Interviews Dec 14, 2017 | 7:50 PMby Colin McGourty

Nepomniachtchi on London, Carlsen & AlphaZero

After a tough year Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi scored a triumph in the London Chess Classic, finishing tied for first and sharing the prize money with Fabiano Caruana before missing out on the trophy in the playoff. He gave an interview afterwards where he talked about the tournament, why Magnus Carlsen has stopped dominating in the way he used to and why he’s not as impressed with AlphaZero as some of his colleagues.

Ian Nepomniachtchi after scoring a 4th career victory in classical chess against Magnus Carlsen | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The interview at begins with the final round of the 2017 London Chess Classic when, after a quick draw with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Nepomniachtchi had said that he was going to go for a sleep before a potential playoff:

Ian Nepomniachtchi: I really did lie down to sleep, but I didn’t particularly manage. Therefore I switched on the Caruana-Adams game on my phone. White was better, but then they began to repeat moves, and at first I was delighted as a draw in that game suited me. For some reason, though, Adams decided not to repeat moves and played on.

We all saw what came next. Caruana beat Adams and then won the blitz. Nevertheless, second place in such strong company is an excellent result.

Of course when I assessed my chances before the tournament I realised that it was possible to play well, but fighting for first place couldn’t be taken for granted, to put it mildly. Of course everything went well in terms of the outcome, though you always want more, particularly in this case. Plus, I have a very good blitz score against Caruana.

You say you weren’t counting on first place, but until the end of the Caruana-Adams game you occupied it. How did you manage that?

From the very start there were an awful lot of draws, and up to some point in the tournament only Caruana was winning. Then I was a little lucky against Adams, who I won an almost drawn endgame against. Actually Caruana also then got lucky against Adams.

Let’s leave Adams aside. In London he appeared in the role of a points donor, but your record includes wins over Anand and Carlsen.

The game against Anand ended up being a good one. Against Carlsen – well, I didn’t want to lose after two wins, though if you analyse the game you can find a lot of mistakes from both sides. It’s simply that he blundered last. To be fair, Magnus had a bad cold during the second half of the tournament and therefore wasn’t in his very best form.

When did you realise you weren’t going to let that game escape you?

When I found the move 36…Qa4 and understood that I was winning a piece. Before that I thought it was simply going to be a 4 vs. 3 endgame.

It seems as though he’s stopped dominating as he did a few years ago. Is that the case?

A few years ago the level he was demonstrating was out of this world, particularly when he wasn’t yet World Champion, plus at times good patches in his career alternated with even better ones. Gradually, though, people have got used to him, and when you’ve already achieved it all, when over the course of a few years you’ve been better than everyone, it gets tougher to motivate yourself. That doesn’t just apply to sport, after all. Magnus has a great deal of interests outside of chess, but even his relatively unsuccessful periods are much more successful than for many of his rivals. Even in what generally wasn’t the tournament of his life he beat Aronian with Black in the final round and finished third i.e. he performed very decently.

This photograph of Magnus Carlsen after his loss to Nepomniachtchi, and a young superman, was perhaps the best of the whole event | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

You have a plus score against Carlsen in classical chess, but the rating gap is around 100 points in his favour. Does that mean the current ratings don’t particularly reflect the strength of the players?

In overall terms they do reflect it, but when you’re talking about the top 20, for example, then anyone can avoid defeat against anyone else. The average level of the players has evened out. While about 20 years ago there was Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand and a few more people – and their preparation was fantastic compared to all the rest, now if you take Magnus and someone who studies the lines then I’m not sure the comparison will be in favour of the World Champion when it comes to opening preparation. Everyone has the same computers, everyone has the same programs and the same databases. The difference is just who does the work and how hard.  

On computers. The AlphaZero programme, an artificial intelligence, crushed the strongest chess engine Stockfish 28:0, if we count only decisive games. What was that?

I was also amazed at first, but then I realised they were nevertheless making a mountain out of a molehill. Yes, it’s impressive that AlphaZero learned by itself and they didn’t upload any databases into it, so it turns out that it seeks a move based on its own experience, choosing from its knowledge. Nevertheless, essentially it was a match of one computer, albeit a powerful one, against a whole cluster. If they played on the same piece of hardware and the score was the same then that would make an impression. After all, a computer has limited efficiency – and if, for example, one processor gives 100% capacity, that doesn’t mean that two will work at 200% and 3 at 300. The corresponding numbers will be roughly 100, 110, 120 etc.

But many have said that AlphaZero makes “human” moves.

If someone wants to call a positional piece sacrifice a human move, then ok. Yes, those games differ greatly from the usual chess engine games where usually there are 150-170 moves largely of manoeuvring around. Here AlphaZero played more boldly, but in general, it seems to me DeepMind had higher goals in creating artificial intelligence than beating the strongest chess engine. Chess is just advertising – look what we can do!

Pepe Cuenca made this video on the day news of AlphaZero playing chess broke, though South American travel and internet delayed its publication. Jan Gustafsson is also looking at the games… stay tuned!

Talking about advertising and chess, I can’t help but ask about your compatriot and rival Sergey Karjakin. I was in Moscow recently and Sergey is literally everywhere – he looks out from the walls of the metro, from the pages of magazines, from billboards. Is that good for chess?

It’s good for chess that a face has appeared. In the West that’s Magnus, while we have Sergey. As for his influence on the development of chess in Russia, it will be possible to draw conclusions in around 5-6 years, when the children who went to a chess school because Sergey looked out at them from billboards will start to post results.

Levon Aronian and Nepomniachtchi at the Closing Dinner of the 2017 London Chess Classic in Simpson's-in-the-Strand | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

You had a squabble on Twitter after the European Team Championship. Have you made up?

The incident has been completely exhausted. In London Sergey and I went to have dinner together on a few occasions.

And not only to dinner...

We covered that Twitter incident in one of our London Chess Classic reports, while Daniil Dubov also recently raised the issue of Sergey Karjakin’s media coverage in Russia in a fascinating interview with Oleg Barantsev for

My position on Karjakin is extremely simple: there’s the ordinary person Sergey Karjakin – quite pleasant to talk to, not arrogant and good-natured. That’s the Karjakin you can see at training camps, and it’s with that Karjakin that I’ve discussed games. And there isn’t, of course, any enmity between us.

But there’s also Karjakin the media persona: with slogans, absolutely identical interviews that are written for him, and extremely controversial judgments about life, chess, politics and many other things. That version I don’t like, along with a lot of what he does.

So as to be understood: it seems to me that I’ve never heard the word “Crimea” from Karjakin in private communication.

As for PR – my main complaint is not that Sergey is shown as stronger than he is – there’s no big problem with that – but that no-one else is shown at all. At the World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Qatar you could easily observe that: Karjakin won the blitz and we immediately saw a lot of coverage on TV, in which even I featured, since I was standing on the same podium. Ok! But after all, a day before that there was a very dramatic Rapid Championship, in which one Russian (Ian Nepomniachtchi) was leading for a long time, and another took second place (Alexander Grischuk). I didn’t see any coverage of that, while ordinary people didn’t even suspect the existence of the Women’s Championships, in which Russia picked up a lot of medals. Ordinary people are told that right now in Russia we have exactly one strong chess player, although we also have the 14th World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, 3-time (!) World Blitz Champion Alexander Grischuk and many other strong players.

At the London Chess Classic Closing Dinner Sergey Karjakin was photographed with snooker legend Steve Davis | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

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