When Magnus Carlsen last defended his world chess championship title in London in 2018, all 12 games with classical time controls were drawn. Then the Norwegian world champion beat his challenger Fabiano Caruana in three rapid tiebreak games.
This was similar to the previous world championship in New York in 2016, although there the challenger Sergey Karjakin won the 8th game. Carlsen equalised in the 10th game and then won the title in the rapid chess tiebreaker.
So you have to go all the way back to the young Carlsen’s victories over Viswanathan Anand in 2013 and 2014 for a world chess championship winner to be decided in the classic format. Chess aficionados will be hoping that a clear winner emerges this time as Russian grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi aka Nepo takes on Carlsen for the title in the pandemic-delayed event opening amidst the Expo 2020 Dubai on Wednesday, with the first game scheduled on Friday. The world chess federation, commonly known by its French acronym FIDE, has extended the number of classic games to 14 after all 12 games were drawn in the last championship. With one point for a win and half a point for a draw, 7.5 points would win the title, whereas a 7-7 draw would take it to another rapid chess tiebreaker.
Some would argue that the amount of computerised preparation that the top players bring into tournaments reduces the chances of producing results in normal time. But if championships are only decided by the shorter tiebreaker games, then the traditional form of the game would die. That would be a shame because what you really want to see is smart play producing a winner rather than silly mistakes under time pressure deciding an outcome at this level.
Nepo, who will be playing under a FIDE banner because of Wada (World Anti-Doping Agency) sanctions against Russia, knows Carlsen’s game well, being of the same age and having competed with him from their boyhood.
Since 2019 they have played against each other four times in the classic format, with Carlsen winning once and the remaining games being drawn, including the most recent one in September in Norway, where Nepo adopted an uncharacteristically boring defence with black pieces.
It will be interesting to see if the Norway game was a bluff to lull Carlsen before ambushing him with more aggressive tactics in the championship. One of Nepo’s advisors for the tournament is fellow Russian Karjakin who took the lead against Carlsen in 2016 before losing.
Nepo’s best chance appears to be unconventional lines of play. Even if that leads to a quicker loss, it would be preferable to the slow death that awaits him otherwise, as Anand found out in 2013.
India’s defending champion, playing in his home town Chennai, got sucked into long-drawn end games instead of taking his chances in the complexity of middle games.
Carlsen has a solid all-round game with no obvious chinks. And in seemingly boring end games with only a draw in sight, he finds ways to win, seizing on the slightest error by a tired opponent. So a war of attrition with him rarely pays off. That makes guerilla tactics the better option for Nepo to jolt Carlsen out of his comfort zone. The Norwegian world champion is a clear favourite, being the top-rated player currently in all forms of chess — classic, rapid, and blitz. Perhaps this is the semifinal before he meets his future challenger, Iranian-born Alireza Firouzja who rose this week to second place in the classic chess ratings behind Carlsen.
The 18-year-old is the youngest player ever to break the 2800-point rating barrier. Carlsen was also 18 when he broke into this exclusive club. Nepo earned the right to challenge Carlsen by winning the Candidates Tournament. Then the world championship got delayed by the covid pandemic. Now the winner in Dubai will know that Firouzja will be waiting for him. Chess has drawn a worldwide following because of the smartness associated with it. And even though nothing happens for long stretches of time between moves, all the analysis and historical context during those junctures make it compelling for watchers, especially online.
Dubai will be the cynosure for this global chess community over the next three weeks.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at email@example.com
2021 World Chess Championship Match
Venue: Expo 2020 Dubai
Dates: November 26-December 15
Magnus Carlsen (Norway)
World ranking: 1
Record: Current World Chess champion, World Rapid Chess champion and World Blitz Chess champion
Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia)
Age: 31. World ranking: 5
Record: FIDE Candidates tournament champion
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