Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi: World Championship Preview

Three years and one pandemic since Magnus Carlsen defeated Fabiano Caruana in London to defend his title for a 3rd time, the World Chess Championship match is back! This time Magnus faces Russian underdog Ian Nepomniachtchi, whose late surge into the Top 5 has been perfectly timed to win the Candidates Tournament and earn the right to challenge Magnus to a €2 million showdown. The 14-game match kicks off on Friday, November 26th in Dubai and we’ve got an amazing commentary line-up, featuring Anish Giri and Judit Polgar.

Let’s take a look at some of the details.

Who are the players?

30-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen became world no. 1 at the age of 19 and in 2013, aged 22, he defeated Vishy Anand to become the World Chess Champion. He’s held onto the title ever since, recently celebrated 10 years unbroken as the world no. 1, and has dominated in fast and online chess as well. He’s one of a handful of players spoken of as the greatest of all time.

Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi is just four months older than Magnus and held the edge over his Norwegian rival in junior events before 12-year-old Magnus took over on the rating list in October 2003 and never looked back. Ian had impressive performances, including winning the Russian and European Championships in 2010, but remarkably it wasn’t until 2019 that he finally entered the Top 10. He’ll start the match as the world no. 5.

How did they qualify?

Magnus Carlsen plays as the reigning World Champion. Since first winning the title in 2013, he’s defended it three times: against the same opponent, Vishy Anand, in 2014, then against Sergey Karjakin in 2016 and Fabiano Caruana in 2018. 

Ian Nepomniachtchi qualified for the 8-player Candidates Tournament by finishing in 2nd place in the 2019 FIDE Grand Prix. The 2020 Candidates in Yekaterinburg, Russia started just as the pandemic was forcing lockdowns around the world and had to be stopped at the midway point, with Ian in the joint lead but having lost his last game. The event finally resumed only 389 days later, but Ian’s nerves held strong as he won with a round to spare — earning the right to play Magnus.

What’s at stake?

The World Chess Championship title and the 60% winner’s share of the €2 million prize fund (split 55:45 if a playoff is needed). 

Nothing in the world of chess can match the prestige of the World Championship title for games played at the “classical” time control, where each player has 3-4 hours to complete their moves. Magnus is only the 16th undisputed World Chess Champion since Wilhelm Steinitz beat Johannes Zukertort 10 wins to 5 back in 1886. 

If you want to revel in all the twists and turns since, don’t miss The World Chess Championship Matches video series by Jan Gustafsson and Laurent Fressinet, grandmasters who have an intimate knowledge of World Championships after working for Magnus during his matches. 

With one section still to be added, the series is already over 20 hours long! 

What’s the format?

The match will be played as best of 14 games, with the first player to reach 7.5 points declared the winner. If the match is tied 7:7 we get a playoff day, when the players play increasingly fast games to produce a winner.

The 14-game format is new for 2021, since all eight matches since Kramnik-Topalov in 2006 have been played as best of 12. The hope is that more games will allow the players to take more risks early on, but these matches have a tendency to come down to the wire. For instance, the last 14-game match in 2004 saw Vladimir Kramnik win the final game to tie the scores at 7:7 and retain his title. 

How much time do the players have?

This is another area where the 2021 match is experimenting! For the 14 classical games each player is allotted the following time: 120 minutes for 40 moves, then 60 mins for the next 20, then 15 to the end of the game.

That time seems more generous than in previous matches (100/40, 50/20), but there’s a twist! A 30-second increment — time added to a player’s clock after they make a move — is only added from move 61.

So the total time is identical, but there’s a real possibility a player might “lose on time” because he can’t physically make his moves in time, something you rarely see when 30 seconds are added after a move.

Another detail that ups the pressure on the players slightly is that they can’t offer each other draws until after move 40. In 2018, it was move 30.

If the match is tied after the classical games, as the matches were in 2018 and 2016, the title will be decided in a playoff on the following day. That consists of:

  • 4 rapid games: 25 minutes + a 10-second increment each move. If still tied, then,
  • 2 blitz games: 5+3
  • Up to 4 more such pairs of games
  • Armageddon

If it did go all the way to that last option the two exhausted players would face a single late-night game where White has 5 minutes to Black’s 4, but Black only needs a draw to claim the title. Whatever happened, we could also expect a chess world meltdown.  

Where are they playing?

The match is taking place in the Dubai Exhibition Centre as part of Expo 2020 Dubai, an event which, as the name suggests, was delayed by the pandemic. Preparations are well underway!

When are they playing?   

The action begins at 16:30 local time on Friday, November 26th. Here are some of the times around the world.

The schedule is another change for 2021, with the previous leisurely rhythm of two games, then a rest day, sped up with three blocks of three games in a row, including at the very start. There are five rest days and it will all be over in under three weeks.

Where can I watch?

We may be biased, but we’d suggest watching the 2021 FIDE World Chess Championship match right here on chess24, where you can select the language and stream of your choice by clicking the flags underneath the video.

We’ll have live video from the venue, Tania Sachdev and Rune Friborg will be roving reporters in Dubai, and we’ve got two amazing commentary teams.

Dutch no. 1 Anish Giri is the player who pushed Ian Nepomniachtchi hardest in the qualifying event for the match, and he commentated here on chess24 during the 2018 World Championship match. He’ll be joined by Judit Polgar, the strongest female chess player of all time and the official commentator for the last two matches.

Our team based in Oslo also needs absolutely no introduction, since it’s the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour crew of David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare providing a slick and beginner-friendly take on all the action.

Who’s the favourite?

In terms of pure ratings and careers so far, it’s hard to look past Magnus, who starts the match with a huge 73-point lead on the rating list, with 2855 to Nepo’s 2782. It’s no surprise that however you crunch those numbers you come away with Magnus as a very strong favourite to win the event (81.5% by Chess By The Numbers, 83.5% by FiveThirtyEight). 

Magnus also has all the experience of World Championship matches to draw on, but his lack of any false modesty was shown when he was asked about that factor by Jonathan Tisdall in an interview for New in Chess (that’s from the latest issue, while you can also check out a free Carlsen-Nepo special).

Tisdall: Do you think that your previous match experience is maybe your biggest advantage?

Carlsen: No, my biggest advantage is that I am better at chess.

Nevertheless, you can make a case for Nepomniachtchi.

The head-to-head score

In the same New in Chess interview Magnus summed up his performance in the 2021 Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. 

I felt that this season I was first among equals, which is of course OK, but it’s not what I aspire to. 

Only total domination is enough for Magnus, and it’s seen in his plus score against his long-term rivals in the elite. Anish Giri held out for a long time after winning their first game, but now it’s 4:1 for Magnus. Peter Svidler had a plus, but that’s gone too. The only top player remaining with an edge over Magnus is Ian Nepomniachtchi, who has a remarkable 4:1 score in his favour in classical games.

Rustam Kasimdzhanov, who worked as a World Championship second for both Vishy Anand and Fabiano Caruana, has looked at those games, but also their whole careers, including the faster time controls where Magnus nevertheless has the edge.

It’s easy to downplay the scoreline, but it’s clear Ian is one player who knows he can beat Magnus. According to Judit Polgar, he’s also a player who believes he can win the match.

Firstly, the biggest difference I feel is that Nepo is a player who believes he can win the match. I didn’t feel Sergey Karjakin really believed in the possibility that he could become a World Champion by beating Magnus. With Fabiano too, I wasn’t sure, but with Nepo — he has this body language which says, ‘I am going to win and it’s completely fine that I am the next World Champion.’

Motivation

As Vishy Anand commented:

For Magnus it’s inevitably getting difficult, it’s already his fifth match, so I don’t think the fire is burning so hard inside. 

The length of their careers has been the same, but Ian Nepomniachtchi has largely escaped the spotlight, for instance being able to spend 10 hours a day learning to play the video game Dota to a near professional level. Magnus has always been focused on chess, the world no. 1 for over a decade, and the World Champion for eight years. He has to be at his best all the time, and it could grind anyone down. 

For Ian, meanwhile, being at the very top of world chess is something new. He only reached the Top 10 in 2019, the 2020 Candidates was his first, and now it’s his first World Championship match. He’ll of course be nervous, but he also has little to lose and will have all the natural motivation of a challenger. 

The only question is whether that motivation can outweigh the enormous will to win that’s kept Magnus where he is for so long. It’s a level of motivation that can dip while still remaining incredibly high.

A clash of styles

If someone is going to beat Magnus in a match you feel they should look a lot like Nepomniachtchi. Magnus perhaps described it best when commentating on Nepo’s play in the Candidates:

You’re absolutely right that it’s been interesting to play against him since we have different strengths. Ian is somebody who plays very, very quickly, is extremely strong at tactics, can be very, very strong even in simple positions where he can just spot some little tactics, but he has a problem that he can play a little bit too superficially and lose focus.

Certainly for me, it’s been very interesting to play him for many years, since he’s somebody who can definitely outplay me. He cannot always convert, that’s not necessarily his strongest suit, but certainly it’s always been an interesting clash of styles there when we’ve played. I would say that when he’s inspired he can play extremely well, so we would have these training sessions where one day he would feel great and he would have a slight edge or we’d be equal, and then on another day he wouldn’t be in top shape and I would win 7-8 games in a row.

The problem for Nepo is that playing his most natural risky, fast, intuitive style gives him real winning chances, but could also backfire. It’s more likely, perhaps, that we’ll see the solid approach we saw in the second half of the Candidates — and he’ll be hoping that together with his team of Vladimir Potkin, Peter Leko and co. they’ll be able to find chinks in Magnus’ armour. The dream, of course, is to play sharp, “risky” positions that you’ve already analysed in great depth at home! 

Pressure

Sergey Karjakin, who has also been working with Ian Nepomniachtchi, commented of Magnus:

When he doesn’t like what’s happening in a tournament he can psychologically collapse, as my match against Magnus showed. He missed wins in two games, and then he started to play significantly worse. He can psychologically crumble if something isn’t going right — he loses confidence in himself and he starts to perform less well than usual.  

When Sergey took the lead against Magnus in New York in 2016 with just four games to go we witnessed Magnus crack and leave the press conference before it began.

A costly fine followed, and though you might argue the psychological benefits of skipping the press conference were worth it, things would have looked different if Sergey had won a very good position in the next game and taken a 2-point lead with just three games to go. 

Magnus was able to bounce back, but we’ve seen similar moments. He suffered hugely, for instance, in the final round of the 2013 London Candidates, when he lost his game to Peter Svidler but was saved by his rival Vladimir Kramnik also losing. 

Pressure is perhaps one reason Magnus has failed to hit his usual heights in World Championship matches and has had to rely on scraping through in rapid playoffs. As he pointed out himself, it’s seven years since he led during the classical portion of a World Championship match. 

So you can certainly point to Magnus having vulnerabilities under pressure, but you could also file that under,“he’s human after all”. Ian is unlikely to be feeling less pressure in his first World Championship match and Magnus has the experience of bouncing back when it matters most.  

The Firouzja factor

One new narrative going into the match is that the chess world is already anticipating another match. As Vishy Anand put it, reflecting on 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja’s stunning climb to world no. 2 during the European Team Championship: 

Now I think people are impatient already — can we have the next match, with him and Magnus!  

In a way it recalls the 2012 FIDE World Championship match when Vishy Anand took on Boris Gelfand. Magnus was already the clear top dog in world chess, but had chosen to skip that World Championship cycle. It would have been a wonderful story if Boris had won the match, but Anand-Carlsen was the match that would matter more in chess history.

This time Carlsen-Firouzja would potentially be a match for the ages, but it could be delayed or derailed entirely if Nepo was to win in Dubai. Does that put a little more pressure on Magnus, or boost his motivation? It’s hard to tell, but the newly-minted French citizen is already casting a shadow.

Make your predictions!

Now it’s your turn! Our friends at Aimchess have set up a Magnus-Nepo predictions page where you can predict the outcome and various details of each game. There’s a chance to win prizes that include a chessboard signed by Magnus. 

Sit back and enjoy! 

Then it’s just time to sit back, relax and tune in to three weeks of chess played for the highest stakes imaginable. Will Magnus win his 5th title, or will Ian pull off one of the biggest shocks in World Championship history? We’re about to find out!

Follow the Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi World Chess Championship live here on chess24 from Friday November 26th!

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