“If I knew how to beat Magnus I would have done it myself!” quipped Vishy Anand, as he called Magnus Carlsen a “huge favourite” to win the World Championship match against Ian Nepomniachtchi in Dubai. The 15th World Champion nevertheless feels Ian has a tactical style that can hurt Magnus, while the 14th World Champion Vladimir Kramnik pointed out how important the early games will be for the Challenger.
Vishy Anand and Vladimir Kramnik were interviewed by Ilya Levitov for his YouTube channel, where he features interviews with top players with high quality subtitles.
Vishy starts by highlighting Ian Nepomniachtchi’s potential trump card:
I think the most important thing first is that Nepo’s style is somehow incompatible with Magnus’, in the sense that for Magnus it’s not easy to lock into this style… [Nepo]’s the only one who has the ability to get this tactical style against Magnus.
Vishy points out, however, that it’s an area where Magnus has improved since their World Championship matches back in 2013 and 2014.
I think in 2013/14 his technical thing was often he would simplify to the smallest advantage where there was no risk, rather than slightly easier solutions, but I think he was so confident that he would win anyway that he would go for the smallest edge.
In openings then he tended not to take a lot of risk, because probably he felt that that’s the one area where people could catch up, and he made a big effort to avoid that. He would avoid main lines like the plague before. Now that has changed. Of course there’s so much computer influence recently that everyone has evolved, but still I feel that Magnus is vulnerable under these circumstances. If the position is difficult enough it’s difficult for everyone, and Ian can do that. He has the talent to pursue it.
Will Nepomniachtchi be able to get such positions?
My problem with Ian is that I don’t see many paths for him to do that. I think he has the option to do it, and if he has worked well and he can be very intelligent about it then he can get the kind of position that he’s gifted, but Ian also has huge swings and that is a big question mark. He can swing on the up, but he can also swing in the other direction. The last day in Zagreb, the final blitz day, is kind of for me the most recent example of “what is he doing?” Of course it’s blitz, and maybe you shouldn’t read too much into it, but you have the sense of “what is he doing”, because when he was playing well it seemed effortless for him.
Vishy sums up, and points to an inevitable difference in motivation between the Champion for the last eight years and the Challenger.
So of course Magnus is a huge favourite, but Ian will definitely have his chances. For Magnus it’s inevitably getting difficult, it’s already his fifth match, so I don’t think the fire is burning so hard inside. He’s also been complaining about it for a while, but as for Ian, he should be very motivated now, so it can be interesting. Look, if I knew how to beat Magnus I would have done it myself! Let’s see if Ian can figure it out.
Vladimir Kramnik pointed to the importance of preparation and how the match begins.
In general I agree with Vishy, but also the preparation is very important. We don’t know anything about how they prepare, what they prepare, and I think the beginning of the match, the first few games, maybe 3-4 games, will be very important, because it’s difficult. I remember when playing my first match with Garry [Kasparov] you’re under pressure, and if things start to go wrong anything can happen.
For me the first two games were very important, that I started to take the lead. Even the first game that I drew… Slowly I started to feel like, yeah, I’m just a very valid and serious opponent of the World Championship match. Frankly I was not totally sure about it before the match, so for the challenger it is important after the start of the match to get the feeling that you are in, that you are as valid, I would say as valuable, a player in the match as the World Champion. It’s somewhere deep inside you, and if it goes wrong you might start to be shaky.
Even if you make four draws, you lose game five, it’s easier. It’s ok, you are in the fight already, so maybe the first 2-3 games in my opinion might be very important, and if Ian manages those games without too much damage, then yeah, he will get his confidence and then it will be more difficult already for Magnus.
That’s a very good point. You get the feeling that you belong, that you’re not out of place, you didn’t just walk in and you accidentally got there. Once you have that feeling then you become more confident, but every challenger probably has that phase where you think, “What if it goes horribly wrong? What will people say?” So it’s nice to get that off your chest.
It’s worth here quoting from a recent interview with Judit Polgar, the greatest female chess player of all time, who will be commentating on the match live with Anish Giri for chess24.
Asked how this match differs from the previous challenges Magnus has faced, she explained:
Firstly, the biggest difference I feel is that Nepo is a player who believes he can win the match. I didn't feel Sergey Karjakin really believed in the possibility that he could become a World Champion by beating Magnus. With Fabiano too, I wasn't sure, but with Nepo — he has this body language which says, 'I am going to win and it's completely fine that I am the next World Champion.'
This year’s match will be more intense than in previous years, with the number of games increased from 12 to 14 and with fewer rest days. The rhythm will be three games before the first rest day, then two games, then a rest day, and again three games. Does Kramnik think that will favour Nepomniachtchi?
It’s not that important. If you’re in bad shape physically and psychologically, and have bad preparation, nothing will help you in the World Championship match. If you’re in good shape, you can manage. It’s not easy to play three in a row, I agree, but you can manage everything, so it pretty much depends on that, I believe.
I agree with you that it works in the favour of Magnus, because he’s physically also extremely strong and healthy, but I don’t think it is a decisive point. You have to be ready mentally also and ready for everything, ready to play two games a day, to play every day, you have to be ready to fight whatever the circumstances!
Vishy was asked about the extremely busy schedule that Magnus has kept to, with a constant series of online and over-the-board events.
I think Carlsen is someone who cannot prepare at home for very long, so he needs this, but on the good side if anything he’s getting better as he goes along. Normally you should be a little bit sick of chess on his schedule, but he’s still motivated, he comes up with one good result after another. It’s impressive, and I attribute most of it to his fitness and his willingness to play every game till the end. Even positions that are so dead, he somehow sits there and he’s plodding along. He’s not lost this, and even in his worst form these two qualities will keep him in any match. But it’s really impressive what he has done.
Ian has very impressive performances, but far fewer than Magnus. If you take their worst days then Magnus is much stronger. Of course on his best days Ian’s closer to Magnus, but on his worst days he’s much further away than Magnus on his worst days. Magnus’ fitness, that’s his biggest strength for me, because in any match it allows him to stay competitive even at the end.
There’s not long at all to wait now, with the first game of the World Chess Championship 2021 starting this Friday, November 26th, with Judit Polgar and Anish Giri commentating live on all the action for chess24, while Tania Sachdev will be in Dubai. We also have the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour team of David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare.
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