Chess: England win three world titles while Ian Nepomniachtchi nears victory

England’s over-50 and over-65 teams completed a historic golden double on Wednesday in the world senior championships at Acqui Terme, Italy, Both led their tournaments from start to finish, overcame some dubious positions en route, and were virtually sure of victory with a round to spare.

The seven-times British champion Michael Adams turned 50 last November, and the Cornishman played a key role by winning an apparently drawn knight ending in the decisive match against the United States, then outplaying Italy’s Alberto David in a seemingly level rook ending. More England games can be viewed in the games section of Nigel Short’s ninth and final round win against Canada is a model of how to play with rook and pawn against bishop and knight.

Adams and Short stand out as England’s two all-time best players, eclipsing the achievements of the 19th century icons Howard Staunton and Joseph Blackburne in a less competitive era. Their elite GM skills made the difference in the close struggle with the US silver medal team, composed of Soviet trained ex-Russians.

England over-65s, with seven wins, one draw, and a final-round loss to the bronze medallists, Israel, were boosted by their top boards, John Nunn and Paul Littlewood. Nunn is eminent as a chess writer, player, publisher and world problem solving champion, while Littlewood is a former British champion.

Six England players won individual golds: four in the 50+ (Adams 7/8, Short 6.5/9, Mark Hebden 6.5/8, Keith Arkell 4/5) plus the top two in the 65+ (Nunn 6.5/8, Littlewood 6.5/9).

There was even a third English team gold. England women 50+, fielding Sheila Jackson, Ingrid Lauterbach, Natasha Regan and Petra Fink-Nunn, were awarded a world title despite being the only team in their category. Seeded 17th out of 23, they finished 13th, defeated male opponents from Norway and Poland, and were ahead of two of the four England men’s teams. Jackson was part of the England team which won silver at the Haifa Olympiad in 1976.

The outcome provided consolation after painful defeats in major finals of long ago. Nigel Short famously lost to Garry Kasparov in 1993, Michael Adams was beaten in the Fide world final in 2004, while Keith Arkell missed the 2014 World Senior title on tiebreak.

Acqui Terme proved an evocative and nostalgic occasion, one of the last hurrahs for a gifted generation. It was a reminder of the brilliant era of the 1970s and 1980s when England fielded the second strongest team on the planet, achieving silver medals in three successive Olympiads (1984, 1986, 1988) behind Soviet gold.

Ian Nepomniachtchi is on the brink of becoming Magnus Carlsen’s world title challenger for the second time within six months. The 31-year-old Russian, playing under a neutral Fide (International Chess Federation) flag, is unbeaten after 12 of the 14 rounds of the eight-player Candidates in Madrid, and needs just a single draw in his final two games.

Nepomniachtchi will be only the fifth player in Candidates history to win this competitive event twice in succession, following Vasily Smyslov, Boris Spassky, Viktor Korchnoi, and Anatoly Karpov.

However, the formality of the Muscovite’s victory in Sunday’s 13th and penultimate round will probably be just the start of his problems. Carlsen has said that he is “unlikely” to defend his crown against a player from his own generation, and that he may be ready to abdicate the title while remaining the clear No 1 in the rankings.

The tedium and grinding work involved in two months’ technical preparation followed by a month of the match itself is the major deterrent, and the €2m prize fund carries little incentive for someone who is already a multi-millionaire.

Fide rules state that if the reigning champion defaults, there will be a title match between the top two in the Candidates. Inconsistent play by all Nepomniachtchi’s rivals has led to a situation where second place and a potential championship series is still a four-way race.

Leading scores after 12 rounds are Nepomniachtchi 8.5, Ding Liren (China) and Hikaru Nakamura (US) 6.5, Fabiano Caruana (US) and Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan) 6.

Caruana, who was clear second for several rounds, cracked with two defeats. Ding, who failed to win a game in the first eight rounds and then won three in a row, lost to Radjabov in round 12. Round 13 pairings include Radjabov v Caruana, round 14 features Ding v Nakamura. If it comes to Sonneborn-Berger tie-breaks, results against the tournament leader will be significant, and in that case Ding’s round one loss will count against him.

Nepomniachtchi’s strategy at Madrid has been a combative first half of the tournament, where three of his four wins were scored by direct attacks down the h-file against castled kings, then to dig in for the second half by keeping it simple and being satisfied with half a point.

This approach has worked amazingly well, aided considerably by his opponents. Ding arrived jet-lagged for round one, while Richard Rapport, faced with a forced draw from the Russian prep, avoided it with a losing alternative. Nakamura failed to drive home his big opening advantage, while Caruana chose to draw his first game with Nepomniachtchi from a superior position, then again missed chances created by his good opening prep.

Firouzja prepared for his round 11 encounter against the leader by playing a 250-game match of hyper-bullet (30 seconds each for the entire game) against the New York Times columnist Daniel Naroditsky, an action greeted with incredulity by Nepomniachtchi’s rivals.

Magnus Carlsen is expected to be in Madrid to watch the decisive final two rounds. The No 1 has also confirmed that next week he will travel to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker. Earlier this year he finished 25th out of 1050 in the Norwegian Poker Championship. It seems that card and bidding skills have taken over as his offboard interest from Fantasy Premier League, where he briefly led the world in December 2019.