GM Nijat Abasov was seeded 69th in the 2023 FIDE World Cup, but defied expectations and clinched a sensational fourth place to propel himself into the limelight. The Azerbaijani grandmaster has now been given a monumental opportunity as he’s taken GM Magnus Carlsen’s spot in the Candidates tournament.
Last week, Carlsen confirmed what the chess world had known for months; his decision to formally decline the invitation to participate in the Candidates tournament, which takes place in the Great Hall in Toronto, Canada from April 3 to 26.
On Saturday, FIDE unveiled the new lineup with Abasov stepping into Carlsen’s vacant spot. The 28-year-old, who lost to Carlsen in the World Cup semifinal and subsequently fell to GM Fabiano Caruana in the third-place match, clinched a sensational 4th place, arguably one of the biggest upsets of the World Cup in the last 25 years.
The field now looks as follows:
Abasov graciously accepted Chess.com’s request for an interview, and talked about Carlsen’s decision, his sensational World Cup performance, his dreams for the future, and playing in the Candidates.
“Thanks to him I have this chance,” Abasov says about Carlsen’s decision.
Thanks to him I have this chance.
Carlsen’s decision did not come as a surprise to him either, as the Norwegian had already made it clear before the semifinal that he would give up his spot. But during the four months since, Abasov says he wasn’t entirely convinced.
“Throughout this whole period, I had some doubts. Maybe he would change his mind? He started to play consistently well,” Abasov says. “Maybe he would accept a new challenge, and try to retain the title,” he says, pointing to Carlsen’s many trophies in the second half of 2023.
Abasov says he understands the decision.
“It requires a lot of mental preparation, and the chess preparation is just exhausting. For the moment he has more freedom. He works a lot on chess, but the preparation for the World Championship match and the Candidates is a bit different and more energy-consuming. I guess he just wants to enjoy chess.”
Nijat Abasov during the semifinal of the FIDE World Cup, a match he lost. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Abasov was only 15 years old when he became a grandmaster at the end of 2010. It took him another seven years to break 2600 in 2017. The same year he also became Azerbaijani champion and won the Baku Open. Two years later he made the top 100 in the world, but with a rating of 2641 on the January 2024 list he is ranked as world number 102 and number five in Azerbaijan.
Abasov says his goals were high after he became a grandmaster as a 15-year-old, but he didn’t dream about playing in the Candidates for years after he realized he needed to “downgrade his goals.”
“The World Cup made me reconsider my goals. Now I hope for big things.”
The World Cup made me reconsider my goals. Now I hope for big things.
The real breakthrough came with his remarkable run as 69th seed on home soil in Baku. There he knocked out top GMs such as Anish Giri, Vidit Gujrathi, Peter Svidler and Laurent Fressinet. He even beat Caruana in the first game of the third-place match, before eventually losing 3-1.
Looking back at that event, Abasov says he thinks the knockout format with almost every game being a final helped him and proved that he is capable of competing with the best.
“Maybe the fact that I was the lowest-rated player helped me, in addition to some other circumstances as well,” he says, mentioning some critical moments in the matches against Giri and Svidler that could have changed the outcome.
Abasov won the first game against Caruana, but ended up losing the third-place match 3-1. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Another factor was the fans cheering for him in Baku, he says.
“I started to gain more and more confidence. At the same time, I saw many people coming and supporting me. This is a feeling I have never had before. With all things together, I really truly enjoyed my chess, the event, and everything. Each time I faced the top players, I realized the games are pretty intense and close. I understood that I had skills to face them despite the gaps in rating.”
The grandmaster is facing a difficult task in Toronto where he is the lowest-ranked player by far. He is also the only one rated below 2700, and could possibly become the first Candidate to be ranked outside of the world’s top 100 players.
“Clearly I am the lowest seed, but I hope to prove that wrong,” he says when asked about his goals for the event.
“The goal would be, first of all, to enjoy my chess and perform the best I can, because it’s a chance of a lifetime for me. It’s not like I put pressure on myself or anything, it’s just my first big event and I am not sure whether I am going to have another opportunity or not. I want to do things right, then whatever life brings, how many points I am going to score, that will be history.”
“It’s not like I am working only the next three months. I have been working on chess for the past 20 years, so nothing has changed. Now it will just be more intense and with more motivation.”
It’s not like I am working only the next three months. I have been working on chess for the past 20 years, so nothing has changed.