World Chess Championship 2021 III
And just like that, the match is all over; Magnus Carlsen retains his crown as world chess champion with three whole games to spare. I’ve been a fan of Carlsen’s for near enough 15 years now so of course I wanted him to win, but I must confess, I had hoped it wouldn’t be under these circumstances.
Three years ago, 12 draws between Carlsen and Caruana in their match was alleged to be the harbinger of the death of classical chess. We had to wait an extra year for another challenger to emerge due to the pandemic, and FIDE’s poor handling of the Candidates tournament added to the drama, heightening the chess world’s anticipation. While not the strongest on paper, most people were intrigued by Nepomniatchi’s emergence as said challenger; known for bringing fire to the chess board, it seemed incomprehensible that this match would see as many split points as the last. There were questions from all corners as to Nepo’s “chess mood” - a notoriously temperamental player, if he lost to Carlsen, would he be able to collect himself and bounce back? Conversely, if he caught Carlsen on a bad day and win, would he pick up momentum and land multiple blows, potentially being the one to end Carlsen’s long-enduring reign as champion?
Well, one of those things happened. It was the one that no chess fan wanted to see, apart from those with some kind of personal vendetta against Nepomniatchi or perhaps the Russian chess machine at large. He crumbled.
The match started so promisingly - after five tense draws where it looked like both players might have some small chances, the level of play was very high. At this point I was worried that once again the media might start decrying the whole affair as a snooze-fest, even though I thought that despite the equality of results the games had been plenty exciting. Then Magnus did what Magnus does; drew blood from a stone in a long, complicated endgame to win the longest game ever played in a world championship match. Commentators and spectators alike surely hoped that Nepo would attempt to strike back immediately in his game with the white pieces on the following day, but after playing for nine hours and finishing after midnight, thereby starting the next game the same day he finished the first, he quite understandbly went for a quick draw.
We all thought the rest day would be where the wheels could go back on the wagon. Nepo could work with a psychologist. He surely had some tricks up his sleeve, and his seconds could feverishly prepare whichever one they might choose to unleash on Magnus the following day. We saw vintage Magnus in his game 6 win - now the chess world wanted to see vintage Nepo. His detractors would say that we did - instead of producing any kind of fresh or exciting ideas and staking his claim to the world championship title, Nepo simply blundered a pawn in game 8, and then doubled down on his blunder just a few moves later. Needless to say, one blunder is almost always enough for the world champion to be able to put you away, let alone two.
Everybody suddenly grow tense that we were watching Nepo do what we all feared he’d do. A car crash in slow motion. His level of play seemed a lot lower after his first loss than before it. Plenty of people, myself included, still held hope that he’d turn it around, spurred on by the opportunity to make this match one for the history books. And then, in game 9 with the white pieces, Nepomniatchi played the bizarre and disastrous 27 c5??, I move that I, a player rated over 1000 points lower than him, would have been furious at myself for playing in a classical game. Commentators were instantly discussing whether or not this move would earn a place in the top 10 worst blunders in a world championship match. Naturally, Magnus converted his advantage - honestly, I think he would’ve found it harder to not do so than to win.
At this point, even with five games to go, the match was essentially over, Nepo was a dead man walking. There was still some vague suggestion that, freed from the pressure of playing for the title of world champion, Nepo might relax and show some creativity, at least going out with a bang. No such thing transpired, Magnus drew the shortest game of the match in game 10 with white and then was gifted another win as black when Nepo blundered yet again.
I do feel bad for Nepo, he is usually such an entertaining, inspiring player to watch, and he is one of the very best in the world. But in the second half of the match, he didn’t look at all like he deserved to be challenging Magnus for the title. Losing 7.5 - 3.5 in a match at this elite level, where engines have supposedly nullified so many advantages a player might have, is a complete outclassing. I hope Nepo learns from the match and bounces back, as he has a real shot at winning the candidates again next year and taking Magnus on again, all the wiser for this experience. But, as a chess fan who’d been looking forward to this for the last three years, I have to say I was pretty disappointed, and would even go so far as to say that it was the worst match since the reunification in in 2006. Perhaps Magnus will be a little frustrated his opponent hadn’t played better also - this match did little for him in terms of bolstering his claim over Kasparov to be the greatest of all time.