World Championship 2021 kicks off in a few days!

For three years, the chess world has anticipated the next competitor for World Champion Magnus Carlsen. The time has come and on November 26th the champion will take on challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia for all the glory. The closing of the 14-game match will be December 16th (including tiebreaks). Regulations can be found here.

So much has happened in this time including the onslaught of the coronavirus which stopped the Candidate’s Tournament midstream and put over-the-board (OTB) chess at a standstill for 2020. Not all was doom and gloom as the explosion of streaming took chess to new heights and online tournaments gave a semblance of returning to normality.

Magnus Carlsen on the march! Photo by Ray Morris-Hill.

In 2013 Candidates, Magnus Carlsen was making his march toward the World Championship. Will he be able to maintain his hunger against a surging field of contenders? Photo by Ray Morris-Hill.

The Candidates tournament resumed with an unlikely challenger in “Nepo,” but we saw the rise of Alireza Firouzja, who recently eclipsed the 2800 mark and has already qualified for the next Candidates tournament. Firoujza changed his federation from Iran to Paris and is billed as a future contender for the crown. That moment has to wait and Nepomniachtchi will have a team and nation sparing no expense to bring the crown back to Russia. With the coronavirus in the rear view mirror, this live championship will coronate the resumption of OTB chess on the largest stage!

Both Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen represent the last 14 years of champion after Kramnik’s reign ended in 2007. Carlsen won the title in 2013 against Anand and has defended his title three times (Anand, Karjakin and Caruana).

What is interesting was Carlsen’s admission that facing Caruana for a rematch or Ding Liren is less desirable as both seem to provide him with discomfort. A big question in this matchup may be how different Carlsen will approach his fifth match and fourth defense. The chess world is also listening to his interviews closely for any signs that the champion may be losing his hunger. Anand had this to say:

“I think the most important thing first is that Nepo’s style is somehow incompatible with Magnus’s in the sense that for Magnus it’s not easy to lock into this style. Whether he (Nepo) can keep… he is the only one who has the ability to get this tactical style against Magnus. If he can keep the position sharp and tactical… of course Magnus has improved a lot.”

When asked if he thought Carlsen avoided tactics in their matches in 2013 and 2014, Anand responded,

“I think in 2013/2014 his technical thing was, often he would choose to simplify to the smallest advantage where there was no risk, rather than slightly easier solutions, but I think he was so confident that he would win anyway, that he would go for the smallest edge.”

Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia)

Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia)
Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour™

As far as Ian, Anand said the talent is there, but he has tremendous swings in his play. Of course, this is not a good formula in a match, but it may come in handy in must-win situations.

He went to say Magnus’s confidence was a big characteristic in past matches, but with the reliance on computers, overall play has improved and players have increased knowledge of defensive resources. Anand also offered that with Carlsen fifth match it getting difficult because the “fire may not be burning so hot inside.”

For Kramnik, it was more about preparation and psychological readiness.

“I think the beginning of the match, the first three, four games, will be very important. It’s difficult. I remember when playing my first match with Garry, you are under pressure, and if things would start to go wrong, anything can happen.”

Indeed. The swings that Anand mention could be an issue if Nepomniachtchi doesn’t start well.

As far as practical chances, Nepomniachtchi has just as much a chance as did Carlsen other opponents. In fact, one may argue that besides Caruana and Ding, he remains a top contender. He has a +4-1=8 classical record against the champion (wins in under-12 and under-14). With rapid included, Carlsen is ahead +23-14=40. Perhaps Nepo will shock the chess world.

During the next cycle Firouzja has already qualified. He most certainly will be watching. All of the major chess companies (ChessBase, chess24, chessdotcom, lichess, ICC) will be bringing the action and The Chess Drum will also be filing daily reports. How will the match fare in post-COVID times? The world will be watching given the crucial sponsorships by MasterCard and Grandmaster Maurice Ashley doing wrap-ups for NBC Sports.

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