Being Ian Nepomniachtchi

Being Ian Nepomniachtchi

| 44 | Opening Theory

I spent the end of March 1994 playing the Oslo Open in beautiful Norway. The tournament was very memorable for me mostly for two things: I tied for first place with GM Ilya Smirin and also I had the opportunity to talk to legendary GM David Bronstein on numerous occasions (although it would be more accurate to say that he was talking and I was listening in awe).

It didn't matter what year it was, Bronstein was always a dangerous opponent! Photo: Eric Koch/Dutch National Archives, CC.

At that point I didn't have a computer, so every evening GM Viktor Bologan allowed me to use his laptop for preparation. In the process, I managed to prove that you don't need to have a computer in order to win a tournament, as long as you have good friends!

Since we prepared for our games together, I was able to watch the most bizarre game preparation I have ever seen. Bologan was supposed to play White versus Bronstein the next day. A quick search provided over 2000 games played by the legend. If I remember correctly, the first one was played in the late 1930s at the Kyiv Pioneer's Palace Championship. That was the game Bologan started his preparation with. At first, I thought it was a joke, but then I realized that he was really analyzing it.

For a moment I was speechless, but when I was able to talk again I asked: "Viktor, the game was played almost 60 years ago. Besides Bronstein played White. Are you kidding me?" Bologan smiled and explained that it was very important to understand Bronstein's thinking and that his childhood games could help. To this day I don't know if my friend was serious or if he was just trolling me when this word didn't even exist.

One way or another, the next day Bologan won a nice game with an unexpected queen sacrifice:

This old story popped up in my mind while I was watching the game between GM Ian Nepomniachtchi and GM Alireza Firouzja in round four of the 2022 FIDE Candidates Tournament.

Catch's coverage of the 2022 FIDE Candidates Tournament through July 5. This event is the most important of the year as the world's best players gather to fight for a chance to play for the world championship title in 2023.

As you might recall, in my last article I explained that I was planning to watch Firouzja's games looking for a "new sound." Unfortunately, there wasn't any in this game, unless I am chessically tone deaf. Moreover, the opening part of the game was an utter disaster for the youngest participant in the Candidates Tournament. You can see the full game annotated by GM Sam Shankland in the report on the round, so let me point out only a couple of his key points:

Do you see what happened here? Firouzja played a very rare move as part of his home preparation, yet four moves later he started burning time and another four more moves later he could already resign. So, what went wrong?

Even though I used to play the English Attack in the Najdorf Sicilian a lot, I did it some 40 years ago when the system was just born. That was actually the main appeal of the opening: no theoretical knowledge was required and you could immediately start attacking your opponent's king. I vividly remember the game that started my obsession with this system:

At that time it was considered that the main reason of Black's quick defeat was the move 12...O-O. Indeed, why would one castle right into an opponent's attack? We discussed this concept some time ago.

Of course, for an opening as dynamic as the Najdorf Sicilian, 40 years is an eternity, so I decided to check the database and see what's going on there these days. The results shocked me. 

First, have you ever seen the movie Being John Malkovich? There is an iconic scene, where a protagonist finds a tunnel leading him inside the mind of actor John Malkovich. There you can see a weird world where every man and woman looks like John Malkovich. Moreover, all of them can say only one word, which is "Malkovich." So, their dialog sound like this:

- Malkovich?

- Malkovich

- Malkovich!

I ask, dear readers, because while playing through the 89 games played by Nepomniachtchi in the English Attack (70 of them as Black), I started hearing pieces talking to each other—except instead of regular chess terms, all they were saying was "Nepomniachtchi." So it was like this: 1.e4: Nepomniachtchi. 1...c5: Nepomniachtchi. 2.Nf3: Nepomniachtchi. 2...d6: well, you get the picture.

Nepomniachtchi. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

If Firouzja followed the example of Bologan and tried to get into his opponent's mind, he might have seen the following points:

Firouzja played 9...O-O, but Nepomniachtchi has played this move only eight times, preferring 9...Nbd7 (12 times) to delay castling and avert direct attack against his king. Notably, he beat GM Leinier Dominguez Perez three times in this line. The following game shows that, until recently, chess didn't know borders: notice that the Cuban-born American played in the Russian Team Championship!

So the strategy of delaying castling, which was considered the best 40 years ago, still makes perfect sense after all!

Next, on move 11 Firouzja played 11...b5. Nepomniachtchi has played this move too, five times, but seems to prefer 11...Nb6 which he has played seven times. To be fair, all the games are quite old and after the following defeat Nepomniachtchi stopped using this move:

On move 15, Firouzja played 15...Bc4. In his notes, Shankland wasn't very happy about this move. On the other hand, the move 15...Bxb3 once played by Nepomniachtchi fails to inspire either:

As Shankland points out in his annotations, the move 15...a4 is by far the most popular one for a reason!

Don't get me wrong, I am not going to teach Firouzja, who was world number two for a short period of time, how to play the Najdorf Sicilian or use a database. He is way better than me in both departments. But if you use Bologan's approach you can almost hear that the pieces start talking using your opponent's name, maybe it is a warning sign to reconsider your opening choice.

Let me put it another way. In one of their world championship games, GM Boris Spassky decided to surprise GM Tigran Petrosian with a relatively uncommon opening system. There was one little problem though: It was one of Petrosian's favorites when he was young! So, not only did Petrosian win the game, he created a true masterpiece. See for yourself:

As Bronstein noted at the time, "Boris invited Tigran to play in the yard of the house where the latter grew up." We started this article with Bronstein, so I guess it is only proper to finish it with his quote!

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