Magnus For The Win!

Today the World Chess Championship reached its expected conclusion after only eleven of fourteen scheduled games, with Magnus Carlsen winning again with the black pieces.

The final score in the tournament was 7.5 points for Magnus Carlsen, and 3.5 points for challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi. Carlsen has now won five championships, and retains the title he first earned in 2013.

This tournament had a a lot going for it. After the first five games were drawn, the inevitable chorus of “classical chess is broken” began to bubble up on the internet, even though there were many dramatic moments in these games. As we reported earlier, game three is considered the most accurate game of chess ever played in a world championship match, a testament to Nepo’s skill and determination.

Another record-setting game was game six, which lasted nearly eight hours and 136 moves, making it the longest world championship game ever played. This game showed Magnus’ true grit, as he took the smallest of advantages and relentlessly improved upon it until Ian resigned.

After this, it was clear that Magnus had the determination to win, and that Ian was starting to become rattled. After a fairly quick draw in game seven (understandable, because of the exhaustion of the players), Magnus won again with the white pieces in game eight, and the score in the tournament was 5-3 for Carlsen.

There followed a rest day and some interesting changes. Nepo’s second, Sergey Karjakin, apparently flew to Dubai to help him get back on track. And while I wouldn’t expect chess players to be especially superstitious, many elite athletes do have odd rituals and such. (We all know, for example, that hockey players typically refuse to shave when they’re in the playoffs.)

So, in desperate need of a change, Nepomniachtchi arrived for game nine sporting a new haircut. His signature topknot was gone, and he opened with 1. c4, the English Opening. This was the only game that opened with anything other than e4 or d4.

Ian’s attempt to shake things up didn’t go well, and Magnus won game nine with the black pieces, which is a comparatively rare occurrence at the elite level.

After a fairly dull draw in game ten, Magnus repeated this feat again in game eleven, winning with the black pieces in 49 moves, after sacrificing his rook in order to promote a pawn to a queen. This stylish victory secured the championship for Carlsen.

Personally, I would have loved to see Nepo win at least one game in this series. As we know, Nepomniachtchi is perfectly capable of defeating Magnus in classical play, and getting seven draws against the world champion is no mean feat. Some commentators chalked his comparatively weak performance to inexperience. After all, this was Ian’s first world championship and Magnus’ fifth.

But what nobody can doubt is that Nepo is a complete class act. He was gracious in defeat, and he and Magnus often discussed their just-completed games after completion (as we encourage our students to do!) In postgame press conferences, some of which must have been very tough for him to attend, Ian was genial and composed, even when he was asked some fairly offputting questions.

The good news, of course, is that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Ian and Magnus in the coming months. The tremendous success of the online Champions Chess Tour and other online tournaments during the COVID lockdown guaranteed their continuation in future years. The next edition of the Champions Chess Tour is slated to begin in early 2022.

But more importantly, the next Candidates’ tournament also begins in mid-2022, and Nepomniachtchi, as the runner-up, has earned a spot in that tournament, so there is a possibility that we will see a repeat of this matchup in early 2023 when Carlsen will again be defending his title against the winner of the Candidates tournament.

Ian will be joining Teimour Radjabov, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Sergey Karjakin, Fabiano Caruana, Alireza Firouzja, and the top two finishers of the 2022 FIDE Grand Prix in the Candidates Tournament. While Nepo may be able to repeat his success this year, and earn the right to challenge Carlsen in 2023, all eyes are on Alireza Firouzja, whose meteoric rise to the top levels of chess has everyone talking.

Congratulations to both Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi for an entertaining and well-fought match. Here’s the final game.

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