The Candidates: An Unsolved Chess Puzzle

12th World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov, who turns 70 this May, made a lucky first move on behalf of Caruana. Image courtesy of Lennart Ootes from the official site.

The second half of the Candidates Tournament resumed in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on April 19. Eight world-class Grandmasters are battling it out over the board to determine who will challenge Magnus Carlsen's reign. Chess fans had to wait for over a year for this spectacular event…and they weren't disappointed by the very start!

In Round 8, ex-Challenger Fabiano Caruana had White against the co-leader of the tournament, French #1 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Fabi unleashed mind-blowing opening preparation on his opponent in the ultra-sharp Poisoned Pawn variation of the Sicilian Najdorf, sacrificing three pawns and a piece and stirring wild complications.

Up to a certain point, Maxime was fighting back like a lion, receiving well-deserved praise from Magnus Carlsen himself, who referred to his play as a "superhuman defense." Undoubtedly, the masterpiece will receive multiple "best game of the month" awards. Analysts will be busy commentating its sidelines for years and years to come, proposing improvements and practical ideas for both sides. However, I would like to focus your attention specifically on the endgame part where MVL collapsed under the pressure, leaving no player in the tournament undefeated.

Let me start from afar. A long, long time ago, when COVID-19, the Internet, and 6-men endgame tablebases were not around yet, a study was published in a book by chess composers Bernhard Horwitz and Josef Kling.


The task is "White to play and draw."

If you are a strong player or a big fan of chess puzzles, you may want to give this position some thought and look for a way how not to allow Black to convert an extra exchange.

Or you can skip the rather challenging exercise and check out the solution:

One may argue that the line is not particularly flashy, but please keep in mind that the composers had to think of this position and work out all the intricacies on their own! Back in 1851, people knew much less about fortresses and defensive techniques in chess in general than we do now.

You might as well ask: "How is this ancient study that was published 170 years ago relevant for our post?" Now please look at the following position with Black to move:


Fascinating, isn't it!? The endgame that Caruana ended up having against MVL is the same study, but with reversed colors! Fabi had roughly 14 minutes left at this point, while Maxime had saved up about half an hour.

The game proceeded the following way:

The first few moves were familiar to us, but then MVL made the fatal mistake, spending only a minute or so and sending his knight the wrong way. From this point on, Fabiano displayed perfect technique and forced resignation from his opponent on move 74. This game significantly impacted the tournament standings, as MVL was co-leading the Candidates Tournament at 4.5/7 with Ian Nepomniachtchi, while Fabiano was one point behind.

If you are an ardent reader of chess books, you know that this is the part where the public flagellation of the guy who lost usually begins. One could point out that Maxime should have studied the classics more and known this study and a million others. Or that he should have calculated better and found the saving resource since he still had plenty of time on the clock. Or that one should never relax prematurely until the game is over, squandering half a point in a theoretically drawn position. Or…

Instead, I would like to point out that chess is a challenging sport where it is easy to lose concentration for a moment and to go astray, especially after a grueling middlegame fight in a game where the stakes are so high. All I would like to do is congratulate Fabiano Caruana on creating a true masterpiece on the board and wish Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to get over this soul-destroying loss and show his best form in the games to come!

Finally, please make sure to follow #FIDECandidates at Chess24 with commentary by World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, the strongest female chess player of all time Judit Polgar and other esteemed hosts!

You can sharpen your chess puzzle-solving skills by downloading our Tactics Frenzy app.