Ian Nepomniachtchi wins Jerusalem Grand Prix, qualifies to Candidates

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
12/23/2019 – A draw in the second game of the Jerusalem Grand Prix Final gave Ian Nepomniachtchi tournament victory and secured him a spot in next year's Candidates Tournament. Wei Yi managed to mix things up with the black pieces, only to get an inferior position which came to a close when a draw by repetition was agreed. The one remaining spot in the Candidates still up for grabs is the organizer's wildcard, and the Russian Chess Federation will more than likely grant it to Kirill Alekseenko. | Photos: Niki Riga

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Good news for Alekseenko


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.


Chess as a competitive endeavour differs from other sports in many ways. Regarding the system to crown its champions, it circles around this one huge accomplishment — becoming the (undisputed) World Champion. In order to get the honour, one needs to defeat the previous titleholder, and in order to get the chance to do it one needs to win the all-important Candidates Tournament.

Qualifying to the Candidates is no easy task either, with six different paths to get there and just one of them being relatively simple to obtain — namely, having lost the previous match for the crown. In the current 2019/20 cycle, Ian Nepomniachtchi, by winning the final leg of the Grand Prix in Jerusalem, just became the seventh 'candidate'.

Who is the eighth candidate then? According to a frequently questioned regulation, the organizer of the single round robin event gets to nominate a wildcard. The International Chess Federation grants this privilege as a negotiation tool in the interest of attracting organizers. Unlike previous editions, however, FIDE has now implemented stricter rules regarding who can be nominated — only the best non-qualified player from four of the qualifying paths (Grand Prix series, Grand Swiss, World Cup and rating average). 

Here is when the story gets interesting, as the eligible player in three out of the four aforementioned categories is the same person: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Furthermore, the Frenchman also missed out on the previous edition of the Candidates by the smallest of margins...and most likely he will be missing out again.

The 2020 eight-player tournament will take place in Yekaterinburg and will be organized by the Russian Chess Federation. Andrey Filatov, the president of the federation, stated: "The decision to host this event in Russia guarantees that there will be a Russian player participating". Coincidentally, the one other eligible player to get the wildcard — besides Vachier-Lagrave — is Kirill Alekseenko, a 22-year-old grandmaster from Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The RCF still needs to confirm who will be the nominee, but only an unexpected turn of events would result in the the last spot being given to 'MVL'. Or, perhaps, the Russians will surprise the chess world by announcing a match between the Frenchman and Alekseenko?

Credit must be given to Martin Bennedik, who kept the race to the Candidates updated throughout the year.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

World number four Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Niki Riga

The final game

Returning to Jerusalem, let us recap how Nepomniachtchi obtained match victory over Wei Yi.

After losing a game he could have chosen to draw by repetition, the Chinese prodigy was in an unenviable position — in a must-win situation with Black against a top-10 player. Not surprisingly, he played the Pirc Defence.

As it usually happens with this system, White got a comfortable position from the get go. Nepomniachtchi played natural moves and got a big space advantage, with total control of the centre. Things went from bad to worse for Wei Yi as early as move 12:

 

Black went for 12...e5, putting his hopes on the strength of his outpost on f5. But getting that square is not compensation enough, as both contenders explained afterwards. Wei Yi mentioned he should have castled instead, while Nepomniachtchi considered that the Chinese would have got some chances after 13.h2 0-0, securing his king one move later (Black played 13...g6 instead).

Ian Nepomniachtchi, Wei Yi

Wei Yi did all he could to try to stop Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Niki Riga

In the game, White's advantage only increased. On move 21, Wei Yi, already in a clearly inferior position, correctly sacrificed a knight, to which Nepomniachtchi responded pragmatically:

 

With 23.e3, the Russian invited his rival to get a draw by repetition. Wei Yi could only accept the offer, and the game finished after 23...g3 24.xh6 f3+ 25.h2 g3+. Of course, White did not need to give up his knight and settle for a half point, but given the circumstances there was no reason for Nepomniachtchi not to do precisely that.

 

Ian NepomniachtchiThe eventual champion in Jerusalem faced strong opposition before getting the title (Boris Gelfand, Wesley So, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Wei Yi). Nepomniachtchi confessed that the first match-up was the toughest for him though, as he came from having got sick in Kolkata, where his strategy not to qualify to the Grand Chess Tour finals borne fruit. The Russian quipped:

[I have] very mixed feelings, because it was a very busy tough year. Actually, my strategy was not to qualify for London in the Grand Chess Tour, because I knew that London almost clashes with the last leg in Jerusalem (smiles).

Indeed, it was a very busy year for the elite players, so much so that Nepomniachtchi would have been fine with getting eliminated by Gelfand as, "at least the torture would end for me". However, the fatigue did not prevent him from registering to play the World Rapid and Blitz Tournament starting Thursday, while his debut in a Candidates Tournament is less than three months away. Nepomniachtchi:

It's a big moment in my career. [...] It will be difficult because I'm very tired after this year, [but] probably there'll be no rest because I have to prepare for the Candidates right now.

Regarding his chances in Yekaterimburg, he explained that having played the Grand Chess Tour this year should be of great help, as he faced a "similar field" — he specifically named world numbers two and three, Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana. The player from Bryansk concluded:

I should play better than here, if I want to have even a few chances.


Full interview with Ian Nepomniachtchi


Pending confirmation by the Russian Chess Federation regarding the wildcard, the field for the coming Candidates Tournament is now set:

  Player Federation Rating Qualification means
1 Fabiano Caruana USA 2822 Lost the previous WCh match
2 Ding Liren China 2801 World Cup (runner-up)
3 Alexander Grischuk Russia 2777 Grand Prix (winner)
4 Anish Giri Netherlands 2769 Best rating average of 2019
5 Ian Nepomniachtchi Russia 2767 Grand Prix (runner-up)
6 Teimour Radjabov Azerbaijan 2765 World Cup (winner)
7 Wang Hao China 2756 Grand Swiss (winner)
8 Kirill Alekseenko Russia 2704 Wildcard (*)

(*) Pending confirmation

Nevertheless, given how competitive the chess elite has become, it is easy to picture a whole different eight-player group competing to get the right to face the World Champion...


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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.