Return of the Candidates III
Today saw the practical conclusion of the Candidates tournament, albeit not the actual finale. With Ian Nepomniatchi a whole point clear of Anish Giri with a single round to go and the Russian having a superior tie-break score, the last set of games are totally moot, and the chess world is already speculating on Nepo’s chances in the world championship match against Carlsen in November at the Dubai Expo.
I’m a huge fan of Ian, who seems to be very different from the other grandmasters at the pointy end of the world rankings, both on and off the board. During his games he plays fast and seems to use his speed as a weapon, as well as playing more aggressively and opportunistically than most of his counterparts. Away from chess, his biggest interest is Dota, so obviously I rate him highly for that, but his demeanour in interviews is great too: he has about as much of a “bad boy” image as one could have considering he’s the third ranked chess player in the world, often appearing surly and slightly disinterested, sporting his now-signature top knot and of course having the dry, razor-sharp Russian wit shared by his compatriots in the upper echelons of the game like Grischuk and Svidler.
More than being a shameless fanboy, I wanted Nepo to win the Candidates as I think he’s the only one who actually has a chance of beating the incumbent world champion. After the previous two world championship matches have both gone to rapid tie breaks, any challenger is going to have to seriously consider the possibility of the match being decided at faster time controls, and Nepo’s style is perfectly suited to playing rapid - he might even be a slight favourite against Carlsen if the 14 classical games finish even-stevens. There’s still a lot that has to happen to get to that point though - while the Norwegian might be in a self-described slump at standard time controls, he’s shwon in previous matches that his sheer will to win can more than overcome a temporary lack of form. Winning in round 10 against Karjakin in 2016 to level the match and saving a couple of dicey positions against Caruana in 2018. Outperforming Carlsen over 14 rounds of classical chess still seems like a sheer impossibility for anyone on earth at the moment, but if anybody was going to do it, it’s Nepomniatchi.
The six months of waiting until the match begins in November is time that I’m sure many chess fans hope will pass quickly. If Carlsen wins, he will solidfy his legacy and make his name undeniably in the conversation for the greatest of all time. If Nepomniatchi wins, he’ll have felled a giant, done what many thought was impossible, and elevated himself to being one of the truly great players of the modern era.
With all the heightened attention on elite chess from the past year, the Magnus v Nepo is a match that could have firewords galore - there’s almost no way that we see a repeat of the last match with 12 consecutive draws, so more than anything, this is a great result for chess fans.