Nepomniachtchi wins Candidates… Carlsen undecided on rematch

Ian Nepomniachtchi won the Candidates Tournament yesterday ending on an undefeated 9.5/14. In fact, he avoided real trouble (for the most part) and his +5 showed a consistent level. Magnus Carlsen spent a few days in Madrid and met with FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich and Director-General GM Emil Sutovsky. They discussed potential format changes.


Photo by Stev Bonhage

Carlsen has been known to give his opinion on the formats including the suggestion that the title should be determined by knockout or rapid chess. At the last press conference after winning the title in Dubai, The Chess Drum asked the question after which he stated he was open to a different format.

Video by FIDE

FIDE has asked that Carlsen decides on whether he will play by July 20th.

In their match last November, Nepomniachtchi did not give a good account of himself losing three of the last four games. Many thought that he did not have the psychological preparation needed to carry the match the full number of games. Garry Kasparov gave the opinion that the preparation Nepomniachtchi did for his match with Carlsen gave him an edge in the 2022 Candidates Tournament. Viswanathan Anand also won the 2014 Candidates Tournament after losing the title to Carlsen.

One of the points made is that Nepomniachtchi will be better prepared and may surprise a potentially less-motivated Carlsen. His two previous matches with Sergey Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana required tiebreaks. Many suspect that he will give a rematch. Asked whether he was surprised about the tournament outcome, he made the following statements:

New Champion on the Horizon?

Given the result of the last match, many wonder if Nepomniachtchi will be more competitive in a rematch. Kasparov’s contention that previous match preparation having immense value makes sense, but of course, the Carlsen team will have access to all of Nepomniachtchi’s games from the Candidates to study.

The real question is if the Russian plays Carlsen again for the championship, will he have a chance of winning? While some argue that (politically) a Russian winning the world title would not be good for chess, but Nepomniachtchi has earned the right given the rules FIDE has set forth. Will sponsorship be a problem with a Russian competing? Will FIDE have to find a neutral ground to stage the match? These are interesting questions, but the first order of business seems to be the format of the title match.

As mentioned earlier, Carlsen made suggestions in 2017 (knockout) and 2018 (rapid). Nepomniachtchi would stand a very good chance if rapid chess were the format. If the format includes classical, rapid, blitz and 960 (for example), the chances would also improve for the challenger. If the format remains the same with 14 classical games of classical followed by rapid and blitz tiebreaks, Carlsen would remain the heavy favorite.

Could Ding meet Nepomniachtchi in a new cycle?

Could Ding meet Nepomniachtchi in a new cycle?
Photo courtesy of FIDE/Stev Bonhage

Will Carlsen Play?

If Carlsen declines to defend his title, then we are left with Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren. This match would no doubt be a very close one with Ding’s style being more suited for matchplay. Given the horrible showing against Carlsen, Nepomniachtchi has to prove that he can remain focused for an extended period. If given a second chance, he will be more prepared and motivated to redeem himself for his previous abysmal performance.

What does Carlsen lose if he declines to defend his title? Since prize money would not be the primary incentive for the champion, what is his current motivation? Online reports say he is focused on breaking 2900. Having won five world titles and his last one convincingly, it is clear that he is getting bored with the current process. While Carlsen won all of his championship matches, he was not dominant in all cases. He actually fell behind against Karjakin (before equalizing) and was held to 14 draws in classical against Caruana. He went on to win both matches in tiebreaks.

It would be surprising in Carlsen did not play, but it would also be interesting to see how he will approach the match against a rejuvenated opponent. He had a repeat match against Anand with the same result. Carlsen had suggested that he would play only if someone from the new generation (i.e., Alireza Firouzja) would break through. It is clear now that Firouzja is not quite ready for that stage at this point. Nevertheless, forfeiting the title defense would throw the title in some disarray, unless Carlsen retires altogether. As long as he is active, there will be a question of the world champion who is not the world’s best player. We learned this lesson from Garry Kasparov exiting from the FIDE cycle.

Finding Nepo

Nepomniachtchi found his groove and can be proud of his performance. In fact, this performance may give him clues on how to approach his next match. While he was crushed by Carlsen in 2021, he scored points with the gracious way he handled defeat. If the Russian team can find a way to score the first point, it may be a very different match. While many will choose Carlsen as the favorite, we may have found the player that people thought was so dangerous after winning the previous Candidates.

2022 Candidates Chess Championship

June 17th- July 5th, 2022 (Madrid, Spain)

1 Nepomniachtchi, Ian GM FIDE
2766 9.5
2 Ding Liren GM China
2806 8.0
3 Radjabov, Teimour GM Azerbaijan
2753 7.5
4 Nakamura, Hikaru GM USA
2760 7.5
5 Caruana, Fabiano GM USA
2786 6.5
6 Alireza, Firoujza GM France
2791 6.0
7 Duda, Jan-Krzysztof GM Poland
2750 5.5
8 Rapport, Richard GM Hungary
2764 5.5
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