator from one live broadcast as they tried to interrupt his analysis of the day’s play.

When Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, broke into a post-match interview with Anish Giri to offer the observation that a neat tactic was about to happen in one of the other games, the Dutchman shot back with an ironic reply: "You interrupt me with 'breaking news.' I thought you had found a cure for Covid-19!"