Ian Nepomniachtchi, the 30-year-old Russian champion, will face Magnus Carlsen for the Norwegian’s world crown in Dubai this November after the Muscovite took a winning lead on Monday at the Candidates in Ekaterinburg to ensure first place with a round to spare.
On 8.5/13, Nepomniachtchi is a point clear of Anish Giri of the Netherlands, and even if Giri catches up in the final round he will lose under the tie-break rule because of Nepomniachtchi winning their individual game.
That game took place more than 400 days ago in the very first round, since when the Candidates has been halted at halfway due to the pandemic and Russia suspending flights. The phone call to the world chess body, Fide, announcing the bad news came from Vladimir Putin himself.
Nepomniachtchi learned chess at four, and soon displayed a great talent. He was a candidate master at seven, and in his pre-teen years collected several European youth titles, defeating among others Carlsen, who had started chess much later.
He is a distinctive figure at the board with his man-bun, rapid play and tactical vision. His first Russian title was in 2010, the year he was also European champion; his second in 2020, when one player had to retire with Covid-19. He is Jewish, and competed at the 2009 Maccabiah Games along with all-time No 1 woman, Judit Polgar. Jerusalem was also the venue where he won the Fide Grand Prix which qualified him as a candidate.
After Ekaterinburg he is officially No 3 in the world rankings, behind Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, the 2018 challenger, who was a favourite again but faded in the closing rounds.
Despite leading 4-1 in classical one-to-one games with Carlsen, Nepomniachtchi will be the underdog against an opponent who is already a living legend. Carlsen’s last three title defences against India’s Vishy Anand, Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, and Caruana of the US, were all narrow victories and the champion will want a wider margin.
In an interview last week, Carlsen singled out Nepomniachtchi’s uneven performances, with a wide gap between his peak and worst results, as a weakness. The impression right now, with seven months until the match, is that Carlsen believes he has got lucky in his opponent compared with the more resilient Caruana and Giri.
The 14-game, €2m (£1.73m) match at Expo Dubai will be expected to draw huge online audiences as have become the norm in the current chess boom sparked by Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit.