It is worth reminding ourselves just how dominant Magnus Carlsen has been in the last decade. He has spent 11 years above the 2800 mark and won the World Classical, Rapid and Blitz titles several times and remained No. 1 in all rating lists. Despite such dominance, he has shown the ability to raise his game even higher. In 2019, results of Magnus in the Shamkir Gashimov memorial, Grenke Classic and especially the win in the Zagreb GCT event still leave me awestruck. In Rapid and Blitz chess, he can seem even more dominating.
On top of that, I think his hunger and love for the game hasn’t diminished at all. He finds the time and energy to play all comers in all sorts of online formats like bullet and plays minor events there. During the pandemic, he started his own Online Tour and played every single event. While he looked tired at times, he still won the event, performed consistently at a high level. His default level is very high (he is the favourite even when not at his best) and has incredible resilience, winning tournaments at the last minute after difficult starts (Bilbao 2011 and 2012, TataSteel 2011, London 2015 and I am sure I could find more examples!)
Magnus used almost the last chance against Karjakin in the world championship in 2016 to equalise his match and win the tiebreaks. His fitness enables him to work extremely hard at the board and play long games at a very high intensity.
There is a caveat; I have observed for a long time that the world championship is the event and format he likes least. My reading is that he thinks it’s a format that neutralises his advantages and allows his opponents to fight on even terms with him. He has alluded to this on several occasions, suggesting that the classical match format may have run its course as a way to determine the best player. In his World title-matches with Fabiano Caruana and Sergey Karjakin, he seemed to be happy to start the tie-breaks.
This year, Magnus reduced the time he spent preparing for Dubai and kept a heavy schedule of tournament appearances. I feel he sees diminishing returns in training and wants to keep playing. In his matches with Karjakin and Caruana, he showed a sense of frustration during tough stages and though he pulled through at the end, I feel he is at war with himself during the World Championship. A mild one perhaps, but a war nonetheless. There is a clear difference between the Magnus we see at the World rapid and blitz for example and the one at the World championship.
Ian Nepomniachtchi is the same age as Magnus. They played in cadet events together and have remained close friends since. While Ian’s potential has been evident for a long time, he is a newcomer to the top-10, joining the list only in February 2019.
It is often noted that he has a positive classical score against Magnus, but this is based on old results and in recent games, they have been on even terms with Magnus leading in faster time controls.
Ian is famous for his confidence and his incredibly quick play (I was once the same and I too had to learn how to moderate it to win the highest title). He is famous for aggressive play, but his victories against Wesley So in 2019 and Wang Hao in the Candidates show that he has more depth than he lets on. His talent is unquestionable, but often accompanied by a certain volatility and unpredictability. He can play wonderful chess and then collapse the next day. I remember his play in St. Louis 2019 and Zagreb 2019 where Ian played beautiful chess and took the lead only to collapse at the end.
He showed during the qualification cycle (Moscow GP and especially the Jerusalem leg) that he could control his demons when needed.
His victory in the Candidates (due to the pandemic, it was two separate events in two different years!), and the Russian championship last year shows that he can control himself when the stakes are high. This is, however, one of his weak spots.
Can he beat Magnus? On paper, no. I can’t think of an area of the game where he leads Magnus and every stat points in Magnus’s favour.
However, Ian will have trained well (former challengers Peter Leko and Karjakin have both worked with him for the match and Ian showed that he lost 10 kilos during his match preparation).
If he can stay calm, his enormous talent, his speed skills, which will come in handy should they need tie-breaks, and self-confidence give us every right to hope for an exciting match.