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Interviews Nov 3, 2021 | 4:50 PMby Colin McGourty

Ian Nepomniachtchi: “The result is much more important than the prize”

World Chess Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi once played Dota 2 at a near professional level, but before the prize funds went crazy. The Russian team Team Spirit just won $18.2 million for winning The International Dota 2 Championship, which provides the starting point for a discussion of the €2 million Chess World Championship match in a recent interview with Match TV. Ian talks about his preparation for facing Magnus Carlsen, losing 10 kilograms, the length of the match and the conditions in Dubai.

Ian Nepomniachtchi at the announcement of his latest sponsor, Nornickel | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

Ian Nepomniachtchi recently spoke to Mikhail Kuznetsov of Match TV, and we’ve now translated most of the interview from Russian. The conversation began by talking about the success of Russia's Team Spirit at The International.

Ian was asked if the huge amount of money involved would change how people see cybersport:

Ian Nepomniachtchi: In that sense, of course, it’s changed. Everyone now jokes: “Son, what are you doing studying? Go and play on your computer!” Perhaps it will be like that. How can we know? For myself, as a guy who was involved and almost played professionally, it’s very hard to judge that topic. I follow the major tournaments and I’ve got an awful lot of acquaintances who play. Therefore I have a good idea of how that branch is developing, the position it now holds and what the possibilities are. But, for the average person who knows little about professional cybersport, the attitude will be different, perhaps partly the way it is with poker: “Wow! He got to the final table where the first prize is 10 million dollars. You can earn money with this”.

The success of Team Spirit really is major, as it’s a very tough tournament that’s tough to qualify for and even tougher to win. It’s an exceptional achievement. Of course from the public point of view they see the 8-figure sum and think, “wow!” So they’re interested not in the process, but the result.

Mikhail Kuznetsov: The prize fund for the World Championship match is of course not the same as for The International — 2 million dollars. To what extent is that a significant sum for you? Can you help thinking about it as you prepare for the match?

It really is a lot of money, the highest prize money in my career, but this is that case where the result is much more important than the prize that follows from it.

In the last half-year you’ve had a few signing sessions with sponsors, you won $48,000 at the Candidates Tournament and around one million is guaranteed for taking part in the World Championship match. Have you started to spend more? Has your financial and everyday life changed?

For the moment I don’t have any time to deal with that. As they said in the USSR: “Life is given only once, and you have to spend it at training camps”. Nowadays I barely manage to get out of those camps: I spend 3-4 weeks at one, then a one-week break. Therefore there’s no time or energy to change anything in my everyday existence or life. All the energy is spent on preparation. When it’s done, then, as a classic author wrote, after the match it’ll be possible to stop and look back.

Karjakin’s manager Kirill Zangalis said that in 2016 Sergey spend a million dollars on preparation for the World Championship match. To what extent is the sum comparable in your case?

I think that sum is a little too high, but I don’t know in any detail how Sergey prepared. You can imagine something like that, since different specialists ask for different amounts. And that needn’t be only chess specialists, but people from different spheres as well. I’m very glad to be able to create jobs — I hope it’s mutually beneficial.

Preparations for the match are now in their final stages. How satisfied are you with them?

You can never be 100% satisfied. It always seems that you could do more and better, but we’re doing a huge amount of work. Again, you can prepare excellently but in the end play badly. I think everything will be measured by the result. I’ve had cases when I’ve prepared in a slipshod manner, or not prepared at all, but then I’ve played well and finished among the prizes, or in first place. It’s clear that at this stage the only thing in our power is to prepare well. And that’s what we’re doing.

14 classical games demand serious physical preparation. You’ve noticeably lost weight. How many kilograms, if it’s not a secret?

It’s not that it’s a huge amount. Roughly ten kilograms, but somewhere I read… Maybe it was during the times of Petrosian and Spassky, that they recommended the opposite before a match, to put on weight, so that during the match you have something to lose. Therefore I don’t know what’s better.

Ian Nepomnaichtchi met the press in the Central Chess Club in Moscow | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

But I lost weight a long time ago already. I’m not following it so closely now: the main thing is that there are no big swings, but I’m doing daily physical exercise.

I’ve often seen the opinion that the fact that the match will consist of 14 games and not 12 doesn’t work in your favour. What do you think?

I don’t know. And how many games would be in my favour? Two? Only time will tell. Afterwards it’ll be possible to say, “Yes, 14 games is tough”, or, “Only 14 games? But I only got warmed up. 16 were needed”.

Objectively 12 or 14 is more or less the same. Yes, there were limitless matches — a few matches to six wins, like the first Karpov and Kasparov match. Here, however, the number of games is limited. Of course they’ve reduced the number of free days a little, while we all like to rest, but what can you do? Everyone’s in the same conditions.

Were you involved in any psychological preparation during this period?

I don’t really understand what psychological preparation means. If it’s needing to have the correct attitude within yourself, then I’ve been preparing since childhood. 

You had a super important event in April — the Candidates Tournament, and now, the mega important match in November. How difficult was it to motivate yourself and get in the mood for the tournaments that you had in-between?

I didn’t think about it. I can’t say that I didn’t get in the mood for them. In general, there are different attitudes, both in energy and chess terms. There are tournaments where you can learn something, and tournaments where you need to post a result. But, of course, you also shouldn’t forget to learn there. Now there’s going to be a match where it’s necessary to focus on the result. No doubt the way of thinking will be a little different.

At Norway Chess Magnus won both mini-matches against Ian, but only in Armageddon | photo: Lennart Ootes

Do you consider the match against Carlsen the match of your life?

I don’t know. That will depend on the result. After I play it, I’ll tell you.

Are there nerves?

Nerves, as a rule, are before the start. From experience I can say that you get them in the first round when you sit down at the board and don’t yet know what kind of form you’re in. In such cases you usually make 2-3 moves and then your body readjusts to its working mode. Nerves, it seems me, also go at that moment. No doubt there will also be nerves when the finish is approaching, but now, before it begins, it’s early to talk about that.

When are you flying to Dubai? Will you have transfers?

I hope not. I’m flying quite soon, a few weeks before the start of the match.

How comfortable will the climatic conditions be for playing in Dubai?

We’re not playing outside, after all.

Yes, but nevertheless there’s a difference in the temperature on the street and in rooms with air-conditioning. Will that have an affect on the play?

It strikes me that it would be wrong to complain. If we were playing in July, when it’s +60 in the shade, it would be justified. Or how hot is it? I simply recall that in July there was a tournament there, we agreed to go on an excursion to the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, but I mixed something up and went to the wrong entrance, where it was impossible to get in. And I decided to run… I’ve never made such a mistake. It was like running in a sauna. If such a sport existed, that would be it.

Now, it seems to me, everything is great. The high season for recreation. It’s clear that we’ll be playing, not drinking cocktails on the beach: the match is taking place out of the way — the Dubai Expo is located in the desert. But I don’t think that we’ll have a lot to complain about with the climate. It’s unlikely we’ll have obligatory cross-country in the heat before the games.

Sergey Karjakin has been posting on social media from Dubai — a coincidence? 

The symbolic move in World Championship matches is usually made by famous people. If you could choose any person in the world to make the first move in the match against Magnus, who would you choose?

That’s tough. I’ll say Messi, although that answer would, perhaps, be predictable. But ok, he’s my favourite footballer.

We began with cybersport, and I’d like to end with it. A couple of years ago I interviewed you, and you compared chess players to Dota 2 characters. For yourself you chose Spirit Breaker, for Carlsen — Magnus and Sven. Which team has better chances of winning: the one with Spirit Breaker, or the one with Magnus and Sven?

Just now at The International, Spirit Breaker, I think, was one of the seven heroes who neither featured in picks nor bans i.e. they weren’t considered at all. While Magnus is a super meta hero of the tournament. So the statistics don’t speak in favour of Spirit Breaker. But one-on-one, Sprit Breaker is very strong.

The World Chess Championship 2021 starts on November 26th, with Judit Polgar and Anish Giri commentating live on all the action for chess24 — or alternatively we have the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour team of David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.

All the moves will of course be broadcast live here on chess24.

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