Nepomniachtchi to challenge Carlsen for the World Championship title

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/26/2021 – Ian Nepomniachtchi gained the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen in the upcoming World Championship match after winning the Candidates Tournament with a round to spare. Russia’s number 1 drew Maxime Vachier-Lagrave while second-placed Anish Giri was defeated by Alexander Grischuk. Given the tiebreak criteria, even if Giri catches up with Nepo in the last round, he would not be granted tournament victory. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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When tiebreak criteria matter

Ian NepomniachtchiRussia’s highest-ranked player Ian Nepomniachtchi will be Magnus Carlsen’s challenger in the upcoming World Championship match, scheduled to take place at the end of this year in Dubai. Nepomniachtchi was sharing first place with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave when the sanitary crisis prompted FIDE to postpone the Candidates after round 7. In the second half, the Russian made the most of his chances while keeping a cool head, collecting two wins and four draws to secure tournament victory with a round to spare.

In the penultimate round, only two games were relevant in the fight to win the event. Anish Giri, who was a half point behind Nepo, faced Alexander Grischuk with black, while the leader had White against MVL, who in fact still had a tiny chance of winning the event. By the time Vachier-Lagrave had definitely no winning chances, Grischuk had a clearly superior position against Giri. It did not take long before the two results were confirmed — Nepo had drawn and Giri had lost, which meant the Russian had become the next World Championship challenger.

In the current standings, Nepomniachtchi is a full point ahead of Giri, but due to the first  tiebreak criterion (direct encounter; Nepo beat Giri in round 1), even if Giri wins and Nepo loses on Tuesday, the Russian star would win the event. The fact that such an important tournament is often decided by mathematical tiebreaks has been negatively criticized by members of the chess community. Living legend Garry Kasparov voiced his concern:

FIDE couldn’t make one more day available for a tiebreak? For God’s sake, they have a World Championship match ending in a tiebreak — Magnus Carlsen played two tiebreaks for the title, and they couldn’t afford to spend one day for a tiebreak? [...] It’s not any criticism on Nepo, who wins the tournament by the rules, but it’s about the integrity of the competition.

As noted by Kasparov — and also by Giri himself — this whole discussion about tiebreaks should not take away from the fact that Nepo played “two great halves” (Giri) and is a completely deserving challenger for the world title. The discussion has more to do with how the event should be set up in the first place.

After beating Giri, Grischuk was asked about Kasparov’s remarks. Grischuk then noted that he had read not only Kasparov’s opinion but also that of Aleksey Dreev’s. He concluded that this tournament shows the disadvantages of playing a round-robin instead of matches — since results by players not in the fight for first have a massive effect on the outcome — and that it does not make sense not to have a playoff in case of a tie for first.

Once the discussion about the Candidates returning to the knockout format arises, chess fans surely go back to Kazan 2011, when a lack of entertainment value due to the high percentage of games resulting in draws also raised plenty of negative criticism. In fact, the fact that FIDE decided to hold the 2013 Candidates Tournament as a round-robin was mostly celebrated by the chess community. However, it is hard to argue against Kasparov and Grischuk’s assertions regarding the procedure to break a potential tie for first in such an important event.

But now that the intrigue is over, we can start preparing for the big match...

...while following the final round of the Candidates will not be a waste of time by any means. Will Ding Liren score a third win in a row against a less-motivated Nepomniachtchi? Will Giri and Caruana end the tournament on a high note? They are, after all, incredibly well-prepared to play every single one of these games! 

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Time to celebrate | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Grischuk 1 - 0 Giri

As usual, Grischuk’s post-game interview was filled with remarkable, witty insights. Talking about the game, the Russian grandmaster described his strategy in this game as that of a terrorist, explaining:

My plan was to play like a terrorist, to terrorize him with a draw, and if he goes for a worse position, then I will play, and that’s pretty much exactly what happened.

Eager to look for winning chances, Giri disregarded positional factors which left him in a rather unenviable position by move 27.


While it is difficult to find a plan for Black here, White can jump with his knight to e3 and create threats against his opponent’s backward pawns. Giri quickly lost the thread and ended up resigning in a knight endgame on move 51. The Dutchman was very critical of his play:

It was the combination of a mindset that doesn’t suit the position combined with a heavy lack of understanding of the position. [...] Sometimes you are calculating lines, and for your opponent you make very bad moves in your calculation, that’s what I was doing, I was calculating lines that had nothing to do with reality.


Anish Giri

Anish Giri played an excellent tournament, and was particularly impressive in the second half | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Nepomniachtchi ½ - ½ Vachier-Lagrave

This was, in fact, the only draw of the day. MVL was in a must-win situation playing black against an in-form opponent. The Frenchman tried his best, but ended up in a worse position, and later explained:

At least I got a sort of fighting game. Of course, a drawback of getting a fighting game with black is that you can end up clearly worse, and this was no exception.

Instead of desperately looking for ways to create something while already in an inferior position, MVL decided to simplify the position on move 28.


28...Rb8 led to simplifications, and even though White is a pawn up, it is difficult for him to find a way to break through with his central pawn structure cemented on light squares. Of course, given the tournament situation, Nepo happily agreed to a draw after 42 moves.


Ian Nepomniachtchi

Some players decided not to use the big chairs, while Nepo found a way to get the most out of them | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Wang 0 - 1 Caruana

This was Wang’s second consecutive loss and his third one since the resumption of the tournament. Daniil Dubov, who was commentating for the official FIDE channel, noted that it must have been hard for Wang to feel motivated after having to wait for a year in a tournament in which you have very little chances to get first place.

Wang’s crucial mistake came on move 40.


White played 40.Kh1 and after 40...Be4 there is no way to save the d-pawn. Wang played 41.d6 and resigned after 41...Bc6 42.Qb2 Qxd6. While analysing the diagrammed position, Caruana noted that after 40.f3, preventing the move seen in the game, “it feels like White should hold this one”.

Endgame specialist Karsten Müller took a closer look and titled his annotations “Capablanca’s Theorem refuted”. 


Fabiano Caruana

World number 2 Fabiano Caruana | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Alekseenko 0 - 1 Ding

Both contenders had a tough tournament, before and after the postponement, however, Alekseenko came from losing twice in three games and Ding came from beating Grischuk in the previous round.

A fine strategical battle resulted in White getting an extra pawn against Black’s dangerous pair of bishops. After the time control, an inaccurate move by Ding left Alekseenko in the driver’s seat, but the Russian spoiled his advantage when he inexplicably made a rush decision in a sharp position.


While commentators Dubov, Almira Skripchenko and Evgenij Miroshnichenko were still struggling trying to find White’s best move in this position, Alekseenko suddenly opted for 47.Bc5, which turned the tables in Ding’s favour. The Russian was visibly upset with his decision shortly after, as Ding calculated the consequences of 47...Rb8.


As the engines show, there is no defence for White. Alekseenko tried to find a perpetual check after Ding set up a mate-in-one threat, but to no avail. Resignation came on move 61.


FIDE Candidates 2020, chess

The intrigue is over, but the event goes on | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Standings after Round 13


All games



Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.
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fructosobedogus fructosobedogus 4/30/2021 12:01
Tie break is the least, this tournament is vicious. It is sure that if Wang Hao had not given away his game, Giri would not have become crazy against Grischuk. Rissiand played as a team as always
lajosarpad lajosarpad 4/29/2021 11:31
@Frits Fritschy If you lose against a weaker player, then you earn 0 points. If you win against a stronger player, you earn 1 point. Similarly, you earn 1 point if you beat a weaker player. So you are punished for every blunder, inconsistency you show. However, if I had to choose between winning a game against Carlsen and losing one to an 9-year-old beginner or losing to Carlsen and winning against a 9-year-old beginner, then I would choose winning against Carlsen and losing against a 9-year-old beginner without thinking twice. And I'm sure that the vast majority of chess players would make a similar choice. The reason is that an unprobable loss is painful, but not extraordinary from the loser's point of view, since he/she can make a blunder anytime. However, an unprobable win against a player of higher caliber is extraordinary from the winner's perspective. If your argument would be accepted, then a logical consequence would be that winning against Carlsen and losing against a beginner is a similar achievement as losing against Carlsen and winning against a beginner. And in my opinion that's just false.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 4/28/2021 01:14
If you lose against weaker players, you 'prove' that you are an inconsistent player. It all comes down to subjective feeling. Giving this a numerical valuation doesn't make it more objective.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 4/28/2021 12:56
@Frits Fritschy if you beat a very strong player and then lose against a very weak player, then you prove that you are capable of beating a very strong player, even though you lose against a weak one. Yet, if you win against a weaker player and lose against a stronger player, then you only prove that you are able to beat the weaker player. So, if you beat the stronger player you also prove you should be able to beat the weaker player, even though you underperform. Yet, if you beat the weaker player, you do not prove that you are also capable of beating the stronger player. That seems to be the logic behind rewarding more the results against stronger players.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 4/28/2021 11:49
By the way, in the Netherlands SB points used to be called 'Sonnema Beerenburg points', after a once popular Frysian herbal bitter...
malfa malfa 4/28/2021 01:01
Frits Fritschy,
I understand one could take it the other way round, but it is not easy to deny that from a purely sporting point of view results against the players who scored better (i.e. the ones who proved strongest within a specifical event) matter more than those against the more poorly placed. Which is exactly the rationale behind the Sonneborn-Berger tiebreak (I am afraid we both wrote it wrong, I hope this is not the third time). And yes, Anish's words are definitive.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 4/27/2021 09:04
I agree with you but for one point. Sonnenborg-Berger rewards a good score against the 'strongest' opponents, but you might as well punish a bad score against the 'weakest' opponents. I never saw any difference between the two.
I recommend to others Giri's reaction, in summary: whatever the rules were, they were known beforehand to all participants and Nepomniachtchi was clearly the best.
malfa malfa 4/27/2021 07:41
Frankly I find all this fuss about tiebreak completely silly, especially if one considers that the criteria being used are not like the toss of a coin, but rather a measure of some sportive achievement, which after all is what really counts: if two players finish first, it is obvious to put apart all the others and to consider first of all their mutual result. It is sport. If they drew their encounters, it makes sense to consider which of the two has one more games, since winning or losing is in the end the logical outcome of every competition, whereas a draw decides nothing. Sonneborg-Berger is a measure of how the players performed against their strongest opponents, which also is a sportive achievement. Et cetera. So what?
lajosarpad lajosarpad 4/27/2021 05:03
Congratulations to Nepo! He has won fair and square the longest tournament in history! I'm looking forward for the match between the deserved challenger and the world champion. However, I also favor knockout matches, as they are more reliable than a double-round robin in determining who's the best. This was not the case now, as Nepo was better in this tournament than the others, but the candidates can result in narrow ties where the winner is determined by tiebreak criteria, a coin-toss, or even worse, rapid chess. A knockout match is better, because if there is a tie, then truly, there is equality between the players. So, if we provide draw odds to one of the players by some criteria, then at least the other will be willing to fight.
ChrisHolmes ChrisHolmes 4/27/2021 11:53
Actually quite a lot of people complained about the WC match in 2018 precisely because all the games were drawn. Look it up.
Hurin Hurin 4/27/2021 10:08
I look forward to the match Nepo - Carlsen, allthough I am a fan of Giri, I hope it will be more exciting then the last two WC matches.

I hope Giri will bounce back next WC cycle. I know many chess fans think he makes too much draws mainly because of his 14 draws in the candidates of 2016. But after that nobody complained about the the WC match in 2018 between Caruana and Carlsen where all( !) the games were drawn. It happens, Caruana and Carlsen are very exciting players , who played both beautifull games, but sometimes the stakes are so high that you don't want to take to many risks.

Ik think Giri has set for himself a new standard this year. Just imagine to loose your first game in de candidates tournament with white, and the to bounce back like he showed in the second half of the tournament with very exciting and good chess. I found it very impressive. And the tie break rules are what they are. He has said it himself .
But I hope in the future they will change things when two players tie for first place, organize a short match for 6 games afterwards or spend an extra day for a 6 tie break games.
After all you want to have the best challenger to face the world champion.

Nevertheless now Nepo - Carlsen. I allways have a weakness for the underdog. So Nepo take your shot!!
Phillidor Phillidor 4/27/2021 09:21
"Suffice it to say that if Nepo wins on tiebreak, I may not watch the match at all."

Nepo is on +1 one round in advance, he beat Giri on their direct encounter, and lead basically throughout the whole tournament. To me, he is a deserved winner after round 13 and in this case it's hard to blame it on the tiebreaks.

Direct encounter result is actually one of the basic (if not the main) tiebreak throughout sports and can hardly be considered unfair or random. Also, it's very common that more than two teams tie for the crucial place - nobody said what would they do if 3,4 or even 5 players tied for the 1st place, how would one organize the tie-breaks?

Ok, it's natural to talk about the fairness of tie-breaks now that we already have the winner one round in advance, while everyone would be happy to watch another round of true fight. But on the other hand, every format has its pros and cons, and in this case - however I'd like to watch another fighting round - I believe it's fair to say Nepo is the winner with a round to go. He has +1, he beat Giri, everyone knew the tiebreaks in advance and nobody questioned them beforehand, so by the merits of fairness it couldn't be simpler.
Arnold Huhndorf Arnold Huhndorf 4/27/2021 07:28
It's funny. The same Grischuk who criticises the round-robin format contributed more than anyone to its implementation in the first place by making short draws whenever possible in his knockout games, to save energy and force a decision by rapid/blitz.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 4/27/2021 06:31
C'mon, number wins for a tiebreak cannot be equated with results of an individual game, like in this tournament.

But the big question is whether this is going to cause a resurgence of the man-bun.
adbennet adbennet 4/27/2021 04:03
"Carlsen qualified because he had more losses than Kramnik" -- Well, I laughed, even if others cannot appreciate the logic. About tiebreak, it's academic because Nepomniachtchi will finish clear first. People are talking like the 14th round has already finished, where Giri won and Nepomniachtchi lost! As for what's the best tiebreak system, just make it *exactly* the same as the tiebreak for the world championship match. That way the winner of the candidates on tiebreak is also the most likely (by some logic) to prevail in a tied world championship match.
fructosobedogus fructosobedogus 4/27/2021 03:03
Forget about congratulations, Alekseenko and Hao just gave their games away.
ChrisHolmes ChrisHolmes 4/27/2021 02:36
MauvaisFou says "In the good old days, there would have been a 6-game match with classical time control ... "

That's really an understatement. There was a tie for first in the very first Candidates Tournament at Budapest 1950. How was it resolved ? Bronstein played a 14-game match with classical time controls against Boleslavsky.
Petrosianic Petrosianic 4/27/2021 01:21
<A play off tie break is only fair if it is played with the same time control as the previous tournament (or match) games were. Different time controls require slightly different skill sets. >

Okay, let's say you're right about that. Even conceding that a Rapids playoff is not 100% fair, you also have to show that it's also even LESS fair than just giving it to the player who lost the most games. (Also that it's less fair than Sonnenborn). The argument for showing that is not obvious.
Ajeeb007 Ajeeb007 4/27/2021 01:01
A play off tie break is only fair if it is played with the same time control as the previous tournament (or match) games were. Different time controls require slightly different skill sets.
Petrosianic Petrosianic 4/27/2021 12:13
<It was the tie-break rule which everybody had accepted.>

You mean the players accepted it. That doesn't mean the public has to, or that it's a good rule. If the players all agreed to shorten baseball games to 7 innings so they could work less, that wouldn't make it a good idea. Whether or not Kasparov is being consistent is also immaterial to whether or not I have to salute it.

Suffice it to say that if Nepo wins on tiebreak, I may not watch the match at all.
bonnie charles bonnie charles 4/27/2021 12:06
I'd just like to reflect on the statement made by Bill Alg. Carlsen had the better tie break due to having more wins. It is quite misleading to say he qualified because he had more losses than Kramnik. Why should have Kasparov complained about that? It was the tie-break rule which everybody had accepted. Kasparov is a free-spirit and talks his mind. Not many chess players have made more on promoting chess than him. Accusing him to be anti-Russian is mere exaggeration. Russian players dominate the chess world. If someone says he is an anti-Putinist, I accept it, but anti-Russian is more than absurd.
twamers twamers 4/26/2021 11:41
Many congratulations to Nepo for winning the tournament. I hope we can look forward to some enterprising chess in the World Championship match to come and I believe we will. As for Kasparov and his comments about the separate topic of organising the Candidates and under what rules (and particularly it not being right to not have a play-off in the event of a tie) - he is perfectly entitled to his opinion if asked and I feel he is right and supported by Grischuk. He is being critical of FIDE. I have no problem with that. We have seen play-offs for the world title (Carlsen v Karjakin and Carlsen v Caruana) so the Candidates should do the same - but by classical chess - keep the speed stuff for the speed tournaments.
fixpont fixpont 4/26/2021 11:23
Kasparov is not against his countrymen, he is against everybody who is on good terms with Putin. Like the entire leadership of FIDE... or some russian chessplayers, but i think it is important to distinguish between seemingly similar behaviours.
Bill Alg Bill Alg 4/26/2021 10:56
2013, Kramnik tied with Carlsen, but Carlsen qualified because he had more losses than Kramnik. I don't remember Kasparov complaining then. So yes, clearly there is no hiding the fact that Kasparov has always been against his own countrymen: on that occasion Kramnik, in 2016 Karjakin ("Karjakin WC would be a misunderstanding"), now Nepomniachtchi (BTW also Alekseenko yesterday "he doesn't deserve to play there"), in 2019 Artemiev ("please, in his age I was playing Karpov"), in 1999 Khalifman ("tourists"). Shows a lot about one's character.
daftarche daftarche 4/26/2021 10:00
is kasparov anti russia? when karjakin played against magnus, he also said some bad things about him. now Ian deservedly qualifies and he starts complaining again...
lagrigorescu lagrigorescu 4/26/2021 09:35
The same criteria was used even back in London when Magnus won the Candidates, no? I do not recall Kasparov voicing any concerns then. He's an expert in criticizing since...forever...
MauvaisFou MauvaisFou 4/26/2021 09:16
tie-breakers leading to Armaggedon are not better than individual result between tied players

In the good old days, there would have been a 6-game match with classical time control ...