For the second consecutive World Championship cycle, Russian grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi has won the Candidates Tournament with a round to spare, easily securing his position as the challenger to Magnus Carlsen’s title.

Candidates Tournament Nepomniachtchi Ding
Ian Nepomniachtchi clinched his second consecutive Candidates Tournament victory on Sunday, earning himself another shot at the World Chess Championship. (Image: Stev Bonhage/FIDE)

Nepomniachtchi secured a draw in his final game against Jan-Krzysztof Duda to finish with five wins and nine draws over the double round-robin tournament.

Nepomniachtchi sets new mark for Candidates Tournament

In total, Nepomniachtchi scored 9.5 points, a record haul for the current Candidates Tournament format.

“I feel extremely tired,” Nepomniachtchi said after clinching first place in Round 13. “It’s an insanely difficult tournament. Despite the score, it was never easy. Every game could have some danger, I could never feel safe, maybe until I had two points with two rounds to go.”

Nepomniachtchi also credited a string of short games with allowing him to remain fresh from start to finish.

“I think I never had a six-hour game here, so it was more or less every time, it was decided even before the first time control,” Nepomniachtchi said. “I never was forced to push too hard. Obviously, this all became possible because I started so well, beating maybe the main favorite of the tournament [Ding Liren] with the black pieces.”

Nepomniachtchi came into the Candidates Tournament as a +800 pick to repeat, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Ding Liren had started as the +200 favorite to take first place, just ahead of Fabiano Caruana (+250).

Ding beats Nakamura to slide into second

In the end, Ding was able to claim a clear second place by overtaking Hikaru Nakamura in Monday’s final round. Nakamura came into the 14th round with a half-point lead over Ding, but the two were playing each other on the final day. Ding had White and the two played a Queen’s Gambit Accepted. The game seemed headed to a draw after the two exchanged queens.

But Ding was able to keep some life in the position after a Nakamura inaccuracy allowed rooks to stay on the board. Ding continued to make progress, and by the 35th move, had achieved a clearly winning endgame. Nakamura continued to fight, but resigned after 58 moves.

“I felt like my timing was a little bit off throughout this game,” Nakamura said afterwards. “I don’t know if it’s just because I was feeling nerves or what was going on exactly, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to use a lot of time until it was too late.”

Ding’s second-place finish could prove critical. Should Magnus Carlsen choose not to defend his crown, then Nepomniachtchi will play Ding for the World Chess Championship in 2023.

However, hopes may be rising that Carlsen will play next year. While the champion has previously said he’s tiring of defending the World Championship, he did meet with FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich and Director-General Emil Sutovsky on Sunday to discuss potential changes to the championship format. FIDE officials have asked Carlsen to make his final decision on playing by July 20, which is International Chess Day.