It is good that my Candidates prediction is the post preceding this one. This makes it easier to see that my predictions were mostly wrong! Indeed, of the first four finishers in Madrid, I placed three of them as the most unlikely to win.
I had the priviledge to share the same stage with the players. Working as a Fair Play Officer I spent my time in the same areas where the players were – the playing hall and the refreshment area. This allowed me a unique opportunity to observe them during the whole duration of the games.
Their behaviour while in the refreshment area, when hidden from the public eye, were particularly telling and while I cannot disclose some of them, in order to protect their privacy, they did contribute to the general impressions I formed.
This is what I think of the players and their performance in Madrid.
Nepomniachtchi – the winner had an event where everything went his way. From the starting victory over one of the favourites Ding Liren, to the pointed preparation against Duda, to the “gift” by Rapport, to the lucky, but deserved escape against Caruana (twice!) and the ideal set of circumstances against Firouzja.
He was in good practical form, playing fast and with confidence, his massive World Championship preparation bringing enormous dividends in every game. I think the secret of his success, which made him only the second player in history after Smyslov to win two Candidates in a row, was the ideal combination of good form and detachment.
The last word probably needs a bit of explanation. Nepomniachtchi repeatedly stated in press conferences, and he also told me several times before and after the games, that he just wanted the event to finish and to go home. To paraphrase Nakamura, he “literally didn’t care,” but at the same time he was fully focused and played great chess. It has long been observed that the state of flow, when everything goes your way, is best achieved like this, with full focus and detachment from results. Nepomniachtchi did it perfectly and nobody could come close to matching that combination. The final result speaks for itself.
Speculation aside whether Carlsen will play him in a match or no, I think this victory is a true sign of maturity for Nepomniachtchi and in the next match, against whomever he plays, he will be a much better player than in Dubai.
Ding Liren – the pre-tournament favourite for many, myself included, had a very uneven event. I still cannot grasp how could the Chinese Federation, so capable and efficient to organise the necessary games for Ding to qualify, couldn’t organise his trip to Madrid in time so that he arrives at least a week earlier and doesn’t suffer from jet lag. Also, how is it possible not to send a second with him, leaving him all alone in the most important tournament of his career.
These major organisational blunders cost Ding Liren a better shot at first place. The jet leg led to a loss to Nepomniachtchi in round one and this was followed by missed wins in rounds three and five against Rapport and Radjabov, respectively. When he finally hit top form, he won three games in a row, but then this was followed by an abysmal loss with White to Radjabov in mere 26 moves.
What impressed me most from his games was his ability to squeeze water from stone. Three games stand out: against Duda in round nine, when I expected a quick draw in a symmetrical and simplified position only to see the game turn very exciting thanks to Ding’s persistence and Duda’s mistakes; against Firouzja in the penultimate round, when faced with a theoretical drawing line (the same one Nepomniachtchi used against him in round eight) he sacrificed a pawn in the endgame only to keep the game going. He succeeded to put so much pressure on Firouzja that the prodigy was forced to find the only way to save the draw by sacrificing a piece; against Nakamura in the last round – in a must win situation Ding entered an equal endgame and managed to pose problems and eventually outplay the American and claim second place.
While eventually the second place can be regarded as a success (especially if that gives him the match in case of Carlsen’s withdrawal) in view of Nepomniachtchi’s dominance, I still think that Ding Liren didn’t manage to play at the maximum of his ability in Madrid.
Radjabov – he turned out to be my favourite player of the event! By far the friendliest of them all, with light banter both before and after the games, he always seemed to be in a good mood. What impressed me was something that I never thought was possible – that he could come back after starting and staying on -2 for a long time. But his London 2013 experience was crucial – there he went from 50% in round two to finish on -6 at the end, so this gave him perspective and, most importantly, patience. He kept grinding, taking it game by game and kept waiting for his chances.
They came, first thanks to his good preparation against Nakamura in round nine and Ding Liren in round 12 and a good defensive effort against Rapport’s over-optimistic sacrifice in the last round.
When talking to Radjabov at the closing ceremony, I asked him about his transition, from a dynamic player to a solid one, particularly when it came to the openings: the KID and Sveshnikov were replaced by QGD and Berlin. He said that he started losing games in the former ones, claiming that players like Anand, Kramnik, Leko, were very good at putting him under pressure there, so he was forced to evolve. He also predicted that Firouzja will also evolve in this direction, opining that it’s impossible to play and stay on the highest level playing constantly that type of dynamic chess that he used to play.
Radjabov benefited from his relaxed attitude, not putting too much pressure on himself to get a result. He knew that the tournament was tough and tiring so he took the games as they came. I think his result was the most surprising one, at least for me it was, and I am glad I was so wrong about Radjabov. I have criticised him in the past for boring play, but observing him in action for weeks on I realised the reason for this “boring” play – it is all about keeping the probability of loss to the minimum and waiting for one’s chances. When in good shape, like Radjabov in the second half of the event, this strategy can bring great results!
Nakamura – I found his games the easiest to follow. Possibly because his body language and facial expressions when seeing his opponent’s move while looking at the screen in the refreshment area were so telling!
There are several things I noticed in Nakamura’s games.
First, if he managed to get his opening preparation in, he would play with double energy and more likely than not would win the game – examples of this are all his wins, where he managed to surprise his opponents in the opening. He also had other opening surprises, like against Nepomniachtchi in round five when he misplayed a very favourable middlegame position and against Ding in the last round – even though he lost that game his opening was a great success and he should have drawn that without too much trouble.
It has to be said that the above is true for more or less everybody in the top nowadays – the importance of a good opening. If they don’t get anything out of it, not necessarily an advantage or a new move, but even a pleasant position that they have analysed, it’s almost impossible for them to outplay each other under normal conditions. As an example we can observe the game Nakamura-Rapport from round 11 when Nakamura didn’t expect the Sveshnikov, chose a harmless line and tried in vain to get more than a draw for 96 moves.
The above games were all played by Nakamura with White. When he was playing with Black he stuck to his usual repertoire (except in the last round game with Ding when he chose the Semi-Tarrasch instead of his usual QGD, but even there he transposed to a QGA, an opening he’s been playing lately as well), but he was under pressure in all of his games.
Here comes the second point I noticed – he was extremely resilient when in trouble. A characteristic example is his game with Firouzja, when he fould a fortress when it seemed that he was dead lost. He used dynamic defence, with his games against Caruana (round one), Ding (round six, when he was White) and Duda (round seven) being typical.
Third thing I noticed was his abitlity to play with utmost precision when playing with an advantage or converting it. I know the others are also quite capable of it, but in his games I noticed this more clearly. For example, in his game against Duda in the penultimate round, when his opponent left him off the hook, Nakamura started to play very aggressive and powerful moves and his conversion of the advantage in the endgame was exemplary.
Outside the board Nakamura was less exemplary, but his dedication to produce daily video analysis of his games was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for the millions of viewers who got instant view into his understanding after the games finished, but a curse for himself, because these recaps took even more energy and eventually this took its toll: in the last round, when he had to avoid a loss to take second place, in spite of obtaining what should have been easily holdable endgame, he failed to show his usual level and the more professional player won. Caissa is a jealous goddess and rewards the ones dedicated to the game, not the ones dedicated to activities built around the game.
Caruana – the other American had a heaven and hell in Madrid. What started like a dream tournament with three wins achieved in powerful style, turned into a hellish nightmare.
In the first half of the event Caruana was magnificent. Starting from his great opening round win over Nakamura he displayed excellent preparation (the game with Duda the only exception) and his wins over Firouzja and especially Radjabov were impressive.
During that game with Radjabov I witnessed what it seems to me the turning point of the whole event.
Caruana was playing for a win against Radjabov and the game Rapport-Nepomniachtchi was following a well-known theoretical draw. Caruana was watching that game and logically expected it to end in a draw so with a win he would catch Nepomniachtchi.
And then Rapport struck. Coming down a full hour down on the clock he decided to avoid a draw and enter an objectively worse (the engine says lost!) position. When Caruana saw that, he couldn’t contain his disappointment. He started shaking his head, as if he couldn’t believe how his main opponent is being given free gifts while he has to work so hard for his points. While he did manage to win the game against Radjabov after a gigantic effort, and stay within half a point behind Nepomniachtchi, it appeared that his energy was spent.
The next game was another titanic battle where Caruana defended to the best of his ability against Nakamura, but eventually lost. Then he had a chance to catch Nepomniachtchi with a win in the direct duel. He employed a very interesting early novelty in the Petroff, obtained a winning advantage, but the character of the position was such that there was so much calculation involved that in spite of his excellent abilities in that department Caruana was not able to overcome all the complexity and only drew that game. Then, exhausted, he tried to play for a win against Duda with Black, but did so very poorly and basically forced Duda to beat him. In the next round he obtained a promising middlegame position after Ding Liren missed a small trick and was playing safely for a win, but he could no longer keep his level constant during long games – he misplayed it badly and lost again. The last round loss against Firouzja was similar – he had a safe advantage but let it all turn around on its head and was lost. Then he defended well to achieve a drawn position only to blunder and lose.
When I spoke to his coach Chuchelov at the closing ceremony I shared my view that it must have felt as if Fate was leading his main rival to victory while blocking Caruana’s way at the same time. He basically agreed, confirming my impression that lack of energy in the second half of the event was a major factor.
It was a very high tempo that Caruana imposed on himself, but that is how he plays chess. This time, faced with Nepomniachtchi’s “easiness” it was impossible to compete, but the quality of chess he displayed in the first half of the event was impressive. I only have one question, which I forgot to ask Chuchelov: why did he gave up on the Petroff? It seems like the winner’s opening in the last three Candidates!
Firouzja – the prodigy showed that he was clearly not ready to win this type of event. Not even that, but he was lingering in last place for most of it.
The tournament showed several huge problems in Firouzja’s play. First of all were his problems in preparation. He had several opening fiascos, starting from his almost forcing loss to Nepomniachtchi in the Najdorf in round four all the way to his round 11 loss to Nepomniachtchi when he couldn’t remember that he had to insert a4 before playing g4. He misplayed the opening against Nakamura in round 10 and also against Duda in round 12.
The second big problem was endgame play. His level was far from a desired one for an event of this caliber – he went from drawn to losing against Rapport in round two, he missed Nakamura’s defence in round three and even in the last round he misplayed a technically winning endgame to a drawn one, only to win thanks to a blunder by Caruana.
The third problem was psychological. He didn’t seem prepared for the level of resistance and couldn’t maintain his level. The total breakdown was his reaction to his loss to Nakamura in round 10. He spent the whole night playing bullet games on the internet until 6am. Needless to say that he couldn’t remember his preparation and lost brutally to Nepomniachtchi the next day.
There were just too many problems in Firouzja’s play that prevented him to show his true talent. I hope he learns from the experience and comes back much stronger the next time.
Duda – to my mind, he was the least impressive participant. I was surprised how quickly he collapsed psychologically, after his first loss, in round six against Nepomniachtchi. After that game he was no longer the same, his body language gave away a disappointed and disillusioned player who didn’t have the strength to come back. As if he gave up on the tournament after that loss.
His next two losses were apathetic, Rapport mated him from a harmless position, Ding beat him in an endgame that should have been a relatively problem-free draw. The game Duda won, against Caruana, was more because Caruana was “playing for a win” by playing very badly rather than Duda winning. Even in that game he missed some moves and couldn’t believe his luck when he discovered he was winning after the time control – he couldn’t contain his smile and that was the happiest I saw him throughout the whole event!
Duda is a great player, but he turned out to be rather “soft”. He couldn’t pull himself together when things started to go wrong and that was the main reason why he failed at this event.
Rapport – was another favourite player of mine. I’ve known him since the tournament in Reykjavik in 2014 and he has remained very friendly and nice ever since. He complained that he was playing worse every day (like he told me after the game with Nakamura in round 11) but I don’t think he was in bad shape in Madrid.
I think the main reason for his bad result was the incompatibility of his fighting spirit and his preparation. He had the worst opening preparation from the whole field and his opening improvisations were rarely successful. This meant that he didn’t get very promising positions from the openings and as I stated above, without at least something to play for it’s impossible to outplay an opponent on this level from an equal position if he plays decently.
This incompatibility was possibly decisive for the eventual winner – his decision not to take the draw and play on against Nepomniachtchi in round seven led to his first loss and it gave Nepomniachtchi a valuable point.
What I liked a lot were two games where he employed a slow-burning attack. The first one was his win against Duda, when a harmless position transformed into a winning attack very quickly (not without Duda’s help, though) and the second one was his last-round game with Radjabov. After maneuvering for some time in an Anti-Berlin he started to build up a very promising attack on the kingside. Alas, by the end of the tournament his patience had also gone thin, so instead of continuing to build up he lashed out with an incorrect sacrifice that was refuted. In any case, that first phase where he was building up the attack was very nicely played.
Rapport was widely recognised for his fighting spirit and special approach to openings, but he will definitely have to raise the quality of his opening preparation. If he does that, his special approach will become an advantage rather than a disadvantage as it is now. Then he will become a mighty force to be reckoned with.