Sports

When Will the Chess World Get the Match It’s Dying to See?

Magnus Carlsen just casually destroyed his opponent for another world chess championship. But an 18-year-old phenom is waiting to take on the king.

Carlsen with his hand on his forehead looking intently at the board. Carlsen is playing white, his opponent black, and a plastic water bottle is next to him on the table.
Carlsen competes during Game 10 in the FIDE World Chess Championship, at the Dubai Expo 2020, on Wednesday. Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

The rickety system that determines glory in global chess worked: 31-year-old Magnus Carlsen of Norway is still the world chess champion, as he’s been since 2013, after spending the past couple of weeks in Dubai swatting away the challenge from Russia’s (also 31-year-old) Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Curiously, going into the final, the man-bun wearing Nepo—as his surname (meaning in Russian: “forgetful”) is often shortened—was one of the few players to hold a plus lifetime score against the Nordic beast (four wins, one loss, many draws). But some of that margin was from their early teen years playing each other, and, after this championship’s steamroller performance from Carlsen (4 wins, 0 losses, 7 draws), Nepo’s plus score against the Norwegian is fully in the rear-view mirror, and unlikely to reappear anytime soon.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“Steamroller” is appropriate here. The first five games of the match were all dull draws, with Carlsen and Nepo feeling each other out like boxers in early rounds: lots of probing but not much punching, just seeing what’s what, each game petering out to its always-likely conclusion. (This is a safe way to get to know your competitor, as play rewards 1 point for a win, 0 for a loss, and ½ a point each for a draw.) But then, in Game 6, we finally saw some blood. Mixing sports metaphors, it was like an arm-wrestling match where nothing happens for 30 seconds—and then, inscrutably, one competitor (Nepo) begins to weaken slightly, and over the next 30 seconds, gets pressed inevitably, slowly, and at last suddenly into submission by his stronger adversary. It was also the longest game in world championship history: 136 moves, easily surpassing the 124-move record.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Carlsen gave up his queen for two rooks in that sixth game, a classic asymmetric transaction that can go either way depending upon circumstance. Magnus’ rooks imperceptibly increased his advantage until a critical position arose where only the computers truly knew what was going on; watch the aptly-surnamed English grandmaster Danny King disarmingly admit that, at the moment of Nepo’s critical mistake, “nobody knows” why one queen move on an open board was losing in the computer models of the game when another move would have saved Nepo’s skin. (If you have 33 minutes and 47 seconds you don’t need, King’s typically charming and insightful recap of this game is worth a watch.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

As King describes, the computers mysteriously showed that Nepo could have set himself up to draw if he had moved his queen to either of two squares on the board. But he did not; instead he chose to diagonally drive his queen across the board in order to pin Carlsen’s rook to his king. At that point, the computers instantly showed Nepo as the predicted loser of the game.

Carlsen may not have seen all this proceeding as it did, but his supreme intuition was enough to spot and swiftly punish Nepo’s incorrect move once he made it. Then it was off to the races:  Nepomniachtchi folded like a cheap tent over the next few games, losing three of the next five in ugly fashion. A player of Nepo’s caliber might normally go months without making a move that qualifies as a true blunder, but he made one blunder in each of Games 8, 9, and 11, and in each case that blunder indeed cost him the game. Dude just did not want to be there anymore at the end; the final game featured the worst blunder of the three, a “minus 7” move, meaning a single, inexplicable error. (The mistake was coded “23.g3??”; it was Nepo’s 23rd move of the game, a pawn from g2 to g3—the “??” means that it was “awful.”) That saddled him with a disadvantage equivalent to losing 7 pawns (easily enough to lose the game on its own). Imagine giving up a 99-yard touchdown pass, then conceding an onside kick picked up and run in for another touchdown right after it; that minus-7 Nepo move was all that in one. In points, the match’s final tally was 7.5–3.5 in the Norwegian’s favor.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

So what did the 2021 world chess championship teach us? In truth, not much we did not know beforehand. Magnus is still the best player in the world by a large margin, as we know from his rating, which hasn’t been lower than No. 1 for even a single month since 2010. As I have written before, there really shouldn’t be a World Chess Champion as it’s known today anymore; there are better and more accurate ways to measure players’ skills and legacies. Under a different system—for instance, one more akin to tennis or golf’s annual “major” tournaments model—we could have learned more about the current state of world competition.

In the weeks before Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi, the chess world had been abuzz with excitement. Not because of anything these two greats had done—holed up as they were with their teams, preparing for the battle—but rather because of an 18-year-old Iranian (now playing for France), Alireza Firouzja, who had rocketed to the No. 2 ranking in the world at a tournament in Riga, Latvia. It wasn’t just Firouzja’s result at that tournament—7 wins, 4 draws, 0 losses against formidable competition—that impressed the chess world. It was how he achieved it, with a majestic diversity of styles and approaches that he showed in his games: a classic attacking game here, a quiet positional masterpiece there, a messy scrum tossed into the mix. It was exciting chess from a promising and immediate threat to Carlsen’s crown.

Advertisement

It will be two years (minimum) before Firouzja gets a title shot at Carlsen; he and Carlsen have met six times over the board already, with Magnus winning four, losing none, and drawing two. Not a great start for the youngster, but his game is improving so quickly that it’s hardly a reliable harbinger of the future. So I have a suggestion: In the 1980s and ’90s, the Dutch broadcasting company KRO sponsored an annual six-game match between Dutch chess giant Jan Timman and a worthy opponent. It was nothing official—no world championship title at stake—but the matches were inevitably entertaining and long enough at six games to be a true test of strength. Watch American grandmaster Yasser Seirawan analyze his magnificent victory over Timman in Game 3 of their 1990 match, in an absolutely charming game that looks like it’s from the 19th century, when players sacrificing a boxful of pieces was de rigueur.

So man up, Magnus! Flex by challenging Alireza to a six-game match—unofficial, with nothing on the line, just so we can all see what’s what between the two highest-rated players in the world at the moment. Do it in Holland where the beer is good and chess is in the blood. We won’t call it a world championship match—though it may well be a preview of the next one.

Advertisement