Magnus Carlsen’s relief was evident last weekend after the world champion finally won his first tournament since his 30th birthday in November, the New In Chess Classic. The Norwegian had finished a disappointing sixth over the board at Wijk aan Zee and had been eliminated in the knockout stages of four previous online tournaments on the Meltwater Champions Tour.
Carlsen won the round by round stages of all five online events, so is already in pole position for the 10-player all-play-all tour final in September, which will be played over the board in San Francisco. Self-critical as always, he commented that in the final against his old rival Hikaru Nakamura “neither of us played a particularly good match”.
Nakamura’s principal career now is as a popular Twitch streamer with a million followers, but he maintains a high level in online blitz and bullet, using a pragmatic playing style in the tradition of Samuel Reshevsky and Reuben Fine, the top US players of the 1930s.
The 33-year-old Nakamura is the most prolific winner of chess.com’s competitive Titled Tuesday, where around 700 masters play every week. His latest victory, on Tuesday, was his third in his last three attempts and included a double queen sacrifice. David Howell finished sixth with 9/11, a rare success for an event where too few English titled players participate.
After losing the first set against Carlsen 1-3, Nakamura won the first game of set two, but next round settled for a draw in a superior position. This proved the turning point of the match, as Carlsen immediately hit back with his best game, including a Rxe5 exchange sacrifice at move 24 and a cool zugzwang Kf8 at move 32.
Positional exchange sacrifices were a frequent weapon for a previous world champion, Tigran Petrosian of the former Soviet Union. In the final game, Carlsen accepted a draw offer in a winning position to seal the match. The sixth (of nine) qualifying legs of the tour starts on Sunday 23 May.
Ian Nepomniachtchi, Russia’s Candidates winner, who will meet Carlsen for the world crown in a €2m, 14-game series in Dubai in November-December, will be required to play under a neutral Fide flag. Nepomniachtchi has just given a long and interesting interview with Fide with his thoughts on the Candidates. He describes his tournament strategy as “not to lose … the key is to keep cool, to chill, play some good chess and try not to be affected by emotions.”
The 30-year-old Muscovite will have help from a supercomputer as the Russian champion works with his team of aides to try and find a chink in Carlsen’s opening repertoire. Generally the champion plays a wide variety of white and black systems so is difficult to pin down, but a much narrower repertoire often occurs in title matches, like the Sveshnikov Sicilian that featured in Carlsen’s 2018 series against Fabiano Caruana. Carlsen also acknowledged that he had been outprepared in the opening, a Nimzo-Indian, in the game he lost to Nakamura last weekend.
Carlsen has listed AlphaZero, the Google DeepMind neural network that is currently the best chess software in the world, as one of his chess heroes, though few details are known of exactly how he works with computers. Nepomniachtchi, though, has already gone public, and thanked “Skoltech power”.
This week the challenger revealed that before the Candidates at Ekaterinburg he and his aides worked with the Zhores supercomputer at Skoltech (Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology) on Bolshoy Boulevard, Moscow, an institution founded in 2011 in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
Nepomniachtchi already has a strong team led by Hungary’s 2004 title challenger Peter Leko, who has made a deep impression as a commentator with his insights into important games.
The eight-times Russian champion Peter Svidler, who helped the outsider Kirill Alekseenko at the Candidates, is highly likely to join the team, and there could even be a move for India’s former world champion Vishy Anand, who worked with the third Russian candidate, Alexander Grischuk.
It was Anand who demonstrated the limits and dangers of intensive computer preparation at last year’s Online Nations Cup, when he and Nepomniachtchi blitzed out their opening moves in a Grunfeld Defence (1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 d5) and the game was over in five minutes.
Another danger that personally affected Nepomniachtchi came in the final round of the Candidates when the Russian lost to China’s Ding Liren due to a faulty memory of his prepared variation. For every game where computer homework scores in style, as it did for Caruana against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the Frenchman’s Poisoned Pawn Najdorf, there are probably at least an equal number where a human prep memory loss proves costly.
It would be a huge and unlikely achievement if computer-aided preparation could prove decisive in the 2021 world championship. The personal incentives for both players, besides the €2m prize fund, remain clear. Nepomniachtchi will try to achieve what Sergey Karjakin narrowly failed to do in 2016, regain Russia’s 60-year dominance that ended when Vlad Kramnik lost the crown in 2006, while Carlsen, conscious of his place in chess history, will want a more convincing and emphatic victory than he achieved in his last three title matches in 2014 against Anand, 2016 against Karjakin, and 2018 against Caruana. Currently the betting verdict is clear: Carlsen remains a solid 72-28 favourite.
3722 1 Rxe5! Rxe5 2 Nc4! dxc4 3 Bxh7+ and 4 Qxd6 wins. 1 Nc4?! dxc4 2 Bxe5 Qb4! is less clear.