Carlsen vs. Nepomniachtchi: A Brief Take

Maybe the Greatest?

Dubai skyline
Dubai’s stunning skyline. Image: LonelyPlanet

With Magnus Carlsen‘s dominant 7½ to 3½ victory over Ian Nepomniachtchi in the FIDE World Championship Match in Dubai, the 31-year-old Norwegian has already amassed one of the best records in title matches … maybe the best.

I remain heavily critical of Carlsen being declared winner of the 2013 London Candidates Tournament by virtue of having more wins than Vladimir Kramnik, and not through an over-the-board tiebreak. Even blitz or rapid would have been better!

But in the cauldron of a World Championship Match, Carlsen has proven invincible. In late 2013 he convincingly wrested the crown from Vishy Anand, and defeated him again in 2014 when the Indian legend surprisingly won the next Candidates Tournament.

Carlsen drew his next two matches against Sergey Karjakin (New York, 2016) and Fabiano Caruana (London, 2018), eventually subduing his rivals in rapid tiebreaks.

Carlsen Nepo 2021
Carlsen wins again. Image: chess24

With this victory, Carlsen has one win as Challenger and four title defenses as Champion; in five World Championship matches he has lost a total of just two games out of 56 played!

In tiebreaks? Carlsen has five wins and two draws in seven games!

Matches are shorter now than in the past, but I don’t think anyone in history can claim better.

I value longevity, so I’ve long said Garry Kasparov is the Greatest of All-Time, for now … but Magnus Carlsen has a an argument that gets stronger every year.

What happened to Ian?

Nepomniachtchi was not widely considered the strongest Challenger this time around, but perhaps he was less afraid of Carlsen than others. How would this dynamic affect the match? While unclear, I predicted a three-point Carlsen victory.

During the first five games, “Nepo” probably played as well as Magnus did.

I really think losing the a3-pawn in Game 6 was his undoing. Even if the engines say the resulting position should be drawn, it was always going to be difficult against a top player, let alone a notorious grinder like Carlsen.

A game behind, Nepomniachtchi had to take on more risk.

A poor Game 8 simply ended the match. There was no coming back down two games against Carlsen with six left. Frankly, I think Magnus would be unlikely to level the match if Ian had a two-game lead.

Nepomniachtchi knew this very well, and I think he simply couldn’t play at his best any longer: doing so would just delay the inevitable. So, I agree with the consensus view that he just collapsed.

Who’s Next?

Alireza Firouzja
The next Challenger? Image: Twitter (@AlirezaFirouzja)

Many chess fans expect Alireza Firouzja to be the next Challenger. I think there’s a decent chance of that happening.

The other favorites are Caruana and Ding Liren.

Still, Candidates Tournaments are arguably as grueling as a World Championship Match; but those eight players don’t have to face Carlsen to become Challenger!

The 2021 FIDE Grand Swiss: Final Thoughts

A Grand Success

The FIDE Grand Swiss  and Women’s Grand Swiss (organized in partnership with chess.com) concluded this past weekend in Riga, Latvia. The COVID protocols were apparently effective, as we did not hear of any incidents during the event.

Grand Swiss

Alireza Firouzja
Firouzja won the FIDE Grand Swiss convincingly. Photo: FIDE

Alireza Firouzja (France) won clear first with 8 points out of 11. Fabiano Caruana (USA) and Grigoriy Oparin (Russia) finished in a tie for 2nd place with 7.5 points.

Caruana, the 2018 World Championship Challenger, had the better mathematical tiebreaks, even defeating Firouzja in their individual encounter. As a result, “Fabi” joined “Firo” in the next FIDE Candidates Tournament.

A Note on Tiebreaks
The primary tiebreak used was “Buchholz Cut-1.” Buchholz compares the total scores of tied players’ opposition, the idea being that a player who faced opponents that scored more points had a tougher road to the same final score. The “Cut-1” removes the score of the lowest-scoring opponent, to reduce the impact of an unlucky pairing. Each player therefore had the scores of 10 of their 11 opponents compared to judge who had the best tiebreaks.

Oparin, Yu Yangyi (China), Vincent Keymer (Germany), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Alexandr Predke (Russia), and Alexei Shirov (Spain) all got seats into the upcoming FIDE Grand Prix Series. This tournament series will have a total of 24 players; and the top two finishers at the end will qualify for the next FIDE Candidates Tournament.

Overall, it seems clear that Firouzja is the leading “young gun” who many fans are already picking to challenge Carlsen in the next World Championship Cycle. I can’t disagree; during this event he was knocking on the door of World #3 (live rating), nearly overtaking Caruana at one point.

Women’s Grand Swiss

Similar to the Open event, one player was in command for most of the Women’s event, but even more so.

Lei Tingjie
Lei scored 7 wins and 4 draws. Photo: FIDE

Lei Tingjie (China) won with 9 points out of 11, earning the only direct slot into the next Women’s Candidates Tournament. Her pre-tournament rating of 2505 shot up to 2536 afterwards!

I will note that Lei is only 24 years old, younger than her countrywomen Ju Wenjun (30) and Hou Yifan (27), the current and previous Women’s World Champions. She’s just a year older than Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia), the previous Challenger, who played in the Open event.

The Women’s World Championship cycle should be fascinating! There are several contenders of similar strength vying for the crown, but none seem invincible (unless Hou decides to return).

Finishers 2-4 in the Women’s Grand Swiss earned a spot into the upcoming Women’s Grand Prix Series. They are Elisabeth Pähtz (Germany), Zhu Jiner (China), and Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine).

Pähtz and Jiner each scored 7.5 points out of 11, and earned GM norms. The 36-year-old from Erfurt, Germany completed her title after a long and distinguished career, and becomes the 40th female to earn the “open” GM title. Zhu is the top Junior Girl in the World.

Muzychuk had the best tiebreaks among the 7 pointers, beating out Harika Dronavalli (India), Lela Javakhishvili (Georgia; she scored a 9-game GM norm), and Olga Badelka (Russia).

Bibisara Assaubayeva (Kazakhstan) also earned a 10-game GM norm.

A Note on Grandmaster (GM) Norms
A norm is a performance level (2600 for GM), in an event that meets other conditions relating to the makeup of a player’s opposition. Norms need to be scored in events totalling 27 or more games. With few exceptions, a player needs to play at least 9 games in an event to earn a GM norm, but the maximum number of games counted for a norm is 13. This is why players usually need three GM norms (plus a 2500 rating) to earn the Grandmaster title. In events longer than 9 rounds a player can disregard any games won, or not count any games played after a norm has been scored. In Assaubayeva’s case, for example, she had a GM norm after Round 10, but lost in the final round. Her performance rating dropped below 2600 after Round 11, so she doesn’t get an 11-game norm but keeps her 10-game norm. There’s little practical difference between a 9-, 10-, or 11-game norm since a player still needs three in any case.

What’s Next?

The FIDE World Championship Match starts November 24 in Dubai, UAE.

2022 should be a busy year: we should see the Grand Prix Series and Candidates Tournaments (open and women), as well as the 2022 Moscow Olympiad.

Stay tuned!