Nepomniachtchi Clinches Candidates, Becomes Next Challenger for World Championship Crown

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi Nepo at the Candidates Tournament
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Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi in the 13th Round of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia // photo credit Lennart Ootes, FIDE

Grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi will be the next challenger to World Champion Magnus Carlsen. 

Russia’s top GM “Nepo” clinched the 2020-21 Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia with a round to spare on Monday, doing his part in Round 13 with a draw as the white pieces against French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Soon after the result, however, he watched the last of the mathematical chances dwindle out of the Candidates’ field, when his closest chaser Dutch GM Anish Giri resigned a collapsed position against GM Alexander Grischuk. The results of tomorrow’s final Round 14 are moot as Nepomniachtchi, now a full point ahead, holds the head-to-head tiebreaker after defeating Giri in the tournament’s opening round. 


2020-21 FIDE Candidates Tournament Standings After Round 13


With no reward for second place in the Candidates, the 30-year-old Nepomniachtchi’s prize is to become next in line for Norway’s Carlsen, also 30, for his fifth defense of the World Chess Championship. The 14-game match is scheduled to begin November 24 later this year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. At the same age, the two Grandmasters will put on the line a long and rivaled history dating back to at least 2002, when Nepo won the U10 World Championship crown ahead of Carlsen – the early origins of a winning record the Russian holds over the Norwegian today. 

In his last World Championship defense in London 2018, Carlsen successfully staved off World No. 2 GM Fabiano Caruana, and now will lock horns with the World No. 3, as Nepo will reflect when the International Chess Federation’s rankings are updated on May 1. Dormant for most of the past year-plus, the top of the world’s live classical chess rankings began to move again with last week’s Candidates’ activity, seeing Nepo climb to his highest-ever rating at 2796 and take No. 3 away from China’s Ding Liren. Carlsen, currently rated 2847, has held the world’s top spot since 2011. 

Nepomniachtchi led the Candidates 8-player standings for the tournament’s entirety, since his opening victory over Giri back in March 2020. His only defeat of the event came in Round 7 at the hands of Vachier-Lagrave, in the last game before the tournament was halted and postponed for 13 months as the world shuttered to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nepo and MVL shared the lead at 4.5/7 when the Candidates resumed with Round 8 last Monday, and the Russian has since played the second half undefeated. He will take the Black pieces as ceremony in the 14th and final round on Tuesday against Ding Liren. 

"It's a huge milestone in my career and perhaps in my life," Nepomniachtchi said. "I am extremely tired. It was one year of thinking about this tournament, one year of preparation. I am extremely happy to qualify for the match, and I am extremely thankful to all and everyone who supported me, especially to my team."


GMs Ian Nepomniachtchi and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave play in the 13th round of the 2020-21 FIDE Candidates Tournament. // photo credit Lennart Ootes, FIDE
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GMs Ian Nepomniachtchi and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave play in the 13th round of the 2020-21 FIDE Candidates Tournament. // photo credit Lennart Ootes, FIDE


Nepomniachtchi has received solid assistance from his countrymen in the Candidates second half return, including an important win over GM Kirill Alekseenko in Round 10, and again on Monday with Grischuk taking out Giri as the Russian’s last rival for first place. While Giri may not have delivered his best day in an otherwise solid performance throughout the Candidates, the veteran Grischuk was prepared to fully exploit the Dutchman with his back against the tournament wall. 

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

“It’s not that (Giri) was nervous, it’s that he had a difficult task to play as Black.” 


GMs Alexander Grischuk and Anish Giri play in the 13th Round of the FIDE Candidates Tournament
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Russian GM Alexander Grischuk's win over Dutch GM Anish Giri in the 13th Round helped secure the Candidates win for his countryman. // photo credit Lennart Ootes, FIDE


Making the situation worse, Giri played into a line of the Queen’s Indian Defense that Grischuk was familiar with, a Capablanca variation enjoyed as wins by former World Champions Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. Giri’s 14. … h5 was nearly the last move he played with initiative, as Grischuk set about first working the queenside, then capitalizing on strong central control. 29. … f5? might have been appropriate several moves earlier, but was the howler when it appeared on the board, allowing Grischuk quick liquidation up the middle and into an endgame up two pawns. 

[pgn][Event "FIDE Candidates 2020"] [Site "Yekaterinburg RUS"] [Date "2021.04.26"] [Round "13"] [White "Grischuk, A."] [Black "Giri, A."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E16"] [WhiteElo "2777"] [BlackElo "2763"] [PlyCount "101"] [EventDate "2020.03.15"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. g3 Bb7 5. Bg2 Bb4+ 6. Bd2 c5 7. Bxb4 cxb4 8. O-O O-O 9. Nbd2 d6 10. Qb3 a5 11. a3 Na6 12. Rfd1 Qe7 13. Ne1 Bxg2 14. Kxg2 h5 15. Nc2 bxa3 16. bxa3 Rab8 17. e4 e5 18. Qd3 Nc7 19. Rab1 Ne6 20. Rb5 Rfe8 21. h4 g6 22. f3 Nd7 23. Nf1 exd4 24. Nxd4 Ne5 25. Qe2 Nxd4 26. Rxd4 Nc6 27. Rd1 Qe6 28. Ne3 Ne7 29. Qd2 f5 30. Qxd6 Nc6 31. exf5 gxf5 32. Qxe6+ Rxe6 33. Nxf5 Ne5 34. Rd6 Ree8 35. Rd4 Nc6 36. Rd2 Rbd8 37. Rxd8 Rxd8 38. Rd5 Rxd5 39. cxd5 Ne5 40. Nd6 Kf8 41. Kf2 Ke7 42. Nb5 Kf6 43. Ke3 Kf5 44. Nd6+ Kf6 45. Ke4 Nd7 46. Kd4 Ke7 47. Nb5 Kf6 48. Nc3 Kf5 49. Ne4 Kg6 50. g4 b5 51. Nc5 1-0 [/pgn]

Nepo found himself in early cruise control with the white pieces against MVL, playing the English into a King’s Indian setup with a double fianchetto. Nepo forced the dark-squared bishops off the board early with 13. Be5-Bxg7, then swapped out each of the major pieces on three consecutive moves, leaving three minor pieces to contend with a locked-up center. The position repeated to a draw after 42 moves. 

[pgn][Event "FIDE Candidates 2020"] [Site "Yekaterinburg RUS"] [Date "2021.04.26"] [Round "13"] [White "Nepomniachtchi, I."] [Black "Vachier Lagrave, M."] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A15"] [WhiteElo "2774"] [BlackElo "2767"] [PlyCount "83"] [EventDate "2020.03.15"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 b6 3. g3 Bb7 4. Bg2 g6 5. d4 Bg7 6. d5 Na6 7. Nc3 Nc5 8. O-O O-O 9. Qc2 a5 10. Rd1 Ne8 11. Bf4 Nd6 12. b3 Re8 13. Be5 e6 14. Bxg7 Kxg7 15. Rab1 e5 16. Nd2 f5 17. a3 Qf6 18. b4 axb4 19. axb4 Na6 20. e4 f4 21. Ne2 fxg3 22. fxg3 c5 23. bxc5 Nxc5 24. Rxb6 Qd8 25. Rdb1 Qc7 26. Nc3 Rf8 27. R6b2 Ba6 28. Nd1 Rab8 29. Rxb8 Rxb8 30. Rxb8 Qxb8 31. Qb2 Qxb2 32. Nxb2 Nc8 33. Kf2 Nb6 34. Bf1 d6 35. Ke3 Kf6 36. Be2 Ke7 37. Nb1 Bc8 38. Nc3 Bd7 39. Bd1 Be8 40. Bc2 Bd7 41. Bd1 Be8 42. Bc2 1/2-1/2 [/pgn]


GM Wang Hao Fabiano Caruana FIDE Candidates
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Chinese GM Wang Hao fell to American GM Fabiano Caruana in Round 13 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament. // photo credit Lennart Ootes, FIDE


Perhaps a round or two later than desired, the American Caruana earned a win with the Black pieces in Round 13 over Chinese GM Wang Hao. In a delayed Alapin Variation of the Sicilian, the game stayed balanced behind isolated queens pawns until an exchange of knights on c4 broke up the logjam and gave both sides a passer. A nice trick by Caruana at 36. … Bc2 sent Wang Hao’s queen on the run to a1, which soon left her pinned in defense of her knight. Caruana's eventual capture of White’s d-pawn at 42. … Qd6 brought an early resignation from Wang Hao, the second time the struggling Chinese GM has been criticized for giving up prematurely in the Candidates. 

[pgn][Event "FIDE Candidates 2020"] [Site "Yekaterinburg RUS"] [Date "2021.04.26"] [Round "13"] [White "Wang Hao"] [Black "Caruana, F."] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B40"] [WhiteElo "2762"] [BlackElo "2842"] [PlyCount "84"] [EventDate "2020.03.15"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. c3 Nf6 4. e5 Nd5 5. d4 cxd4 6. cxd4 d6 7. Bc4 Be7 8. O-O O-O 9. a3 Bd7 10. Bxd5 exd5 11. Nc3 Be6 12. Bf4 Nc6 13. exd6 Bxd6 14. Bxd6 Qxd6 15. Re1 Rac8 16. Qd3 f6 17. h3 Bf7 18. Rac1 Qd7 19. Nh2 Rfe8 20. Rxe8+ Rxe8 21. Nf1 g6 22. Ne3 Kg7 23. Na4 Qd6 24. Nc3 h5 25. Rd1 a6 26. Rc1 h4 27. Rd1 Na5 28. b4 Nc4 29. Nxc4 dxc4 30. Qd2 Bd5 31. b5 Bf7 32. bxa6 bxa6 33. a4 g5 34. d5 Bg6 35. Re1 Qf4 36. Qd1 Bc2 37. Qa1 Re5 38. Rxe5 Qxe5 39. a5 Kg6 40. Kh1 Be4 41. d6 Bc6 42. Qb2 Qxd6 0-1 [/pgn]

And in perhaps the most humanizing game of the event, every chess player worldwide should relate with Alekseenko in Round 13, who got everything he wanted in an Italian Game and worked diligently to earn a winning position against Ding Liren – only to have it all come crashing down in one fell swoop. Alekseenko was up a piece and had an outside passer ready to run, but fell into a tunneled focus over a knight suffering from some pin trouble on d4. 


Alekseenko - Ding Liren 47. Bc5?
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Russian GM Kirill Alekseenko was enjoying a winning position until 47. Bc5? Can you find GM Ding Liren's response, which all but swung the pendulum to Black?

Alekseenko’s 47. Bc5?? was the clunker, aiding the knight but completely overlooking a fresh threat on a different front. Ding Liren found it immediately, his 47. … Rb8 immediately threatening mate down several different lines. Silent in the tournament hall, Alekseenko’s body language screamed volumes. 

[pgn][Event "FIDE Candidates 2020"] [Site "Yekaterinburg RUS"] [Date "2021.04.26"] [Round "13"] [White "Alekseenko, K."] [Black "Ding Liren"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C50"] [WhiteElo "2698"] [BlackElo "2805"] [PlyCount "122"] [EventDate "2020.03.15"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d3 Bc5 5. c3 d6 6. O-O O-O 7. h3 h6 8. Re1 a5 9. b3 Bb6 10. Nbd2 Be6 11. Nf1 d5 12. exd5 Nxd5 13. Qc2 Qf6 14. Ng3 Qg6 15. Kh2 Rad8 16. Ba3 Rfe8 17. Nxe5 Nxe5 18. Rxe5 c6 19. Bxd5 Rxd5 20. Rxd5 Bxd5 21. c4 Be6 22. Re1 Rd8 23. Ne4 Bc7+ 24. Kh1 Qh5 25. Re3 Qe5 26. Ng3 Qa1+ 27. Kh2 Qf6 28. Bb2 Qg6 29. Kh1 Bb6 30. Rf3 Bc7 31. Bc3 b5 32. Qe2 bxc4 33. bxc4 a4 34. Qe3 Qg5 35. Qe1 Qg6 36. Qe3 Qg5 37. Qe1 Qg6 38. Qe2 a3 39. Bb4 Rb8 40. Qe1 Rd8 41. Qc3 h5 42. Bxa3 h4 43. Ne2 Bf5 44. Nd4 Be4 45. dxe4 Qxe4 46. Rd3 Be5 47. Bc5 Rb8 48. Bb4 Rxb4 49. Qxb4 Qxd3 50. Nf3 Qf1+ 51. Ng1 Bd4 52. Qb8+ Kh7 53. Qf4 Bxf2 54. Qf5+ Kh6 55. Qf4+ Kg6 56. Qg4+ Kf6 57. Qf4+ Ke6 58. Qe4+ Kd6 59. Qf4+ Kc5 60. Qe5+ Kxc4 61. Qe4+ Kb5 0-1 [/pgn]

The 14th and final round of the Candidates Tournament will begin Tuesday at 7:00 a.m. eastern, though the results will not affect the outcome. More information may be found on the official website

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