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Magnus Carlsen’s fourth defense of his World Chess Champion title will begin November 26. Can his challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia, be more successful than the prior challengers, Viswanathan Anand, Sergey Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana? Based on their past performances, it’s possible to answer this question with a yes or a no.

The match will continue for 14 games or until one player has accumulated at least 7.5 points; wins count for 1 point, draws are worth half a point. Carlsen’s current International Chess Federation (FIDE) chess rating of 2855 is higher than Nepomniachtchi’s rating of 2782. Statistical models based on the player ratings and the length of the match predict that Carlsen is the likely winner by a margin of 1 or 2 points.

Chess followers who are more optimistic about Nepomniachtchi’s chances point to his record against Carlsen in classical (long) games, where he leads Carlsen in wins by a 4-to-1 margin. However, three of those wins occurred more than a decade ago, when both players were juniors. Their most recent decisive game was won by Carlsen in 2019.  Nepomniachtchi could also be aided by support from the Chess Federation of Russia. Carlsen’s 2016 challenger, the Russian Karjakin, mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Carlsen in their 2016 championship match. He even led the match at one point before losing a later game, and in the rapid playoff after the classical portion of the match ended in a tie.

Both Nepomniachtchi and Carlsen, who is from Norway, played well in their most recent classical encounter in September at Norway Chess 2021. Here is that game:

White: Ian Nepomniachtchi

Black: Magnus Carlsen

1e4 e5 2Nf3 Nc6 3Bc4 Bc5 4c3 Nf6 5d4 cxd4 6e5 White’s sixth move has become more popular since the gambit variation 6cxd4 Bb4+ 7Nc3 Nxe4 80-0 has been shown to favor black.

Black to Move

6…d5 This counterattack is necessary for black because there are no good moves for his attacked knight.

7Bb5 Ne4 8cxd4 Bb6 9Nc3 0-0 10Be3 Bg4 11h3 Bh5

White to Move

12Qc2 After the natural 12 0-0, black can play the piece sacrifice 12…Nxd4, which leads to a draw after 13Bxd4 Bxf3 14gxf3 (14Qxf3 Bxd4) Qg5+ 15Kh1 Qf5.

12…Nxc3 Black could also have played to break up white’s kingside with 12…Bxf3. After 13gxf3 Ng5 14Bxc6 bxc6 15Qf5 Ne6 16 0-0-0, the game is unbalanced and white has attacking chances on the kingside.

13bxc3 f6 14exf6 Qxf6 15Be2 Na5 160-0 Bxf3 17Bxf3 c6 18Rae1 Nc4 19Bc1 White has a slightly better position, but a prior grandmaster game ended in a draw after 19…Bc7. Carlsen chooses a different plan, perhaps trying to avoid an improvement by Nepomniachtchi on white’s play in the earlier game.

19…Qg6 20Qd1 Rae8 21Rxe8 Qxe8 22Be2 Qe6

White to Move

23Bxc4 Doubling black’s pawns with this capture is tempting, but a more promising move is 23Bd3 to begin organizing an attack on black’s king. The game could have continued 23…Re8 24h4, h6 25h5, when white’s bishop would control the light squares on the kingside.

23…dxc4 24Re1 Qf7 25Qe2 Ba5 26Qe3 h6 27Ba3 Rd8 28h4 Kh7 29Re2 Qf5 30Qc1 Rd5 31f3 b5 32Re4 Bb6 33Be7 Draw agreed The final position is equal. Even Carlsen, who is renowned for playing on when he has only the slightest of advantages, was satisfied to call it a draw.

To view this game on a virtual board, go to https://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=2079954


Keith Holzmueller

Keith Holzmueller has been the head coach of the Evanston Township High School Chess Club and Team since 2017. He became a serious chess player during his high school years. As an adult player, he obtained...

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