The World Champion title in chess is different from the same title in the other kinds of sports where usually the holder can be changed every year. This is why the Olympic Gold is more valuable: the event takes place once in 4 years. To become the world champion in chess, one must beat the previous holder in a match. This is why the span can be much bigger. Let’s mention that Emanuel Lasker held the World Champion title for 27 years straight!
In the history of chess, there have been only 16 World Champions (plus a few FIDE World Champions) so far. This makes the holder of the title extremely exceptional and influential. For many people, it is a synonym of the smartest person in the world. This is one of the reasons why the World Championship matches attract so much attention. Even those who have never played chess before start following the events.
Why are there so few world champions? What is the system?
Traditionally the title is played out in a match between two players – the current champion and the candidate. Usually, it is the winner of the Candidates Tournament: an event where all the strongest players except for the current champion participate. You can imagine how much it takes to prevail in such a strong field, but even harder is to win the following match against the best player!
With the matches-based system, it is almost impossible to become a world champion only due to some luck. The candidate has to show their best to surpass the experienced champion in a long match.
Moreover, throughout the history of chess, the champion had a lot of privileges. For example, many times the matches finished with an equal score were counted as a victory for the current champion, since the contender was supposed to show their superiority. Recently, this rule was abolished, but it made a huge impact on the history of the title and reduced the number of champions considerably.
Meet the Candidate Ian Nepomniachtchi
The latest Candidates Tournament took place in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
The event started in March of 2020 but had to be postponed due to the pandemic situation. The participants had a whole year to prepare for the remaining games, and the world was curious to see who will get more out of the given time. The most consistent result was shown by the Russian grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi. He convincingly won the event with a round to spare.
Ian has been showing great results lately and recently reached the highest classical rating in his career – 2792. He will start the match as No. 5 in the world with 2782.
He is quite an aggressive player with a great feel for dynamic possibilities and initiative. A dangerous opponent for anyone, he usually starts the game as White with 1.e4, but sometimes tries closed openings too. As Black, his main weapons are the Grunfeld Defense and the Sicilian Najdorf, but probably he will come up with something new for the match.
The reigning King Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen became the World Champion in 2013 after beating Vishy Anand in the match. Later, he defended his title three times – against Vishy Anand again, Sergey Karjakin, and Fabiano Caruana. This experience can prove to be his vital advantage in the upcoming fight against Nepomniachtchi. Also, Magnus is currently the World Champion at blitz and rapid. His peak rating of 2882 is the highest in chess history.
His style is universal but usually, people compare him with such geniuses of positional play as Anatoly Karpov, Jose Raul Capablanca, and Robert Fischer. He usually varies his openings as White, whereas as Black, we can expect the Sicilian or the Ruy Lopez Defenses against 1.e4.
Friends and rivals
Both players were born in 1990 and have been competing with each other since childhood. Their first encounter in classical chess happened in the European Championship under 12 in 2002. Nepomniachtchi won that game and later improved the score by beating young Magnus in the World Championship under 14 in 2003.
After that, they didn’t play any serious games until 2011. It is logical: in 2004, Magnus became a grandmaster and started his rapid ascent to the top of the chess world. Ian’s way to the elite level chess was slower (he became a grandmaster 3 years later than Carlsen), so the players spent their youth at competitions of different levels. But in 2011, the traditional super tournament at the Dutch Wijk aan Zee brought the old rivalry back. We can only guess how desirable the revenge was for the higher-rated Magnus, but he lost again. Later, Ian repeated the success with Black pieces in the London Chess Classic in 2017.
The score of their classical encounters became disastrous for the World Champion: 4-0. In 2019, Carlsen managed to beat Nepomniachtchi for the first time in a classical game and reduced the gap to 4-1. The rest eight games between the two were finished in a draw.
Rivals over the chessboard, they were actually friends in the real life. It is known they used to train together. Nepomniachtchi was even helping Carlsen in his matches against Vishy Anand. In 2014, Ian published a picture on Instagram for the first time – it was a selfie with Magnus.
Sometimes you can also see them laughing during tournament games:
But now they will have to confront each other. From the history of their encounters, one might think Nepomniachtchi is the favorite. But do their childhood games really matter now?
Also, Magnus has a better score against Ian in rapid and blitz games: the Norwegian won 22 games and lost only 10. 32 games finished in a draw.
For Ian Nepomniachtchi, it seems to be the main competition of his career or even life. Magnus Carlsen also has much at stake. It seems like the players must have the best preparation possible and can’t waste a single second of their precious time. We can imagine them researching chess openings all day long, analyzing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, playing secret sparring games against strong grandmasters, solving tactics, training physically and mentally.
Well, recently Ian Nepomniachtchi took the symbolic kick-off in a soccer match for the Russian FC Spartak Moscow.
He also played an intellectual game called “What? Where? When?” on Russian TV. Meanwhile, Magnus Carlsen went to Dortmund to watch a Champions League match and meet another famous Norwegian Erling Haaland. He was also frequently seen on lichess.org, playing thousands of blitz and bullet games.
But well, of course, they have been preparing a lot and needed some breaks from chess as well. More specifically, it is known that Nepomniachtchi lost about 10 kilograms during his physical preparation for the match. For the Candidates tournament, his team consisted of grandmasters Vladimir Potkin, Ildar Khairullin, Nikita Vitiugov, and most interestingly Peter Leko.
It was definitely the Hungarian grandmaster who made Ian’s play at the tournament more pragmatic and consistent. Moreover, Peter has the experience of playing in a World Championship match. This is going to be extremely valuable for Nepomniachtchi now. Moreover, Sergey Karjakin, who encountered Magnus Carlsen in a match in 2016 (and was even leading at some point), also revealed that he started helping Ian with preparation.
Carlsen’s team in different years included such strong grandmasters as Peter Heine Nielsen, Jon Ludvig Hammer, Laurent Fressinet, Jan Gustafsson, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Pavel Eljanov, Pentala Harikrishna, Sam Shankland, and some other players.
A creative Russian grandmaster Daniil Dubov was a great help for Magnus before and during his match against Fabiano Caruana. But this time, he most likely will not be helping any team. Carlsen recently mentioned he would have some new seconds, but the details remain secret.
Most of the grandmasters and chess experts agree that Magnus is a clear favorite. Yet, Nepomniachtchi’s style seems quite unpleasant for the Norwegian and, as you could see above, has caused a lot of issues to him already.
On the other hand, Magnus himself recently admitted that facing Fabiano Caruana or Ding Liren instead would be much harder for him.
He also revealed his intentions to strike early in the match: he thinks Nepomniachtchi can collapse after a loss.
Will these words affect the candidate’s mood?
Did he work on the weaknesses that Magnus is hoping to exploit?
We will see it soon but as of now, most sources give 60-70% for Carlsen’s win.
Match Format (Technical Information)
The 14-games long match will be held in Dubai as a part of Expo2020. The first game is scheduled for Friday, November 26th. With five rest days in total, the last 14th game is scheduled for Tuesday, December 14th.
The time control for each game will be 120 minutes for the first 40 moves, followed by 60 minutes for the next 20 moves, and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game, with an increment of 30 seconds per move starting from move 61.
If the classical part of the match ends in a draw, a tiebreak match with faster time controls will be played. If the rapid and blitz do not determine the winner, an Armageddon game will decide everything.
The prize fund is $2 million: 60% vs 40% for the winner and loser. If the classical part of the match ends in a draw, the split will be 55% to 45%.
Will the experts’ predictions come true, and Magnus will win? Or maybe Nepomniachtchi will fulfill his dream? We will find out soon. Stay tuned!
Lennart Ootes, FIDE World FR Chess Championship 2019 – Magnus Carlsen, CC BY-SA 4.0
Etery Kublashvili, Ian Nepomniachtchi at Superfinal of the Russian Chess Championship, Satka, 2018, CC BY-SA 3.0