It’s a phenomenal time to be a chess fan. We can follow more and higher-quality tournaments than ever before in history. We have access to more and better learning resources available free online than the proprietary learning that the best private chess schools could ever offer to their students in the past. And the very nature of our beautiful game means that today’s elite players are able to give their fans a far more intimate, realistic, and rewarding insight to their artistry than stars in any other profession.
And that was all before the twin forces of popular and cellular culture combined to take chess from existing in the popular imagination merely as a byword for intellectualism and thrust it as a concrete endeavor right to the forefront of global and personal entertainment.
So, what better time to jump on the chess train? The 2021 World Chess Championship starts this Friday: Magnus Carlsen will defend his crown against Ian Nepomniachtchi in a best-of-14-game match to be held in Dubai across the next two-and-a-half weeks. Here’s everything you need to know! (Need a refresher on chess before we get started? Check out my guide from a bygone website.)
If there’s one chess player you should know, it’s Magnus Carlsen. He’s been world champion since 2013, is the highest-rated player of all time, and has held the world #1 spot for more than a decade continuously.
Chess is firmly in the Carlsen era. He’s modern chess’s one true rock star, beloved within the chess community, and a bona fide mainstream celebrity in his native Norway. He’s appeared as himself on The Simpsons, participated in a recent Norwegian version of the TV show Last One Laughing, and even tried his hand as a rapper. Oh, and he’s a fantasy soccer expert, coming an astounding tenth overall in the official English Premier League fantasy league for the 2019-20 season. He was also a bit of a Bieber lookalike in his younger days.
Carlsen is chasing GOAT status, and is amassing a CV which could one day challenge Garry Kasparov for that most desirable of all titles. (Some chess observers might place their vote for 1940s-60s world champion Mikhail Botvinnik as the greatest ever to push a pawn, but the fairly uncontroversial broad consensus is that Kasparov, with five-and-a-half world championship wins and 22 years as world No. 1, stands at the mountaintop, with Carlsen on his way. And don’t be a mark—it’s not one-time champ Bobby Fischer, great as he was.) Carlsen is peerless in the modern game: Inimitable world No. 10 Alexander Grischuk once compared him to “a mixture of Messi, Bolt, and Schwarzenegger.”
Ian Nepomniachtchi stands as an annoying obstacle in Carlsen’s path to the apex of chess history, like a nightclub bouncer insisting on seeing a 40-year-old’s ID.
Our challenger is a fun guy: He has a wry sense of humour, a distinctive man-bun, and plays as fast as he talks. Call him “Nepo” for short, but be sure to pronounce his first name like “Jan”, with a soft “J” (when Romanized, the man himself spells it “Yan”). He’s got no shortage of confidence, and will have not one iota of fear when he sits across from the champion in Dubai.
As a young player, Nepomniachtchi was always known as a special talent, even within the famed Russian system. He won several junior tournaments (including the under-12 category in the 2002 World Youth Championship, ahead of Carlsen) and was earmarked for greatness. Nepo didn’t make the jump to the very top tier for years, although he was always regarded as a potential top-level player. He suffered from inconsistency, often starting tournaments strong but collapsing halfway through (something Carlsen has cited heading into this match), and by his own accord he did not put enough work in to his game, preferring to spend time streaming Hearthstone and Dota rather than spending long hours preparing for tournaments. At some point, Nepo got his act together, entering the world top 10 for the first time in 2019, and he currently sits at world No. 5.
Will Muscovite Nepomniachtchi bring the world chess championship back to the Motherland? Well, by one interpretation, no he absolutely won’t! You may recall that the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2019 banned Russian athletes from representing their country in Olympics or world championships for four years (later reduced on appeal to two years, until the end of 2022, by the Court of Arbitration for Sport), all because of a little [mocking air quotes] “systematic doping.” For some reason, this ban extends to the frickin’ World Chess Championship, and so Ian Nepomniachtchi will be playing under the banner of governing body FIDE, with its lame-ass flag next to him. And if you think WADA are kidding around, check out this contraband Russian flag and nameplate being snatched away during live play in the 2021 women’s Draughts World Championship. Jeez!
Since 2018: Magnus Dominates and the Chess Boom Arrives
The last time we discussed chess on a different website back in November 2018, Magnus Carlsen had defeated Fabiano Caruana in tiebreaks in arguably the highest-quality world championship match ever. Magnus then turned on God Mode throughout 2019, dominating tournament after tournament, equalling his all-time record rating of 2882 in August of that year, and embarking on an all-time record 125-game unbeaten streak which lasted more than two years until Jan-Krzysztof Duda (“the Dude”) bested him in a game in October 2020. Elsewhere, the new generation continued to flourish, as no less than three (!) 12-year-olds consecutively took the record for second-youngest grandmaster of all-time, before American wunderkind Abhimanyu Mishra stole Sergey Karjakin’s all-time record a few months ago, at just 12 years and 4 months old. The usual names jostled around the world top 10, with Caruana and Ding Liren respectively remaining continuously at No. 2 and No. 3 until very recently. Fast-forward to today, and it’s Alireza Firouzja who is the talk of the chess world—the 18-year-old has dominated a succession of elite tournaments like Mike Tyson in the 1980s, as he’s shot up to world No. 2, crossing the 2800-rating barrier (something only 14 people have ever done) six months younger than Carlsen did. It seems inevitable that Firouzja will be the next challenger for the title, a generational showdown the prospect of which has all of us chess nerds rubbing our hands together.
Meanwhile, in the real world, everything exploded! Two factors conspired to cause today’s chess boom—a phrase which does not exaggerate in describing its incredible jump in popularity over the past year-and-a-half. First, the pandemic caused the world to shut down and forced everyone to find new sources of entertainment they could access at home. Chess had been growing as an e-sport for years previously, and was perfectly poised to take advantage of the moment. Chess fans can watch online tournaments between elite players, or we can watch those elite players stream themselves playing against randos on any number of platforms. Chess is the perfect analogue sport to translate to the gaming realm: the electronic action is almost identical to that in real-life competition, and while there’s no chance we’ll be able to hear a breathless LeBron James talk us through his split-second decision-making process in a live NBA game (because the action happens too fast and because his opponents could, y’know, hear him), we can indeed listen to Magnus or any number of other all-time greats relay their thoughts and evaluations on a stream, while playing in high-level tournaments or just crushing some lower-level patzers.
Secondly, The Queen’s Gambit became the biggest TV series of 2020, winning 11 Emmys and a Best Actress Golden Globe award for Anya Taylor-Joy. With its realistic portrayal of over-the-board chess (Garry Kasparov was hired as a consultant to the show), it piqued the world’s curiosity in our apparently sexy game, resulting to a renewed bump in interest—a second wave, if you will.
And lo, chess interest did rise: Look at streaming king Hikaru Nakamura’s Twitch numbers for just one piece of evidence of the boom—at the end of 2019, he had 40,000 followers and earned about 3.5 million views per month, while he now boasts a staggering 1.3 million followers and 139 million monthly views. Online playing platforms have reported similar soaring statistics.
So—does that mean chess is cool now? Ha ha, no. Chess will never be cool. [Ruffles your hair] Just remember: The coolest thing you can do is be yourself. On we go, you little scamp!
The match will be held as part of the Expo 2020 Dubai (echoes of the “2020” Tokyo Olympics), in the Dubai Exhibition Centre, way out of town, nearly halfway down the road to Abu Dhabi.
The games could be long: The players get 120 minutes for their first 40 moves, 60 additional minutes added to their clocks after 40 moves, and 15 more minutes after move 60, with 30 additional seconds being added after each move from 61 onwards. So—the games could last all day (Game 1 in 2018 lasted more than six hours), or as little as under one hour if the players stumble into a dead-drawn position. (Side note: The terminology is that any time the players sit down at the board to play, that’s a “game”; while a series of games to determine an ultimate winner is a “match”.)
We’re on for 14 games this time, two more than in 2018. (Since the player with white has an advantage in moving first, the players need to have an equal number of games with each color, and hence an even number of games.) We’ll have one game per day, with rest days sprinkled throughout. If it’s all tied after the bottom of the 14th inning, the match goes to an additional day of short-format tiebreaks (as we did in 2016 and 2018). The €2 million pot will be split 60-40 if one player wins in regulation, or 55-45 if the match goes to extra time.
How did our two protagonists qualify for Dubai? Carlsen benefits from chess’s legislated hegemony: As world champion, he is automatically given the right to defend his title in a single head-to-head match against a challenger every championship cycle (normally every two years). Carlsen won chess’s crown by knocking off Viswanathan Anand in dominant fashion in Chennai in 2013 to become the 16th world champion at just 22 years of age. Anand earned a rematch in Sochi in 2014, which Carlsen won with a game to spare. Sergey Karjakin pushed Carlsen all the way in their New York match in 2016, taking the lead in Game 8 after it had become apparent that Carlsen had not anticipated needing to get out of second gear, before the champ recovered to force tiebreaks which he would go on to win. Fabiano Caruana provided Carlsen’s toughest test to date in London in 2018, with the two drawing all 12 classical games before Carlsen dominated the tiebreaks to become four-time world champion.
Nepomniachtchi was bestowed with the honour of fighting for the title as the winner of the traditional Candidates’ Tournament, and boy did he earn it! The eight-player double round-robin commenced in Yekaterinburg in March 2020. Now, I’m not sure how closely you follow the news, but a contagious disease caused by a certain severe acute respiratory syndrome was having a bit of a moment around that time. So much so, that the Russian government abruptly shut down its international air traffic on the morning of the eighth of the 14 games in that tournament (with Nepo in the joint lead). The well-connected folks in chess’s governing body FIDE (president Arkady Dvorkovich was Russian deputy prime minister for six years, for whatever that’s worth) managed to arrange a charter plane to Amsterdam for the five non-Russki players and their support staff, who were given only a few hours notice of the need to evacuate. That was that for the time being, as the tournament sat on ice for more than a year while a resumption or replacement solution was sought. After several planned restarts were aborted, the tournament resumed in April 2021, and Nepo ended up on the top step, a worthy challenger to the king of chess.
Chess players prepare for their games’ openings like football players eat tape. With the mathematically incomprehensible universe of available opening moves and the constantly evolving state of modern opening theory, there is no scope to slack off in preparation for any tournament, let alone a world championship match for which your opponent has had months to prepare.
Each player will have a team of “seconds”—research assistants, essentially—who will have spent the past few months working around the clock to prepare a specialised opening repertoire to bring to Dubai. In a bit of cosmic poetry, Nepomniachtchi previously seconded for Carlsen, including for his 2014 world championship defense against Vishy Anand. Could we be seeing a repeat of Vladimir Kramnik assisting Garry Kasparov in his match against Anand in 1995 and then taking the crown off him five years later?
As is customary, the players will keep the identity of their teams secret so as to not tip their hand as to what openings they may be preparing. Carlsen’s core team has been stable over the past few years: Peter Heine Nielsen acts as head coach, with Laurent Fressinet, Jan Gustafsson, and Nils Grandelius having been on board for the last two matches. Opening maverick Daniil Dubov assisted Carlsen in 2018 (particularly with the Sveshnikov variation of the Sicilian Defense, which we saw in Games 10 and 12), and as the most exciting opening theoretician in the world we should hope that he’s back again. Team MC held a two-week training camp in the Andalucian city of Cádiz last month to finalise their preparations. Magnus’s father, Henrik, a key member of Magnus’s support team, was recently hospitalized after falling off a roof and injuring his ankle, but will nevertheless make the trip to Dubai.
As for Team Nepo—we should probably expect the Russian chess machine to be fully behind him. Who knows whether Vladimir Putin will chip in a million Euros to fund his preparation (as he was rumoured to have done for Sergey Karjakin in 2016). Vladimir Potkin and former world championship challengers Peter Leko and Karjakin are known to be on his team, and there will be an embarrassment of riches from which to select the remaining team.
To my mind, a big personnel question-mark surrounds Rustam Kasimdzhanov, who, after parting company with 2018 challenger Fabiano Caruana earlier this year, must surely be the most sought-after man in chess, having also been on Team Anand for his three world championship defenses in 2008, ’10, and ’12. The Uzbek legend recently revealed that he’s been working with young gun Arjun Erigaisi, but there’s no way he hasn’t been approached by one or both camps to help in this match—did either make him an offer too good to refuse?
In modern chess, players of course use advanced computer engines to assist with their preparation. Recent technological developments will provide an interesting wrinkle to the teams’ groundwork: while many of the available open-source and proprietary chess engines largely come up with the same evaluations and suggestions, the release (and improvement) of Leela Chess Zero in 2018 has changed the game, since it uses a different decision-making process to most existing engines and therefore provides a fresh perspective on tired openings. Leela is now often used in tandem with (for example) the Stockfish engine to produce a variety of move suggestions which a team can choose from. (My limited understanding is that Stockfish operates on a minimax algorithm, while the self-learning neural network-based Leela uses a Monte Carlo tree based on previous games played, and so does not need to rely as much on depth-of-search in its process. I will not be taking any questions!)
With only 14 games, it’s inevitable that most of the players’ opening prep won’t be shown in the games—Vishy Anand, a career 1.e4 player, switched to 1.d4 for his 2008 world championship match against Vladimir Kramnik, condemning Kramnik’s team’s work against that opening to the dustbin. Magnus has attributed much of his 2019-2020 supernova run to preparation left over from his match against Fabiano Caruana.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Carlsen plays the Queen’s Gambit at least once during the match—this being the same man who played the dubious Trompowsky Attack in Game 1 in 2016 as a kinda-reference to Donald Trump being elected a few days earlier (though Carlsen insists that is not why he played it). I still haven’t watched the show (I’m getting to it!), but here’s a fun fact for ya: The Queen’s Gambit opening isn’t a “true” gambit at all! Hence: Unlike other gambits, it’s actually used with regularity at the top level. With the advance in modern opening theory, opening gambits—where one player sacrifices material in hope of gaining positional compensation—have fallen almost completely out of favor amongst the game’s elite. The classic King’s Gambit, for example (so named because White commences by moving its King’s pawn) has gone the way of the dodo in high-level competition, since the notion has dawned on modern players that sacrificing a kingside pawn on Move 2 turns out to be a horrible idea. With the Queen’s Gambit, however, the pawn is not actually lost, since White can force a recapture, and so the opening is played regularly, with the gambit far more often declined than accepted.
Who Will Win?
I don’t see it as my job to make predictions, but I do see it as my job to give you, dear reader, the proper context going into the match. And so: The bottom line is that it would be an upset if Carlsen didn’t retain his title. Carlsen is objectively a class above Nepomniachtchi, as evidenced by their ratings and rankings gap—Carlsen is world No. 1 with an Elo of 2856, while Nepo is the incumbent world No. 5 with a rating of 2782.
However! The match is still worth your time for two reasons. First: If it does turn out to be a one-sided contest, that’s probably a better result for a neutral fan. Unlike (say) a blowout football contest, the larger the gap in the performance of two chess players, the more entertaining it will be for casual or neutral fans, since the prevalence of draws is often cited as one of our game’s worst qualities.
Secondly: A Carlsen victory is by no means a foregone conclusion, since Nepomniachtchi has famously long been one of the only elite players with a career winning record against Carlsen. His 4-1 (with eight draws) career record puts him in the most exclusive club in chess, alongside only 19-year-old Andrey Esipenko (who beat Carlsen in their first-ever classical game matchup in 2021) and journeyman Ivan Saric—with Carlsen having corrected his deficits against his only other previous bêtes noires, Peter Svidler, Anish Giri, and Richard Rapport, since 2019. Two of Nepomniachtchi’s victories came in under-12 and under-14s competitions, but he’s still 2-1 in classical chess since, with all the mental leverage that that brings. Nepo seems to be awkward matchup for Carlsen, combining the fastest play on the tour with a solid Russian-school opening repertoire and weirdly offbeat middlegame strategic ideas.
You’d surely think that Carlsen wouldn’t play with fire by slacking in his preparation (as he did in 2016), and I’d wager that he won’t. He has spent the last couple of weeks playing a whole bunch of bullet and blitz (one-minute and three-minute) online games on lichess.org, setting the all-time ratings records in each. That can definitely be a legitimate way of keeping one’s skills sharp when employed in conjunction with hardcore opening study, but is it possible that the gaming spree is evidence of air of invincibility? Or, he could be trolling Nepo’s team, giving them a whole bunch of games to review on the eve of the match to see if they can find any hints as to his opening preparation?
Carlsen failed to beat his last two world championship challengers in the classical chess portion of those matches, needing short-format tiebreaks to defend his title. With one eye on the GOAT debate, this is surely a relative negative: Kasparov had only one drawn match (hence him winning five “and-a-half” titles—there were no tiebreaks in the 1987 match). Carlsen hasn’t led a world championship match since 2014. If he again can’t get the job done in the classical portion of the match, will that start to count against his case in the hair-splitting which will inform chess fans’ rankings in the future?
So—the consensus take is that Carlsen should win, but Nepomniachtchi has chances to make things interesting. Will we look back at this match as a sideshow in the inevitable march toward Carlsen facing off against his successor-elect Alireza Firouzja for the world crown in 2023? Or, could Nepo continue to be a round hole to Carlsen’s square peg, grind out an early win, and get in Carlsen’s head? Expect all three results to be possible in any game.
When/How to Watch?
Each game will start at 4:30 p.m. Dubai time, or 7:30 a.m. EDT Perfect! Load a game on your laptop or phone when you get up or get to work, and you can check in intermittently throughout the day.
You can’t go wrong watching along on either Chess24, whose commentary will be led by Judit Polgar (it’s cliché but true—she’s the real-life Beth Harmon) and chess gangster Anish Giri, or on Chess.com, who boast previous challenger Fabiano Caruana and supreme maestra Hou Yifan on their team. Or, support the little guy by following along with a streamer—I recommend ChessNetwork as by far the best solo commentator out there.
We’ll also be covering the games here on Defector dot com, your number one source for all chess content!
The chess is back, folks. It’s the 2021 world chess championship. Let’s go!