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Magnus Carlsen Is Back To Defend His Chess Title

This article is part of our 2021 World Chess Championship series.

It has been 1,090 days since the last World Chess Championship. In the meantime, the ancient game has seen a modern resurgence, a swell in popularity driven by technology and a global pandemic, a dramatic prologue to the game’s marquee event.

Beginning this week, at long last, Magnus Carlsen of Norway will once again defend his game’s highest title, this time against challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia. The championship match, originally scheduled for last December, will take place in Dubai amid that city’s so-called Expo 2020, a sort of modern-day world’s fair. Game 1 is scheduled for Friday, and the best-of-14-game contest could stretch over the next three weeks.

Carlsen, 30, has reigned as world champion since 2013. Nepomniachtchi, 31, earned the right to challenge him for the title by winning the Candidates Tournament in April — an event which, thanks to COVID-19 disruptions, spanned 13 months. Carlsen has been ranked No. 1 in the world for a decade; Nepomniachtchi (“Nepo” for short) is ranked No. 5.

🇳🇴 Carlsen has been world champion since 2013

Magnus Carlsen’s world chess titles, with his record by opponent

Record
Year Opponent Wins Losses Draws
2013 🇮🇳 Viswanathan Anand 3 0 7
2014 🇮🇳 Viswanathan Anand 3 1 7
2016* 🇷🇺 Sergey Karjakin 1 1 10
2018* 🇺🇸 Fabiano Caruana 0 0 12
2021 🇷🇺 Ian Nepomniatchchi ? ? ?

*Carlsen won in tiebreakers.

Source: chessgames.com

These two grandmasters have had intertwining careers in elite chess, facing each other both in top youth events and later as top pros. For most of that time, Carlsen has outstripped Nepomniachtchi, boasting a higher ranking, more tournament victories and broader worldwide renown. But Nepomniachtchi has made tremendous strides recently on the back of his daring play, a fact noted by his colleagues and reflected in the data; Nepomniachtchi has vaulted from world No. 43 to championship contender in a few short years.

The world championship match promises to showcase two contrasting styles wielded by players at the height of their craft. Carlsen is known for his determined exactitude — he grinds down opponents meticulously, doggedly pursuing small edges to eventual victories. Nepomniachtchi, on the other hand, is known for his aggressive offense and blazing speed over the board — he essays risky strategies while accumulating large time advantages over his opponents.1 Observers are celebrating this clash in styles, hoping that it will lead to sharp, decisive and entertaining games.

“[Ian’s] style is opposite to Magnus’s, which is good,” said Ben Finegold, an American grandmaster, in his match preview. “Ian could get totally destroyed if he plays like himself — or he could win a lot of games and win the match if he plays like himself.”

As it happens, Nepomniachtchi has found success versus Carlsen in the past. The two have met 13 times before in the sort of long, slow games that will decide the world championship, and Nepomniachtchi holds a 4-1 edge alongside eight draws, a remarkable score against the best in the world — and perhaps the best there’s ever been.

Nepomniachtchi has held his own against Carlsen

Classical chess games between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen since 2002, with whether the winner won with black or white pieces

Year Event Winner
2002 U12 European Championship Nepomniachtchi
2002 U12 World Championship Draw
2003 U14 World Championship Nepomniachtchi
2011 Tata Steel Group A Nepomniachtchi
2011 Tal Memorial Draw
2017 Tata Steel Masters Draw
2017 Sinquefield Cup Draw
2017 London Chess Classic Nepomniachtchi
2019 Tata Steel Masters Draw
2019 GCT Croatia Carlsen
2019 Sinquefield Cup Draw
2021 Norway Chess Draw
2021 Norway Chess Draw

Source: chessgames.com

“He’s not afraid of Magnus,” Robert Hess, a grandmaster and match commentator for Chess.com, told me. “I don’t think he’s afraid of anybody.”

However, two of Nepomniachtchi’s wins came when the pair were children, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. Simple computer simulations, based solely on the players’ current Elo ratings, give Carlsen a significant edge: Across many alternate universes, the Norwegian wins the match outright 83 percent of the time, while the rest of the time is roughly split between a Russian victory and a need for tiebreakers. Sportsbooks peg Carlsen at similar odds.

This year’s match will feature two more games than previous editions — 14 rather than 12 — in part, perhaps, so that these games are more likely to decisively deliver a champion in regulation. In 2016, the regulation games saw just one win apiece and 10 draws, while 2018 featured 12 draws in a row. Both were ultimately decided by faster tiebreaker games. (Wins are worth 1 point and draws half a point. If, in reality, a player reaches more than half the total points midmatch, the title is clinched and no further games are played.)

Histogram showing the number of points Carlsen earned in 10,000 simulations of the 2021 World Chess Championship based on the players' current Elo ratings. In the simulations, Carlsen won 83.5% of the time and Nepomniachtchi won 8.8% of the time.

“If I can be at my best, I will have very, very good chances to win,” Carlsen said in an interview in September. However, he added, “I never had a good feeling playing against him because you always feel like he’s the one applying pressure to you rather than the other way around.”

In an interview with Chess.com this month, Nepomniachtchi said he and his team had done an “insane amount of work” and that he hoped he was “ready enough.”

It’s tempting to situate an elite chess match within some broader political or cultural milieu, to set it on a stage so that the complex, abstract game and the intricacies of its tactics and theories — often incomprehensible to the viewer (yours truly included) — absorb some larger, digestible, relatable meaning.

In another recent Norway-Russia match, the 2016 world championship, reporters strained to find “geopolitical overtones” hovering above the chess, pointing to the countries’ 100-plus miles of shared border and Russia’s military buildup. And while Norwegians cheer on their dynastic countryman, Russians may hope for a return to the chess hegemony that the country enjoyed for much of the 20th century. But in any case, despite his roots in Bryansk and home in Moscow, Nepomniachtchi reportedly won’t be able to play under the Russian flag. The International Chess Federation (FIDE), the sport’s governing body, is recognized by the International Olympic Committee and therefore operates under the auspices of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which sanctioned Russia over its state-sponsored doping program. The sanction is far-reaching: In April, an official removed a player’s Russian flag during a world checkers championship match.

This year’s edition of the championship also represents a very specific generational battle: Both competitors were born in 1990, which The Guardian called “the prime vintage year for grandmaster births in the whole of chess history.” That year also saw the births of Sergey Karjakin, who challenged for the title in 2016; Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the Frenchman who finished second in the Candidates; and a handful of other super grandmasters.

But the most vibrant backdrops of this year’s contest are the novel coronavirus and the internet. The championship follows on the heels of the latest chess boom, this one fueled by idle gaming time provided by the pandemic, the hit miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” and a general transmogrification of chess into esport and grist for the Twitch and YouTube mills. Countless chess players have recently discovered their online niches, giving lessons or otherwise entertaining fans and hobbyists, spreading the gospel of the game to new enthusiastic congregants. Streamers like Hikaru Nakamura, GothamChess, Daniel Naroditsky and the Botez sisters have become household names among the chess faithful.

The championship contestants also embody this new, very online chess. Nepomniachtchi is an avid player of other esports, too — his Twitter bio mentions chess alongside Dota and Hearthstone. And Carlsen, for his part, spent a chunk of recent pre-match time playing bullet chess online — those extremely fast games that seem anathema to the plodding affairs that determine world champions.

“Chess has become so popular on the internet,” Anna Cramling, 19, a professional chess streamer, told me. But this popularity, in her view, has as much to do with nostalgia as it has with technology. “Chess is something that people are reminded of, like, ‘Oh, this is this game that I know about, let me try it one more time.’” Cramling, the daughter of grandmasters, celebrates the democratization of chess and the ongoing youth movement among its adherents. “Anybody can play chess, anybody can enjoy chess, and I think that most people can become relatively good at chess,” she said. “Can anyone become a grandmaster? That's another question.”

The exposition of chess online is now in a golden age, moving away from the dusty instruction of old toward entertaining, inclusive accounts suitable for streaming and memeing. “It’s become an art form,” Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. women’s chess champion, told me. And while the majority of online chess these days is fast games, the genre may well prove adaptable to the timeworn time controls of the storied world championship, contested by two real-life grandmasters. “Four or five or six hours go by pretty quickly if you love chess,” Shahade said.

For Shahade, the match’s stage is the battle to become chess’s greatest of all time. “If Magnus wins this match, he stakes a very strong claim,” she said. “It’s really between him and Garry Kasparov — most people think it’s neck and neck.”

Can Carlsen stake that claim? We’re eager to find out. Follow the entire match along with us here and on Twitter.

Seven Games by Oliver Roeder

For even more writing on chess and other gams, check out Roeder’s new book, “Seven Games: A Human History,” available in January.

Footnotes

  1. In the world championship, players get 120 minutes for the first 40 moves, 60 minutes for the next 20 moves and 15 minutes for any moves after that, with a bonus 30 seconds per move starting from move 61.

Oliver Roeder was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied game theory and political competition.

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