He’s not quite the Rodney Dangerfield of top-level chess, but GM Ian Nepomniachtchi was not getting a whole lot of respect ahead of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Madrid, despite having won the same event just over a year ago.
The Russian, so the handicappers said, was coming off a disastrous and demoralizing defeat in his 2021 world title match with Norwegian champ Magnus Carlsen, a lopsided result marred by elementary blunders from the challenger. This year’s Candidates tournament included a number of powerful rivals, including U.S. GM Fabiano Caruana, top-rated Chinese star GM Ding Liren, and — a trendy pre-tournament pick by many pundits — the young Iranian-born French superstar GM Alireza Firouzja. Throw in the shadow hanging over Russian chess from the war in Ukraine (which Nepomniachtchi courageously has condemned), and the odds seemed heavily stacked against “Nepo” earning a second crack at Carlsen’s crown.
I guess that’s why they play the games.
In an unexpectedly dominating performance, Nepomniachtchi clinched first place with a round to spare in Madrid on Sunday, finishing with a hugely impressive 9½-4½ result, a point and a half better clear of the field.
The fight for second place in Monday’s final round may prove to have been just as momentous, as Carlsen — who stopped by the playing venue Sunday — has dropped broad hints he may not be interested in defending his crown one more time after having dominated the chess scene for a decade. Ding, by virtue of a last-round win over GM Hikaru Nakamura on Monday, climbed past the American star into second place at 8-6, and could now be in line for a berth in a match with Nepomniachtchi if Carlsen begs off.
Carlsen, who again declined to discuss his plans in a brief interview Sunday, offered some insightful commentary on the play. Although he too leaned toward Caruana and Ding before the tournament, he said Nepomniachtchi was being “criminally underrated” by the handicappers.
The Russian, he noted, had cashed in every time he had a promising position, including a tone-setting with with Black against Ding in the very first round, and played tough and enterprising defense in those games where he was under pressure. It’s a useful formula for succeeding at any level.
Nepomniachtchi’s Round 6 win over Polish GM Jan-Krzystzof Duda was a classic example of not interfering with an opponent bent on self-destruction. Black was surprised by Nepo’s Reti Opening, but got a reasonable position before failing to respond to White’s clearly foreshadowed kingside pawn storm. Duda misses 20…Kh8 and soon has to surrender his harried bishop for three pawns.
The extra pawns might be useful in the endgame, but it never gets that far: 27. Rb1 Qf6 28. Rxb7 Rxe2? (see diagram; Black is already under heavy pressure, but 28…g6 holds out longer) 28. Rxf5!, and it’s pretty much over as 28…Qxf5?? 29. Qxg7 is mate. The pressure on Black’s g7-square is unbearable, and in the final position, moves like 35…Qa2 are met by 36. Rf8+ Rxf8 37. Qxf8+ 38. Qxg7 mate; Duda gave up.
With a possible slot in the world title match at stake, the last-round game between Ding and Nakamura was among the most pressure-packed in recent memory. The American had a half-point lead going into the final round, and it looked for much of the game that Black was holding his own. But Ding as White slowly but surely nursed a small positional edge past the first time control at Move 40, when his better placed pieces, joined by the White king, were able to strike.
White’s rook gets to the seventh rank (after Nakamura earlier had mistakenly rejected a double-rook trade and Black’s problems appear to intensify with 38. e4 Bf6?! (f3!?, cramping the White king’s style, was widely recommended here) 39. Nd4 Re8 40. Kg2, and Ding has weak points on both the kingside and queenside to target. With his rook largely a non-factor, Black has no good way to defend the a-pawn, and Ding methodically increases his advantage as his opponent grows more desperate for counterplay.
In the end, after 55. Nd5 Bb2 56. Ra2! Bc1 57. Rc2 Ba3 58. Be3!, the Black bishop’s escape route has been cut off and the piece will soon be lost. Nakamura resigned.
Nepomniachtchi-Duda, FIDE Candidates Tournament, Madrid, June 2022
1. 1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 Bg4 3. Bg2 e6 4. O-O Nd7 5. h3 Bh5 6. d4 Ngf6 7. c4 c6 8. cxd5 exd5 9. Ne5 Nxe5 10. dxe5 Ne4 11. Nd2 Nxd2 12. Bxd2 Bc5 13. Rc1 Qe7 14. Kh2 O-O 15. g4 Bg6 16. f4 h6 17. Qe1 Rfe8 18. Qg3 Bh7 19. h4 Rad8 20. g5 hxg5 21. hxg5 Bb4 22. Bxb4 Qxb4 23. f5 Qxb2 24. e6 fxe6 25. g6 exf5 26. gxh7+ Kh8 27. Rb1 Qf6 28. Rxb7 Rxe2 29. Rxf5 Qh6+ 30. Kg1 Rxa2 31. Rbf7 Ra1+ 32. Bf1 d4 33. Rg5 Qd6 34. Qf2 Qa3 35. Rg3 Black resigns.
Ding-Nakamura, FIDE Candidates Tournament, Madrid, July 2022
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 c5 5. e3 Nc6 6. a3 dxc4 7. Bxc4 a6 8. Bd3 b5 9. dxc5 Bxc5 10. b4 Be7 11. O-O Bb7 12. Bb2 O-O 13. Ne4 Nxe4 14. Bxe4 f5 15. Bb1 Qxd1 16. Rxd1 Rfd8 17. Ba2 Kf7 18. h4 h6 19. Rdc1 Bd6 20. Rc2 Ne7 21. Nd4 Bd5 22. Bxd5 Nxd5 23. Rac1 Rd7 24. Nb3 Be7 25. h5 Bf6 26. Bd4 e5 27. Bc5 Bd8 28. Rd2 Nf6 29. Rxd7+ Nxd7 30. Rd1 Nf6 31. Bd6 Ng4 32. Bc5 Bh4 33. Rd7+ Kg8 34. g3 Bg5 35. Kf1 Bd8 36. Rb7 f4 37. gxf4 exf4 38. e4 Bf6 39. Nd4 Re8 40. Kg2 Ne5 41. Nf5 f3+ 42. Kg3 Nc4 43. Be7 Bb2 44. Kxf3 Bxa3 45. Kg3 Ne5 46. Bc5 Nf7 47. f3 Bc1 48. Ra7 Bd2 49. Rxa6 Be1+ 50. Kg2 Bc3 51. Ra7 Ng5 52. Ne7+ Kh8 53. Ng6+ Kg8 54. Ne7+ Kh8 55. Nd5 Bb2 56. Ra2 Bc1 57. Rc2 Ba3 58. Be3 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.