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Interviews Nov 20, 2021 | 5:21 PMby Tarjei Svensen

Carlsen: "Good outcome" to face Nepo not Fabi or Ding

Magnus Carlsen is just days away from making the first move in his World Championship match against Ian Nepomniachtchi. In a new podcast interview hosted by his sponsor Unibet, the World Champion spoke openly about his relationship with his Russian opponent and the fact that he still considers Fabiano Caruana and Ding Liren to be tougher opponents. Magnus hinted he will try to push for an early lead.


Magnus Carlsen's preparation for the 2021 World Championship Match, his fifth in total, appears to be somewhat unusual. After returning to Norway, having spent two weeks at a training camp in southern Spain, he's been spotted playing a ton of bullet and blitz games, breaking records on Lichess. Carlsen also went to Tromsø with team mates from the Offerspill Chess Club to play one classical game in the Norwegian Team League, in which he beat GM Benjamin Arola Notkevich, rated 400 points lower than himself. 

Other preparation included an appearance in Dortmund, where he watched a Champions League match with injured Norwegian football star Erling Braut Haaland.

This week he appeared as a guest on the Løperekka podcast, hosted by close friend Magnus Barstad, who works for his sponsor Unibet. Carlsen said he is at least ready physically, an important factor in the three-week-long match.

It's starting to get better now. I am not going to hide the fact that after all the corona and staying at home for a while, it hasn't been good. But it's getting better and my energy level is improving, so I feel I am ready.

Until the match starts, this is the most important thing I can do now. That is going to be good. It takes time to build up enough energy for three weeks.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the interview was Carlsen speaking at length about his personal relationship and history with Ian Nepomniachtchi, whom he first faced faced in the European Youth Chess Championship in 2002. That was the first of a total of four classical losses he has suffered against the Russian.

The next meeting was the “traumatic” World Youth Chess Championship the same year, as he lost the gold medal to Nepomniachtchi in the final round on tiebreaks after drawing against David Howell.

The relationship between the two has remained good and, before the London Chess Classic in 2012, Carlsen hired Nepomniachtchi as a second. The Russian eventually failed to get a visa in time and had to assist from Moscow. Nepo was also present in Sochi and, along with Vladimir Potkin, he played a key role in helping Carlsen beat Viswanathan Anand in the sixth game.

Carlsen talks about their history and why Nepomniachtchi failed to break through.

We spoke a bit during these tournaments, but didn't have much contact for years, until 2011, when we had a training session together. He was a lowly-rated 2700 player and struggled a bit to make it to the very top. He complained that he didn't get enough invitations to the best tournaments, and felt that the players at the very top were not better than him. I told him that his problem was that he wasn't disciplined. He had one good tournament, followed by two bad ones. He could start an event with three wins in the first four rounds, then in his fifth game he would not win a better position, leading to a collapse. A very moody player.

While Carlsen took off as a teenager and played in his first super tournaments as a 16-year-old, Nepomniachtchi struggled to break through as a 2600 player. The Russian didn't break into the Top 10 until 2019.

As usual, Magnus is less filtered when speaking in his native language. On Nepomniachtchi's biggest challenge in Dubai, he says:

In Norway Chess he seemed very strong for the first 3-4 rounds, he had a small setback, and then he collapsed. That's not something he can allow himself in a World Championship match. I am not going to fall even if I am hit in the face once. Perhaps that will be his biggest challenge, to handle the setbacks that will come, regardless of whether it's a good position he fails to convert, or a game that he should have held to a draw but ends up losing, or opening preparation that goes wrong — that will be a huge challenge for him.

The World Champion, who has reigned since 2013 and been the world no. 1 consecutively since 2011, doesn't think Nepomniachtchi would have won the Candidates if the event hadn't been split in two. 

Because he lost the last game in the first half of the tournament. He rarely plays well after having lost. Now he managed it eventually and has started to become more pragmatic. 

Carlsen says he considers Nepomniachtchi, the world no. 5, to be “a wild card” and still thinks the no. 3 Fabiano Caruana and no. 2 Ding Liren would pose a bigger challenge for him.

I would say they are the best. I thought beforehand that anyone else would be a good outcome for me, and I still feel that way.

The Norwegian thinks his match experience will be a significant advantage, pointing out that challengers in the past have seemed shaky in the first few games, and hinted that we may see some exciting games right from the start in Dubai.

You can see that in particularly in the start. I needed 3-4 games myself. Caruana was also extremely shaky, especially in the first game. I also think that as a reigning champion you have a good chance to strike at the start. That's definitely something I am going to try.

Magnus Carlsen toppled over his c-pawn as he played 1...c6 in Game 2 of his first World Championship match against Vishy Anand | photo: Anastasia Karlovich

He continued speaking about some of his previous matches.

In the last two matches, nothing came easily for me. I wasn't in a lead for one second in classical play. I was behind against Karjakin, and struck back from that. How well I will handle it, I don't know, but at least I have been in that situation before.

Barstad, who was present with Carlsen in London during the 2018 match, mentions an episode back then when they were speaking about all the negative reaction Magnus received after making a draw as White in Game 12. He seemed to have good winning chances, but instead headed for a playoff, with the criticism led by former World Champions Vladimir Kramnik and Garry Kasparov.

You were pretty quiet for a long time... then all of a sudden you say, they don't consider that I actually know what I am doing?

Yes, I think I do. You don't succeed every time, but you try to make as good and detached decisions as possible. I felt then, and still feel, that I made the right decisions. When it comes to a World Championship match, people only see the result, so if it works you are a genius, and if it doesn't you're an idiot. Those with some experience know that it just isn't that simple.

Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi have enjoyed a good relationship for years. Here they are during the 2015 World Blitz Championship in Berlin | photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

Carlsen also revealed a bit about how he has prepared for the match. Not going into details, he says it's about looking into what type of pawn structures his opponent prefers and how he plays open or closed positions.

Asked how much he is thinking about Nepomniachtchi's preparations, he says:

I'd say most of my preparation is about myself. The problem is that you need to have prepared broadly. Most of it is about making sure I am the best version of myself. I feel that I know very well what his strengths and weaknesses are. There are some specific things I won't go into detail about, that I need to consider, but most of it is about my theoretical and physical preparation and that I will be as prepared as possible. I have half an eye on the fact that my preparation for this match will be useful afterwards as well.

Carlsen previously said he hopes there will be more decisive games, and repeated that he thinks there will be less draws this time.

It's hard to know. I think we will see a much more solid version of Ian than before. It's also very interesting that there are 14 games but the same amount of days, which means less rest and less time to work in between the games. To be honest, I felt that I didn't need all the rest days that were in place before. I think it's better with more games and there is less variety, which is better for me. For the team it's more difficult, but that's not my problem!

The first game in the World Championship match will take place on November 26th at 13:30 CET, with the opening ceremony on the 24th. chess24 will have extensive live coverage with Judit Polgar and Anish Giri, as well as the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour team of Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.

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