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Ian Nepomniachtchi, “We have known each other with Magnus Carlsen for almost 20 years” (VIDEO)

Ian Nepomniachtchi gave an extensive interview to Eteri Kublashvili from the Russian Chess Federation. Among the many topics Nepomniachtchi talked about the course of the Candidates, his team of seconds, and shares many details about the games and his opponents.

The upcoming Carlsen – Nepomniachtchi 2021 match is also discussed. Nepo says, “I think [with Magnus] we first played in the European U12 Championship in Spain in 2002, and back then, it was just another game for me […] Now, it’s a rivalry, an undeclared war (laughs), so the situation has changed a bit”

Full interview by Eteri Kublashvili for

Here are some of the key questions and answers by Nepo. The full interview you can see at the video above.

Ian, you won one of the most important events in every chess player’s career and qualified for the World Championship Match. It’s a great achievement, congratulations! So, how do you feel now?

Thank you. I feel really exhausted because it was an incredible tournament in many, many senses of the word. First of all, I guess it took 400 days from start to finish, it is kind of outstanding. Well, when you read about chess history, players were travelling by sea, from America to Europe and so on… In our times, you know, it’s not romantic at all because of the global pandemic thing.

I think the most difficult part was not playing chess, but these 13 months between the first and second legs, during which one somehow needed to keep one’s focus, needed to prepare constantly thinking about other guys: what were they doing, how did they prepare, what were they going to play, because basically, it’s one year between the tournaments and only seven games to prepare for. So, you should be ready that you’re going to face completely different players in a completely different situation.

I believe, for instance, Ding played really poorly in the first leg, scoring –2, and now, in the second leg, he scored +2. He also beat me on the last day. It’s just one of the examples.

More: Carlsen – Nepo 2021 – the reactions

Yes, it was a very long and nervous period of expectation and negotiations, but still, in one of his interviews, Anatoly Karpov said that this one-year break would do you good because probably you would save more energy for the second part. Do you agree with this?

Well, especially now that I know the result – yes. Indeed, I’m not the person who should whine about this long break, since in the end, I won the whole thing. However, I’d say that this also would help other guys, because, you know, the Candidates Tournament is a very difficult competition, the stakes are very high, and there’s only one place, so it doesn’t matter if you finish on +1, or +2, or earn some rating: you should score the maximum amount of points, you should take the first place. Basically, you can earn some rating, you can play some good games, but all this will never make you happy unless you win the Candidates.

If you remember the last year, everyone was afraid of the COVID-19. As for me, on my last training session before the tournament, I got a slight cold, but somehow it was going worse and worse and worse, and by the end of the tournament, I was feeling really bad. As far as I remember, in the last game of the first leg against Maxime, I actually skipped most of my preparation because I was feeling so bad that I just wanted to save as much energy as I could, but it resulted in an opposite effect. I just mixed up moves in the line that happened and quickly got a worse, almost lost position. After that game, the situation wasn’t that clear anymore. I was on a +3 score, in a commanding position, but then I ended up sharing first place on +2 with Vachier-Lagrave, and it was very bad news for me.

Anyway, I was determined to show that this was just a random slump, and I was preparing hard for my next game against Anish… I was very shocked and disappointed when I learned that the tournament was stopped to be resumed “sometime in the future”. Then some time passed, and I understood that I was very far from my best conditions, so I guess this [stopping and resumption] made me a really big favourite.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, “Covid made Candidates extra tough”

Having won the event in advance, you said that you had worked with Vladimir Potkin, Nikita Vitiugov, Ildar Khairullin, and you also mentioned Peter Leko. That was quite a surprise for the chess fans. What did you get from this cooperation and what did you expect from it?

I think I got even more than I had expected, since the result is so great. But somehow, I always felt that one of my big drawbacks was the general lack of chess culture.

Let’s start with Ildar. He was born in 1990, the same generation as me, Magnus, Karjakin, MVL, Andreikin and so on, and I guess he’s one of the most talented players of our age, although he didn’t make a brilliant career because, perhaps, of stamina problems or health issues. However, he has a really great understanding of chess; he’s outstanding in analysing positions.

Nikita is mostly my sparring partner. Historically, I have a very poor score against Nikita and Ildar. I’ve never beaten Ildar in a classical game. We haven’t played much after our childhood, but if you want to talk about “Kryptonite”, he’s this for me, sort of. And Nikita is the sort of the player who used to beat me quite often, so it was very instructive to play against him.

And Peter is just a chess legend. At some point, he was very, very close to beating Kramnik in their match in Brissago. I think that the last game of that match was heart-breaking because Kramnik managed to strike back and make the score equal. Leko understands chess really, really deeply, you can take an amazing amount of knowledge from him, and this is a chance you should be a big fool not to use.

There were many talks about the tiebreak criteria here. Do you think they are just and right? Don’t you feel that there should be a play-off match between those who tie for the first place?

Well, this is surely up for discussion, so many thanks to Kirill, who won in the last round, so that in this particular edition of the FIDE Candidates I got the clear first place despite the loss in the last round. However, in general, it seems like the fairest thing to me. I’d played a lot of round-robin tournaments, and there were tie-breaks to determine first place. For example, three or four people can share first place in an open tournament. Somewhere, like in Gibraltar, you play tie-breaks. Somewhere, like in the Grand Swiss, you just calculate rating performance, or Buchholz, or direct encounter.

So, technically… I guess FIDE also considered – I’m not sure if so, but I think it was possible to finish the tournament after only one half. Everyone played against everyone, and so Maxime would have qualified because he won the direct encounter against me. Once we start, once we sign the contract, we all, technically, mentally maybe not, but technically we all agree with what’s going on, with the rules. The situation is equal for everyone.

Speaking of Anish and me – you know, I think it was Kasparov who said that because of a win one year ago, it was now unacceptable for Anish to share the first place with me since he would lose on tie-break. But I think he also said after that: “Let’s consider the opposite situation where if Ian shares the first place with MVL, then Maxime wins because of the tie-break”. So this applies equally to everyone. I see nothing wrong with an extra match, for example, in case of finishing on equal points, or maybe, I don’t know, we can discuss some other options, but this system… I think it has been consistent for the previous seven or eight years.

London 2013 was quite interesting because Kramnik had Black against Ivanchuk in the last round. He played the Pirc Defence because he wanted to win and he was sure that Carlsen would never lose with White against Peter Svidler. And they both ended up losing: Carlsen to Svidler and Kramnik to Chucky. And then, because of the tie-breaker, I think it was Berger, Carlsen qualified for the Match and then became the World Champion. So, you know, we should have started these talks at that time. I think back then, there were also lots of discussions, so I guess this is more a question to the FIDE authorities. Once again, when we all start, we’re all in an equal situation, and it’s the game of chess that decides who qualifies and who waits for the next chance.

And now you have qualified for the Match against Magnus Carlsen, so please tell us about your relationship with him, both over and off the board.

I think we first played in the European U12 Championship in Spain in 2002, and back then, it was just another game for me – you know, some guy from Norway, which was not such a chess country. I didn’t think much about the game – OK, he played well, but then he just collapsed, and I won.

Then I suddenly played against him again in the World Youth Championship the same year, and I think we ended up sharing first place, and I won the tournament due to tie-breaks. We also clashed a couple of times in the youth championships, but soon after, he stopped playing in them. It was probably his best decision (laughs) to stop playing in the youth championships. You know, normally when a young player shows good results in his/her age group, experienced coaches always say that one should stop playing opponents of one’s age and start playing against adults, against strong opposition. Yes, one may start losing, but anyway, it’s much more useful for one’s chess career, for improving one’s play.

So, I guess we’ve known each other for almost twenty years. At some point, I think in 2010 or 2012, we used to work a little together; there were some training sessions. Once, I think, I was even second to Magnus in some London tournament in 2012 (I might be mistaken). He has a nice personality, he’s a very nice dude. I can’t say we’re close friends, but I think we have quite a nice relationship. Still, as you know, you can have no friends over the board, and I think we were never friendly to each other when we were playing chess, and especially now, when you think about the Match, you probably should…

Forget your past?

It’s not even about forgetting the past or thinking of the future. Now, it’s a rivalry, an undeclared war (laughs), so the situation has changed a bit.

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