Harder better faster stronger
For the second year in a row, Ian Nepomniachtchi has won the all-important Candidates Tournament with one round remaining. After collapsing in the world title match in December last year, the Russian won the doubles 8-round robin with a commanding performance. Nepo came back harder, better, faster, stronger.
In 13 rounds, the contender for the world crown accumulated five wins (three with the black stones) and eight draws to an unbeaten 9/13 result. His remarkable performance in Madrid has earned him 26.6 Elo points so far, putting him third in the live rating list. Nepo meets an uninspired Jan-Krzysztof Duda in Monday’s finals.
As Garry Kasparov pointed out in an interview on Friday, Nepo’s preparation for the World Championship match was a key factor in his victory. That doesn’t detract from the Russian’s excellent performance across the board, however, as Kasparov also noted.
Like many other pundits, the former world champion mentioned that a painful loss in Game 6 of the Dubai match had a lot to do with Nepo’s collapse against Magnus Carlsen. The challenger’s exceptional skill level was never in question, but his psychological weaknesses were always a topic of conversation.
Following this logic, in an interview with the candidates’ official commentators, Anish Giri mentioned that Nepo is among the most dangerous opponents for Carlsen along with Fabiano Caruana, Ding Liren and Wesley So – but Giri added that it should be a version of Nepo ” without losing anything”.
This of course has to do with his collapse in Dubai and the fact that he didn’t suffer any major setbacks in Madrid. Still, it could also be argued that Nepo’s victory in Spain comes not long after the Carlsen debacle, which could indicate an improvement in his mental toughness.
Also, like him, the Russian was incredibly calm after his impressive win focused on thanking his employees in a post-game interview with FIDE. And all after a massive ovation from the live audience at the Palace of Santoña!
Nepo’s dominance in the Candidates Tournament was confirmed multiple times on social media, demonstrating one of the game’s most outstanding virtues: namely the fact that despite all disagreements, credit is mostly given where credit is due in external matters.
Peter Heine Nielsen, who criticized FIDE for temporarily allowing Nepo to use a mug with the logo of a Russian company in Madrid to the result:
Impressive tournament by Ian Nepomniachtchi, a well deserved win!
— Peter Heine Nielsen (@PHChess) July 3, 2022
With a clear winner who was clearly the strongest player in the qualifying tournament for the match, it remains to be seen if Carlsen will face Nepo a second time…
But will Carlsen play?
Coming back to Kasparov’s insightful interview, the Baku man pointed to a historical antecedent vaguely similar to the situation surrounding the current World Cup cycle.
Vasily Smyslov won the Zurich Candidates Tournament in 1953 to gain the right to challenge Mikhail Botvinnik in a match for the world crown. After Botvinnik retained the title by a draw in 1954, Smyslov won the Candidates Tournament in Amsterdam again in 1956 and beat Botvinnik in the 1957 match in Moscow.
After noting this parallelism, Kasparov mentioned:
A reunion with Nepo might calm you down [Magnus’] Enthusiasm in preparing and playing. […] Winning the second Candidates Tournament, especially in the style we saw in Madrid, definitely makes Nepo a very formidable opponent for Magnus, no matter what Magnus thinks about it. If Magnus plays, and I can’t believe he won’t, we’ll probably see a tougher game.
As he makes his way to Las Vegas Of course, Carlsen hasn’t decided to play in the World Series of Poker yet.
Magnus Carlsen was asked today if he will play another World Championship match despite knowing that Ian Nepomniachtchi is the challenger: “We’ll see.”
— Olimpiu Di Luppi (@olimpiuurcan) July 3, 2022
The always quick-witted Anish Giri already has a theory as to what will ultimately tip the scales for the world champion.
If they come up with some nice ideas against Petroff, he might play, otherwise he won’t.
— Anish Giri (@anishgiri) July 3, 2022
Which brings us to the one intrigue that remains to be unraveled in the tournament. When Carlsen isn’t playing, Nepo meets the player who is second in Madrid. Only two contestants remain in contention for this spot: Hikaru Nakamura and Ding Liren.
Hikaru Nakamura | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage
Naka benefits from Duda’s meltdown
As the round progressed, after Nepo secured victory by a draw against Richard Rapport, attention turned to the battle for second place.
Ding Liren tried to complicate things with White against Alireza Firouzja, but was only able to secure a move-42 draw after the youngster correctly sacrificed his bishop for two pawns in the endgame. Hikaru Nakamura, on the other hand, was down a pawn against Jan-Krzysztof Duda in a complicated position.
Duda is having a hard time in Madrid. Not only has he underperformed, but he has also shown visible signs of disappointment throughout matches. Here, in a better position against an in-form Naka, he faltered again.
Pushing the pawn with 33…b4, closing the position and making the most of his extra pawn in the long run was the most logical progression. As the commentators noted, Duda would play this move 99 times out of 100 and correctly assess how best to exploit his material advantage.
However, Duda played 33…d5 instead of this. To 34.cxd5his idea was to play 34…Rc2apparently not anticipating White counting on it 35.Bd6
The position is still dynamically balanced, but Duda realized that he had just given away his advantage. So after 35…Rxe2 36.Bxc7 Nc5 37.d6the Polish grandmaster made another mysterious wrong decision.
Duda returned with his knight to block the d-pawn 37…Nd7 instead of seizing the exchange with 37…Nxd3. Granted, there are variations after taking on d3 that need to be calculated carefully – like 38.d7 Ra8 39.Rxd3 etc. – but if Black were afraid of these variations he could have chosen 36…exd5 instead of placing in the first place his knight on c5.
We also know that Duda is a great calculator. In normal situations, even under pressure, he can certainly find that grabbing the swap is a playable alternative.
When the tables turned, Nakamura was ruthless in the conversion as he found good looking moves (eg 41.Kh2 and 50.Rc8) en route to a decisive win in 52 moves.
The 5-time US champion now sits in sole second place, half a point ahead of Ding. In an attractive encounter that could decide who challenges Nepo in the next game for the World Championship, Nakamura will have the black pieces against Ding in Monday’s final round.
Judit Polgar played the first move (1.e4 of course!) in Hikaru Nakamura against Jan-Krzysztof Duda | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage