Tournament report

Nepo Joins Fellow Russian Grischuk in the Candidates

With a draw on Sunday in the finale of the Jerusalem Grand Prix, Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia won the last tournament in the year-long series to pick two potential challengers for the World Championship next year.

The feature is written by Dylan Loeb McClain

Nepomniachtchi’s victory allowed him to finish as runner-up in the Grand Prix, just behind his compatriot, Alexander Grischuk.

Grischuk and Nepomniachtchi each collected prize money of 48,000 euros plus bonuses of 50,000 and 45,000 euros, respectively, for finishing 1 and 2. More importantly, they earned two spots in the Candidates tournament that will be held next March and April in Yekaterinburg, Russia. The winner of that tournament will go on to challenge Magnus Carlsen of Norway in a title match for the World Championship in November.

Nepomniachtchi playing black against Wei Yi in the final of the Jerusalem Grand Prix. Nepo won the game and the Grand Prix.

FIDE Grand Prix, which covered four tournaments, was organized by World Chess, an official broadcasting site and partner of FIDE, the governing body of chess. The total prize fund, including season ending bonuses, was 800,000 euros.

The Grand Prix has been an integral part of the FIDE World Championship cycle for more than a decade, but, because of its importance, the players sometimes played it “safe,” choosing to not take too many risks, which often led to fewer decisive results.

To counteract that problem, this year, the organizers made two changes: The format was switched to knockout matches, the same as in the World Cup that is held every two years, and which is also a qualifier for the Candidates, and players were awarded additional Grand Prix points for beating their opponents in the regulation portion of the matches, rather than in the playoffs that would arise if the matches were tied.

The format changes had the desired effect as there were a high number of decisive results throughout the series. That made the tournaments more exciting for fans and possibly more of a draw for sponsors.

Giri, number four in the ratings, did not do well in the Grand Prix, but managed to qualify for the Candidates via his ELO rating, the highest among those who qualify automatically. 
MVL and other players approach the playing venue in Jerusalem during the final leg of the Series. Organizers chose Israel, in part, for its mild weather during winter.
MVL was a favorite of the Series, but was overtaken by Nepo in the semi-final.
Nepo, with his signature haircut, is taking a view of the position in a game against Wesley So.

Companies that have supported World Chess events in the past, including PhosAgro, a giant Russian fertilizer company (sponsor since 2016), EG Capital Advisors (on and off since 2016), Kaspersky, the worldwide security firm (2017) and Prytek, a company that assists venture capital funds in finding investments (2018), financed the Grand Prix. But as the series picked up speed, they were joined by CROC, a Russian software developer and integrator, Algorand, a United States-based blockchain platform, Usetech, a full cycle IT solutions company, and Pella Sietas, a German shipbuilder.

The following is a recap of how the Grand Prix unfolded. Each tournament had 16 players, with most players competing in three Grand Prix.

Moscow (Leg 1)

The series opened in May in Moscow and the knockout format immediately produced the desired result: fighting chess.

There were some extraordinary games in Round 1, notably the win by Daniil Dubov of Russia in Game 2 of his matchup with Anish Giri of the Netherlands, a game that will likely go down in the annuls of chess.

It was far from the only remarkable game of the round. In a position in which he was arguably busted, Wei Yi of China managed to turn the tables against Dmitry Jakovenko of Russia, sending Jakovenko home. And Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan suffered a shocking loss in Game 1 of his match against Radoslaw Wojtaszek of Poland when he walked his king into a mating net from a better position and had to jettison a knight.

For Mamedyarov and two other perennials in the fight for the title, Sergey Karjakin of Russia, the challenger in the 2016 World Championship, and Levon Aronian of Armenia, all of whom were eliminated in the first round in Moscow, giving them no points in the final Grand Prix standings, their chances to qualify for the Candidates suffered almost irreparable harm.

In a harbinger of things to come, Grischuk and Nepomniachtchi got started on the right foot by working their way to the final of the first tournament. There, Nepomniachtchi prevailed in a rapid tie-breaker after both classical games ended in draws.


Design of the series was done to celebrate the bauhaus chess set and local character of the hosting cities.

Alex (Sasha) Grischuk was giving the games a lot of effort. He became famous for his post-game interviews (and eventually winning the Tournament)
Grischuk and So are explaning their game in a post-game interview
Nakamura and Dubov. The latter was the wild card of World Chess, the organizer of the Series and the owner of this website.
Spectators in Moscow. The event took place in the famed Chess House, a historic venue operated by the Russian Chess Federation. 

Riga (Leg 2)

The Grand Prix shifted about 1,000 kilometers to the West in July for the second leg, landing in Riga, the capital of Latvia, and the birthplace of Mikhail Tal, the eighth World Champion.

The tournament started with an easy win for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France over David Navara of the Czech Republic, who played dubiously and resigned in only 19 moves.

Though they did not produce decisive results, there were three remarkable games that day. One between Peter Svidler and Jan Krzysztof Duda of Poland featured a rook sacrifice by Duda out of the opening. Two Russians, Nikita Vitiugov and Grischuk, also pulled out the stops and played a razor sharp Two Knights Defense to a draw. And Mamedyarov forced a perpetual in a sharp position against Dubov.

The round ended with two matches going to the Armageddon game. In one, Karjakin checkmated Giri with White, while in the other, Yu Yangyi of China drew Aronian with the Black pieces to advance.

The biggest surprise of Round 2 was the decision of Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria to offer a draw to Vachier-Lagrave in Game 2 of their match after only 12 moves when he needed to win, having lost in Game 1.

That helped Vachier-Lagrave ultimately advance to the finals, where he faced Mamedyarov. With a bit of preparation, Mamedyarov thrashed Vachier-Lagrave in Game 1 in 28 moves, but Vachier-Lagrave evened the score in Game 2, forcing a playoff. After all the rapid and blitz games were drawn, Mamedyarov prevailed in the Armageddon game, winning the tournament and putting him back in the mix to earn one of the two spots in the Candidates up for grabs in the Grand Prix.


Riga Grand Prix was held in the most famous new building of the Latvian capital, the National Library. The Children’s Grand Prix, organized by the Latvian Chess Federation, FIDE, and the Russian Chess Federation, was held at the same time, ensuring spectators and chess fans.

Sergey Karjakin hoped to qualify for the Candidates Tournament via the Series. The most famous Russian player missed his chance.

Alexander Grischuk was again giving his famous post-game interviews. 

Hamburg

The westward march of the series continued in November in Hamburg, Germany, which, among other things, is the home of Chessbase, one of the top chess software publishers and web sites.

As in the two previous legs, Day 1, Round 1 produced several decisive results. Vachier-Lagrave once again won his first game, this time over Wei Yi of China. The other winners were Duda over Nepomniachtchi, Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria against Hikaru Nakamura of the United States, and Peter Svidler of Russia over Pentala Harakrishna of India. Those losses proved the margin of victory in the matches as all games on Day 2 were drawn.

Grischuk was also among the Round 1 winners, barely overcoming Wojtaszek. After beating Navara in the quarters, he faced Vachier-Lagrave in the semis. The winner would markedly improve his chances in the series. It was Grischuk, who ground down Vachier-Lagrave in Game 2.

In the final, Grischuk took on Duda, who had beaten Yu in the quarters and Dubov in the semis. After two hard-fought draws, the players traded wins in the rapid games before Grischuk wrapped things up by winning the second set of playoff games. With his victory in the third Grand Prix, Grischuk virtually assured himself a spot in the Candidates.

Jerusalem

Aronian and Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan withdrew from the tournament before it began for medical reasons and were replaced by Dmitry Andreikin of Russia and Wang Hao of China. (For Radjabov, the Grand Prix had ceased to be all-important as he had already qualified for the Candidates by winning the World Cup. Though Wang was not part of most of the Grand Prix, he also had also qualified for the Candidates by winning the FIDE Grand Swiss Tournament in October.) The withdrawals made no difference to the overall standings in the Grand Prix.

At the outset, though there were 12 players still mathematically alive for the final place, only four, Vachier-Lagrave, Nepomniachtchi, Mamedyarov, and Wesley So of the United States, still had realistic chances.

Round 1 proved to be Mamedyarov’s undoing as he fell to Jakovenko in the rapid playoffs. Meanwhile, the others advanced, with Nepomniachtchi and So set to square off in the quarterfinals.

Three of the four quarters matches went to tie-breakers. Vachier-Lagrave kept his chances alive by beating Andreikin after winning a wild rapid game in which the evaluation of the position see-sawed back and forth. Nepomniachtchi finally knocked So out of the running for the Candidates by winning a long, tense and well-played game by both players.

That set up a meeting between Vachier-Lagrave and Nepomniactchi in one semifinal, while Navara faced Wei in the other.

In Game 1 of their semi, Nepomniachtchi sprung an innovation against Vachier-Lagrave in the opening. Vachier-Lagrave failed to find the best moves and lapsed into a passive position. He launched a desperate counterattack by sacrificing a piece, but Nepomniachtchi found the best continuation and eventually closed out Vachier-Lagrave with a nice mating attack. In Game 2, Vachier-Lagrave, needing a win, tried an aggressive opening, but Nepomniachtchi found the right counters and forced a draw, advancing to the final.

Vachier-Lagrave’s chance to make it to the Candidates was now no longer in his hands – he needed Wei, Nepomniachtchi’s opponent in the final, to win.

But Nepomniacthchi smoothly outplayed Wei in Game 1 and won. In Game 2, Wei, who had Black and needed to win, played a speculative modern opening in hopes of unsettling Nepomniachtchi. Nepomniachtchi played carefully and calmly and soon gaining the upper hand. Wei launched a speculative sacrificial attack and Nepomniachtchi took the material and allowed a draw by perpetual check, as it was enough to guarantee him victory and a place in the Candidates.

Nepomniachtchi and Grischuk will now have a few months to prepare for what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They have the comfort of knowing that they will be competing on home turf.

Final standings

PlayerRankMoscowRigaHamburgJerusalemTotal
Grischuk1731020
Nepomniachtchi2901019
MVL385316
Mamedyarov4010010
Duda50178
Wei Yi62057
So71326
Dubov8 – 102035
Navara8 – 100145
Vojtaszek8- 105005
Svidler112024
Nakamura12 – 133003
Topalov12 – 131203
Yu Yangyi14 – 151102
Karjakin14 – 150112
Jakovenko16 – 170011
Andreikin16 – 1711
Aronian18 – 24000
Giri18 – 240000
Harikrishna18 – 240000
Rajabov18 – 24000
Vitiugov18 – 240000
Gelfand18 – 2400
Van Hao18 – 2400