Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi: Young Rivals

When Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi sit down on November 26 in Dubai to play Game 1 of the World Chess Championship match it will be the latest instalment of a rivalry that began in youth events in 2002. David Howell talks about facing the two future stars in the Under 12 World Youth Championship in the first part of a documentary produced by chess24’s German site. Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Jan Gustafsson also talk about Magnus and Ian and especially the impact they made when they were just starting out. 

Don’t miss Part 1 of a video documentary following the career of World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen and his challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi. The video is produced by our German site, but you can select English subtitles at YouTube for the interviews with Jan and Rustam:

For those who prefer to read, we’ve added the English text of the interviews below, and included a couple of the games mentioned.   

David Howell: 

I remember even in the build-up to that event, even in the 12 months beforehand, these two names had been spoken about. There was also Karjakin, who was born in 1990, but Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi, they were the two big dogs, and already they had pretty high ratings at what was it, 11 years old, they were already on 2300, around there, and I remember a lot was expected from them. And at the time I think they were, how would I describe it, frenemies, they knew they were rivals, and especially after the last round, when Magnus was devastated that Nepomniachtchi had overtaken him and won the gold. I think that’s where they maybe had this mental respect, it was born at this event.

That generation that Ian was part of, there were players such as Karjakin, Andreikin, Khairullin, there were lots of players around the same rating, so maybe it was harder to stand out.

Rustam Kasimdzhanov:

It’s complicated! We knew early on, it wasn’t really a secret, that [Nepomniachtchi’s] very gifted. He was known as extraordinary very early on, even in Russia, which has a lot of very strong young players. 

David Howell:

He knew he was talented, but maybe the discipline wasn’t there in terms of sitting at the board and working hard at the board. Of course he was working extremely hard away from the board with some great coaches, but at the board I did notice even then that he’d be playing very quickly. 

Rustam Kasimdzhanov:

And then, at some point, it also ended. He reached a certain level, I don’t know 2730, 2740, but it didn’t really progress further, but certain trademarks remained. For example, his incredible speed, which we didn’t really experience like that back in the day. We saw it maybe through Anand. And, of course, it has the effect of putting the opponent under a lot of pressure. The opponent has to adapt to it. If I’m used to, for example, making a move and then being able to relax, maybe go to the bathroom or walk around and look at the other games, against Anand back then, and Nepo now, that’s just not possible. You always get a move within a minute and you have to keep working at it. 

Jan Gustafsson:

I just think he’s very confident. And that he thinks that when his game is going well, and he gets a playable position, he’s able to play against and beat anyone. He’s also not afraid of what the engine might say, or to be out of book. Rather he believes in himself and his strength. Basically, his confidence, combined with his great ability, is his great strength. He just says, “come on, let’s play chess!”

I’ve known him for a long time. I’m an old man now. I played against Nepo in perhaps my best tournament in Dortmund, in the last round. And the game decided who would win the tournament. Even then he was playing for victory in the tournament. In my view he was a top player even back then. I don’t know how old he was, maybe 16, 17? That’s why he’s been on people’s radar for a long time, and even if his rating wasn’t the best compared to the absolute best, in like 2010/2011, the Russians still believed in him and had him in their team. 

David Howell:

At the board I did notice even then that he’d be playing very quickly. Occasionally there would be some small slips here and there, so I think it was just consistency, more than anything, and Magnus of course, he’s had that throughout his career. Even at that young age he was dedicated to the game. At the board, this game alone in the 2002 World Championships, he would sit there for five hours and torture me in some endgame. That’s something he still does now and has done throughout his career.  

1. ♘f3
2. c4
3. ♘c3
4. d4
5. ♘xd4
6. ♘xc6
7. g3
8. ♗g2
9. O-O
10. ♕a4
11. ♖d1
12. c5
13. ♘xd5
14. ♗xd5
15. ♗e3
16. ♕c4
17. ♖ab1
18. ♖xb1
19. ♗f3
20. ♖d1
21. h4
22. ♔g2
23. h5
24. ♗g4
25. ♕e4
26. cxd6
27. ♕xg4
28. ♖xd6
29. ♕c4
30. ♕xd5
31. f4
32. gxf4
33. ♔f3
34. ♗c5
35. e3
36. ♔e2
37. ♔d3
38. ♗d4
39. ♗c3
40. ♗e5
41. ♔c3
42. ♗f6
43. ♔d3
44. ♔d4
45. ♗e5+
46. ♔d3
47. ♗f6
48. ♔d4
49. ♗h8
50. ♗e5
51. ♔c3
52. ♗d4
53. ♗e5

David reminded Magnus about this game in a now famous video clip.

Rustam Kasimdzhanov:

When Magnus dominated the tour, Leko and me weren’t around anymore. For us, Magnus is the somewhat “unknown”. We, the people of my generation, always ask ourselves, “How is it possible that someone is this strong?” It’s an unknown for us. You can play an equal opening, you can play a reasonable game, you survive to a dead-drawn endgame… and still lose! 

He’s just different in many aspects. You’d honestly have to ask Nepo, MVL or Caruana, what is it that makes Magnus so special? What can you do against him? The belief is that you can’t do a whole lot, except maybe for Nepo, because he’s the only one who has a positive score against Magnus. Even though a lot of those games are somewhat older, it still gives him a bit of security and confidence. He knows from experience that Magnus can be beaten. 

David Howell:

For Ian, I think maybe the psychological part is the most important, because Magnus has this experience, he’s played people he knows and respects very well. Magnus has had time to develop mental toughness where you can relax, you can be yourself, you can show weakness, but when it comes to the board you’re strong. Whereas Ian, I think, he may be this kind of Kasparov mentality with him against the world, where he thinks he’s up against it, maybe that might actually help him to focus and to stay in the zone. The friend part of the frenemies, I think that will be thrown out the door as soon as the first game starts. 

Ian Nepomniachtchi (interviewed by Eteri Kublashvili for the Russian Chess Federation):

We first played, I guess, the European Championship U12, in Spain in 2002, and back then it was just another simple game for me. Ok, some weird guy from Norway, not a traditional chess country, so I wasn’t really excited about this game, so he played well, but then ok, he just collapsed, and I won.

1. e4
2. e5
3. ♘f3
4. d4
5. ♘xe5
6. ♗c4
7. ♘c3
8. O-O
9. ♕f3
10. ♖e1
11. ♕g3
12. dxe5
13. ♕xc3
14. ♕xc4
15. ♕e2
16. ♗g5
17. ♕e3
18. a4
19. ♗f4
20. ♕e4
21. c3
22. h3
23. ♕e2
24. a5
25. a6
26. ♕e4
27. ♕xd5
28. ♖a5
29. ♔f1
30. ♗e3
31. ♗d4
32. ♖b1
33. b3
34. ♖a2
35. cxd4
36. b4
37. ♖d1
38. ♖c2
39. d5
40. d6
41. ♖b1

And then suddenly I played against him again in the World Championship in the same year, and we ended up sharing first place and I think I won the tournament due to the tiebreaks, so of course then we also clashed a couple of times in the Youth Championships, but soon enough he stopped playing them. We know each other for almost 20 years, and at some point, back in 2010-2012, we used to work a little together. We had some sessions for two or three years. Once I even was a second of Magnus in some London tournament, this was in 2012, I might be mistaken. 

He’s a very nice personality, a very nice dude, and I can’t say that we are close friends, but we have quite a nice relationship. But you can have no friends over the board, and I think we were never friendly to each other when we were playing chess, and especially in speaking about the match, we probably should…

Forget about your past? 

No, it’s not about forgetting about the past or the future. For now, of course, it’s a rivalry, and while we are in this undeclared war the situation has changed a little.

The 2nd part of the documentary will be published on our German YouTube page on Friday 12th November. 

The World Chess Championship 2021 starts on November 26th, with Judit Polgar and Anish Giri commentating live on all the action for chess24 — or alternatively we have the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour team of David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.

All the moves will of course be broadcast live here on chess24.

See also: 

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