As November’s 14-game, $2m 2021 world championship match in Dubai approaches, Norway’s title holder, Magnus Carlsen, is continuing his busy tournament and media schedule, while his Russian challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, is pulling out of events or playing them in second or third gear.
Nepomniachtchi, the current world No 4, is believed to have assembled a strong team of aides, notably including the 2004 title challenger and popular online commentator Peter Leko, plus the cream of Russian analytical talent. Fide is ostensibly neutral, but there is little doubt that its energetic president, Arkady Dvorkovich, would privately regard the individual crown as a welcome addition to the online Olympiad team gold where Russia defeated the US in the final.
Last week Carlsen fought his way from behind with four successive exhausting hard-fought wins at the end to take first prize at the traditional Stavanger tournament, where Alireza Firouzja, 18, finished second and jumped into the world top 10.
Carlsen called it “a really satisfying victory” and said: “I worked really hard. Every victory I had to grind out. It wasn’t sparkling at all, but I came away with everything I could have hoped for.”
That should have been more than sufficient reason for the No 1 to take a well-earned rest, but instead the 30-year-old flew straight to Ohrid, North Macedonia, to lead his Oslo hometown team Offerspillen at the European Club Cup.
Carlsen’s first opponent at Ohrid was an unknown Belgian amateur, 33-year-old Jelle Sarrau from the Zuid-Limburg club, who was rated a massive 481 rating points below the champion’s stratospheric 2855, but confounded expectations by digging in with the white pieces for a totally blocked position. Carlsen is the supreme endgame grinder, while the time limit was an increasingly popular version where after move 40 the players have only a 30 seconds per move increment. So the champion got to increment, then whirled around with his queen, bishop and king for nearly 50 moves until a confused Sarrau finally blundered and resigned at move 91.
Next round Carlsen had White and his win was faster and smoother, a classic demonstration of hidden pawn weaknesses which Black made easier by recapturing with his bishop at move 23.
The Euroclub Cup ends on Friday, and then it is straight back to Oslo for the week-long final of the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Tour, where Carlsen has to play nine mini-matches against top opposition led by the US champion, Wesley So. Even that is not the end, for on 22 October the champion is scheduled to appear in a live virtual Q+A session by Mastercard, which has just been announced as a partner for the 2022 Champions Tour and which has named Carlsen as one of its global brand ambassadors in the company of Lionel Messi and Naomi Osaka.
Meanwhile, away from the glitz, Nepomniachtchi is quietly continuing his low-key preparations. The Muscovite’s final pre-match appearance was in Stavanger, where he drew both classical games with Carlsen, lost twice in Armageddon tie-breaks, and ended up fourth out of six, Afterwards Nepomniachtchi described his own performance as “disgusting, considering all the chances I spoiled” but added cryptically “at the same time it was, I believe, quite useful”.
The challenger’s compatriot, Sergey Karjakin, who drew 6-6 for the crown in New York 2016 before losing in speed tie-breaks, said of Carlsen: “He is strong, but he made mistakes. If he makes similar mistakes in the match, I think Ian will be ready and will take his chances.” To emphasise his priorities, Nepomniachtchi, who had qualified for the valuable Meltwater final, withdrew from it at short notice.
Carlsen easily won his first world championship match, with India’s Vishy Anand in 2013, against limp resistance, but none of his three title defences since has been totally convincing.
In his 2014 Anand rematch with the score 2-2, Carlsen blundered badly in the fifth game, but the Indian failed to notice the winning move and lost the game and, later, the series.
Karjakin also missed a good chance at New York 2016 when, 4.5-3.5 up on Carlsen with four games left, he missed a likely winning queen move on his 39th turn and instead made a bishop sacrifice which only drew. Then in Carlsen v Fabiano Caruana at London 2018, the US challenger had a winning position in game eight (of 12) but spoilt it.
Carlsen is sensitive to his place in chess history, and will be well aware that his track record in title matches lacks victories to compare with Garry Kasparov’s convincing wins against Nigel Short in 1993 and Anand in 1995, let alone with Bobby Fischer’s legendary crushes of 1970-72, although these were only candidates matches as Fischer never defended his Fide world crown.
A wide margin win against Nepomniachtchi would strengthen Carlsen’s legacy, and arguably he has decided that the best chance of achieving it is to shorten his preparation time and instead gear his approach towards a fast start in the actual match and then keeping up his momentum. We shall see.
Over-the-board tournament appearances by England’s top grandmasters have been very rare since the start of the pandemic, but this week three of them are in action, and all three have begun well.
Luke McShane is leading the Manx Liberty Masters in Douglas, Isle of Man, with 4.5/6, while at Malmö, Sweden, in Thursday’s opening round of the traditional Sigeman & Co tournament, Nigel Short defeated France’s No 3, Étienne Bacrot, and Gawain Jones won against Denmark’s Jonas Bjerre.