This is the first time Magnus Carlsen has a lead in the world championship of classical chess since 2014 when he defended the title he had taken from Viswanathan Anand the previous year. Seven years is a long time for a world champion to remain at the apex without actually winning a series in the classical format. That’s set to change in Dubai where Carlsen has pulled ahead to a seemingly unassailable 6½ — 3½ lead over Ian Nepomniachtchi, with only four games to go in the ongoing 14-game classical world chess championship.
All 12 classical games were drawn in Carlsen’s 2018 world championship clash with Fabiano Caruana, while in 2016, he lost a game to Sergey Karjakin before equalising. Both those championships were decided by tiebreaks in rapid chess format.
It’s not surprising that Carlsen, who is also the current world rapid chess champion, won the tiebreaks. But aficionados wondered if he was still good enough to win with classical time controls or whether he could now only beat the top challengers with time pressure. Many questioned the format, suggesting that the amount of computerised preparation that the grandmasters brought to these championships made it unlikely to produce a true classical winner. Even the 2012 championship match between Anand and Boris Gelfand was settled with a tiebreak.
It rankled with Carlsen himself that his era was being defined by draws and tiebreaks.
“I’m just really, really anxious to show more of what I’m capable of than I have been able to [so far],” he said at a press conference ahead of the World Championship in Dubai.
We got a clue to what that meant in the eighth move of the very first game when the Norwegian world champion moved his knight to the side of the board. This went against conventional wisdom because the knights are the most powerful at the centre. Analysts observed, however, that it was a recommended line in that position by Leela Zero, a neural-network-based artificial intelligence chess engine.
This not only showed Carlsen’s deep preparation but also a contrarian strategy. Most pundits had expected Nepomniachtchi, aka Nepo, to be the aggressor, surmising that would be the best bet for the Russian challenger to upset the Norwegian’s applecart. Instead, right through this championship, it’s Carlsen who has been going out on a limb, often putting himself on shaky ground. He almost lost Game 2 in his eagerness to press forward in attack, failing to spot a counterattack in which he had to trade a rook for a knight.
This did not deter him from his plan to keep deviating from the usual theoretical lines, whether he had the advantage of white pieces or played second fiddle with black. He trusted himself to get out of the sticky situations he was creating. The denouement came in Game 6 where Nepo had a solid defence with black but Carlsen complicated matters by giving up his queen for two rooks. Still, a draw was the likely result.
Carlsen pressed on, however, true to his reputation for being able to squeeze juice out of a rock in end games. He even traded one of his rooks for a bishop and a pawn to break down Nepo’s defensive structure. The relentlessness also broke Nepo’s concentration as inaccuracies crept into his play.
The world champion is a past master at converting these minuscule advantages into something substantial. And so it transpired that after a world championship record 136 moves in seven hours and 45 minutes, Nepo resigned. This was as epic a game as any in classical chess, with Carlsen “running on fumes” towards the end of it, as he remarked at the post-game press conference.
To inflict the equivalent of death by a thousand cuts in chess requires a combination of technical mastery, psychological stability, and the physical fitness to maintain intense concentration over a long period of time. That’s the stuff that chess world champions are made of.
In an interview right before the championship, given to the manager of a hotel in Spain where Carlsen was staying with his team to prepare for the event, the champion remarked: “The main component of preparation is theoretical, but physical preparation is also important, to be your best self in every way, both chess-wise and physically.” Game 6 tested the limits of both attributes.
Boris Spassky stood and applauded Bobby Fischer after their famous Game 6 in which the American prodigy took the lead in the 1972 championship in an era when Russians ruled chess. Fischer’s Queen’s Gambit opening inspired the title of a series on Netflix whose release late last year led to a spurt in interest in the game. The pawn sacrifice involved in that opening is also the title of a movie about Fischer.
The Carlsen-Nepo Game 6 was no less dramatic in effect. The win opened the floodgates for Carlsen, who had played out 19 draws before that in world championship games going all the way back to 2016.
After an uneventful Game 7 between two exhausted opponents, Nepo blundered twice to hand the next two games on a platter to the world champion. These were simple oversights that you would not expect from any grandmaster, let alone the winner of the Candidates Tournament who had earned the right to challenge Carlsen.
Partly it was because Nepo was now being more adventurous in his effort to equalise quickly. In the first half, it appeared he was more intent on avoiding mistakes, and waiting for Carlsen to crumble under the weight of expectations. Now the situation was different. But it isn’t easy to change tack in the middle of a championship for which one has prepared for months, and it was Nepo who proved psychologically brittle.
Just as Anand had predicted before the championship, “Ian has huge swings and that is a big question mark. He can swing on the up, but he can also swing in the other direction.”
Game 10 was a tame draw after the previous two sharp games were ruined by blunders. Nepo, who was all bluster with a samurai-like man-bun at the start of the championship, was a shadow of that self, losing the samurai look with a hair-cut and sitting morosely at the table instead of stalking off to his lair between moves as he had been doing. He played the solid Petroff Defence with black which he had already used more than once earlier. Carlsen, on his part, decided to play safe too, unwilling to embark on any further adventures, which is understandable with the title within his reach.
Perhaps when the players return on Friday for Game 11, after the rest day, Nepo will try for a final rally with white pieces. But with Carlsen needing just two more draws or one win in the remaining four games, attention has already shifted to his next likely opponent — the 18-year-old Iranian-born French player Alireza Firouzja, who has become the youngest-ever to reach an Elo rating of 2800, and is already ranked second behind Carlsen.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at email@example.com
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