Why Were There So Many Decisive Games In The 2023 FIDE World Championship?
The closing ceremony of the 2023 FIDE World Championship. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Why Were There So Many Decisive Games In The 2023 FIDE World Championship?

| 104 | Strategy

The 2023 FIDE World Championship was an unusual event. First of all, it is very uncommon to call an event the "World Championship" in the absence of the unquestionable world's number-one player. It is also unusual to see so many hard-fought games that produce a winner. Just compare it to the World Championships of 2016 and 2018. There, if we don't count tiebreaks, we saw only two decisive games out of 24! 

While GMs Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren produced exciting games, pleasing chess fans around the world, many professional players are highly critical. They expressed an opinion that the quality of play was not up to the standard of the World Title match. For instance, GM Fabiano Caruana criticized the defensive skills of both players. 

Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi during Game 12 of the FIDE World Championship
Ding and Nepomniachtchi shaking hands after the Chinese's victory in round 12 of the FIDE World Championship. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

It is difficult to argue that both grandmasters made many mistakes in very tense and complicated situations—but this was a feature, not a bug. It was simply impossible to play these kinds of positions perfectly unless you had the convenient option of looking at the engine's suggestions on your monitor. And in a super sharp position, it is very common that the second-best move leads to a defeat. So, for how many moves is it humanly possible to follow the engine's top suggestions?

For the last ten years, GM Magnus Carlsen has been a participant in all the World Championship matches, first as a challenger and then as a defending champion. It is his playing style to keep the opponent at a distance and wait for a good opportunity to pounce. As a result, most of the games in those matches featured long, maneuvering play. The nature of the fight in this last FIDE World Championship match was different, and therefore we saw so many exciting games where mistakes were simply unavoidable. 

Carlsen and Caruana during the 2018 FIDE World Championship.
Carlsen and Caruana during the 2018 World Championship match. Fans saw nothing but draws during the classical portion of the match. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Mark Twain famously said that “history never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” Many games of this match reminded me of the epic encounters between GMs Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. In those old matches, Kasparov would raise the tension to such a degree that both opponents made plenty of mistakes, sometimes very obvious ones! Let's compare two games, so you'll see what I mean.

For starters, let's do a simple quiz. In the following position, Kasparov played three extremely strong moves. If you find just one of them on your very first attempt, then you are probably about master strength. If you guess two of them correctly, then I would be surprised if your rating is less than 2500. If you guess all three moves on your very first try, then you are a genius! 

In game eight of their match, Ding's skillful maneuvers also gave him an attack on the h-file, just like in Kasparov's game:

By the way, this part of the game rhymes with another classical game:

But let's get back to Kasparov's game. In order to increase his pressure and gain control over the e5-h8 diagonal, White sacrificed a pawn:

Ding also sacrificed a pawn, and the same diagonal should have won the game!

Unfortunately, Ding didn't find the correct idea and spoiled what could have been a masterpiece. Moreover, he almost lost the game on time on move 40! Nevertheless, after many adventures, the game was drawn:

In his game, Kasparov also got himself in severe time trouble, and just like Ding, he had seconds to get to move 40. Unfortunately, Kasparov not only missed a bunch of winning moves but even lost the game!

We have just analyzed two games played by four great players: Kasparov, Karpov, Ding, and Nepomniachtchi. Check it with an engine, and you will be surprised by the number of mistakes they made. But if you ask me, I definitely prefer exciting games like these, which will always have numerous mistakes or even straightforward blunders, rather than bland, boring games with accuracy close to 100%!

Editor's note: GM Gregory Serper called that Ding would be the next World Champion back in July 2022.

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