As chess explodes, Magnus Carlsen returns to defend his crown

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

From this week, finally, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen will once again defend the highest title in his game, this time against challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia. The championship match, originally scheduled for last December, will take place in Dubai as part of the city’s so-called Expo 2020, a kind of modern-day world fair. Game 1 is scheduled for Friday, and the best of 14 contest could run for the next three weeks.

Carlsen, 30, has reigned as world champion since 2013. Nepomniachtchi, 31, secured the right to challenge him for the title by winning the Candidates Tournament in April – an event that, thanks to disruptions from COVID-19, lasted for 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

Year Opponent Victories Losses Prize draws
2013 Viswanathan Anand 3 0 7
2014 Viswanathan Anand 3 1 7
2016 * Sergey Karjakin 1 1 ten
2018 * Fabiano Caruana 0 0 12
2021 Ian nepomniatchchi ? ? ?

* Carlsen won in the tiebreaker.


These two grandmasters had intermingled careers in elite chess, facing each other both in top youth events and later as top pros. For most of that time, Carlsen edged out Nepomniachtchi, enjoying higher rankings, more tournament wins and greater worldwide fame. But Nepomniachtchi has recently made huge strides with his daring game, a fact noted by his colleagues and reflected in the data; Nepomniachtchi went from world number 43 to championship contender in just a few years.

The World Championship match promises to feature two contrasting styles exercised by players at the top of their game. Carlsen is known for his determined accuracy – he meticulously crushes his opponents, doggedly pursuing small advantages towards eventual victories. Nepomniachtchi, on the other hand, is known for his aggressive attack and blazing speed on the board – he tries risky strategies while racking up big time advantages over his opponents. Watchers are celebrating this clash in styles, hoping it leads to some sharp, decisive, and entertaining games.

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

As it turns out, Nepomniachtchi has enjoyed success against Carlsen in the past. The two have met 13 times previously in the kind of long, slow matches that will decide the world championship, and Nepomniachtchi holds a 4-1 lead alongside eight draws, a remarkable score against the best in the world – and possibly to be the best there is. summer.

Nepomniachtchi held on against Carlsen

Classic chess games between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen since 2002, with if the winner won with black or white rooms

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


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

However, two of Nepomniachtchi’s victories came when both men were children, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. Simple computer simulations, based uniquely on the players current Elo odds, give Carlsen a significant advantage: In many alternate universes, the Norwegian wins the game 83% of the time, while the rest of the time is roughly split between a Russian victory and a need for a tiebreaker. sport bets poke Carlsen at similar odds.

This year’s game will feature two more games than previous editions – 14 rather than 12 – in part, perhaps, so those games are more likely to decisively deliver a regulation champion. In 2016, regulation matches saw only one win each and 10 draws, while 2018 featured 12 consecutive draws. The two were ultimately decided by faster tiebreaker games. (Wins are worth 1 point and result in a draw. If, in reality, a player reaches more than half of the total points at the halfway point, the title is won and no further games are played.)

“If I can be at my best, I’m going to have a very, very good chance of winning,” Carlsen said in a meeting in September. However, he added: “I never felt like playing against him because you always feel like he’s pushing you rather than the other way around.”

In a meeting with this month, Nepomniachtchi said he and his team had done an “insane amount of work” and that he hoped to be “ready enough”.

It is tempting to situate an elite game of chess in a larger political or cultural environment, to stage it in such a way that the complex and abstract game and the intricacies of its tactics and theories – often incomprehensible to the player. viewer (including yours) – absorb a broader, digestible and relevant meaning.

In another recent Norway-Russia match, the 2016 World Championship, journalists tense to find “geopolitical connotations” hovering over setbacks, pointing to the 100+ miles of common country borders and Russia’s military build-up. And while the Norwegians cheer on their dynastic compatriot, the Russians can hope for a return to chess hegemony which the country enjoyed for much of the 20th century. But in any case, despite his roots in Bryansk and his home in Moscow, Nepomniachtchi would have will not be able to play under the Russian flag. The International Chess Federation (FIDE), the governing body of the sport, is recognized by the International Olympic Committee and therefore operates under the auspices of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which has sanctioned Russia for its doping program sponsored by the State. The sanction is heavy: in April, an official dismissed from his post the Russian flag of a player in a ladies’ world championship match.

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

But the most dynamic backdrops for this year’s competition are the novel coronavirus and the internet. The championship follows the latest chess boom, fueled by the idle playing time provided by the pandemic, the hit miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit“And a general transmogrification of failures in esport and water for the Twitch and YouTube mills. Countless chess players have recently discovered their niches online, teaching or entertaining fans and enthusiasts, spreading the gospel of the game to new and enthusiastic devotees. Streamers like Hikaru Nakamura, GothamChess, Daniel Naroditsky and the Botez sisters have become household names among chess devotees.

The championship competitors also embody this new very online chess game. Nepomniachtchi is also an avid player of other electronic sports – his Twitter biography mentions chess alongside Dota and Hearthstone. And Carlsen, for his part, spent a good chunk of the recent pre-game time playing ball failures – those extremely fast games which seem anathema to the laborious affairs which determine the champions of the world.

“Chess has become so popular on the Internet”, Anna Cramling, 19, professional chess banner, said. But this popularity, she says, has as much to do with nostalgia as it does with technology. “Chess is something that reminds people, like, ‘Oh, this is this game that I know, let me try it one more time. “Cramling, the daughter of great masters, celebrates the democratization of chess and the ongoing youth movement among its adherents.” Anyone can play chess, anyone can love chess, and I think most people can become relatively good at chess, “she said.” Can anyone become a grandmaster? That’s another question.

Online chess exposure is now in a golden age, moving away from the dusty instruction of the old to entertaining and inclusive accounts suitable for streaming and memeing. “It has become an art form,” Jennifer Shahade, two-time American chess champion, told me. And while the majority of online chess these days are fast-paced games, the genre may well prove adaptable to the worn-out time checks of the legendary World Championship, contested by two real-life Grandmasters. “Four, five, or six hours go by pretty quickly if you like chess,” Shahade said.

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

Can Carlsen claim this claim? We can’t wait to find out. Follow the whole game with us here and on Twitter.

Seven games by Oliver Roeder

For even more writings on chess and other games, check out Roeder’s new book, “Seven games: a human story,»Available in January.

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