The world championship

27 November 2021

9:00 AM

27 November 2021

9:00 AM

‘Time to say Dubai,’ tweeted Magnus Carlsen, like some wry Bond villain, when he learned that the Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi would be his next challenger for the world championship title. Hosted at the Dubai Expo, battle will commence on Friday 26 November.

Carlsen wrested the title from Viswanathan Anand in 2013, and since then has defended his title against Anand (again), Sergey Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana. But the Norwegian downplayed his match experience in appraising his prospects against the new challenger: ‘My biggest advantage is that I am better at chess.’ Still, world championship matches have an intensity all of their own, in which nerves and stamina are as indispensable as good moves. The match runs until mid-December, lasting for 14 classical games, with a possible rapid tie-break.

The Inner Game by Dominic Lawson (first published in 1993, republished this month by Silvertail books) is about the 1993 world championship match between Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short. Lawson, then editor of The Spectator, had a unique position as friend and confidant in the Short camp, and provides a gripping insight into the colossal pressure that the combatants must endure. By game 14 (of a scheduled 24 — matches were longer in those days) the exhaustion on both sides was plain to see. After a seesaw battle, Kasparov, ostensibly the dominant party in the match, seemed barely able to recognise that he had landed in a hugely advantageous position. Only fatigue or confusion could explain Kasparov’s draw offer, which Short elatedly called ‘stark raving bonkers!’ in the cab home. Curiously, by the next day, he felt as enervated as the champion.

Watching the players in Dubai, one is spoilt for choice. Viswanathan Anand will bring his vast experience of multiple title matches to the official broadcast, at At, the popular commentary team with David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare will reconvene throughout, while previous challenger Fabiano Caruana headlines the broadcast, alongside many others.

Carlsen is certainly the favourite, but ‘Nepo’ has a respectable head-to-head record against the world champion. It is tempting to caricature the players’ styles. By inclination, Carlsen is the cool strategist, while Nepomniachtchi has a penchant for turbulent games, where his dazzling tactical flair comes to the fore.

But the roles were reversed in this game, played in 2019. After 13 a4, Nepomniachtchi seemed to have an unshakeable grip on the position, since all three pawn breaks b7-b5, d6-d5 and f7-f5 looked well under control. Nonetheless, Carlsen detonated the position with 25…c4! and 27…f5! and his attack crashed through quickly after White erred in the diagram position.

Ian Nepomniachtchi–Magnus Carlsen

Grand Chess Tour, Zagreb 2019

1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Nc3 e5 4 Bc4 g6 5 d3 h6 6 h4 d6 7 h5 g5 8 Nh2 Bg7 9 Ng4 Nge7 10 Ne3 O-O 11 Bd2 Kh8 12 g4 Rb8 13 a4 Nd4 14 Ncd5 Nxd5 15 Nxd5 Ne6 16 f3 Nf4 17 Qb1 Be6 18 Qa2 Qd7 19 Rg1 b6 20 Bc3 Bxd5 21 Bxd5 a6 22 Bd2 Qe7 23 Rf1 b5 24 axb5 axb5 25 Kf2 c4 26 Bxf4 exf4 27 Rad1 f5 (see diagram) 28 gxf5 The decisive mistake, though it is surprising how swiftly it is punished. After 28 exf5! Bd4+ 29 Kg2 Qe2+ 30 Kh3 White is doing fine. g4 29 d4 29 Rh1 Bd4+ 30 Ke2 gxf3+ 31 Kxf3 Qg5 32 Rh3 Rg8 with mate to follow Qh4+ 30 Ke2 Qh2+ 31 Rf2 31 Ke1 g3 will soon cost White a rook. gxf3+ White resigns in view of 32 Kxf3 Qxh5+

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