Ian Nepomniachtchi is making his case for a return trip to the World Chess Championship, as the Russian grandmaster holds the lead at the 2022 Candidates Tournament after four rounds.

Candidates Tournament odds Nepomniachtchi
Ian Nepomniachtchi took the outright lead at the 2022 Candidates Tournament with a win over Alireza Firouzja in Tuesday’s fourth round. (Image: International Chess Federation/Twitter)

Nepomniachtchi beat young star Alireza Firouzja on Tuesday to move to three points after four rounds.

Sicilian Defense goes wrong for Firouzja

Unibet now lists Nepomniachtchi as the +130 favorite to win the Candidates Tournament and, perhaps, earn a rematch with World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen.

Nepomniachtchi blew Firouzja off the board in a Najdorf Sicilian that went all wrong for Black. While Firouzja looked to play a lesser-known variation by placing his bishop on c4 for his 15th move, Nepomniachtchi reacted coolly and soon had a winning position.

“I just decided to go for some logical moves,” Nepomniachtchi said afterwards, via Chess.com. “Obviously, his idea was to play 17… d5 18. exd5 Nd6, so I decided to just interrupt with 18. f6. I am not sure if it’s objectively good, but I thought I just give a pawn, put my knight on g3, and at least I shouldn’t be worse.”

A confused Firouzja made multiple mistakes in the next few moves, quickly finding himself low on time and in a losing position. He resigned in the face of a coming checkmate on move 39.

Nepomniachtchi now holds a half-point lead over American Fabiano Caruana, who drew Ding Liren with Black in Monday’s Round 4. Caruana ranks as the second choice to win the Candidates Tournament at Unibet, with the bookmaker giving the former World Chess Championship challenger +175 odds.

Caruana: Only first counts in Candidates Tournament

Should Nepomniachtchi or Caruana win the Candidates Tournament, it might increase the likelihood that Carlsen gives up his World Chess Championship rather than defending it. Carlsen has plainly stated that he’s not sure if he wants to play more championship matches, and might only be interested in another title defense if he could play a young, exciting opponent such as Firouzja.

2022 Candidates Tournament Odds (via Unibet)
Ian Nepomniachtchi (+130) Fabiano Caruana (+175)
Ding Liren (+900) Richard Rapport (+900)
Alireza Firouzja (+1100) Hikaru Nakamura (+1100)
Jan-Krzysztof Duda (+1400) Teimour Radjabov (+10000)

However, Caruana isn’t convinced that Carlsen will give up his crown so easily.

“I don’t really buy into what Magnus says, although he usually speaks his mind and speaks honestly,” Caruana said in the pre-tournament press conference. “If I were in his position, there’s no way that I would not take up the challenge regardless of who wins the Candidates and who qualifies … I understand it’s a bit different as he’s been in that spot more than anyone in modern chess, but to me, I look at this tournament as still only a first place will qualify.”

Caruana was referencing the fact that if Carlsen does give up his title prematurely, the top two finishers in the Candidates Tournament will compete for the World Chess Championship instead.

Richard Rapport (+900), Hikaru Nakamura (+1100), and Jan-Krzysztof Duda (+1400) share third place on two points. Meanwhile, Ding Liren (+900) still rates as one of the top contenders despite a slow start, as he has just 1.5 points after four rounds.