Nepo in The Guardian “I may have been the least hardworking person in the world’s top 20”

Russia’s No. 1 and 2021 Challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, gave his pre-match newspaper interview to the Guardian’s Sean Ingle.

Photo: Eric Rosen

According to the Guaridan, it would be considered one of the most seismic shocks in modern chess history if Magnus Carlsen lost his world title to Ian Nepomniachtchi. However, Nepo is seen as a worthy challenger:

Nepo holds a 4-1 record in classic chess over Carlsen, dating back to when they first met as a promising 12-year-old. Nepo also has one of Russia’s fastest supercomputers, originally built for machine learning and artificial intelligence, as part of his team, which he confirmed he was using again to prepare for Carlsen. The computer is provided by Skolkovo, the Russian answer to Silicon Valley.

“It can’t hurt my chances,” Nepo said. “And this particular supercomputer, because it’s a huge data center that can be used for scientific research, is hopefully more effective than others. You are more sure that your analysis is correct when you see 500 million node positions than say 100 million. In general, all top players have access to something similar. And it is the chess engines, such as Stockfish and Leela Chess Zero, that are the main tool to prepare us. Everyone has that.”

Question: “What is the story between you and Magnus?”

“The first time we met was in the European Under-12 Championships. He played quite well, but I didn’t feel like he was anything spectacular. And he was from Norway, which isn’t a chess country, so I didn’t pay much attention to it. But when we played again not long after, and we finished in the top two at the U-12 World Championships, it was clear that he was a strong player. Overall, I think it makes any difference whether you’ve played against a person before and been successful. But some of our games were played almost 20 years ago. So while it’s good that the score is in my favor, it would be kind of foolish to rely on this alone.”

Sean Ingle: Nepomniachtchi, on the other hand, attributes a change in mindset by turning him from a brilliant but erratic player to a real challenger for the crown.

“I used to be perhaps the least hardworking person in the top 20 in the world! Normally, if chess players have a week or two between tournaments, they prepare for the next one. But I would go to the soccer field or watch Marvel movies three times a week. And when the new season of Game of Thrones came out, I thought, ‘Come on, this is pretty fun!’ But in the end I understood that I would soon be turning 30 and I didn’t mean it seriously and hadn’t done anything special. At some point you have to choose whether you want your life to be full of joy – and you probably don’t choose to achieve too much – or you sacrifice something and then you may be able to move forward. But it took me quite some time to get this new approach off the ground.”

Sean Ingle: Another problem, he admits, is that he was too overconfident at times.

“This was an issue that haunted me for years. It was like, ‘I don’t care who I play against, I’m going to beat them.’ Sometimes I lacked respect for my opponents. But after I corrected my thinking, my results got better.”

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