Ian Nepomniachtchi’s feat in qualifying as Magnus Carlsen’s official challenger in a €2m, 14-game world title series at Dubai in November was subsequently hit on two fronts. First, having won the Candidates with a round to spare, Nepomniachtchi lost Tuesday’s dead rubber in Ekaterinburg. A more significant blow came on Friday, however, when he learned that he is not allowed to play with the Russian flag beside him in Dubai, owing to his country’s ban imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Following Tuesday’s defeat by China’s Ding Liren, the 30-year-old Muscovite said that he lacked motivation for the game, a strange comment when a win would have raised his Fide world rating close to 2800, the super-elite level, while as it was Ding’s victory regained the No 3 spot in the ratings that he had briefly let slip a few days earlier.
Meanwhile, Nepomniachtchi’s Candidates achievement sparked Carlsen into a strong demonstration of his own skills. This week the Norwegian began the online New in Chess Classic with a 26-game unbeaten run as he aimed for his first victory of the Champions Chess Tour, and this weekend he meets his old rival Hikaru Nakamura of the US in the two-day final.
At the final Candidates press conference in Ekaterinburg, Nepomniachtchi described himself as “a realist … I do not have the tendency to downgrade myself”. Elsewhere, he assessed his chances as “plus or minus 50%”. World No 2 Fabiano Caruana, who was the pre-tournament favourite but faded in the closing rounds, said: “I think he’s going be a very dangerous opponent for Magnus.”
Carlsen himself greeted his opponent with a tweet: “Time to say Dubai!” Interviewed, he was equivocal: “He’s a very strong opponent. Somebody who also plays very aggressively and usually gives his opponents chances as well. In that sense, there is every chance there’s going to be an exciting match.” Previously the Norwegian had commented on his opponent’s uneven play, the marked difference between his highs and lows.
Unibet, which has a two-year sponsorship deal with Carlsen, rates the chances at 72-28, which seems realistic. At this distance from the match, Nepomniachtchi’s enterprising style, which is good for tournament play, may prove suspect in a match. It could put him on a par with such as Ewfin Bogolyubov, who lost two matches to Alexander Alekhine, or Veselin Topalov in his 2010 defeat to Vishy Anand.
Carlsen, for his part, will surely be motivated to demonstrate a much clearer victory than in his last three matches against Vishy Anand, Sergey Karjakin and Caruana, all of whom had at least one moment when they could have pushed the Norwegian close to the brink.
There are still many in Moscow who can recall more than half a century of Soviet chess domination of global chess, which ended only with Vlad Kramnik in 2006. Since then, Russians have underperformed in both team and individual global events. The desire to restore the lost empire is strong, so that the challenger can expect maximum support.
Nepomniachtchi revealed this week that his Candidates trainers had included not only his regular coach, Vladimir Potkin, but also Peter Leko, the Hungarian who came within one game of the world title in 2004 and is currently one of the best online commentators. However, Nepomniachtchi specifically dismissed the brilliant Daniil Dubov as a team member on the grounds that he has previously helped Carlsen.
Despite Nepomniachtchi’s words often showing that he is a strong patriot, the Russia ban, imposed by Wada, became real during the World Checkers (Draughts) Championship in Warsaw this week when a Polish official had to remove the Russian flag during a game at the request of a Wada representative.
Fide, the global chess body, has since issued a statement confirming that, due to the Wada sanctions against Russia, Nepomniachtchi will not be allowed to play under the Russian flag in Dubai, and the Russian national anthem will not be played. The challenger will have to compete as a neutral player, using the Fide flag.
The court of arbitration for sport directly clarified to Fide that these restrictions only apply to the world championship itself and not to any qualification events, including the just concluded Candidates. The ban will also not apply to the chess Olympiad, scheduled for Moscow in 2022, as the global team event does not have the status of a world championship.
Chess is among the many non-Olympic sports recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which explains why a ban imposed for a major doping scandal in an Olympic sport also affects world championships in chess and checkers.
Nepomniachtchi has a 4-1 lead in his previous games against Carlsen, although this is not a reliable indicator. Before 1927, Alekhine had never beaten José Capablanca; before 1972, Bobby Fischer had never beaten Boris Spassky. Nepomniachtchi’s first two wins against Carlsen were in their junior days, when both were among the class of 1990, the prime vintage year for grandmaster births in the whole of chess history.
The 1990-born include, besides Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi, the 2016 title challenger Karjakin; France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who came through at the end to snatch second place in Ekaterinburg; Russia’s Dmitry Andreikin, and England’s David Howell, whose Twitter page includes a photo of the prize-winners at the 2002 world under-12 championship, where Nepomniachtchi won gold, Carlsen silver and Howell bronze.
Carlsen’s 26-game unbeaten run came to an end in his semi-final when he lost the fourth game of a 2-2 tied first set to Levon Aronian. The world No 1 went on to win the match 1.5-0.5 (2-2, 3-1). In the second semi-final Nakamura beat Shakhriyar Mamedyarov 2-1 (3-1, 0-3, 2-1) by winning the Armageddon game with Black.
The Carlsen v Nakamura final, best of two sets with a speed tie-break set if needed, will be played on Saturday and Sunday evening (6pm BST start). You can watch the games live on chess24.com.
Earlier, in the preliminary all-play-all stage, India’s Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, 15, defeated the elite GMs Karjakin and Teimour Radjabov and scored 7/15, narrowly missing qualification. He also had the better of a draw with Carlsen, twice turning down draws by repetition before settling for the half point.
Gawain Jones, the first British player invited to the Tour, had a hard time and finished with 3/15, losing his last eight games, but he had the consolation of winning a 22-move miniature against Wesley So of the US, the world No 9.
3721 1…Qg8+! 2 Kc2 (if 2 Ka3 Qa8+! and a1=Q wins) Qc4+ 3 Kd2 Qf1! 4 Qxa2 Qg2+ and Qxa2 wins.