Over the course of the next month, the world of chess will witness the coronation of a new world champion. Ian Nepomniachtchi, the challenger for the World Championship title in 2021, has another shot as he faces Ding Liren of China for the Classical crown in Astana, Kazakhstan, starting Friday.
The Nepomniachtchi-Ding clash has emerged from a series of unexpected events. Magnus Carlsen, the five-time and reigning world champion, relinquished the chance to defend his title last year. The chess maestro cited a lack of motivation to defend the crown further, resulting in Ding replacing the Norwegian for a coveted final spot.
FIDE, the game’s governing body, invited Ding by virtue of being the runner-up at the Candidates Tournament in 2022.
Carlsen dropped the bombshell on July 20, 2022 - coincidentally the International Chess Day - to end months of speculation about his participation in the world championship game.
Carlsen officially confirmed his decision in a video podcast titled ‘The Magnus Effect,’ with his friend Magnus Barstad. He said, “Ultimately, the conclusion stands, I am not motivated to play another match. I simply feel that I don’t have a lot to gain. Although I’m sure a match would be interesting for historical reasons and all of that. But, I don’t have any inclination to play, and I will simply not play the match.”
The ambiguity regarding the Norwegian’s participation started immediately after he defeated Nepomniachtchi in the 2021 World Championship in Dubai. Carlsen stated in a podcast , “If someone other than Firouzja (Alireza) wins the Candidates Tournament (2022), it’s unlikely I will play the next World Championship match.”
To put things into perspective, the winner of the Candidates Tournament gets the opportunity to challenge the defending champion for the world title. Alireza Firouzja, an Iranian-French teenager, has been touted as the next big thing.
The former world champion and considered one of the all-time greats, Garry Kasparov, was vocal about his views on this championship game.
“I can hardly call it a World Championship match. For me, the World Championship match should include the strongest player on the planet, and this match doesn’t. I’m not here to comment on Magnus’ decision, but it’s kind of an amputated event.
“It’s a pity Magnus is not there and naturally, the match between Nepo and Ding is a great show anyway, but it is not a World Championship match,” said Kasparov to Yasser Seirawan and Jovanka Houska while talking on the Saint Louis Chess Club broadcast last month.
Kasparov’s opinion, albeit assertive, has a clear point. When it comes to classical chess, no one comes close to Carlsen.
Carlsen, at 19, became the youngest ever World No. 1 in 2010. Three years later, he crushed defending champion Viswanathan Anand to claim his maiden classical title. It has been a decade since then, and Carlsen has claimed every possible championship.
However, Carlsen now has nothing to prove but has only one motivation - reaching a 2900 rating in classical chess. A feat that was considered unattainable for years, is now within the Norwegian’s grasp.
His decision to opt out from the title clash, though may not aid his quest for the record rating, is undetstandable. Year after year, the effort needed for a game of this magnitude becomes tiring and monotonous.
The exhausting preparations for a world championship game begin months before the actual match. To avoid revealing their preparation, players opt out of competing in other competitions.
Along with powerful chess engines, a group of grandmasters termed as the ‘seconds’ prepare the contender for the game by assisting him in playing hundreds of games with different openings, analysing various lines in depth, and finding novelties (rare moves).
Agreed, the satisfaction of winning a world title more than makes up for the rigorous and repetitive effort, but beyond a point only internal motivation may keep one going.
Despite the upheaval, one thing is certain - A new face will be crowned as a classical world champion after more than a decade.
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