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Nepomniachtchi nears Candidates title and tilt at Carlsen’s world chess crown

Leonard Barden
·5-min read

Ian Nepomniachtchi is in sight of the result of his life, as the 30-year-old Russian champion leads the Candidates in Ekaterinburg, half a point ahead of his nearest rival and with a superior tie-break, with just three of the 14 rounds still to go. The jackpot for the winner is a 14-game, €2m (£1.7m) challenge match for Magnus Carlsen’s world crown at Dubai in November.

After 11 of the 14 rounds, Nepomniachtchi leads with 7/11, followed by Anish Giri (Netherlands) 6.5, and Fabiano Caruana (US) 6. The other players look out of it: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) and Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 5.5, Wang Hao (China) 5, Kirill Alekseenko (Russia) 4.5 and Ding Liren (China) 4.

Related: Magnus Carlsen’s wait for challenger almost over as Candidates returns

The leader still has the favourable white pieces to come against the out of form Vachier-Lagrave, but the sting could be the final round, traditionally a nervous occasion for front-running candidates, when the Russian has Black against Ding, who has just lost his longstanding spot as world No 3 and in successive days dropped to fifth behind Nepomniachtchi and Giri.

China’s No 1 was considered a likely challenger to Carlsen before the pandemic, and will want to end a disastrous event for him on a positive note.

Nepomniachtchi, a distinctive character at the board with his man-bun, has a unique training routine for an elite grandmaster, often playing the 5v5 team video game Dota 2. He is the only top GM with a classical plus score against Carlsen, dating back to junior championships 20 years ago, and defeated the champion online this year in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational.

Carlsen provided some insight into his potential challenger this week during his perceptive and articulate Candidates commentaries, assessing him as a quick and imaginative tactician, whose weakness is high day-to-day form variance. Until recently, this gap between his ceiling and floor performances stopped Nepomniachtchi achieving the very top levels.

Three games at Ekaterinburg stood out as significant. Caruana waited for many months to spring a mega-novelty against Vachier-Lagrave in the Poisoned Pawn Sicilian – early on the US world No 2 was a bishop and three pawns down but still moving instantaneously, while at the end Black lost only because his knight was not on the right square (g7) to make his endgame fortress viable for a draw.

This result deposed Vachier-Lagrave from the tournament lead and led to criticism of his narrow black repertoire, Grunfeld against 1 d4 and Najdorf against 1 e4. Former world champion Vlad Kramnik even blamed the Frenchman for not working hard enough during lockdown. Yet Vachier-Lagrave lost again in round 11 and dropped out of contention.

Ian Nepomniachtchi, pictured in 2019, inspired conspiracy theories with an easy 10th-round victory over his compatriot Kirill Alekseenko.
Ian Nepomniachtchi, pictured in 2019, inspired conspiracy theories with an easy 10th-round victory over his compatriot Kirill Alekseenko. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Nepomniachtchi’s easy 10th round win against his compatriot Alekseenko has led to an outbreak of conspiracy theory, harking back to Paul Keres and Mikhail Botvinnik in 1948 and to Bobby Fischer’s accusations in 1962. Both those had some factual basis and precedents, whereas in the Candidates games of the 21st century Russian players have several times defeated their well-placed compatriots. Alekseenko is weaker with Black, was unfamiliar with White’s surprise opening, and got trapped by an unusual move order into a standard poor position.

Conspiracy theories, though, are popular and can persist for a long time. Everyone who was an adult in 1963 remembers the grassy knoll at Dallas, so even if Nepomniachtchi wins the Candidates and beats Carlsen convincingly for the world crown, this game will continue to be quoted against him for years to come.

The third significant game was in yesterday’s Friday’s round 11 when Giri defeated Ding in impressive style to advance within half a point of Nepomniachtchi, although the Russian has the better tie-break (direct encounter) dating right back to March 2020 when he defeated Giri in the very first round before the Candidates was halted for a year by the pandemic.

For many chess fans Giri is a figure of fun, best known for his Twitter banter with Carlsen, his excessive draws, and for his few wins in super-tournaments.

In 2021, the 26-year-old – whose father is Nepalese, his mother Russian, was born in St Petersburg and learnt his early chess skills in Japan – has shown his real strength. His unlucky second place over the board at Tata Wijk behind his Dutch compatriot Jorden van Foreest was followed by an online victory in the Carlsen Invitational, where he defeated Nepomniachtchi in the final.

His new world ranking is his best yet, and for Dutch fans there are potential echoes of 86 years ago when Max Euwe jumped from 3-6 down against Alexander Alekhine to win the world title.

Online, the New in Chess Classic, the fifth event in the Meltwater Champions Tour, starts thison Saturday evening (6pm BST) on Chess24.com with a playing schedule designed to start after the Candidates finishes for that day. Carlsen, still seeking his first tournament win of the Tour, will face a field led by his US rivals Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura. It also includes the Indian prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, 15, and England’s Gawain Jones, who this week won over-the-board at the Bob Wade Memorial in New Zealand, held to celebrate the birth centenary of the legendary player and teacher.

3720 1…Qe2! and White resigned. If 2 Rxe2 Rf1 mate or 2 Rxf4 Qg2 mate or 2 Qd2 Qf1+! 3 Rxf1 Rxf1 mate. 1...Qg5+ 2 Kh1 Rf5! also wins quickly.