Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 8, 2022

A preview of the 2021 World Chess Championship

By DAVID BAIK | November 19, 2021

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LENNART OOTES/CC BY-SA 4.0

Norwegian Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen will defend his World Championship title starting next week.

The World Chess Championship will be underway starting on Nov. 24 through Dec. 14, the. The champion — Norwegian Grandmaster (GM) Magnus Carlsen — faces off against the challenger: Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi. 

Before veering off into predictions for the match, I will first describe how each GM made his way to this stage, starting with the challenger.

Nepomniachtchi’s path differed from previous World Chess Championship challengers due to the pandemic. Like Carlsen and his previous challengers, Nepomniachtchi had to qualify for and win the Candidates Tournament, an eight-person, double-round robin event held every two years.

Halfway through the tournament, Nepomniachtchi and his fellow competitors went back to their respective countries and waited an entire year to resume the tournament. At the midway point, Nepomniachtchi and French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave held the first place spot.

In April 2021, the second half of the tournament commenced, and Nepomniatchi took sole control of the first place spot by earning three wins and drawing the rest of his games.

As the winner of the 2020-21 Candidates Tournament, Nepomniachtchi gets to vie for the World Chess Championship title. Should he lose, he is at least guaranteed to play in the next cycle of the Candidates Tournament.

Current World Champion Carlsen also had to get through the bloodbath that is the Candidates Tournament back in 2013. Holding a score of 8.5 points heading into the final round, both Carlsen and Russian GM Vladimir Kramnik had must-win situations on their hands.

Carlsen, however, lost his final game against another Russian GM, Peter Svidler. When all hope seemed lost for Carlsen, Kramnik too lost against Ukrainian GM Vasyl Ivanchuk. 

Despite having an even head-to-head score, Carlsen took the second tiebreak by having more overall wins in the tournament, essentially falling backward into the 2013 World Championship match against Indian GM Viswanathan Anand.

In the matchup between Carlsen and Anand, Carlsen seized the crown by winning three games and drawing the 10th game of a possible 12, mathematically securing his victory. The following year, Carlsen successfully defended his title against Anand again.

Carlsen faced Russian GM Sergey Karjakin in 2016, who at one point in the tournament seemed like he would dethrone Carlsen. After drawing the first seven games, Karjakin shocked the world when he won the eighth game with the black pieces.

But Carlsen – being the all-time great that he is – struck back in the 10th game, forcing a rapid playoff, in which opponents play on shorter time controls to break the tie. Carlsen emerged from the rapid rounds victorious, defending his crown for the second time. 

In 2018, American GM Fabiano Caruana posed a similar challenge to Carlsen. The pair drew all 12 of their games, leading them into another rapid playoff. Carlsen swept the rapid matches, defending his title again and placing him in the spot he is in today against Nepomniachtchi.

Having summarized the long, grueling paths Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi took to make it to this year’s World Championship match, I will now do my best to predict what will happen and who will win.

As a disclaimer, I do not consider myself an expert in chess, so my opinion and the reasons for it can be taken with a grain of salt. In my defense, I believe predicting these sorts of things is inherently difficult. Take it from grandmasters themselves, who also lean away from definitive answers.

Nonetheless, I predict Carlsen will retain his title for the fourth consecutive time. My prediction is based on two things: his statistical dominance and his experience.

At the time of writing, the live chess ratings show that the gap between the number one and two spots, or Carlsen and Chinese GM Ding Liren, is bigger than the gap between Ding and the 18th-ranked Karjakin. These gaps put into perspective Carlsen’s dominance amongst even the top players in the world.

Furthermore, Carlsen is also number one in the rapid format, which has been used to determine the last two World Championship matches. Although Nepomniachtchi isn’t far behind at the number five slot, Carlsen has had the experience of winning high-stakes rapid games.

Speaking of experience, Carlsen has endured several tests of pressure. He kept his composure in 2016, coming back with a win when his back was against the wall. As mentioned before, Carlsen dominated the rapid portions against Karjakin and Caruana, so he may not have to worry much if the match has to go into a playoff again.

Those who bet on Nepomniachtchi might point to his edge in head-to-head matchups against Carlsen. While it may be true that any psychological advantage can count, three of Nepomniachtchi’s four wins came before Carlsen was world champion. In fact, two of those wins were before either played turned 15 years old.

In no way am I trying to discredit Nepomniachtchi here. He has earned everything to lead him to this position, and he seems prepared to enter what may be the biggest match of his life. 

While it is impossible to rule Nepomniachtchi out completely, I see Carlsen remaining world champion come the end of December.

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