Born in the same year as Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin, Nepomniachtchi initially had the edge over his rivals, winning the European U10 and U12 Championship (twice) and claiming the 2002 World U12 Championship ahead of Magnus Carlsen. He subsequently admitted that the success had gone to his head and he lost focus, allowing his peers to press ahead. Nevertheless, his talent never went away. In 2008 he won the Aeroflot Open to qualify for the first supertournament of his career in Dortmund, where he finished joint second — half a point behind Peter Leko and ahead of Vladimir Kramnik.
Nepomniachtchi at the 2014 Chess Olympiad in Tromsø | photo: Georgios Souleidis
He really made his mark, however, in 2010, when he won the European Individual Championship and the Russian Championship and also starred for the Russian B team at the Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk. He began to be invited to the top tournaments and didn’t look out of place in Wijk aan Zee 2011 or the incredibly strong Tal Memorial later that year, where he beat Vladimir Kramnik and drew his remaining games.
Nepomniachtchi’s major tournament victories include a second Aeroflot Open in 2015, Hainan Danzhou and the Tal Memorial in 2016 and Dortmund in 2018, while he’s also won the World Team Championship and European Team Championship as part of the Russian team. In rapid and blitz he’s scored numerous silver and bronze medals in the World Championships, but is yet to take gold.
Amazingly it was only in 2019 that Nepo finally broke into the Top 10 for the first time in his career, later ending the year in the Top 5. He finished second in the FIDE Grand Prix to qualify for the first time for a Candidates Tournament, and got off to a brilliant start in that event in Yekaterinburg, Russia. He beat Anish Giri, Wang Hao and Ding Liren and would have been the clear favourite to win if not for a Round 7 loss to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who thereby caught him in the lead.
The second half of the tournament was postponed at that point due to the coronavirus, but resuming at a later date may suit Nepo, who has a habit of starting well before tailing off late in tournaments. If Ian could win the tournament a World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen would be fascinating. The Russian has a 4:1 score in classical wins against the current World Champion.
When chess moved online Nepo, at one point in his career almost a professional gamer, had some good moments, reaching the semi-finals of the Chessable Masters and the final of the chess24 Legends of Chess. He also won an Online Olympiad gold medal as the captain of the Russian team.