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Reports Apr 26, 2021 | 8:33 PMby Colin McGourty

It’s a Nepomniachtchi-Carlsen World Championship!

Magnus Carlsen will face his childhood nemesis Ian Nepomniachtchi in a 14-game World Chess Championship match this November in Dubai after Ian won the FIDE Candidates Tournament with a round to spare. Nepomniachtchi’s opponent Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had to win with the black pieces but never came close, while Anish Giri lost to self-confessed “chess terrorist” Alexander Grischuk. Ian called reaching the match a “huge milestone in my career and perhaps in my life also,” but understandably never wants to play a tournament lasting over a year again.

You can replay all the games from the FIDE Candidates Tournament using the selector below - click on a game to open it with computer analysis, or hover over a player’s name to see all his games. 

And here’s the penultimate round commentary from Judit Polgar, Tania Sachdev and Surya Ganguly.

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Ian Nepomniachtchi wins the FIDE Candidates Tournament

Ian Nepomniachtchi weaponised his oversized green chair - comfort isn't everything! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The one player who went into Round 13 of the FIDE Candidates with an absolutely clear task was French no. 1 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who knew nothing but a victory with the black pieces over tournament leader Ian Nepomniachtchi would do. Nepo wasn’t going to make it easy, and began with 1.Nf3, a move he said he had no idea what to do after himself.

Maxime went for 2…b6 and soon a double fianchetto, but it was one of the options Ian had been expecting, and the Russian gradually built up what was verging on an overwhelming position.

Anyone criticising Maxime perhaps didn’t realise just how difficult it is to play for a win on demand with Black against an absolutely top class player.

Maxime himself later commented:

It’s not easy. At least I got some sort of fighting game. Of course the drawback of getting a fighting game with Black is that you end up being clearly worse, and this was no exception.

The fact that White seemed to be winning this game would have an impact elsewhere, but as the game went on Maxime managed to put up resistance, and 22.fxg3!? instead of the more natural 22.hxg3 may have had his fans daring to dream. 

It wouldn’t last long, however, with Maxime’s choice on move 28 essentially bidding farewell to any lingering World Championship hopes.

28…Rab8?! saw all the heavy pieces hoovered off the board with 29.Rxb8 Rxb8 30.Rxb8 Qxb8 31.Qb2 Qxb2 32.Nxb2 to leave an ending that only White could possibly win. It was a puzzling choice from the Frenchman, but neither player saw a plan for Black if the rooks and queens had been kept on the board, and Maxime perhaps decided there was no need to lose the game just to prove his fighting spirit. 

Giri later mentioned how Nepo had put on maximum pressure with his win in Round 12... and the position he had against MVL | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

It ended in a tame draw that saw all eyes turn to Grischuk-Giri, a game played in the shadow of Nepo-MVL. By the end a draw for Anish would have been enough to take him into the final round with a realistic chance of becoming the World Championship challenger, but by that stage it was too late, since he was hopelessly lost. 

Chess is intense | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The situation recalled the final round of the 2013 FIDE Candidates in London when Vladimir Kramnik had assumed he had to win on demand against Vasyl Ivanchuk with the black pieces, since otherwise all Magnus Carlsen needed to do was draw. In the end Magnus lost to Peter Svidler, but Kramnik also lost to Ivanchuk when a draw would have meant a 2013 Kramnik-Anand rematch.

Alexander Grischuk explained the logic perfectly:   

There was a chain reaction. Lagrave had to win against Nepomniachtchi, so there was a huge chance that he would lose, and if he loses then Anish has to win to keep the chances, and then there is a big chance that he will lose, and actually Lagrave didn’t lose, but Anish lost. That’s what I don’t like about these round-robin tournaments, that some people who are not relevant decide the outcome.

In this case that “irrelevant” person was Grischuk, who labelled himself a terrorist! 

My plan was to play like a terrorist, to terrorise him with a draw, and if he goes for a worse position then I will play, and that’s pretty much exactly what happened! If he played for equality I would just try to force a draw, and most likely succeed.

Grischuk also gave a shout-out to Vishy Anand, who he said he’d looked at the line in the game with - in fact they’d even played some training games in the position. Nevertheless, Grischuk felt Giri played well, but with one proviso: “He actually played quite good without understanding what my idea is, and he just missed the whole point”.

The idea was here to play 22.f3 followed by Nf1 and Ne3, when suddenly White was completely on top. 

Giri also admitted to having failed to understand the position during the game, and was in general scathing of his play:

It was a very, very poor game. It was a combination of a mindset that doesn’t suit the position combined with a heavy lack of understanding of the position, and I made a lot of terrible mistakes. 

Grischuk quipped when he was told how unhappy Giri had been, "Of course to lose to me you need to play bad, for sure!” But he also didn’t disagree, repeating, “There is nothing to be proud of in this game for me - I really feel like a terrorist!” 

Giri outlined a catalogue of mistakes, but both players agreed the last straw came on move 28.

28…f5!? was the move Grischuk expected, and after the forced line with 29.Qb2 that he showed in the press conference there would still have been decent drawing chances for Black. Instead Giri thought he could invert the move order of his planned f5, Ne7 and start with 28…Ne7?, but after 29.Qd2 f5? 30.Qxd6 he was simply dead lost, and it made no difference that Grischuk was low on time.  

“At least I have to go f5 and I have to fight. You shouldn’t lose like a total baby, it’s ridiculous!” said Giri, for whom the remainder of the game was perhaps more about coming to terms with the end of his World Championship dream, at least for now. 

French GM Adrien Demuth took an in-depth look at the game:

Giri had been in great form to win three games in four rounds and could still end up level with Ian after the final round, but he'd fallen just short. He gave credit to Nepomniachtchi:

Ian played two great halves and I messed up one of the two already, so it was not even close. I think he did a great job!

In fact Ian would later list his all-important Round 1 victory over Anish Giri as his greatest achievement of the tournament.

It was Giri’s resignation that confirmed Ian Nepomniachtchi was the new World Championship challenger.

The 2016 challenger was among the first to offer his congratulations.

And the man himself was also quick to react.

A little later, after beating Alireza Firouzja in the 11th round of the New in Chess Classic, he talked about how interesting the match might be.

Ian Nepomniachtchi’s performance had been almost perfect, except for one slip against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave at the end of the first half of the tournament. He explained that when he came back this year he struggled to get any sleep for the first games, which explained his very fast draw against Giri, but he would soon get into the swing of the tournament again.

The result capped an incredible few years for Ian Nepomniachtchi, who had taken until he was almost 30 to enter the Top 10, but has now qualified from his first Candidates Tournament and is up to world no. 3. A win over MVL would even have taken him into the 2800 club for the first time, but perhaps that would be too much for one day. 

He described winning the tournament as “such a huge milestone in my career and perhaps in my life also”, though he was understandably hoping not to play any more tournaments lasting over a year.

When it came to his approach to the tournament, he pointed out what he’d learned from commentating on the previous two editions, and particularly watching the erratic performance of Vladimir Kramnik in Berlin:

The thing that was most important is that you should never go crazy… you should make a boring draw but you shouldn’t lose. 

He also put his improvement down to realising that he needed to work all the time even to stand still, saying that, “compared with myself of when I was 20 or even 25, I started to work on chess a lot more.”

Nepo has a +3 score in classical games against Magnus Carlsen. How had he achieved that? “Because I won more games against him than I lost!” 

Magnus had gone into a bit more detail about their respective strengths while commentating on the Candidates.

Ian was asked if he recalled Magnus explaining to him that the reason he wasn’t playing regularly in the very top events was that he needed to focus more. 

I don’t particularly remember these talks between me and Magnus, but in general overall I have changed my attitude to chess. At some point several years ago I considered myself a chess pro, but I never worked like a pro.

Ian Nepomniachtchi is finally going to get the chance to showcase his huge talent on the biggest stage | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Ian has cut down on other activities such as gaming, while the team he had for the Candidates illustrates how seriously he was taking it. He credited his long-term second Vladimir Potkin, but also Ildar Khairullin, Nikita Vitiugov and Peter Leko. Finally it’s clear why Peter hasn’t been commentating recently, though he’s going to be back with Tania Sachdev for the final four days of the New in Chess Classic. 

Did Nepo have a message for Magnus? “I guess it’s already a message!” The signs are good that Nepo can also hold his own in press conferences, where in the past he used to drive mere mortals insane by only reeling off variations at breakneck speed. 

The underdogs collapse

The action elsewhere felt very minor by comparison, but it was at least curious that both underdogs collapsed in one move in a similar manner. First Wang Hao was spared trying to defend another miserable ending when he went astray just before the time control with 40.Kh1?

40…Be4! was Fabiano Caruana’s surprisingly venomous trick. The knight is pinned so can’t take the bishop, so how do you save the pawn? You can’t. Wang Hao played 41.d6, but after 41…Bc6 secured the bishop, he couldn’t defend both the pawn and the knight. The game ended 42.Qb2 Qxd6 White resigns.

Fabiano Caruana bounced back from his loss to Giri to return to a plus score | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Then it was the turn of Kirill Alekseenko, who was also bamboozled by pins, although it seems Ding Liren’s earlier piece sacrifice was flawed. Kirill would have been winning if he’d played 47.Bb2, but alas, he chose 47.Bc5?

There was only one good move for Black, but Ding wasn’t going to miss 47…Rb8! There’s no real way to defend against the threat of back-rank mate, since 48.Rd1 is simply met by 48…Rb1 and 49.Qd2 is hit by 49…Bf4, when White’s pieces are overloaded. 

Kirill's 48.Bb4 was the best defence, but Ding calculated the winning 48…Rxb4! 49.Qxb4 Qxd3 50.Nf3 Qf1+! 51.Ng1 and now the sting in the tail:

51…Bd4! and although the remainder of the game featured a lot of checks, simply Bxf2 ensured White was losing too much material. 

That second win in a row for Ding Liren gives his performance a veneer of respectability again, and it would have been fascinating to see him play Ian Nepomniachtchi in the final round if Ian needed something from the game.

As it is, even if Ian loses and Anish wins, Nepomniachtchi will still be the winner due to his better head-to-head score. Of course there’s still an interesting battle ahead for second place and a greater share of the prize fund. Tune into all the action from 13:00 CEST live here on chess24.

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