Reflections of 2021 World Championship/EXPO 2020

Magnus Carlsen (Norway) vs. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia)

Following are my reflections on the World Chess Championship that took place in Dubai, UAE. For years I have been doing reflection pieces for major events. It is enjoyable to go back and relive these memories. What makes this more special was that it occurred during World Expo 2020. I will also include my impressions of the EXPO since I only saw one game of the match. Prior to that, I was enjoying the broadcasts, press conferences, and recaps. It was a smorgasbord of chess.

At the Dubai Exhibition Center in the Press Room. Photo by Daaim Shabazz.
@ Dubai Exhibition Center in the Press Room
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

Attending a World Championship is certainly a thrill and this would be my second (2016 Carlsen-Karjakin), but my first overseas. My decision to attend the match in Dubai was greatly influenced by World Expo 2020 being held concurrently. In fact, chess got a lot of exposure during the Expo including in the main plaza with Nona Gaprindashvili and Nana Ioseliani playing an exhibition game.

Spain had chess as an important part of their pavilion and even hosted a tournament! Overall I visited 89 country pavilions and I am certainly not ashamed to say that my main impetus for traveling to Dubai was the Expo which is held every five years. That being said, I wanted to see how many games I would be able to see in Dubai.

Monday, 29 November 2021
(Tallahassee, Florida)

While preparing my report for Game 3, I saw Orrin Hudson of Besomeone.org post pictures from Dubai with famous chess personalities in social media. I had just returned from a family visit in Chicago and had no idea he was attending. Incidentally, I had tossed around the idea of traveling for the championship match. I sent him a quick message on Facebook and he replied immediately to call him.

Orrin Hudson at World Championships

When we got on the phone he was excited about the 10 days he spent there and told me he is considering a return to Dubai for the second half. I already told Maurice Ashley I was not going to attend, but the Expo being there and Orrin giving me additional details, gave me more of an impetus to investigate further.

A couple of days later on December 1st, Carlsen and Nepo made another draw, their fifth in a row. The chances of me covering several games were promising. I decided to make the trip! At this point, my plan was to leave on the 8th out of Atlanta, fly through Amsterdam on the rest day, and arrive in Dubai on the 10th, the morning of Game 11. However, the match was about to take a turn.

Friday, 3 December 2021
(Tallahassee, FL)

Watching a top-level tournament or match is very comforting. You often watch several broadcasts with your special screens and audio equipment which gives chess an entertainment experience. I cover chess events regularly, but which is better? There is nothing compared to being at the site, but for a spectator or a journalist, it is more difficult to enjoy the action. More on that later.

Since I had registered with the Expo website, I was also getting updates about the events at the site. Exciting stuff. I knew that in a couple of days, I would be on my way to Dubai with the hopes that Nepo would be able to extend the match.

2021 World Chess Championship (Dubai, UAE)

After five draws, there was a lot of negative energy about how “perfect” the games were and that there had not been a decisive result in five years. However, Game 6 would change all of that and the chess audience witnessed one of the most fascinating games in World Championship history.

As I was preparing for the trip, I was also focused on a magnificent struggle in Game 6. I was following several broadcasts to get the impressions of the complicated position. Each time I watched on of the broadcasts, the position was significantly different.

Almost eight hours of a gripping battle, Carlsen had won a scintillating game.

The Tide of the Match Turns!
(Tallahassee, FL)

As I was making preparation to travel to Dubai, I saw the match take a turn for the worse. Game 7 was an uneventful draw with Nepo playing white. The game was barely a fight, but the two players were excused after an epic battle the previous game. Later on, many wondered where the turning point was for the Russian challenger. Many held the view that it was Game 6 that depleted his energy and wounded his morale.

As I was following the broadcast, I heard a stir that Nepo had blundered in Game 8. Indeed.

During Game 9, I messaged Orrin, “Nepo may lose again. We’ll get there for closing ceremonies.” It was a sick joke. With this discouraging news, I kept preparing for my trip including a stop at the testing station to get a PCR test for travel.

I reached out to Dirk Jan ten Guezendem of New in Chess and asked if he would be traveling for the match. He told me that after yesterday’s result (and Carlsen going up 3) that he canceled his plans. Of course, I was traveling on the free day and was hoping Nepo could extend the match so my joke would not become a reality.

Wednesday, 8 December 2021
(Tallahassee – Atlanta – Amsterdam)

So I am prepared to leave for Dubai for the first leg of my trip… Tallahassee-Atlanta. I had a Delta flight and in a frenzy of events, I get to the airport and miss the baggage check cut off by a few minutes. The attendant tells me the next flight gets into Atlanta at 5:58pm, well after my 5:35pm (Atlanta-Amsterdam) flight leaves. I would have to drive from Tallahassee to Atlanta to get my flight.

After the four-hour drive, I got to the airport at 2:30pm, presented all of my COVID test papers which required me to register with the UAE health website. When I got to the concourse, I went to check on the spa and discovered they were doing rapid COVID testing! Delta was very strict about the mask requirements, but there were no crazy fights on the flight, nor anyone protesting.

While in the international concourse and saw Orrin at a distance with his Besomeone gear on. When I caught up with him, he told me he had been upgraded to First-Class. It must be nice. I had an aisle seat and while it is usually good on long flights, this was the worst one yet.

From my movie choices, I decided on “Erin Brockovich,” an old classic drama about a flamboyant and plain-spoken legal assistant who helped build a case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company for groundwater contamination. Julie Roberts played Erin Brockovich, a struggling single mother of three who single-mindedly chased down the facts (in her own colorful way) and helped win a landmark case.

As I settled into my seat for the eight-hour flight, I knew I would get a chance to work on my manuscript for an upcoming book. So I get quite a bit done, eat my dinner, and then take a nap. I generally have to ensure to order my vegan meal. Airlines are getting better vendors for vegan options and this meal was tasty.

root vegetable chili, brown rice, red beets, green onion, pumpkin seeds

The seat had extra legroom, but it was positioned such that it was the first chair moving from the elite passengers to the less elite. So sitting in my chair, those coming to my area would walk straight toward my chair and have to make a slant to continue and avoid stepping on my foot or tripping. It also meant that the extra legroom was only imaginary. Awful.

With a few hours left in the flight, Orrin came to tell me to check out his First-Class cabin. He then demanded that I relax in it while he took my seat. It was a very generous thing to do and I reluctantly obliged. The cabin is very nice for international travel to say the least. I have had first-class, but all were domestic.

I settled in and watched, “Respect” the Aretha Franklin biopic featuring fellow Chicago native, Jennifer Hudson. I watched exactly 78 minutes of it. I enjoyed the first-class experience. Thanks to Orrin for giving me relief from the worse seating… at least for a short time.

Thursday, 9 December 2021
(Schiphol Airport – Amsterdam)

This was a free day, so I needed to work on my report and check social medial. Orrin had access to the KLM lounge which is a fantastic place for an 8-hour layover. They have a full-service space with sleeping areas, a full buffet, and plenty of places to hide and work.

Orrin heading up to the KLM Lounge.

Taking a nap during the eight-hour layover

Nice work carrel!

Got my own candy, but they misspelled my name. Someone is getting fired.
Photos by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum

Thursday, 9 December 2021
(Amsterdam – Dubai)

OK… now on to the good stuff.

The flight was uneventful. I had a pulled jackfruit biryani which wasn’t bad.

We arrive in Dubai an hour late Friday at around 2:30am. I had to book Thursday night day despite arriving Friday morning. Didn’t want to take the chance of the room not being ready until 3:00pm. I ended up going to bed around 4:00am and slept until 1:30pm!

EXPO prominently advertised!

Luxuries brands… you already know what kind of place Dubai is

Dubai at 3am

Always interesting in a taxi… about 100AED from airport

My room for a week… comfy

Friday, 10 December 2021
(Dubai Exhibition Centre)

One of the adventures in travel is trying public transportation. I bought a week pass for 115 Arab Emirates dirham (AED) and hopped on platform #2. In seven stops, I would be at the Dubai Exhibition Center. The ride was uneventful and the scenery a bit average. The Metro had specific cars for women and children, but women were free to sit anywhere on the train.

Video by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum

Finally made it to the venue, but I had to get my credentials which would give me access until March 31, 2022! I then had to get separate credentials for the match. After greeting some familiar faces such Maurice Ashley, Sagar Shah (ChessBase India) and Mike Klein (chess.com), I settled into my station for what would be my only day of coverage. However, I was asked by Ashley to be on one of his recaps.

Camera…check. Face mask… check. Sunglasses… check. Chamomile tea… check!

Video by Maurice Ashley/NBC Sports

Being at the venue is very different experience from being at home… qualitatively and quantitatively. There are so many options that as a journalist you’re trying to figure out where the action is and how to best capture it. Sagar certainly knows how to do this and I enjoy his passion.

So… I get a chance to watch Viswanathan Anand in action and during breaks give a few autographs. He is the ultimate professional and almost single-handedly led a chess boom in India. There was a large Indian delegation in Dubai taking in the championship environment.

Video by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum

As stated, Nepomniachtchi’s position was deteriorating and on the verge of losing three out of the last four and four out of the last six games. This is disappointing to me because I have come a long way to see the end of the match. It appears that my joke to Orrin was right… we would only see one game.

The handwriting was on the wall and I was in the viewing hall in time to watch the end and the audience break out into applause after the Russian resigned the match. With the match over, all that was left was the press conference which lasted longer than usual. All of the journalists were driven 10 minutes to the building which required us knifing through the EXPO crowd.

Last press conference

Photos by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum

At the press conference, there were some interesting questions and again, Nepomniachtchi conducted himself very professionally. I was able to ask a couple of questions, but one question would become important in the days to follow. It was the question on the championship match format.

“The first five games were drawn and there were some complaints about the draws and of course, that’s a part of the match. There was also some talk about different formats. We’ve had 24, 12, and now 14. Would either of you entertain other formats which would include other platforms like 960, rapid, and blitz as part of the World Championship?”

Carlsen gave a well-reasoned response…

Video by FIDE Chess

Toward the end, he hinted that he may be losing his motivation for championship matches, at least in their current form. Only days after defending his title, Carlsen was interviewed by a Norwegian sponsor, Unibet. He dropped a bombshell stating,

β€œIf someone other than Firouzja wins the Candidates Tournament, it is unlikely that I will play the next world championship match.”

The story was covered in Norway’s headline as well. Social media went crazy wondering if Carlsen was going to leave the cycle if Firouzja was not the contender. The Iranian-born French citizen now holds the #2 position on the rating list, but perhaps there are others who are waiting for a chance. Besides Carlsen has stated he seeks to eclipse the magical 2900 mark.

It turns out that I would not get an invitation and FIDE Press Officer David Llada explained there were restrictions due to COVID and he could only allow 150 guests. It was a big disappointment, to say the least. Nevertheless, it was a great experience to be in the number of attendees, but more importantly, I got to spend the next four days at World EXPO 2020!

Magnus Carlsen, 2021 World Chess Champion

Magnus Carlsen, 2021 World Chess Champion
Photo by Eric Rosen

11th-15th December 2021
(Dubai Exhibition Centre – World EXPO 2020)

Just a bit about the EXPO before giving my best and worst moments. It was simply fantastic! There were 192 country pavilions and all of them presented their patriotism with bold colors and national symbols of pride. Some of the pavilions were massive and included very creative architecture featuring special effects.

Egypt has a wonderful video presentation. China was futuristic, but I enjoyed Jamaica’s colorful expression, Malaysia’s 4D experience (with mist machine) and Peru’s wonderfully educational display. Poland’s ashwood pavilion was also interesting. Angola has great music!

Angola
Angola Angola Angola

Peru
Peru Peru Peru

Many of the pavilions showed how the country charted their respective courses of development. It was not only educational but inspiring and entertaining. All of the pavilions had nationals providing tours and information about their country. I had the honor of meeting the gentleman from Pacific island nation, Vanuatu!

The pavilions were staged in areas touting the different initiatives: sustainability, mobility, and opportunity. The grounds covered nearly 1100 acres and featured parks, intricate pathways, wide arching boulevards, winding roads, food courts, open-air concerts and public art displays.

I enjoyed the chess displays and was able to see the exhibitions featuring two Georgian chess legends.

Best Memories of the World Championship/Dubai were…

  • Watching “Respect” in First Class. Thanks Orrin!
  • Seeing Maurice Ashley in the credential room. He put me on the spot and asked me to be on his recap. It was a honor.
  • Staying in the Rove Dubai Marina… nice staff, nice dining room, nice ambiance. Need chairs in the room instead of a stool, but otherwise full marks.
  • Nice dinner at the Rove Dubai Marina… marinated kale salad and Beyond Meat tacos. Surprisingly good.
  • Walking along the boardwalk and find “Just Vegan” restaurant. Of course, many of my memories center around food. Who said vegan cuisine is boring?

Boardwalk, Dubai, UAE

Vegan Buffalo Wings

You must try these. Ask me about them. They don’t make them like the restaurants in Chicago, but still delicious.

  • Hearing the adhan throughout the day
  • Watching the Indian delegation interesting in all aspects of the championship… commentating, journalism and simply observing. It is why India is now a top-five chess nation. Sagar Shah and his wife Amruta Mokal are doing wonders to further the Indian chess boom.
  • It was interesting seeing the rapidly-improving Hans Moke Niemann fully engaged in Dubai and working on his chess professionalism.
  • Seeing Levon Aronian and Antoaneta Stefanova featured at the Armenian and Bulgarian pavilions as national heroes.
  • Levon Aronian honored at the Armenian pavilion as a national hero

    Levon Aronian
    Armenia Armenia Armenia

    Antoaneta Stefanova honored at the Bulgarian pavilion as a national hero

    Antoaneta Stefanova
    Bulgaria Bulgaria Bulgaria

  • Wonderful conversations with Croatia, Venezuela, Iran representatives at EXPO. All females πŸ™‚ The beautiful Croatian representative was proud that her Dad lived in my hometown of Chicago and it explained her American accent. She was also proud of Bill Belichick who she claimed as Croatian. The Venezuelan representative talked about the misconceptions of her country and the Iranian lady was telling me about a rug I admired… 40,000 euros. πŸ˜• Samuel Berridge from St. Kitts was also engaging. He works in the Office of the Prime Minister!
  • With Samuel Berridge of St. Kitts

    With Samuel Berridge of St. Kitts

  • Fresh juice from “Grill and Chill” every morning on my way to the Metro
  • Seeing that “Address” building every morning. Inspirational!
  • Riding the Metro on a week pass… easy and efficient!
  • Watching Orrin Hudson interact with others. Interesting and inspirational insights.
  • Seeing Garrett’s Popcorn shop in a food pavilion. It is a Chicago favorite!
  • Seeing many African pioneers profiled at the African Union pavilion. I studied these leaders and the Organization of African Unity in graduate school.
  • Visiting 89 Country pavilions and a proud passport to prove it.
  • Not bad memories of the EXPO itself… a wonderful experience, and even familiar music

Worst Memories of the World Championship/Dubai were…

  • Seeing only one game of the match. No one predicted such a collapse by Ian Nepomniachtchi.
  • Not being invited to the closing ceremonies. To come so far, only attend one game and not being able to go to the closing ceremonies was extremely disappointing.
  • Not visiting any of the tourist sites like the Burj Al Arab Hotel, Grand Mall or the desert. Maybe I will return before the EXPO ends.
  • Not particularly about the WCC, but the Atlanta-Amsterdam seat was the worst.
  • The cards thrown on the sidewalk soliciting call girls. They were strewn like confetti and they were at every meter from my hotel to the Metro. Not good.
  • Clean up this trash Dubai!

    Clean up this trash Dubai! 😑

Final Thoughts on the Match

Hope you enjoyed these reflections!

Daaim Shabazz

Dr. Daaim Shabazz is the creator and webmaster of The Chess Drum. He serves as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds an MBA in Marketing and a doctorate in International Affairs & Development. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

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