Ian Nepomniachtchi begins the battle for the World Chess Championship title against Magnus Carlsen today in Dubai, but it was only in 2019 that the Russian first entered the World Top 10. In a recent interview with Maria Emelianova for New in Chess magazine, Ian calls himself a "slow dude" and admits, "it took me quite some time to realize that work is a vital part of any progress".
Maria Emelianova's interview with Ian Nepomniachtchi for New in Chess 2021#7 began with the Russian's childhood in Bryansk. Ian reveals a range of interests and, for instance, the surprising fact that as a 14 or 15-year-old he chose the National Russian Language Olympiad over the Russian Chess Club Cup in Sochi. Of course chess was still a big part of that childhood...
...and we join the interview when it moves to Magnus and Ian's early clashes.
Maria Emelianova: What memories do you have of winning the U10 and U12 European Youth Championships and then the U12 World Youth Championship in 2002?
Ian Nepomniachtchi: The first trip was very nice. It was my first time so far away from home, in Kallithea, Greece. I was most impressed with the restaurant, the buffet... so much food, especially sweets. All three times I won the European Championships, I won with a round to spare. The first time was nice and memorable, but the next two years, I wouldn’t call it routine, but it wasn’t nearly as close to the same emotions. I wasn’t so successful at the Russian Championships, because I normally shared first place with other guys like Ildar Khairullin or Egor Krivoborodov, and I never came first because of the tiebreaks. So that’s why I normally played only the European Championships and not the World Championships. We didn’t have so much money and no sponsorship, so I couldn’t go to both and had to pick one. And only if I won the European Championship did we have a reason to find more money and go to the World Youth. My first try in Oropesa del Mar in 2001 wasn’t successful. I finished 8th, but the year after I shared first place with Magnus, but with a better tie-break.
Did you already have ambitions to be the World Champion one day?
Frankly speaking, I never really thought about this. I had this mindset of just playing well and improving. And it doesn’t really matter how fast it comes, but sooner or later I will become an International Master, then a Grandmaster and then we’ll just see what happens. Maybe this was somewhat harmful for my career, this idea that it didn’t really matter whether it happened slowly or fast. Of course I was ambitious, but I wasn’t working hard enough. Sooner or later it would come, so I was waiting. It took me quite some time to realize that work is a vital part of any progress.
I guess it was when I was 25 or 26 that I found out I actually had no big achievements apart from playing well for the Russian team. But even after I understood this, it still took me some time to start working more. Maybe I am just a very slow dude.
How did it change? Did you start working with more people?
It’s not so much about hiring extra coaches, but about changing your mindset and dedicating more time to chess. Spending less time on hobbies and games or hanging around and having fun. Overall, becoming more professional chess-wise.
Speaking of games, you were very good at Dota 2. Did you ever consider a professional Esports career?
Yes, absolutely. I can’t say I was really super-successful at Dota, but at some point I was a really decent player. Maybe because I spent lots of time, like 10 hours a day, when I was 20, 21, mastering the game. But back then there was literally zero money in Esports. Ironically, the year I won something I decided to quit Dota, because there was no sports organization, no professional team. At that time, I was in the top 15 in the FIDE rating list and I thought, enough is enough; I only will play for fun. That was exactly the year Valve announced their first international tournament with a one-million dollar prize fund. That was completely shocking. But I can’t say I would definitely have made it to a team, but I had decent chances.
Do you still play online games?
Very, very seldom, because I am a person who doesn’t like to lose in any game, and I also got used to playing well, at least in this particular game. Now for obvious reasons, because I only play once or twice a month, I am playing worse and worse. The game changed and I changed and got older, and I have less relevant experience and general in-game reaction. I am still trying to do things my way and it doesn’t work, so you lose and get angry and frustrated, and it’s the wrong way to spend your time, you know. Spend a few hours, get angry, then spend even more hours and get even angrier. I also play FIFA on my PlayStation sometimes, but also just once a month. Sometimes Hearthstone, but the only reason I play it is because it can be installed on my phone, unlike the other games.
Who are your favourite chess players?
One of the first books I studied was Alexander Alekhine’s Best Games. I had quite patriotic feelings when as a seven-year-old I read about the first-ever Russian World Chess Champion. But starting from a more or less serious age, 10 or 11 years old, I started trying to learn as much as possible from any player. And I have the same attitude right now. Of course I try to learn from the best, but I think almost any strong grandmaster can share some wisdom. Not necessarily by teaching you, but by playing a chess game. And you study this game and understand something new.
Was your style inspired by any player in particular, perhaps Mikhail Tal?
Of course Tal’s games are the most picturesque ones since the 19th century, the romantic era of chess. I think very few players could emulate this style, sacrificing a lot of material and playing for beauty, playing for the attack, and confusing your opponent by creating chaos on the board. But you know, you’re normally grabbing inspiration from very strong players if you’re trying to become one yourself. For instance, Robert Fischer was never a role model for me, but his chess was at a stellar level when he was at his best. If we try to evaluate or compare a chess player and his contemporaries, I guess Fischer was much better, perhaps even on a different level, compared to his contemporaries. The gap was more serious than in any other epoch. We can’t really compare him to the times of Tal or Morphy. He was far ahead with his chess level, and he’s the one we should be thankful for in terms of changing chess to a professional sport with serious prize money.
You are going to play for the world title against Magnus. Does it feel kind of inevitable to be playing a match against him, given your history and being the same age?
Well, I know some people like to think that way, but I think that the winner of the Candidates is playing the reigning World Champion. In general, that’s how it goes. It’s quite interesting that we’re meeting each other 19 years after we played our first game, but I guess that for example Anand and Gelfand, when they played their match, also had a big history of playing each other before. It just means we are players of the same generation, born in the same year – I guess that’s it. For people who like to see this as something special or supernatural, that’s of course another point of view that should be respected.
People also like to mention that the two of you are on good terms, and that at some point you helped him as his second.
Well, I helped him during the London tournament in 2012, but that was the only time. There were a few occasions that we worked together in 2011 and 2013, but that was not about being a second, just about trying to improve. Magnus likes working with different people, and I believe he has lots of training sessions with many top players, so I don’t think it’s something special to speak about. It’s too much to say it was a special cooperation.
Did working with him back then provide you with insights that might be useful in the match?
I don’t know, I honestly don’t know, but if this was the case I would probably not tell you.
Magnus’s overall record is impressive. Are there any achievements, other than being World Champion, that stand out for you?
I guess holding all the (world) titles is quite impressive – classic, rapid and blitz. But overall I think he’s a very stable player, who even on the worst days still fights until the last chance, and that’s why he normally – speaking about winning percentages – seems to score higher than other players. He’s probably the most stable compared to the other guys. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to give an example, but for example Caruana playing Wijk aan Zee before he won the Candidates, scored something like -3, which is a very poor result for a player of his calibre, but this year he scored +3. In Magnus’s case that range wouldn’t be so wide. His level is very constant, and even when in bad form, his play isn’t dropping too low. On top of that he’s a very good sportsman and absolutely hates losing in any game.
Speaking of your own victories, do you have any favourites?
I don’t like thinking about these questions, so I always say it’s yet to come. But now, of course, I can mention the Candidates career-wise. While I obviously didn’t show the best chess of my life, it was my best result. And it wasn’t about showing the best chess, but about scoring more points than the other players.
You are working harder these days than you did before. On average, how many hours would you say you work on chess every day?
I don’t know, the last 20 months I’ve worked really hard, starting with the first Candidates leg last year. Also it became impossible to spend time on most of my hobbies. I couldn’t play football or go to the cinema because of the Covid situation. And spending less time on small pleasures meant spending more time on chess, because what else are you going to do? But it’s much more than it used to be. Before, I could work a lot one day, and then another day, I would play a couple of blitz games online and that was it. Now it’s quite a different story.
The two previous World Championship matches were decided in rapid games. What are your thoughts on the current match format?
Well, it was quite a normal thing, I guess. Kramnik versus Topalov was settled in rapid, and Anand versus Topalov was close to rapid, because Topalov only lost the last game. Anand versus Gelfand was also decided in rapid. I think only the two matches between Anand and Carlsen were different. You see 12 draws [as in the Carlsen-Caruana match – ME], and it seems slightly shocking and unexpected, but chess is a well-balanced game and, I try to avoid the word drawish, but with deeper theory, over time it wouldn’t take too much to predict that more draws would occur.
So more classical games simply means more draws?
Not necessarily. It could just be a coincidence, but in general a draw is a normal result. Twelve in a row is of course some kind of a deviation from what we expect, but nothing is impossible to imagine. For example, when we speak of Karpov against Kasparov, their first match was stopped when the score was 5-3 [only wins were counted – ME]. When the score was 5-0, Kasparov started winning at some point, but there were 40 draws, 17 of them in a row. So maybe 12 draws in a row is unusual, but it isn’t the first time in chess history that this has occurred.
Your result in Norway Chess wasn’t what you might have hoped for. Because you had to hide some of your prep?
That wasn’t the only reason, and I wouldn’t want to take credit away from the other guys. What affected me the most was the visa issue and having no rest day as a result, which I think also affected Sergey Karjakin [as they played their postponed round-one game on the free day – ME]. But in general I don’t think this result was a catastrophe. It’s sad to finish on a minus score, but it’s also really hard to recall a tournament where two players – especially at the end of the tournament – each scored four wins in a row. Sometimes it’s a matter of luck, or your opponent’s bad form, but you can’t take this outstanding result away from them.
How did you see the games you played against Magnus in Norway Chess?
Of course in some way it was different to play Magnus compared to the other guys, but in general the points of these games will not be counted for the match, so they were just two games against a very strong opponent. Of course it’s better to win than to lose, but I wouldn’t be too happy if I performed too well in this tournament. As it is, I wasn’t too disappointed with my result. It’s not the end of the world, and overall the tournament is part of my preparation.
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