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Nepo' to play Ding as Magnus steps down?

Ian Nepomniachtchi won the Madrid Candidates tournament with a round to spare, and thereby earned a second short at the world title, but who he will play next year is less clear.

After Magnus Carlsen's announcement in recent days that he does not intend to play another world title match, it is likely that FIDE will declare the title vacated on whatever day in 2023 he was due to start play, and that a match for the championship will be played between the players who secured the top two spots in Madrid: Nepo' and Ding Liren.

Nepomniachtchi drew his final game with Black against Duda to finish the tournament on 9.5/14. Today's other three games ended in decisive results. Nepo' was the only unbeaten player in the tournament.

Magnus Carlsen's advance hints that he might abdicate the title gave added significance to the last round game between Chinese GM Ding Liren and Hikaru Nakamura of USA.

Before the last round Nakamura was half a point ahead of Ding after winning his game yesterday against Duda. For much of the first four hours of play Nakamura seemed to have neutralised White's advantage; indeed for a long time the position was close to symmetrical.

However the American got into difficulties shortly before the move 40 time control and eventually lost the crucial game and with it the potentially vital second spot. Also in the final round, Radjabov won with Black against Rapport while Firouzja won an endgame against Caruana which should have been saved.

We shall post a final report later.

The results of the round games wefe therefore as follows:

Ding Liren v Hikaru Nakamura. WHITE WON.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda v Ian Nepomniachtchi. DRAWN.

Fabiano Caruana v Alireza Firouzja. BLACK WON.

Richard Rapport v Teimour Radjabov. BLACK WON.

Final scores of all the players in deecending order were: Nepomniachtchi 9.5/13; Ding Liren 8; Radjabov and Nakamura 7.5; Caruana 6.5; Firouzja 6; Duda and Rapport 5.5.

Congratulations to Nepo' on his convincing victory in this tournament. It is hard to see him being able to beat Magnus Carlsen if they play again but a match between him and Ding Liren is potentially very exciting.

Ding and Nakamura both played well after bad starts, but each had a couple of bad games at crucial times. Caruana, many people's pre-tournament favourite, must be extremely disappointed by his failures in the second half as he had been in clear second at the half-way stage. This is surely the end of his world championship ambitions.

Rapport's play has been somewhat erratic and his decision to refuse a forced draw in his White game against Nepo' in round 7 ultimately decided the tournament because it put too much scoreboard pressure on those (Caruana especially) who were hoping to catch the Russian. Young Firouzja and Duda have disappointed their followers whereas Radjabov's result has shown the value of experience in navigating such events. He won two of his last three games to enhance what looked for a long time like mediocre and unambitious play.

The road to Madrid

In Madrid, eight of the world's strongest grandmasters played each other twice to decide who will be Magnus Carlsen's next challenger for the world chess championship. Below we briefly discuss the eight Candidates and their route to qualify for the tournament.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland, 2750), although he is having a disappointing tournament, is one of the most exciting young players in the world right now. It is noteworthy that he has the lowest current ranking of all the Candidates. He was born in 1998 and qualified as winner of the 2021 FIDE World Cup. Duda is currently 16th on the world ranking list, all of 114 rating points behind Magnus Carlsen but he has actually beaten Magnus a few times, including defeating him in the semi-final of the Cup. The World Cup runner-up Karjakin also qualified but is now disqualified which created a vacancy (discussed below).

Richard Rapport (born in 1996) was fifth on the May FIDE rating list at 2776 but after finishing joint last in the Superbet Classic he is down to eighth place at 2764 in the live ratings. Rapport surprised the chess world earlier this month by announcing that he is transferring allegiance from his native Hungary to Romania. This transfer appears not to have taken effect yet; Romania would have to pay FIDE a hefty fee first.

Rapport has an unorthodox style of play which brought him success in the Grand Prix series from which he qualified for the Candidates, winning the Belgrade leg. He may get found out in Madrid which is a very different type of event where stability will be important.

Ding Liren (China, 2806) will be 30 years old later this year. He had been one of the favourites for the previous candidates (played in Russia, half in 2020 and half in 2021) until his chances were badly affected by the Covid pandemic. He made a bad start and never recovered, after which, unable to leave China, he hardly played any classical chess until recently.

So he should not have been in this tournament at all, but when the chance to be Karjakin's replacement arose, he quickly played three events in China (in order to meet an activity requirement in the regulations) and at the start of the event stood second in the world rankings.

Ding would probably be one of the two or three players Carlsen would least like to meet in a title match because Ding has shown himself capable of beating capable in a rapid and blitz playoff. (In the 2016 and 2018 matches Carlsen seemed happy to tie in the classical part of his matches against Karjakin and Caruana respectively but comfortably beat them in rapid play.)

Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia, born in 1992) qualified as loser of the 2021 world title match. Nepo's rating in May was 2773 but the points he lost recently brought him down to 2664, seventh in the rankings. (He leapfrogged Rapport but was overtaken by So and Aronian after their performances in Romania.) Of course his rating will now rise again.

Fabiano Caruana (USA, also born in 1992) lost the 2018 world championship on tiebreak. Currently he is fourth in the world rankings at 2782 (down from 2786 on the last published list) and was considered one of the real contenders if he can regain his best form. At one time Caruana was rated just over 2800 and was thought capable of getting there again but right now that seems unlikely. His route to qualification was the FIDE Grand Swiss in Riga in which he scored 7.5/11 to be runner-up.

Hikaru Nakamura (also from the USA, 2760) is the second oldest candidate, having been born in December 1987, and was ince number 2 in the world rankings. He is currently 11th after making a surprise comeback to classical play to win the Grand Prix series: first in one Berlin leg and runner-up to Wesley So in the other. A formidable competitor in rapid and blitz, especially online, Nakamura can also beat anyone in classical play on his day and used to win many open tournaments. Nakamura has played one previous Candidates tournament: in 2016 when he finished seventh. Nakamura has decided not to play on the American team in the Chennai olympiad which will be held next month.

Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan, 2753) was born on 12 March 1987. which makes him the oldest Candidate. He is currently 13th on the world ranking list. Radjabov has been a top grandmaster for many years but there have been some interruptions to his chess career. He qualified for the 2011 Candidates, when it was a match series, but was eliminated by Kramnik. In the 2013 London Candidates tournament, where he was the sponsors' nominee, he finished last. Making a comeback, Radjabov qualified for the 2020 Candidates by winning the 2019 World Cup, which was something of a surprise, but declined to travel to Russia when the Covid pandemic broke out. When that tournament (which was suspended half-way) was due to restart, Radjabov asked to be included but instead was promised the 2022 vacancy.

Alireza Firouzja (France) reached 2804 and second place on the FIDE rating list but has fallen back to 2793 and has been overtaken by Ding. He only celebrated his 19th birthday on the day the second round was played in Madrid, making him by far the youngest competitor.

Firouzja left his native Iran in 2019 with his father because of that country's policy regarding Israeli players: he was not allowed to meet them in competition which would have made his progress to the top in chess impossible.

Since 2021 Firouzja has been a French citizen and France's previous top player Vachier-Lagrave has promised to help him at the Candidates. According to chess24, neither of these grandmasters will play in the olympiad.

Firouzja won the 2021 Riga Grand Swiss outright with 8/11 to qualify for the Candidates. Since then he won the gold medal for top board in the European Team Championship and broke 2800 in the live ratings, at a younger age than Magnus Carlsen did. In advance of the tournament he was definitely considered one of the players with a strong chance to win Madrid and was perhaps the opponent Carlsen would, parodoxically, most like to meet because of the inter-generational challenge. Now it is clear he needs more experience and, like Duda, could try again in the next world championship cycle.


We still have (but are likely to drop before long) a separate page about the 2021 world championship match between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen which was played last November and December in Dubai.