As Ian Nepomniachtchi (“Nepo” for short) slid his pawn onto the g3 square, the chess world knew that Magnus Carlsen had all but clinched the 2021 World Chess Championship last December.
A highly coveted event held once every two years, the championship was originally scheduled to take place in 2020 but was delayed an additional twelve months due to the pandemic. The Candidates Tournament in April saw Nepo emerge as the victor over several prominent competitors, including favorites Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana.
Facing the Russian was Carlsen, a four-time defending champion from Norway. This match was met with great anticipation from other grandmasters, many of whom saw Nepo as the only active player who could dethrone Carlsen.
In the first two games, Carlsen sacrificed material (number of pieces on the board) in favor of positional advantage, but the high-quality defensive play from Nepo forced two draws. In the following game, Nepo chose a more aggressive approach but was met with a spectacular defensive effort from Carlsen. Game four saw a host of new moves, but both players were able to adapt quickly, leading to another tie. The next round resembled game three, with Carlsen and Nepo’s efficient, accurate play leading to the fifth straight draw.
At this point, the two grandmasters seemed evenly matched, and it appeared that the Championship would inevitably enter its tiebreak format. However, game six dismantled this possibility. The 136-move affair, lasting well into the hours of the following day, was met with unanimous praise from the chess community. In addition to becoming the longest game in World Chess Championship history, it also marked the first time a player had won a classical match of the Championship in over five years.
Towards the beginning of the sixth game, the Russian Grandmaster sacrificed two rooks for Carlsen’s queen, leading to a slight material advantage for the Norwegian. Nepo was able to obtain slight positional supremacy in the middle stages of the match, but missed opportunities by both players led to a seemingly balanced endgame: Carlsen, with a rook, knight, and two connected passed pawns and Nepo with a queen. While this situation could have potentially led to a draw, it would have required near-perfect defense by the challenger. Carlsen, on the other hand, faced no serious threats and was able to press his advantage and win the match.
The mental exhaustion of the game seemed to take its toll on Nepo, who lost rounds eight and nine off of a series of uncharacteristic blunders. While he did manage to tie up game ten, Nepo entered the following match with a three-point-five to six-point-five deficit, with Carlsen needing only a single win to defend his championship. A final blunder by Nepo gave Carlsen that exact opportunity he needed. He managed to take the round in just under fifty moves, reigning as World Chess Champion once more.
Carlsen’s victory marked his fourth consecutive title defense. To many members of the chess community, this enormous feat has solidified Carlsen’s legacy as the greatest player of all time. “Five titles in eight years, highest peak classical rating of all time, first to hold all three world championships consecutively, [Magnus Carlsen] is the greatest,” says Mohammed Mustakim ’24, a co-head of the Concord Academy Chess Club. “I mean, when you look at Gary Kasparov, who many people call the G.O.A.T., […] Kasparov was World Champion for fifteen years and he only had to defend his title five times. [Carlsen] has been world champion for nine years and has already defended his title four times.”
Looking to the future, Mohammed believes that Carlsen has the potential to remain top for a considerable amount of time. “I think [Carlsen] can hold his World Championship until he is 40. […] He certainly has the skills to do so.” However, Mohammed also acknowledges Carlsen’s post-tournament interview, in which the World Champion mentioned that he would not compete in another World Championship unless the challenger is Alireza Firouzja, an 18-year-old Iranian-French Grandmaster. If the Norwegian did choose to compete again, Mustakin would love to see a match between Carlsen and Ding Liren, who he believes could be a serious challenger to the World Champion.
Regardless of what the future holds, this World Championship has truly been one for the books. Who would have thought that when all was said and done, the trophy would be in the hands of Magnus Carlsen once again?