Chess Crossroads: Carlsen or Nepomniachtchi?

Chess Crossroads: Carlsen or Nepomniachtchi?

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Some questions are too complex and beyond our understanding as human beings for us to answer. Why are we here? Where have we come from? Where are we going?

Another great question that no one can truly answer is: "Who will win the 2021 World  Championship of Chess?" Well, at least until the end of the year, that is.

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Instead of trying to crack this unsolvable mystery, I'd like to discuss the utmost importance of this event for the future of chess.

Twenty years ago, one of the most creative players of his time GM Viktor Kupreichik said: "Chess has changed. Today it is more sport than art. These days it is all about the result and not the beauty of the game."

Indeed, long gone is the time of GM Mikhail Botvinnik's definition of chess as a mix of sport, art, and science. It would be very difficult for the Patriarch to explain how a game where two super GMs are playing a king and rook against king and rook endgame is science—let alone art.

In a very recent interview, GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov elaborated this point even more. In case you don't speak Russian, here is a brief translation of a very important question at around 4:50.

Q: Rustam, you have been a second of numerous elite players for the last 20 years. What's going to be the playing style of the next world champion?

A: I think the next world champion will have a style of (Nodirbek) Abdusattorov, (Magnus) Carlsen, and (Rafael) Nadal. That is a mostly defensive style, perhaps without much creativity, but a very clear style where the player maintains a very high accuracy level of around 90% from beginning till the end of the game. This is a true champion's style. I think the era of Kasparov's style is gone. I think it is impossible to play this way anymore. In my opinion, Capablanca's style was ideal and perfectly fits the current level of chess.

Since Kasimdzhanov was GMs Viswanathan Anand's and Fabiano Caruana's second for many years, we cannot take his words lightly. And if he is correct, this is very sad news.

Think about it: most professional chess players started their chess journey enchanted by the game's unbelievable beauty. As kids, we all dreamed to play our "Immortal" or "Evergreen" game. Whenever I faced the Philidor's defense in my games, my first thought was always "what if my opponent allows me to repeat the Opera game?"

Moreover, in one of my games, the art of chess negatively affected the result. Judge it for yourself: can you find a simple win for White in the following position?

It is not very difficult, right? Unfortunately, during the game, I thought that I had a chance to outshine the famous masterpiece of GM Paul Keres. In that famous game, two black pawns turned out to be stronger than White's queen!

I found a variation where I had just one pawn for a queen, and yet I was winning! My calculation would be absolutely correct if it was not for one unexpected move that turned the game upside down. Can you find how Black completely shattered my castle in the air?

I am sure that all of you, my dear readers, have had a similar experience at some point. Your masterpiece, the game that could have become the game of your life, gets ruined due to one tiny detail that you missed. And yet, even though you lose, games like this still make you happy. That's is, unless that game decides the outcome of a very important tournament. And here we get back to the topic of today's professional chess.

Currently, high-level professional chess is clearly in crisis. It is not much fun to watch almost every week the same dozen people playing the same openings and sometimes even exactly the same moves:

In chess, we have a rule about a threefold repetition of a position. Is it time to add a rule punishing the threefold repetition of a game?

It is probably for this exact reason you hear multiple calls for some changes. Be it Chess960 or no-castling chess, people want variety. By the way, the current situation is quite similar to the years when Jose Raul Capablanca was the world champion. The great Cuban was called a "chess machine" for his highly technical chess style, which is highly praised by Kasimdzhanov. 

Here are two games from the super tournament in Moscow, where Capablanca played White:

Very exciting, aren't they? People started talking about "the Draw Death of chess." Capablanca himself suggested a new form of chess with a 10x8 board and two new pieces. Then Alexander Alekhine beat Capablanca in their world championship match and the talk about "Draw Death" simply disappeared! This brings us to the coming world championship match at the end of this year.

In my opinion, the coming match can potentially become the most challenging one for GM Magnus Carlsen so far in his career. In the previous two matches against GMs Sergey Karjakin and Caruana, the world champion was defending his title against players of a similar playing style. As the result, we had two not-extremely-exciting matches where the majority of the games were drawn. In both cases, the outcome was decided on a tie break.

The coming match in Dubai is going to be different. As GM Zenon Franco mentioned in his book about the challenger: "Both Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen believe that Nepomniachtchi’s style is more aggressive than that of the other top players." Of course, it shouldn't come as a surprise, considering that Nepomniachtchi’s first chess idol was GM Mikhail Tal!

It is very difficult to make any sort of forecast for the coming match since GM Ian Nepomniachtchi in a good chess mood and Nepomniachtchi in a bad chess mood are two completely different players. So the biggest question is "what kind of challenger are we going to see during the match?"

Let me put it this way. If (and this is a big if) Nepomniachtchi comes to the match in his best form, it is not going to be a snooze fest like the previous two matches and we'll see some major fireworks! And if (and now this is a humongous if) the challenger wins the match, then the chess world is not going to be the same and we'll stop hearing about eliminating castles and altering other rules. 

That's why I think the significance of the coming match can be compared to the epic Capablanca-Alekhine showdown.’s coverage of the 2021 FIDE World Championship is brought to you by Coinbase. Whether you’re looking to make your first crypto purchase or you’re an experienced trader, Coinbase has you covered. Earn crypto by learning about crypto with Coinbase Earn, power up your trading with Coinbase’s advanced features, get exclusive rewards when you spend with Coinbase Card, and much more. Learn more at

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