Chess player Ian Nepomniachtchi will compete for the right to play in the championship match

Chess player Ian Nepomniachtchi will compete for the right to play in the championship match

This year's two major chess competitions open in Toronto on Wednesday. These are candidate tournaments that will determine contenders for the titles of champion and world champion. In the women's event, among the eight participants there are two Russians, and both, Alexandra Goryachkina and Ekaterina Lagno, seem to have excellent chances of achieving success. Ian Nepomniachtchi's chances in the men's competition are becoming more difficult. Against Nepomniachtchi - the mediocre results of recent months, in his favor is the fact that it was he who won both previous candidate tournaments. And this is an experience that perhaps outweighs all the disadvantages, no matter how indisputable they may seem.

One of the largest cities in Canada, which until now has not been associated with elite chess, had the opportunity to become the host of an event of exceptional importance and exceptional scale. For the first time, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) is holding two candidate tournaments in parallel and in the same place. That is, after three weeks in Toronto The contenders for the title of both champion and world champion will be determined, which now belong to the Chinese - Ding Liren and Ju Wenjun. And the “Russian component” of the event looks very solid.

In the women's candidate tournament, this is a quarter of the roster, two of the eight participants. And in terms of quality, perhaps, her “specific weight” is even a little greater, because Alexandra Goryachkina and Ekaterina Lahno look like the undisputed favorites of the competition in all significant respects. Goryachkina has the highest rating in the eight. Lagno is second only to her and the Chinese Lei Tingjie, surpassing the latter’s compatriot Tan Zhongyi, Indian representatives Humpi Koneru and Rameshbabu Vaishali, Ukrainian Anna Muzychuk and Bulgarian Nurgul Salimova. Plus - experience (Goryachkina, for example, already played in the title match), plus - good form.

With Russian prospects in the men's candidate tournament, everything is not so obvious.

The fog that covers them is so thick that even those who read chess like a primer, like Ding Liren's two predecessors at the top of the genre's hierarchy, Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen, have difficulty getting through it. Before the start of the candidate tournament, the Indian and the Norwegian tried to assess the situation in it, and when it was Ian Nepomniachtchi’s turn, each took a long pause, clearly doubting which niche to place him in - or in the niche where those who will definitely fight live for first place, or into a niche for those for whom it hardly shines. Well, unless in the event of some fantastically successful coincidence of circumstances. In the end, by the way, Anand and Carlsen found something like a compromise, allocating for the frontman of Russian chess a position, so to speak, intermediate - somewhere right behind the Americans Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, whose capabilities are the 15th and 16th world champions seem the most obvious, as, indeed, it should seem to an amateur: after all, we are talking about grandmasters who are in second and third places in the FIDE rankings, second only to the great Carlsen, and had a great year in 2023. And with reservations about the fact that, perhaps, they slightly underestimate Nepomniachtchi.

But everything is basically clear. It’s just that today’s Ian Nepomniachtchi is a living symbol of sports ambiguity.

If you apply to him the same standards that are applied, say, to football teams before top championships, paying attention first of all to more or less recent results, then you will definitely not want to bet on him. In April 2023, Nepomniachtchi played for the second time in a row in a match for the most valuable chess title and lost for the second time in a row: now not to Magnus Carlsen, who managed to voluntarily part with him, but to Ding Liren, who was ranked much lower than the great Norwegian. I lost in the most offensive way - in a tiebreaker.

And everything that happened to Nepomniachtchi during the year after the Astana match, from the point of view of a dispassionate observer not too immersed in the intricacies of chess, could seem like a full-fledged crisis. Success in the fall at Levitov Chess Week, a fairly solid tournament in terms of composition, remained the only one for him during this entire period. There were a lot of performances that were not just lackluster, but mediocre.

The quality of the game is so-so: anyone who wants to verify this can easily find on YouTube a not-so-short selection of Nepomniachtchi’s recent games, in which he is terribly out of tune.

At a super tournament similar to a “warm-up” before the candidate tournament in the Dutch Wijk aan Zee in January, he took eighth place, behind, among other things, four future competitors in the competition in Toronto, who also played in the Netherlands - Indians Gukesh Dommaraju, Rameshbabu Pragnanandhu and Vidit Gujrati, as well as the Frenchman Alireza Firouzja, who are generally rated much lower than Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura. In the FIDE classification, Nepomniachtchi dropped from the top three to the bottom of the top ten.

“Noted by flashes” - this is the wording invented by Magnus Carlsen, speaking about his impressions of the play of Ian Nepomniachtchi and with politeness masking the much harsher summary that was actually spinning in his head, because there were terribly few flashes. Much less than all the closest competitors, with the exception of Azerbaijani Nijat Abasov, who entered the candidate tournament in a somewhat crazy way. In this sense, even teenagers Gukesh Dommaraju and Rameshbabu Pragnanandha are ahead.

However, having spoken about the flashes, Carlsen immediately explained why he did not write off Ian Nepomniachtchi, but, on the contrary, raised him in his own ranking almost to the level of Caruana and Nakamura. There is a background in the form of two previous candidate tournaments - in Yekaterinburg and Madrid, won by Nepomniachtchi in a style reminiscent of dominance. And to throw it in the trash, considering it something unimportant, is a crime, since the specificity of chess is that in it the past - for example, the experience of leading oneself to the most important of the starts, the erudition accumulated thanks to them, the developed psychological stability - weighs nothing no less than the current tone.

Alexey Dospehov

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