Reports Dec 22, 2019 | 8:12 PMby Colin McGourty

Nepo in the Candidates as MVL misses out again

Ian Nepomnaichtchi has qualified for the 2020 Candidates Tournament that will determine Magnus Carlsen’s next World Championship challenger after getting the draw he needed to beat Wei Yi and win the Jerusalem FIDE Grand Prix. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave looks set to miss out on the 2nd biggest event in chess yet again, unless the organisers decide not to give the wild card directly to the only remaining eligible Russian – Kirill Alekseenko.

A perfect end to the year for Ian Nepomniachtchi | photo: Niki Riga, official website

You can replay all the Jerusalem FIDE Grand Prix games using the selector below:

And here’s Evgeny Miroshnichenko’s commentary on the final day:

Ian Nepomniachtchi eases to victory

Wei Yi came to fight, but the odds of success were always low | photo: Niki Riga, official website

After an avoidable loss in the first game of the final Wei Yi had a mountain to climb with the black pieces in the second. As Nepomniachtchi explained:

The task for my opponent wasn’t very simple - to find out how to create some decent fight with Black, because it’s extremely difficult to get an advantage even with White, and with Black it’s almost impossible.

Wei Yi himself confessed he didn’t know what to play and “only prepared five minutes”. What he opted for can variously be described as the Pirc (Nepo’s choice), or the Modern, or even the “Hippopotamus” – Black puts pawns on the 6th rank, in this case g6, d6, a6, e6, b6 and h6, fianchettos his bishops and hopes that after conceding the centre he’ll later be able to launch a counterattack that will sweep White from the board.

"And then he played g5!" | photo: Niki Riga, official website

The way it usually works in these must-win games, however, is the way it worked on Sunday in Jerusalem – White gains a big advantage, parries Black’s attack and it ends up being more a question of whether to offer a “mercy” draw or play on for a win. Both players identified the position after 11…g5 12.d5! as critical:

Wei Yi felt it would have been better to “castle and just play slowly”, while Nepomniachtchi suggested the same after 12…e5!? 13.Nh2. Instead Wei Yi’s 13…Ng6!? 14.Bg4 Nf6 15.Nf1 Nf4 16.Bf5 left Ian feeling that he was “out of any danger”, while after 16…h5 17.g3 Bh6 18.f3 he was feeling even better about life:

Basically after f3 it was obvious that White is winning - if you even try to calculate a little it’s pretty obvious the position is simple to hold for White, and I believe there is no real danger, but of course you can blunder something, so that’s why I checked twice every line.

Wei Yi decided there was no going back now and insisted on sacrificing not just the knight on f4 but the knight on f6 with 18…Rg8!? 19.Kh1 Bc8 20.gxf4 gxf4 21.Bf2 Nxe4 22.fxe4 Qg5:

At least Black has created the threat of mate-in-1, but ways to parry that threat include 23.Bxb6! cxb6 24.Nh2 and White is simply a piece up. Nepo took a more practical decision, however, playing 23.Ne3!, which left Black the simple choice between losing the game or forcing a draw by perpetual check. Wei Yi took the latter path with 23…fxe3 24.Bxe3 Qg3 25.Bxh6 Qf3+ 26.Kh2 Qg3+ Draw agreed

As Nepomniachtchi jokingly summed things up, with some shots fired at observers who had complained about draws earlier in Jerusalem:

So I decided just to take this draw and it looks like he attacked me, sacrificing two pieces, and brilliantly found a perpetual check – everyone should be happy with today’s game!

The runners-up spot in Jerusalem was a notable achievement for Wei Yi, but it was all about Nepomniachtchi, who had achieved all possible sporting goals. 

Silver for Wei Yi | photo: Niki Riga, official website

Nepo had won the Jerusalem Grand Prix and finished 1 point behind Alexander Grischuk in second place overall, meaning he’d taken the 2nd and final Candidates qualification spot from the Grand Prix:

That means we can expect the 2020 Candidates Tournament - to be played from mid-March in Yekaterinburg, Russia - to have the following line-up:

NameFEDRatingWorld rankQualified as
1Fabiano Caruana282222018 World Championship runner-up
2Ding Liren280132019 World Cup runner-up
3Alexander Grischuk277752019 Grand Prix series winner
4Anish Giri27698Highest average rating for 2019
5Ian Nepomniachtchi276792019 Grand Prix series runner-up
6Teimour Radjabov2765102019 World Cup winner
7Wang Hao2756162019 Grand Swiss winner
8Kirill Alekseenko *270437Organiser wild card

The one detail that remains to be confirmed is whether 22-year-old Kirill Alekseenko will automatically gain the wild card spot as the one eligible Russian player who hasn’t qualified by another path… or if the organisers might consider that having two Russians already (and three players born in Russia if you include Anish Giri) is enough and organise a match between Alekseenko and MVL. Levon Aronian could also enter the fray as eligible for a wild card by rating.     

Team Nepomniachtchi and Potkin, though Ian said he'd also had some extra help from a friend in Moscow | photo: Niki Riga, official website 

This time around there’s even less doubt than usual that MVL is the most deserving player to miss out, since he became eligible for the wild card in all but one possible way: by average rating (in fact he was next in line after Giri), as the 3rd place finisher in the World Cup and as the 3rd place finisher in the Grand Prix. All he was missing for the full set is runner-up in the Grand Swiss, an event he skipped.

For all the top players it's been a gruelling year, with Nepo commenting on the clash between the Grand Chess Tour and the Grand Swiss:

It was a very busy, tough year, and actually my strategy was not to qualify for London in the Grand Chess Tour because I knew that London almost clashes with the last leg in Jerusalem, which I supposed would be very important… In Kolkata it was very important that at some point Vishy could [overtake] Maxime, but he should have taken 6th place or something, but it was very important for me to play well not to let Vishy take 6th place, so I just did my best in blitz and somehow I finished in front of Vishy and it was kind of important.

In the end MVL did qualify for London, which may have left the French no. 1 more fatigued by the time Nepomniachtchi faced him in the Jerusalem semi-final. Nepo added, however, that he was in far from great shape himself at the start, since he was still recovering from an illness picked up in Kolkata and nearly lost to Boris Gelfand:

To tell the truth, of course the match against Boris is probably the one in which I completely deserved to lose, but I managed to escape.

Thoughts now will begin to turn to the Candidates, which looks to have two clear favourites in Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana, while the presence of “blasts from the past” Wang Hao and Teimour Radjabov and newcomer Kirill Alekseenko arguably makes the event weaker than on previous occasions:

You could certainly make up a powerful tournament from the players who haven’t made it this time round:

But this is sport, and what's certain is that whoever manages to win the 14-round Candidates Tournament will be an absolutely worthy challenger for Magnus Carlsen.

Ian Nepomniachtchi described it as, “a very big moment in my career,” and could be inspired by his first chance to live up to his obvious potential and challenge for the World Championship. He wasn’t getting carried away, however, commenting, “First of all I should play better than here if I want to have even some few chances”.

Nepomniachtchi can still boast a 4 wins to 1 classical score against Magnus | photo: Niki Riga, official website 

Nepo's Grand Chess Tour campaign hadn’t been all about trying to avoid the finals, however:

Clearly it’s a good point that I had some nice experience this year playing Grand Chess Tour events with a very similar field – Ding Liren, Fabiano Caruana and so on, all the finest players, all the higher-rated players. So I believe I can’t make a good prediction. Let’s just wait until it happens and let’s try and show the best chess I’m capable of!

Or the shorter version:

It promises to be an intriguing event, with the Candidates in March-April followed by the winner playing a World Championship match in November. Before 2019 ends, however, we’ve still got the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Moscow from 26-30 December, which promises to be the usual chaotic and enjoyable finale to the chess year. Don’t miss all the action here on chess24!

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