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Niepómniashi, a challenger as strong as he is unstable


The Russian, who plays under the FIDE flag, wants a rematch with Carlsen, who swept him seven months ago in Dubai

No one has won the Candidates Tournament as clearly as Ian Niepómniashi this Sunday (one round before the final) at the Palacio de Santoña (Madrid).

The 31-year-old Russian, authorized to play with the flag of the International Federation (FIDE) because he demonstrated against the aggression against Ukraine, has also been lethal in the auction of advantageous positions.

But several of his rivals have given him a lot of facilities, which leaves the main question in the air: is he still sinking after a defeat, as he did against the champion, Magnus Carlsen, at the World Cup in Dubai last December?

"I like to feel the tension of the great elite tournaments up close, which I had already visited a couple of times," the Minister of Culture, Miquel Iceta, told EL PAÍS after taking the honorary kick-off of the last round.

And he added, without being asked about it, that chess should be further promoted as an educational tool [Spain is among the leading countries in the world] “because there are serious and sufficient arguments for it”.

Returning to the tension, all the players except two disputed the closing fight for the honor or for a few thousand euros difference in prizes.

The two exceptions were the American Hikaru Nakamura and the Chinese Liren Ding, who were at stake for 2nd place that could be of extraordinary importance if Carlsen relinquishes the title, as he threatened in Dubai.

In that case -perhaps unlikely because the Norwegian met on Sunday in Madrid for 40 minutes with the president of FIDE, the Russian Arkady Dvorkovich to negotiate the matter-, Niepómniashi and the 2nd (Ding, winner of that final game) would dispute the duel for the title, scheduled for April 2023 in a venue yet to be designated.

Who was at stake the least -only a few points on the world list, where he has risen to third place, after Carlsen and Ding- was Niepómniashi, current runner-up in the world and challenger for the 2nd time in a row after prevailing overwhelmingly in terms of numbers: undefeated , with 9.5 points out of a possible 14 after drawing the last two rounds with the Hungarian Richard Rapport and the Polish Jan Duda.

No one had achieved it with such authority since, in 2013, the Candidates began to be played by league in a double round of eight.

As he himself admitted on Sunday, the Herculean work Niepomniashi did in 2021 to prepare against Carlsen has served him well seven months later when it comes to openings (ways of starting the game).

However, as paradoxical as it may be, that well-deserved victory leaves a very important question in the air: would Niepómniashi have collapsed psychologically if he lost a game, as has happened so many times - not only in Dubai against Carlsen - since he was youth?

The main reason that this did not happen is not that the Russian has played very well in general, but that some of his opponents have given him surprising gifts.

Above all, the American Fabiano Caruana, who, for fear of risk, chose to draw his two games with the winner when he had advantageous positions.

Especially jarring was what happened on the 2nd day, in a position where the great champions -Magnus Carlsen, Gari Kasparov or Anatoli Kárpov, for example- would never have been satisfied with the distribution of the point.

Also the great Alireza Firouzja, 19 years old, totally blurred (although he beat Caruana in the last one after six and a half hours) because his mentors did not include the psychological aspect in the preparation for his first Candidates.

The Franco-Iranian committed suicide in both games with the winner, launching into mindless attacks, as if he were playing with amateurs.

And in this section we must also highlight the questionable decision of Nakamura -who, in addition, wasted a winning position against the leader in the first round- in the penultimate round: draw a draw without a fight with Niepómniashi when he could still win the tournament.

Although perhaps not so debatable if the ultra-pragmatism of the millionaire Nakamura is taken into account,

To the circumstances that have facilitated Niepómniashi's feat, another must be added: the permanent misfortune suffered by Ding - the most fearsome threat to Carlsen in 2019, just before the pandemic - due to the extreme policy of the Chinese Government against covid: quarantines , confinements, restrictions or travel bans that Ding has suffered have significantly hampered the quality and consistency of his game, even though he is again 2nd in the world, and in the tournament.

If it had been up to him -he does not say so in public because he is a champion of shyness and discretion-, he would not have flown to Madrid unaccompanied and only a couple of days before the first round, when the difference with Shanghai is six hours.

On the other hand, Niepomniashi is the winner that no one wanted except his fans and perhaps the Russian Chess Federation, even though he signed the manifesto against the neighboring country's invasion.

For FIDE, his victory is a hot potato because it makes it very difficult to get good sponsors for the final, even if Carlsen does not give up the title.

There is only one very clear point, valid for all cases, whether Niepómniashi's rival is Carlsen or if he must face the perhaps emerging Ding.

The Russian should include intense work with psychologists specialized in top competition.

If he doesn't, it's highly unlikely he won't be hammered again by Carlsen or outmatched by Ding.

Because talent, however immense, and technical knowledge, encyclopedic in his case, are not enough to be world champion.

Carlsen said on Sunday: "The commentators have criminally underestimated Niepomniashi" in a very short conversation with a FIDE collaborator.

But should we value him more as long as he doesn't show that he knows how to digest a defeat?

Final classification:

1st Niepómniashi 9.5;

2nd Ding 8;

3rd-4th Nakamura and Radyabov 7.5;

5th Caruana 6.5;

6th Firouzja 6;

7th-8th Rapport and Doubt 5.5.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2022-07-04

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