The super-grandmaster Ian Nepomniatchi sat down with Chess.com ahead of his appearance in the 2019 FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship, where he will go head-to-head with Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So and the world champion Magnus Carlsen.
Nepomniachtchi discussed his professional ambition, fair play and how chess can improve.
Ian Nepomniachtchi is a man caught between two minds.
On the one hand, Nepomniachtchi highlights his upbringing in a family of teachers as a reason his focus for chess sometimes wavers. On the other, he is dead serious about winning a world championship as soon as next year. One thing is certain: Nepomniachtchi isn't lacking for confidence.
This interview has been translated and edited for clarity and length.
Chess.com: Do you love chess or is it just something you're talented at?
Ian Nepomniachtchi: Of course I love chess. However, sometimes I'm envious of amateurs who can play and enjoy chess and not have to care about their results.
What experiences from your childhood have made you the person you are today?
I grew up in a family of teachers, thus since early childhood I've had a wide range of interests. It's possible that's the reason I have many various interests even now and for better or worse, why I'm not always concentrated exclusively on chess.
What makes you different from other elite players?
I think that everyone is different and peculiar. Strong players are not an exception, they all are unique and unlike each other
wWhat are the things that need to change in the chess world?
The idea of a social elevator seems natural for chess, but for whatever reason it is broken in our world. Objectively, many GMs can play on an equal level with the chess elite, but they either very rarely get the opportunity or do not get it at all. I think that many talented people can't fully realize their potential, because without receiving invitations to top events you have to grind it out in various open tournaments year-round or switch to coaching early (or do both). That's why tournaments like the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss are very interesting and useful.
What can chess learn from DOTA 2 [the multiplayer online battle arena game] and other esports to become more mainstream?
We could talk about that for a long time, but above all we need to grow our active audience. It is almost embarrassing when the world championship match is hardly watched by 100,000 to 150,000 across Twitch and YouTube combined. Official broadcasts need to engage with not only existing viewers but potential new viewers as much as possible.
Is FIDE doing enough to push chess forward? What else can it do as an organization?
The new FIDE management definitely is making huge steps forward. It is necessary to bring more investments and to look for beneficial broadcasting formats. Historically, chess as a sport was always sponsored privately by patrons, but if we wish to grow and develop, it's necessary to get sponsorship from global commercial brands.
Are there currently players cheating over-the-board in chess? How can organizers combat this?
I think that it is extremely difficult to detect a smart cheater who does not go to the restroom to check his phone after each move. How can we fight cheating? The cheaters can probably be held at bay by the fear of financial implications. For example, imposing fines in the amount of the first prize of the competition where the cheater is caught. Disqualification is also good, but that is only a threat for strong GMs. Normal cheaters will just shrug it off.
Do you have any enemies in chess? Any players you simply dislike and think are bad for the game?
Of course, every person works with people they like or dislike. It doesn't really become a problem over the board, although it is more difficult to play against your friends. The only people who I truly dislike are those who buy and sell games, ratings and titles. [titled players who participate in fixed matches in order to "sell" norms, ratings points and titles to non-titled players]
That's a bold accusation, is this happening frequently in over-the-board chess?
I believe it is, but I won't name names right now.
You've sometimes expressed your frustration with chess and said that you're tired of playing. Have you considered retiring and focusing on something else?
Anyone can have negative emotions and have thoughts like this on a temporary basis, but it doesn't mean those thoughts should override common sense. At the end of the day, you have to do what's reasonable.
What would you say to those who criticize your fast play and say it's a reflection of you being tired of chess?
I would say I do not see any direct connection there. You can play fast and very strong and you can play slow and weak. When you are excessively tired, that's when you can't enjoy the game. It's not about how fast you're playing.
You train with neural-network chess engines. What have you learned about chess and about yourself by doing this?
It's insightful to see a well-crafted engine recommendation, which is polar opposite to the evaluation of good old Stockfish. This widens your outlook and makes you reflect on your play more deeply than if you were to only rely on one source.
You waltzed through your qualifying bracket and managed to defeat Alireza Firouzja twice to advance to the semifinals. What makes you especially strong at Fischer Random?
The secret comes down to my ability of not being bad at chess.
You were reluctant to join the Fischer Random qualifier but eventually decided to play. Do you think you should have gotten a seed into the quarterfinals like Nakamura and Fabiano? Do you think it's fair for them to get seeded into the quarterfinals? Do you think it's fair that Carlsen received a seed into the semifinals?
I think that everyone should start on equal terms. Probably, the current champion deserves some kind of preference, like the FIFA World Cup winner who skips qualifying for the following edition. But when some people start from the qualifiers, some from quarterfinal and the world champion gets to start from the semifinal—yeah it's strange, to say the least. Still, I'm happy to have advanced to the semifinals.
You've been outspoken and critical of the format of various tournaments in world chess. What kind of format changes should be made to the world championship qualification process?
The truth is that the current format is dictated by the fact that it is very difficult to find sponsors for the candidates' tournament alone. I wouldn't dare speak about candidates' matches and how they're structured, which could have become more interesting with some format improvements. Anyway, the current format is an adequate compromise acceptable for a greater part of the chess community, and while changes can be made to strive for excellence, it is usually always just over the horizon.
Is the prize fund the most important thing about winning a world championship?
The prize fund is very important for any tournament, but the title is equally important.
Upon qualification, do you believe you will win the candidates' tournament?
It's not a question of whether I believe in it or not; it has to be the goal.
How about the world championship?
This also isn't a matter of faith. It's why I'm here and I'm going for it.