The Russian emerged as the world champion’s challenger from a Candidates Tournament unlike any other. It marks the first time in chess history that a semi-pro Dota player gets to fight for the crown.
Who won the Candidates Tournament 2021?
Every two years, some of the greatest chess players in the world congregate to find the worthiest among themselves to challenge the world champion in a marathon match. Just like so many other aspects of life, the FIDE Candidates Tournament was also snapped in half by the pandemic. The first part of the tournament was held in Yekaterinburg before it had to be suspended on March 25, and the rest was played out in the same location over a year later.
The winner, Ian Nepomniachtchi, who qualified by virtue of his runner-up finish in the prestigious FIDE Grand Prix 2019 event, was long seen as a prodigy with a high skill ceiling but often marred by inconsistency. This time, he secured the title with a very strong performance, going out to a huge lead with three wins in six rounds before stumbling somewhat just as the tournament was postponed by the authorities.
One year later, he returned as the pacesetter despite a spirited showing by Anish Giri and ended up winning the event with one round to spare and a +3 record in this incredibly strong field. Nepomniachtchi may well be the strongest challenger Magnus Carlsen had to face to date, and he actually has a positive win rate against the current champion. Their chess rivalry goes back a long way: the Russian pipped Carlsen to the post in 2002’s U12 World Youth Chess Championship on tiebreakers.
Nepomniachtchi follows in the wake of Fabiano Caruana, Sergey Karjakin and Viswanathan Anand as the Norwegian’s fourth challenger.
Carlsen took the title in 2013 from Anand and defeated him in a rematch in 2014. This time, the world championship match will feature fourteen games with classical time controls instead of the previous twelve.
Did Nepomniachtchi play Dota professionally?
Beyond his excellent skills at the chessboard, Ian Nepomniachtchi is also notable for being the biggest nerd ever to challenge for the world championship title. The Russian has played Dota 2 in a semi-professional capacity around the time of its release and was heavily involved in the original Dota scene as well. Based on his recollection, though no specific details could be found ten years down the line, his team won the CIS Dota Championship in 2011 and earned $2000 for the effort. When fellow top player Alexander Grischuk tried to watch The International’s grand finals, he called Nepomniachtchi for a primer on the game.
He also posted deeply impressive results on Hearthstone’s ladder in the past, peaking #7 on the European ladders of Blizzard’s collectible card game. He spent a lot of time with the game between 2014 and 2016 before losing interest around the release of the Whispers of the Old Gods expansion. However, he seems to have been a part in getting Peter Svidler, another super-GM, onto the card-slinging-Twitch-streaming joyride.
Nepomniachtchi also has his own Twitch stream but understandably isn’t a regular contributor on the platform. Based on TwitchTracker stats, he airs four or five streams a month for his audience, and though he started out with Hearthstone and Dota content, he eventually joined the chess revolution and has now clocked in over 450 hours live. You can’t fault him for staying offline for over a month at this point: he had a Candidates Tournament to win.
Whether he will pull a PogChamp or a NotLikeThis in November against Carlsen remains to be seen.