How Nepomniachtchi became the WCC 2021 challenger
The 2020-21 FIDE Candidates Tournament holds the dubious distinction of being the longest tournament in chess history. It lasted 14 months, but only 14 rounds were played. While we are all well aware of the reasons for this and congratulate the players for staying to complete the event, there is still a lingering sense of dissatisfaction.
Many of us lament the absence of General Manager Teimour Radjabov, who, judging by his recent quality of course at online events, could have made the difference. Some regret that the momentum of GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, taken at the end of the first half, has run out of steam because of the long intermission. Others want GM Fabiano Caruana and GM Anish Giri not to have to overcome a points deficit at the start of what (they say) should have been a fresh start.
Either way, the tournament is finally on the books, and it produced the winner in GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, who will face GM Magnus Carlsen in the world championship game later this year.
After writing about the tournament before the start of the second half, I decided to take a closer look at the matches in the second half to form my own opinion on whether Yekaterinburg 2020-21 was the worst candidate ever, as many experts claim.
Let’s start with the dashboard:
|1||Ian nepomniachtchi||2774||2849||0½||1½||½½||ten||½½||½1||11||8.5 / 14|
|2||Maxime Vachier-Lagrave||2767||2824||1½||½½||½0||1½||½0||½1||½1||8.0 / 14|
|3||Anish Giri||2763||2799||0½||½½||½1||½1||½0||ten||½1||7.5 / 14|
|4||Fabiano Caruana||2842||2789||½½||½1||½0||0½||½½||1½||½1||7.5 / 14|
|5||Ding liren||2805||2769||01||0½||½0||1½||½1||½1||0½||7.0 / 14|
|6||Alexandre grischuk||2777||2773||½½||½1||½1||½½||½0||½0||½½||7.0 / 14|
|7||Kirill Alekseenko||2698||2708||½0||½0||01||0½||½0||½1||½½||5.5 / 14|
|8||Wang hao||2762||2674||00||½0||½0||½0||1½||½½||½½||5.0 / 14|
Nepo’s winning score of 8.5 / 14 is comparable to that of Carlsen (and GM Vladimir Kramnik) in London 2013, that of GM Viswanathan Anand in Khanty-Mansiysk 2014 and that of GM Sergey Karjakin in Moscow 2016. Only the Caruana’s 9/14 score in Berlin 2018 exceeds this score. , but keeping in mind that Nepo had qualified with a lap to lose and sort of mailed out in his last game, we can conclude that he didn’t really squeak.
Another story is how Nepomniachtchi got there. From the first game of the second half, his strategy became evident: to draw games against the contenders (he was White in those) and choose a win or two against the last. It worked out perfectly, as Nepo beat GM Kirill Alekseenko and GM Wang Hao, both quite easily. But what if he hadn’t?
A score of +2 probably wouldn’t have been enough to win the tournament. Should Nepomniachtchi then do everything in his power to try to beat MVL with the Whites in the penultimate round, just to equalize their head-to-head tie-breaks? It is possible, but success cannot be disputed: Nepo is the winner, and he will Disneyland Dubai in November.
Something was missing in Yekaterinburg, it was the emergence of a strong contender in the second half, as we saw in London 2013 (Kramnik 5/7), Khanty 2014 (Karjakin 5/7) and Moscow (Caruana 4/6 before her dramatic loss in the last round) as well as Karjakin again (5/7) in Berlin 2018.
At Yekaterinburg 2021, GM Ding Liren won the second half with 4.5 / 7, but he was too far away to claim first place. The main ranks of Nepo’s opposition fought mightily.
MVL narrowly avoided starting 0/2 (he was totally lost to Ding in the eighth round) and was only able to regain his +2 score at the very end of the tournament. In a way, MVL’s struggles were predictable. He didn’t perform very well in Carlsen’s online events, and totally crashed and exhausted from Tata Steel 2021.
I might be wrong, but others have also pointed out how MVL’s extremely narrow opening repertoire makes him especially vulnerable to his opponents’ preparations. We saw it in Caruana’s match just when play resumed and again in Grischuk’s match a few days later. Either way, MVL was only able to survive the opener to make more mistakes later in matches.
Giri could have been the hero of the tournament. His play in the first five rounds of the second half was the absolute gold standard, aside from a hiccup in round 10 (when MVL missed his chance). This victory as a Black over Caruana with the tournament in play was a real gem of a position, bringing his total to 4/5.
The stage was set for a monumental ascent to the title match with just two games to go, both against Russian players who weren’t in contention. Giri was only half a point behind Nepomniachtchi, but the tiebreakers were not on his side, so he felt he needed to win both games (a 6/7 would not be on his side. there something?).
It turned out that 1.5 / 2 would be enough, but who would have believed it? Maybe Giri should have accepted Grischuk’s silent draw offer, and then he would certainly play differently against Alekseenko in the last round. Well, maybe next time.
Caruana has reason to be unhappy with his game in both halves of the Candidates. Becoming the pre-tournament favorite, he failed to deliver. His momentous victory over MVL at the start of the second half gave new impetus to his hopes, but the following match was a disappointment. After Caruana failed to convert an additional pawn against Alekseenko, the momentum wore off.
I think a fair assessment of Caruana’s play would be a rather unflattering “all opening and not much after that”. I’m sure this can be fixed in the future, but for now his failures are nowhere near his ranking of world number two.
Not much can be said about Ding’s tournament other than the obvious fact that he won the second half and got an acceptable score of 50 percent. Ding certainly didn’t take advantage of his gaming experience in online events, where the games were scheduled to fit into Central European Time, which is the middle of the night in China. Add the unreliable internet connection to the mix, and it turned out to be a total disaster for Ding.
He fought fiercely in Yekaterinburg, but his constant composure abandoned him. His victory against Alekseenko was almost as bad as the loss against Giri.
Similar issues plagued Grischuk’s failures. On two occasions he simply collapsed (against Alekseenko and Ding) when there was nothing on the board that would justify such a turn. I can offer an unsolicited observation that he took his foot off the gas pedal a bit.
Sometimes it seems like Grischuk tortures himself trying to play a perfect game, when his normal failures should be good enough to extend his career for many years to come. Many great players have gone through difficult times as they approach middle age. The solution is not to absorb too much pressure, but, instead, take a page from Anand’s book and let your chess flow naturally.
Now in the bottom half of the standings, occupied by the two guys who received heavy criticism from many pundits, led by general manager Garry Kasparov himself, for simply not being good enough for a challenge of candidates. I find that completely unfair. The system that FIDE puts in place is never the fault of the players. They just do their best. Alekseenko and Wang both qualified for Yekaterinburg, case closed.
Some distinction can be made between these two. Alekseenko actually played better in the second half. He’s scored two wins and came close to picking up another, while two of his losses are the result of poor opening picks. Kirill’s final 5.5 / 14 tally is not such a disaster, especially considering Radjabov’s 4/14 in London, Topalov’s 4.5 / 14 in Moscow, or 4.5 / 14 of Aronian in Berlin. Someone has to be out of shape, and it could be a great player having a bad tournament. What Alekseenko showed was an undying fighting spirit, and that bodes well for his future success.
Another story was Wang’s catastrophic finish. It wasn’t just the three losses; it was more alarming how indifferent he seemed to his duty to play hard every game. It seemed that Wang was counting the days before he could leave Yekaterinburg and never come back. He actually made a statement to that extent after the end of the first half, and it made some think he might just drop out of the tournament.
Fortunately, his problems didn’t have much of an impact on the standings as Wang lost to all four contenders for first place and then announced his retirement from competitive chess. As for the latter, I have my doubts. I don’t think the Chinese Chess Association will come forward to Wang with offers for coaching positions. “Saving face” is important there, and when it comes to this cultural attribute, Wang lost hers. I think he’s a good enough player to pull through on his own, and I wish him well.
What awaits the world of chess is a question best left for my next article, but for now please turn your attention to games; they are worth it. Here is a collection of my annotated games for the second half of the Candidates tournament:
Annotated Games of the Second Half of the Candidates Tournament