As round 14 of the Candidates tournament unfolded, I had the feeling of watching an anti-climactic post-exam bender. Ian Nepomniachtchi had already passed with distinction, wrapping up tournament victory with a round to spare. The Russian plays energetic chess, but part of his success in Yekaterinburg was surely attributable to tempering his impulses throughout the event. In the final round he knocked out a few brain cells with his exuberant attack against Ding Liren. It was soundly refuted, but that hardly mattered.
Nepomniachtchi’s instinctive aggression promises a thrilling clash of styles in the World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen, which is scheduled to commence in November 2021. His main pursuer had been Anish Giri, whose commendable performance in the second half included a win against Fabiano Caruana, Carlsen’s previous challenger. But the die was cast when Giri foundered against Alexander Grischuk in the penultimate round. Obviously deflated, and with no remaining chance of victory, he lost a toothless game against bottom seed Kirill Alekseenko in the final round.
Barring the final hiccup, Nepomniachtchi played superbly, particularly in seizing his chances against the bottom markers. Against Wang Hao, he worked relentlessly to create winning chances in an arid position. If Wang’s resignation was slightly premature, his disconsolate state was explained after the event when he announced his retirement from professional play, citing health problems. By contrast, Nepomniachtchi’s win against Alekseenko (below) has an effortless air, which speaks of a player in blistering form.
Ian Nepomniachtchi–Kirill Alekseenko
Candidates, Yekaterinburg, April 2021
1 c4 Nf6 2 g3 e6 3 Bg2 d5 4 Nf3 dxc4 5 Qa4+ Nbd7 6 Qxc4 a6 7 Qc2 c5 8 Nc3! The automatic 8 O-O allows Black to prepare Bc8-b7 with 8…b5, as the discovered attack 9 Ne5 yields little after 9…Nd5.