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Chess

Teenage Grandmaster Pulls Off Stunning Upset Over Magnus Carlsen

BEVERWIJK, NETHERLANDS - JANUARY 21: Andrey Evgenyevich Esipenko of Russia competes against Fabiano Caruana of the United States of America during the 83rd Tata Steel Chess Tournament held in Dorpshuis De Moriaan on January 21, 2021 in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Norwegian chess wizard Magnus Carlsen sits atop the FIDE rapid and overall world rankings, but the format in which he truly excels is classical chess. He’s the top-ranked classical player in the world, of course, though a more impressive metric of his dominance was his 125-game, two-year unbeaten streak which is comfortably the longest confirmed stretch without a loss in chess history. When Jan-Krzysztof Duda finally beat him last October, Carlsen immediately got his revenge and whooped him in just 26 moves the next day.

All of which is to say: Andrey Esipenko’s upset victory over Carlsen on Sunday morning at the Netherlands’ Tata Steel tournament ranks as a significant surprise. The 18-year-old grandmaster certainly has the pedigree of a future star, as he’s one of two teenagers ranked in the top-60, but he’s still establishing himself. I mean, this is his picture on the FIDE site right now.

While we’re on the subject, this picture was taken after Carlsen had already been the world number one for years.

After the win, Esipenko called it one of the greatest days of his life. Esipenko played an aggressive game today, putting himself in a strong position relatively early when he forced a knight sacrifice and got Carlsen to make a slip-up. These commentators can explain the game-breaking play better than I can.

Carlsen now sits at eighth in the 14-player tournament, with one win, six draws, and now, one loss. Even a player as good as Carlsen shouldn’t be expected to win every tournament he enters, and Tata Steel’s field is stocked with most of the other top players in the world, so it’s not like his mid-pack standing is evidence that he’s cooked. However, this is Carlsen’s first tournament since he dropped a pair of games to Russian grandmaster Daniil Dubov in late December. One of those losses also came down to a big blunder by Carlsen, and he tweeted after the tournament that he was in a “deep funk.”

I should note that Carlsen earned his lone win at Tata Steel with real flair against 17-year-old prodigy and current tournament leader Alireza Firouzja. If Carlsen’s eyebrow-raising series of losses over the past few months point to the 30-year-old starting to lose his grip on the top spot in the world rankings, then beating the hotshot half your age is a good way to ease those doubts. Still, the Esipenko loss was a significant one, and wherever Carlsen finishes at Tata Steel, he can’t afford many more blunders like this one.