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FIDE World Chess Championship Officially Opened After Press Conference Clash Of Frenemies
GM Magnus Carlsen and GM Ian Nepomniachtchi at the press conference. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

FIDE World Chess Championship Officially Opened After Press Conference Clash Of Frenemies

PeterDoggers
| 85 | Chess Event Coverage

Starting from this upcoming Friday, GM Magnus Carlsen and GM Ian Nepomniachtchi will be enemies at the board—but they remained friends at today's opening press conference. The players expressed mutual respect and made jokes, while eagerly awaiting the start in two days from now when Nepomniachtchi will play with the white pieces.

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The most important part of an opening ceremony at a big chess event is the drawing of lots. This time, the players had to pop a balloon without knowing the contents. After jokingly asking whether he should pop it softly or aggressively, Carlsen let his balloon burst with... black confetti, meaning he would start with the black pieces.

Halfway through the match, the colors will be reversed so that a single player won't have the advantage of starting every set of two games with the white pieces. (Whether that means if a player will be playing two games in a row with the same pieces was something even FIDE officials couldn't immediately confirm to Chess.com; the match regulations do not speak of the exact color distribution. Update: this year, with a 14-game match and an odd-numbered mid-point, the colors will simply alternate throughout.)

How big the advantage of starting with white would be—perhaps comparable to starting in a penalty shootout in football—was a question asked at the press conference earlier in the day.

Carlsen's take on it: "I would say that there are advantages and disadvantages to both, certainly. Frankly, I've had both and I have maybe a slight preference for starting with white, but I don't think your equity will be majorly different regardless. Overall I think maybe slightly psychologically it's easier to start with white, but it's unlikely to shift the odds considerably."

Nepomniachtchi joked: "The only thing I would prefer is not to play 14 games with black, probably, but hopefully the rules are strict so it will be more or less balanced!"

Ian Nepomniachtchi smiling Dubai 2021
Ian Nepomniachtchi will be happy to know that he's not playing 14 times as Black and, in fact, will be starting as White. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The remark was exemplary for a rather cheerful opening press conference that began exactly 48 hours before the first game and about half an hour later than planned, due to some technical issues but also the world champion arriving fashionably late. The highest title in chess does provide for some privileges!

The first to speak was Andrey Guryev, CEO of main sponsor PhosAgro and a member of the board of trustees and vice president of the Russian Chess Federation. He made no secret of the fact that he is, understandably, very happy to have a Russian participant in this match, and optimistically he added: "Ian has a great chance to bring the chess crown back to Russia."

Then, some welcoming words were expressed by FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, who noted that big TV channels will be covering the match in at least three countries this time: Russia (MatchTV), Norway (NRK), and the U.S. (NBC). The latter company will be working with GM Maurice Ashley, who also served as the host of this press conference.

Ashley started by asking the players how it feels that it's finally starting in two days from now.

Nepomniachtchi: "It feels great. That's why I really prepared for the whole cycle, the Grand Prix, the Candidates, and now the match, so I guess I can't wait for it to be actually started."

Carlsen, first with a serious look but eventually turning that into a smile: "It's gonna feel better in two days!"

It's gonna feel better in two days!
—Magnus Carlsen

Ashley then tried to provoke some stronger reactions when he asked: why is it that you are going to win this championship? Nepomniachtchi still kept his cards close to his chest, saying: "Normally, I think the better player wins."

Carlsen, still tongue-in-cheek: "I predict that the person who scores the most points over the next three weeks is gonna be the winner and, hopefully, and that's gonna be me. If I do win, it will probably be because I made a lot of good moves and good decisions under pressure."

FIDE World Championship Carlsen Nepo press conference
A press conference with lots of jokes. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Then the microphones became available to the journalists, with Chess.com's Mike Klein taking the lead. He started by confronting Nepomniachtchi with Carlsen's remark in a podcast last week that either GM Fabiano Caruana or GM Ding Liren would have been stronger opponents. Nepomniachtchi's reply showed a slight sign of annoyance there: "First of all, I guess he had to say something. That's basically my reaction."

Then it was Carlsen's turn to react to a spicy quote. Klein referenced something GM Vishy Anand had said recently, namely that for what will be his fifth match, the "fire won't be burning so hard inside" for the world champion.

Carlsen: "That's the first time I hear about it and it really makes me fired up, so thank you very much!"

FM Mike Klein is Chess.com's on-site reporter throughout the match.

What follows is a close-to-verbatim transcript of the remainder of the press conference:


A Norwegian reporter asked his compatriot about the nerves and pressure, and whether it gets any easier:

Carlsen: 

"Yeah, I think some parts may get easier as you get more experienced, but after all, it comes down to what you do over the board and I think also Ian has the experience now from the Candidates, which is really the best preparation that you can get for the match since it's so intense. And he also has lots of people in his team that have world championship experience so it remains to be seen if the experience of being here before helps, but in terms of your question if it gets any easier, yes, I would say, it gets a little bit easier in the sense that you probably are a little less nervous than you are the first time when you have some experience."

Nepomniachtchi: "Of course. I guess this applies to any event basically, any major tournament you play, you participate in, that until the first move has been played you feel nervous, pumped up, excited, but once it actually gets to chess, this is much easier to handle. So yeah, I highly rate all the support I get and I'm thankful to all the people who are wishing me luck and success. But in general, I don't think I am getting extra nervous because of this."

How do you apply the lessons you've learned to your day-to-day life?

Carlsen: "That's a very good question. I would say that chess can teach you a lot of things, when you learn it, especially when you're young. For me, specifically, I think the most useful thing has been decision-making, to be able to make relatively quick decisions based on the data that you have, which I think is useful in almost any endeavor. That is something that I've taken with me from chess. So far I haven't, like, applied it successfully apart from chess, but I think theoretically if I were to do something else professionally it would be very, very useful."

Magnus Carlsen Dubai 2021 press conference
Carlsen, paraphrased: chess could theoretically be useful! Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

GM Hans Niemann: You're a fan of Fantasy Football. If you could compare your opponent to any football player, is there anyone you have in mind?

Carlsen: "That's a very good question. Nobody comes to mind immediately. Probably somebody very good. I'll probably have a better answer in a couple of days!"

Do you have anyone in mind for Magnus?

Ian: That's hard to say, actually, because I'm not a Fantasy Football player, although of course, I follow the football scene, but well, probably some striker, yeah? Also a good one! [With a quick glance at Magnus.]

Women are a minority in the world of chess. There aren't many in the world's top 100. Do you think if the number of female players grew and there weren't competitions exclusively for them, a woman could be a candidate for the world championship?

Nepomniachtchi: "That's a really good question, I guess. I think, in general, I don't see any difference. So I think the general issue is that less girls go to chess schools, and the basement is slightly less than when you speak about boys because in general girls have, especially in childhood, they normally have some other hobbies and that's how we see in the top 100, for example, we normally don't see too many female players. I guess this can be changed at any time. For example, Aleksandra Goryachkina is doing quite nice lately, and hopefully, she'll be able to qualify for the match for the second time in a row and hopefully win it. I think it's more or less a matter of time when we see some really strong female player because, OK, we had the good example of Judit Polgar."

Carlsen: "I think it's a good question, way too complicated to answer in a few sentences. So I would say there are a number of factors, I think especially cultural, that lead to the situation we have today. What I would say in general is I encourage everybody to play chess and what I've found around the world is that young girls find as much joy as young boys in the game of chess, and if that could be communicated more I think that would be very helpful."

Dvorkovich briefly took the microphone here, pointing out that 2022 will be the year of women's chess and that FIDE is strongly dedicated to this topic.

Carlsen Nepo Dvorkovich Dubai press conference
Left-right: Nepomniachtchi, Carlsen, and Dvorkovich. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Common knowledge is you and Ian have been friendly over the years and he has worked with you and practiced with you and so on. So this time you're facing someone you kind of know more personally than before. Does it make this world championship any different from the past ones?

Carlsen: "I would say not particularly. I knew Anand very well also before the first couple of matches. I'd worked with him as well, and I don't think it makes a massive difference. The top players know each other so well in general, especially those who have been on the circuit for a long time, so, yeah, I don't think it really matters."

Nepomniachtchi: "As Magnus correctly stated, it's very hard to find an opponent you don't know. Once you meet him, you're really surprised. But yeah, I think about 10 years ago we used to work together a little, but I don't really think it will have an influence towards how the match is going, because in general, I think that once you sit at the board you have no friends."

In general, I think that once you sit at the board you have no friends.
—Ian Nepomniachtchi

How has the technology changed over the last couple of years and how are you working with it for a match like this?

Nepomniachtchi: That's a good question, but I can't say something revolutionary has happened, because we worked as usual, at least this applies to me. And yeah, of course, computer chess engines became more powerful, and now you can choose between different engines to work with, but I believe in general the level difference between the player and the engine, it was high enough 10 years ago already. People now use something which is called neural networks and this has changed the way you work a little bit, but I think it's more or less the same: you try to grind out the best moves."

Carlsen: "I think things have definitely changed a lot over the last couple of years, since the last world championship match, as Ian mentioned, because of neural networks. Computer engines have become a lot better and the way you work has changed a little bit, but I think, generally, the tools are available to everybody, so I don't think it makes a huge difference over the board. But yeah, in terms of the way you work, things have changed a bit."

Can you talk about your team of seconds and the preparation you have done for this world championship final?

Nepomniachtchi: "Thank you for this question. Still, I'm not going to introduce every member of my team, but at least the part of the team which worked with me during the Candidates remained the same, and I guess that's all I can say on this part. Speaking of my work, of course, you have to be prepared mentally, physically, and chess-wise, so it's a never-ending process, basically, and especially you prepare as much as never before when you play a match."

Carlsen: "There's a team that has been working with me, and they're still working, and they're great! That's all I can say."

Seeing how you don't play Fantasy Football, maybe you can compare Magnus to a character from Hearthstone or a card or deck, or if not maybe a unit in League of Legends?

Nepomniachtchi: "Thank you, but let me please maybe stick to some football players—it will be easier. In general, I must say that, OK, Norway has enjoyed really a lot of world-class sportsmen, and not only football players, but also I don't know, some very different sports. Pick the one you like!"

chess set world championship
An example of the type of chess set that will be used. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

There has been an explosion in online blitz games. To what extent are you also looking at new ideas in online chess blitz games?

Nepomniachtchi: That's a very proper question, because, really, for the past, I believe 12, or even 19-20, months a lot of major chess tournaments moved online, and if before at least many of us thought, OK, this is more about having fun and sometimes training, that now things have changed. Of course, that's not a new situation, especially not anymore, when you prepare some idea and you see someone playing it in some online blitz tournament, and you say, OK, thank you! You're just extremely pleased. Maybe this idea turns out to be bad and you had no chance to come with this novelty, but of course, I think the quantity is different nowadays, and perhaps probably the quantity moves into the quality applies to this case as well, and sooner or later you find some interesting things you haven't found before but you see someone is playing this in blitz chess against you."

Carlsen: "Yeah, I think as a player you try to find ideas everywhere, and there are so many blitz games now polluting the databases as well that you can't really avoid them. So yeah, what can I say, you search everywhere, in general."

The match takes place alongside the 2020 Expo Dubai, where the slogan is: Connecting minds, creating the future. A representative of the Expo asked the players: What's your advice for the young generation who want to be champions like you?

Nepomniachtchi: "That's a big question, by the way. Normally, if they ask me to advise something, or wish something, then I'll just try to say that you've got to enjoy what you're doing, and you should just enjoy what you do, would it be chess or science or sports or basically whatever. That's the main part, because if you don't enjoy the way you do and the thing you're doing, probably you're doing something wrong."

Carlsen: "Yeah, that seems to pretty much echo what I would say. Apart from that… No, that's pretty much it! Enjoy what you do! If you're going to excel in a field I think that at least my philosophy is that that has to be the main component."

IM Tania Sachdev: What differentiates Ian from your previous challengers?

Carlsen: "I think there are a few key differences. The main one, in terms of style, is that Ian is a bit more aggressive. He's somebody whose play is faster, and I think he has a keener understanding of the concepts of king safety than previous opponents, so I would say that would be the main difference in terms of strengths, certainly."

I think he has a keener understanding of the concepts of king safety than previous opponents.
—Magnus Carlsen

IM Tania Sachdev: Ian, you've been involved before in previous world championship matches pretty closely, as a commentator, sometimes even helping the players. How important was that in the prep for this match and what were the big takeaways that you would do differently?

Nepomniachtchi: "Well, the preparation is unique, I think every match is unique, and the big problem is that you can't really simulate the experience you are going to get during the match. You can be involved on some player's team and so on, but I think this is quite a different story when you come sit at the board and play by yourself. So, well, I have some thoughts, what should I do, my team has some thoughts, what should I do, and hopefully it will be quite correct."

What is your impression of the host city in general and the playing conditions? And do you have a message for the 50 years golden jubilee of the United Arab Emirates, which will be celebrated on December 2?

Nepomniachtchi: "I should state that Dubai is one of the most beautiful cities and the location is just awesome. It's good to spend a vacation here. Unfortunately, we can't spend a vacation. At least at first, there is some work to do, and Dubai is also changing really smoothly because you don't really recognize the place you have been before. It's changing, it's growing, it's just an awesome place to be."

What about the anniversary of the UAE?

Nepomniachtchi: "That's great."

Carlsen: "What's more golden than a world championship? I think that's the perfect way to celebrate. Apart from that, Dubai has all the facilities and also the climate, which makes it a really, really good venue for a world championship, so I'm happy to be here."

At the end of the press conference, the FIDE World Championship Cup Dubai 2021 was presented, and host Ashley asked the players to take a stand next to the trophy. Neither of them was willing to, with Carlsen calling it "very inappropriate" and Nepomniachtchi saying: "When the time comes."

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021 trophy
The trophy for the 2021 FIDE World Championship. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
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