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Chess players Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi
Magnus Carlsen (left) and Ian Nepomniachtchi (right) face off in the World Chess Championship

Magnus Carlsen to defend chess title against familiar foe

Holger Hank
November 24, 2021

Chess maestro Magnus Carlsen has been the world chess champion since 2013. Over the next three weeks in Dubai, he'll face off against Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi, a dangerous, quick-thinking opponent.


Magnus Carlsen put it plainly ahead of his showcase matchup against Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi at the World Chess Championship in Dubai.

"My biggest advantage in this match is that I play better chess," the Norwegian told New in Chess magazine.

But the world champion knows of course that the number five ranked chess player in the world can definitely pose a threat to his throne.

Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi regularly played against each other as youngsters — matches the Russian won on several occasions. The two even trained together once in 2012. In recent years, Carlsen frequently struggled against the 31-year-old grandmaster from Moscow.

So "Nepo," Carlsen's latest challenger, has a decent chance to dethrone the current king of chess, who has reigned as champion since 2013.

Who is Ian Nepomniachtchi?

"Nepomniachtchi has a strength that almost everyone else doesn't have: speed," Rustam Kasimjanov, one of the most experienced coaches at the world chess championship, told DW.

The Russian grandmaster makes many good moves in less than a minute, according to Kasimjanov, who coached 2018 World Chess Championship finalist Fabiano Caruana.

"Then Carlsen won't get a rest, and that makes everything more complicated," Kasimjanov said.

Russian chess grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi at the FIDE Candidates Tournament
Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi is known for his quick playing styleImage: Donat Sorokin/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

The quick-thinking Nepomniachtchi has been a fixture in top chess for many years, but it long appeared he would never make his way to the top. His performances were too inconsistent, convincing victories repeatedly followed by clear defeats.

Those who play quickly tend to make mistakes. One thing has always been clear: when Nepomniachtchi sits at the board, things get interesting — and dangerous for his opponents.

That was also the case at the 2020-21 Candidates Tournament. With a lot of offensive drive, he prevailed against the runner-up Caruana, who was considered to be a better player, setting up his matchup against Carlsen.

Whose approach will prevail?

Counter to Nepomniachtchi's playing style, the World Chess Championship match against Carlsen will call for patience. Starting Friday, the two will play each other 14 times.

Supported by teams of trainers and chess computers, the two adversaries will first probably size each other up — draws are the norm in a World Chess Championship. Nevertheless, Carlsen has set his sights high for the first games. The Norwegian champion, who is used to success, expects Nepomniachtchi to first have to adjust to the unfamiliar situation.

"As the reigning world champion, I have a good chance of scoring right at the start," Carlsen said on a recent podcast by his sponsor.

Overall, the World Champion seems to be quite relaxed going into the World Championship match. Carlsen has continued to play online blitz chess regularly in recent weeks and even found time to visit Norway's soccer star Erling Haaland in Dortmund.

Carlsen profiting from chess boom

Carlsen has also established a good position for himself off the chessboard.

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, he has used the shift of chess to the Internet to tap new sources of income for himself and his sport. With a now-listed company, he regularly organizes online tournaments for the world class. Meanwhile, he has purchased several Internet portals and a chess publishing house.

Magnus Carlsen at the European Chess Club Cup in Struga, North Macedonia
Magnus Carlsen has profited off the chess boomImage: Nake Batev/AA/picture alliance

The fact that there is more money to be made in the chess business is also reflected in the prize fund at the World Championship. At €2 million ($2.3 million), the money at stake in Dubai is twice as much as three years ago. For Ullrich Krause, the president of the German Chess Federation and a self-confessed Carlsen fan, this is a positive development.

"We chess players can only be grateful that we have a world champion who presents and sells himself so well," Krause told DW.

He also sees no problem with the lucrative desert host Dubai, which has come under fire because of the human rights situation in the Gulf.

"It would be nicer to host the World Championship in another place, but as long as the playing conditions are okay, I have no reservations," Krause said.

Krause tips Carlsen to retain his crown in Dubai.

"Nepomniachtchi is not so consistent," he said. "It distinguishes Carlsen that he is particularly strong in these tense situations."

This article was originally written in German.

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