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.
@ 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
Orrin Hudson at World Championships
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
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.
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.
Today’s #CarlsenNepo Game 6 was instructive for so many reasons. I’m not sure sponsors will understand how thrilling this record-breaking game was, but they got their money’s worth in viewership. Absolutely fantastic! pic.twitter.com/KPgaBuuFHI
— Daaim Shabazz (@thechessdrum) December 4, 2021
— Daaim Shabazz (@thechessdrum) December 7, 2021
The Tide of the Match Turns!
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.
— chess24.com (@chess24com) December 5, 2021
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)
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
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.
Thursday, 9 December 2021
(Schiphol Airport – Amsterdam)
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 the 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.
Camera…check. Face mask… check. Sunglasses… check. Chamomile tea… check!
Video by Maurice Ashley/NBC Sports
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
— Daaim Shabazz (@thechessdrum) December 10, 2021
Last press conference
Photos by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum
“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,
“If 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
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!
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?
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.
- Wonderful conversations with Croatia, Venezuela, Iran representatives at EXPO. All females 🙂 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. 😕 Samuel Berridge from St. Kitts was also engaging. He works in the Office of the Prime Minister!
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! 😡
Final Thoughts on the Match
Hope you enjoyed these reflections!