Nepo’s playbook

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

Ian Nepomniachtchi is back for more. The former world championship challenger left his rivals in the dust at the Candidates tournament in Madrid, seizing victory with a round to spare. So he will once again challenge Magnus Carlsen, in a world championship match slated for 2023. Or will he? A few weeks after beating Nepomniachtchi the first time around (in Dubai 2021), Carlsen stoked some intrigue when he stated: ‘It is unlikely that I will play another match unless maybe if the next challenger represents the next generation.’

‘Nepo’ does not fit the bill; at 31, he is the same age as Carlsen. Many (including me) still doubt that Carlsen will abdicate, although if he does, then the Candidates runner-up, Ding Liren, could find himself propelled into a world championship match against Nepomniachtchi.

Carlsen has often criticised the traditional format of the world championship match, so one plausible compromise would be an event with an altered format, perhaps including faster games.

In Madrid, Nepomniachtchi led from the start and was the only player to survive the event undefeated. Indeed, after he won the previous Candidates tournament in Yekaterinburg, the Russian noted that in the second half of the event ‘not losing’ was a key part of his strategy. He was not being facetious. As a commentator to earlier events, he had seen even the strongest players lose their equanimity amid the ups and downs. His playbook was much the same in Madrid. Punchy games in the first half, such as the one below, built him a commanding lead. In the second half, he steered his White games towards safety, conserving energy for his remaining games with the Black pieces.

Ian Nepomniachtchi–Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Fide Candidates (6), Madrid, June 2022

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 This lunge looks premature, but the following exchange of all four knights serves to accelerate White’s development. Black allows that because the alternative 9…Be7 10.f4 is even less desirable; the Bh5 faces imminent danger from g3-g4 and f4-f5. Nxe5 10 dxe5 Ne4 11 Nd2 Nxd2 12 Bxd2 Bc5 13 Rc1 Qe7 14 Kh2 O-O 15 g4 Bg6 16 f4 h6 16…f5 was a radical attempt to restrain White’s pawn steamroller, as played in Svidler–Karjakin, Wijk aan Zee 2018. But Svidler kept the advantage with enterprising play: 17 Qb3 Rad8 18 gxf5 Bxf5 19 Rxc5 Qxc5 20 e4 followed by Bd2-b4 17 Qe1 17 f5 Bh7 18 Bf4 Bb6! Prepares Bb6-c7, and the e5 pawn is hard to defend. Rfe8 18 Qg3 Bh7 19 h4 Rad8 20 g5 hxg5 21 hxg5 At first sight, White has ceded the f5 square to Black’s bishop. But 21…Bf5 22.Qh4! poses severe problems, due to the simple threat of Rh1, Kg3 and Qh8 mate. Bb4 22 Bxb4 Qxb4 23 f5 Qxb2 (see diagram) Instead, 23…g6 24 f6 is hideous, so Black tries to collect as many pawns as possible. The snag is that White’s heavy pieces work well on the newly opened files. 24 e6 fxe6 25 g6 exf5 26 gxh7+ Kh8 27 Rb1 Qf6 28 Rxb7 Rxe2 29 Rxf5 Qh6+ 30 Kg1 Rxa2 31 Rbf7 The g7 pawn is the real target, but White must seal off the f-file first. 31 Rg5? Ra1+ 32 Bf1 Rf8! turns the tables. Ra1+ 32 Bf1 d4 33 Rg5 Qd6 34 Qf2 Qa3 Laying a trap. After 35 Rfxg7 Qe3! is an extraordinary resource which actually saves the game. 36 Rg8+ Kxh7 37 Qxe3 (not 37 Rxd8 Qxg5+) dxe3 38 Rxd8 e2! 39 Rf8 e1=Q and Black has at least a draw. 35 Rg3 A final note of precision. When the queen runs away, Rf7xg7 crashes through. Black resigns

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