With the Candidates tournament finally finished we now have the name of Carlsen’s challenger. Many interviews were given and a lot of information appeared since the end of the event, so here I will try to summarise and give also my opinion.
The players who were leading one year ago finished on top, but their paths were different. Nepomniachtchi played solid and safe chess, Vachier was stubborn and paid the price for it.
Nepomniachtchi showed maturity and good control of his nerves. As he put it, one must never go crazy in these events. In other words, making draws is good. Vachier perhaps would have wanted to do the same, but insisting on the Najdorf and the Grunfeld made him a sitting duck and after a full year of preparation his opponents took advantage of it.
The revelation of the tournament was Giri. It seemed to me that he added a certain “forward intent” to his solidity. This was most clearly shown in the game against Caruana, when he first absorbed White’s pressure and then when Caruana decided to continue the game at all costs (instead of accepting a draw, which for him was unacceptable) Giri took over and there was no stopping him.
I was disappointed by Caruana’s decision not to try to beat Nepomniachtchi with Black. He explained this by being too early to burn bridges, but in fact already in the next round he was forced to burn those bridges against Giri. Postponing the said burning didn’t help him even though he was White against Giri. My experience says that it’s always best to try to use the first chance – in Caruana’s case the game against Nepomniachtchi. It was also more practical to do so – he would have caught the leader and in fact would have had a better tie-break in case of a win. When the first chance is not taken and when a second one comes (this often is not the case – life often gives just one chance) then taking the second one is more difficult. This was proven in Caruana’s case, when Giri played one of his best games. But, and I have noted this on more than one occasion, the modern generation of chess players is not a risk-taking generation. Nothing seems to “whip the blood when great stakes can be gained by resolute and self-confident daring” (Lasker). I see this lack of “self-confident daring” the main psychological weakness of today’s best chess players.
The rest of the field were not in contention for first place. The happiest is probably Ding Liren who scored the most points with 4.5/7. Wang Hao announced his retirement from professional chess due to health issues caused by stress. Grischuk directly decided the winner by beating Nepomniachtchi’s followers, first Vachier and then Giri. Alekseenko beat Giri in a nice game in the last round to sweeten his maiden attempt at the world title.
What can we expect from the match in Dubai? I expect a much more dynamic match than Carlsen’s previous matches. A lot of people have said that Carlsen can be beaten only in dynamic and perhaps even irrational positions. Nepomniachtchi can play like that, but modern chess is difficult because a strong player can skillfully avoid positions he doesn’t like by careful selection of openings. Let’s say Carlsen chooses 1.Nf3 – how is then Nepomniachtchi going to get a Najdorf or a Grunfeld?
As always, a lot will depend on the openings. And they will depend on the strategy the players choose. If Nepomniachtchi’s strategy is perhaps more probable to foresee, Carlsen’s is not. Does he feel strong enough to battle in sharp positions, or will he try to keep it quiet and technical?
One way or another, the match will be interesting. Just like any other World Championship match.