Jerusalem GP Final: Nepomniachtchi strikes

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
12/22/2019 – Game one of the final in Jerusalem favoured Ian Nepomniachtchi, who won a 96-move game with the black pieces after Wei Yi declined to force a draw by repetition in the middlegame. Nepomniachtchi now only needs a draw in the second classical game to reach the Candidates Tournament, leaving Maxime Vachier-Lagrave out of the race to challenge Magnus Carlsen in the next World Championship match. | Photo: Niki Riga

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Almost there

The fourth leg of the FIDE Grand Prix is being played in Jerusalem, Israel. The 16-player knockout has a €130,000 prize fund, with the series as a whole having an additional prize fund of €280,000 plus two qualifying spots for the 2020 Candidates Tournament. The tournament takes place in the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre from December 11th to 23rd.

Things look dire for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave after the first encounter of the Jerusalem Grand Prix Final ended in favour of Ian Nepomniachtchi. The Russian struck first against Wei Yi and now only needs a draw to get the remaining spot in the Candidates granted by the GP series. This was the Frenchman's last hope to reach the eight-player event that awards the winner a chance to face the world champion in a direct match-up. Moreover, if Nepomniachtchi gets tournament victory, 'MVL' would miss out on playing the Candidates by the smallest of margins for a second cycle in a row.

Nevertheless, Wei Yi is a highly dangerous opponent, so it is very much a possibility for the Chinese to even the score in game two. The youngster played enterprising chess on Saturday and, given Nepomniachtchi's style, it is very likely for the rematch to turn into a sharp fight.  

Wei Yi

Wei Yi | Photo: Niki Riga

The struggle kicked off early on. Out of a Four Knights variation in the English, Nepomniachtchi already spent nine and eleven minutes on moves 9 and 10. The contenders continued to follow lines previously explored until move 12:


Previously, Black had gone for 12...d6, 12...♝e7 and 12...♞c6 in this position, while Nepomniachtchi, who seemed not to be prepared to face this line, spent over twelve minutes on 12...b4. Up to this point, Wei Yi had not spent more than a minute and a half on any of his moves, but this decision by Black seemed to catch him by surprise, as he invested a whopping 53 minutes on 13.d1.

Evgeny Miroshnichenko, in the commentary booth, spent most of the lengthy thinking period analysing 13.♕xb4 and the natural-looking 13.♗f4, which prompts us to think that the Chinese considered those lines to be insufficiently ambitious after his rival played a move he probably did not analyse during his preparation. 

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Alone on stage — Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Niki Riga

During the middlegame, Wei Yi showed once and again that he was in for a fight, while Nepomniachtchi displayed his ability to make moves both quickly and precisely.

White gave up a pawn on move 26:


Wei Yi found the best 26.d1, allowing 26...xa2 in order to transfer his queen to the kingside with 27.g4+. There followed 27...h8 28.h5 g8 29.g4+ h8 30.h5 and 30...g8 back. Would the Chinese star accept the implied draw offer?


Not when he can go for a sharp line instead! Wei Yi opted for 31.b5, as he apparently did not assess White's exchange sacrifice — 31...xb5 32.xb5 xb2 33.b1 c2 — to be dangerous for him. With little time on his clock, the Chinese failed to find the most accurate move at this point:


Instead of 34.fc1, White needed to go for an immediate 34.♖a1. After the text, there followed 34...d2 35.xb4 xe3+ 36.h1 a2, when White needs to be permanently alert due to the menacing position of Black's heavy pieces.

But Nepomniachtchi was also short of time and did not play the most clear-cut way to improve his advantage. A long manoeuvring fight ensued after a couple of rooks left the board on move 46. White had queen, rook and three pawns against Black's queen, knight and five pawns. Later on, Wei Yi explained that perhaps it is possible to defend such a position, but to do it for so long is not an easy task at all.

The Chinese held the dynamic balance for quite a while, but he started to lose the thread on move 84. Soon after, White had a totally winning position:


The Chinese had spent three minutes on the losing 87.e5, to which Nepomniachtchi responded with the strong 87...e4. After 88.xe4 fxe4, Black's connected passers were too much for White to handle. Wei Yi accepted defeat eight moves later. A remarkable fight!


Wei Yi

In a must win situation — Wei Yi | Photo: Niki Riga

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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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