Ian Nepomniachtchi had the beating of Magnus Carlsen in junior events and still has a +3 score against the World Champion, but this is the first time the 29-year-old has earned the chance to qualify for a title match against Magnus. Nepo goes into the Candidates Tournament at a career best world no. 5, but can he finally live up to his potential when it matters? We take a look at the 4th seed in Yekaterinburg.
2019 was a breakthrough year for Ian Nepomniachtchi. Despite being one of the world’s top players for a decade, it’s remarkable that he only finally broke into the Top 10 on a FIDE rating list in February after finishing joint 3rd in the Tata Steel Masters. That tournament was a sign of what was to come – Nepo began with 2.5/3 and reached an unbeaten +3 with four rounds to go, but then lost to Jorden van Foreest and Sam Shankland. He later started with 3/3 in Zagreb and reached a +2 score in the Sinquefield Cup only to end both Grand Chess Tour classical events back on 50%.
In the end, therefore, it was the Grand Prix that offered a pathway to the Candidates. Nepo won just two classical games, against Levon Aronian in Moscow and crucially Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in Jerusalem, but combined with his rapid skills that proved enough to go on and win both knockouts and finish as runner-up in the series to Alexander Grischuk.
Let’s take a look at what we know about Ian Nepomniachtchi:
You can also check out Ian Nepomniachtchi’s chess24 profile.
Peter Heine Nielsen commented, “if we’re going to make a collection of my best games please don’t make Laurent suggest them!” of Laurent Fressinet’s choice of Nepomniachtchi 1-0 Caruana from Zagreb as the game our experts analysed in their 36-minute look at Ian Nepomniachtchi's Candidates chances. It was a game where Nepo was dead lost after the opening but still went on to trick Fabiano and win, with our experts agreeing that Nepo is nothing if not resourceful.
Here are the scores they gave Nepo:
As you can see, Team Magnus rate Nepo very highly for the key chess talent indicators of calculation and understanding, but there are doubts elsewhere. Laurent Fressinet was unconvinced by Ian’s preparation, but that seemed largely down to a memorable 2015 World Cup Round 2 match, where Laurent felt he was getting better positions in every game:
I have very mixed feelings about Ian, because I think he’s incredibly talented but sometimes it feels like he’s playing for tricks and doesn’t take it very seriously.
At the risk of opening old wounds, here’s the trick that ended that match, just when an Armageddon game was looming:
33.f3! Nd2 34.Ng4!, hitting both the rook on b8 and the h6-square, and Laurent would have been doing well. Instead he blundered with 33.Rb2? and Nepo was ruthless: 33…Rbg8! 34.f3 (it’s already too late) 34…Ng3! 35.Ng4:
35...Rxg4! and it was game over.
There was no consensus on preparation being a weakness for Nepo, however:
Peter: He did actually qualify to this event by out-preparing MVL in an extremely crucial game.
Laurent: Who didn’t out-prepare MVL in the last year!?
The area where there was a consensus was when it comes to time management and fighting spirit. All our experts felt Nepo is a very streaky player – “if he’s losing a few games then he might just crumble” (Laurent), “he has a history of tilting” (Peter) – and that he has the time management issue not of getting into time trouble but of sometimes blitzing out moves without stopping to think.
A case in point was the one classical game he’s ever lost to Magnus, in Zagreb last year. Ian had lost control of the game, but still had 28 minutes on his clock to find the drawing 28.exf5!. Instead, after just 40 seconds, he went for 28.gxf5?? and was dead lost after 28…g4!
In Nepo’s defence, the World Champion himself admitted after the game that he’d played 27…f5!? only because he mistakenly thought he was winning after 28.exf5. There are also benefits to playing fast, with Peter comparing Nepo’s style to that of MVL or “the young Vishy”, who put huge pressure on their opponents - “maybe bad time management, but it won a lot of points!”
Let’s sum up some of the reasons Nepo will, or won’t, win the Candidates:
Nepo has peaked at the right time: Ian’s 5th place on the world ranking is the highest he’s ever reached and, as noted, he got there despite some erratic results last year. He’s been accused of not taking chess seriously – getting distracted, for instance, by playing video games such as DOTA-2 at a very high level – but if that’s the case he may have another gear in reserve. As Peter commented:
That’s almost an advantage in a sense that then you have the option of just improving that. If you actually are super serious you maybe have to finesse some finer points.
He has the raw talent: The one thing no-one disputes is that Nepo is “incredibly talented” (Laurent). Peter commented, “I think his ceiling is pretty high, and that’s of course important for winning something like this”. Jan summed up:
I’m confused about Nepomniachtchi. I feel the tournament could go incredibly well or incredibly badly for him.
What’s certain is that the tournament will need to go “incredibly well” for whoever wins, and that means that while Ian isn’t the favourite he is in with a real chance.
He’s one player who doesn’t need to fear Magnus: Nepomniachtchi is the one player in the field, and at the very top of the chess world, who still has a plus score against Magnus, and although a couple of his wins came in youth events (the European U12 and World U14) he’s also scored wins in the Tata Steel Chess A Group in 2011 and the London Chess Classic in 2017. Each participant wants to win the Candidates Tournament, but you wonder if deep down, subconsciously, some of them really don’t want to face the ordeal of a match against Magnus. That’s one mental block Ian shouldn’t have.
MVL is playing: Ian Nepomniachtchi seemingly crushed the Candidates dreams of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave by beating the Frenchman in the Jerusalem Grand Prix semi-final, but not only is Maxime suddenly in the Candidates anyway he also has a 5:1 score in classical wins against Nepo. So instead of being equal against the field Nepo is at -4. That may well just be a curiosity, but Maxime is a very tricky opponent for all the Candidates to have to prepare for at the last moment.
It’s a long tournament and consistency will matter: If there was one pattern that repeated itself for Ian Nepomniachtchi in 2019 it was that he couldn’t maintain a run of good results over a long tournament. That may need to change, although 14 rounds is long enough that Peter could see an alternative solution:
Ian either needs things to go perfectly or maybe have three phases, where he does very well, then he has a bad phase, and then he goes back to doing very well.
He’s another debutant: Nepo is one of four players who have never experienced a Candidates Tournament before. Winning the toughest event in world chess on his first attempt is not going to be easy.
We’re now just over one week away from the start of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Tuesday 17th March!
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