On Friday, needing just one point against Ian Nepomniachtchi to defend his world champion status, Magnus Carlsen closed the match out with three games to spare, 7.5-3.5. He's been the No 1 chess player in the world for a decade now and is in his eighth year as undisputed world champion.
"What happened here has never happened before in my career," Nepomniachtchi said after Friday's game, in a perhaps unintended homage to the new champion. "I've lost lots of stupid games, but not as many in such a short time."
In a technologically flat, AI-powered chess world where preparation among the best players can be almost equal, what really makes one guy stand out with his dominance and genius for this long?
Carlsen, perhaps the only current chess player with no apparent shortcomings in his game, holds a catalog of strengths - immaculate calculations, rare outright mistakes, superlative positional sense and an eagerness to trade material for activity. He's also perfected the art of turning the smallest opportunities into major breakthroughs. Former world champion Garry Kasparov once called him a combination of two greats Anatoly Karpov and Bobby Fischer who 'gets his positions and never lets go of his bulldog bite'.
During a post-game press conference at the 2018 World Championships, Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana were asked to pick their favorite players from the past. Caruana went with Fischer, the late brilliant fellow American who'd challenged the Soviet hegemony in the sport. Carlsen's answer? "Probably myself, like, three or four years ago."
The seeming hubris isn't without a few truths.
American GM and chess commentator Robert Hess describes Carlsen as the "hardest worker you'll find" both at the board and in preparation. "He is second-to-none at evading common theoretical lines and prefers to outplay his opponents in positions where both players must rely on their understanding of the current dynamics," Hess says. "He has a phenomenal memory and has been vocal about studying as many games as he can get his hands on and his wealth of knowledge and exquisite technique allow him to find multiple possible angles to overcome even the sturdiest of defenses, particularly in an endgame."
Former world champion Viswanathan Anand, against whom Carlsen won his first two world titles, proffers that unpredictability and flexibility are his two most striking qualities. "Lots of theories have been offered over why Magnus is great, let me try maybe a slightly new one," he says, "Whatever situation, you drop him in, his promptness to react is brilliant. If his pre-match strategy didn't work out, he'll find something else, as he showed in his match against (Sergey) Karjakin, where things went horribly wrong. And somehow he came back."
After seven draws against Karjakin in 2016, Carlsen obstinately turned down a draw in the eighth game, chased risky moves from an equal position, overreached and lost with White. It was the first and only occasion so far when he trailed in a World Championship match. By the twelfth game, it was a slightly different Carlsen. Despite playing with the slight advantage of White pieces, he didn't push for a win. He exchanged his pieces, an almost symmetrical endgame followed and the game came to an abrupt end in all of 35 minutes. It was the quickest draw of that match. Commentators, players and fans came down hard on the lack of a fight. Carlsen apologized for disappointing followers of the sport but he had his plans laid out. He didn't want to wager half chances in the final classical game when he had the surer option of going for the kill in the faster time controls in which he enjoys an obvious strength and edge. He did it all over again two years later against Caruana. After 11 drawn games, in a superior position with time on his clock, Carlsen offered the bewildered American a draw in the final classical twelfth game, forced a tiebreak and went on to win the match.
"You would expect him to really try but he's already decided he wants to play the tiebreak," Anand adds, "He takes these unconventional decisions. He'll make a quick draw one day, the next day he'll fight as if his life depends on it. He can switch back and forth. He can be very aggressive, like he was in many games with Caruana trying very hard or he can be highly conservative as he is here against Ian with the black pieces. He can turn up as a slightly different person every day, dial his intensity up or down. It makes him unpredictable. Even when he's not burning all his bridges, Magnus is still dangerous."
Carlsen agrees that he'd not been too ambitious with the Black pieces in this match, and throws light on his strategy after he moved into the lead. "A lot of my decisions, when push came to shove, skewed conservative and you can say in hindsight it worked out pretty well...Sometimes being serious and solid can be the best way to play for a win."
A slippery slope in world title matches is recovering from losses, particularly against players of equal or higher strength. It's brutal on the mind, sucking the player into a quicksand and colouring his approach towards the subsequent games. After a defeat in Game 5 against Carlsen in 2013 for instance, Anand told me in an earlier interaction, that deep down he knew the match was over. One loss snowballed into three - in Game 6 and Game 9, and the title was decided two days early.
Nepomniachtchi had a massive blow-up. Five tightly-contested draws were followed by the longest match in the history of the Championship in the sixth which Carlsen won (after close to eight hours). "While many chalk up certain positions as drawn, Magnus displays remarkable tenacity," Hess explains, "He hardly ever makes assumptions, and seems to believe the burden of proof is on the players during the live game. He excels at forcing his opponents into positions where they have few paths that maintain the balance, and he is masterful at not letting them off the hook until every last ounce of effort is exhausted. While many players are ready to shake hands and call it a day, Carlsen never stops searching for ideas that can trouble his opponents. He is willing to play the position out until bare kings."
Congrats to Magnus for a dominant performance vs Nepomniachtchi, who failed to put up any resistance after the game 6 loss. Carlsen rarely had to show his best here, but you cannot blame the shark if his opponent becomes a minnow! https://t.co/wuyHRExiUb
- Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) December 10, 2021
Nepomniachtchi loss in game 6 was a good illustration of Carlsen the maximalist. While objectively, according to the engines, the position remained balanced for a long time, Carslen capitalized on his opponent's mistake (52...Qe4). The computers didn't indicate a huge shift in evaluation, but it's where the game turned from a soon-to-be draw to Nepomniachtchi begging for a draw, Hess pitches. The game-ending "blunder" (130...Qe6) was not what cost Nepomniachtchi the game. "Practically speaking it's nearly impossible to defend that material imbalance with mere minutes on your clock after hours of defending. It was a vintage Magnus masterpiece, and a game that led to [Nepomniachtchi] spiraling and making uncharacteristic errors."
The Russian never quite recovered from that pummeling. His spirit seemed broken, his hunger vanished and he acted, on his own admission, like he had never before, for the remainder of the match.
He went on to have perhaps his worst-ever meltdown in Game 9 - blundering a pawn on c5 on Move 27, which activated a self-destruct sequence, trapping his own bishop. Carlsen appeared to be taken by surprise at the collapse. He scrunched his nose, placed a palm over his mouth and couldn't believe his eyes. Nepomniachtchi was in his private resting room, watching the playing area on the television screen and probably wondering whether he should come back out at all. He did, after 18 minutes. It was his third loss in the match, handing Carlsen a massive lead.
Contrast this to the impact of the reigning world champion's loss in Game 8 to Karjakin, only his second-ever in five World Championship matches. He fell behind but didn't allow himself to teeter out of control, striking back with an equalizing win in the tenth.
"Magnus has showed that losing a game will not make him an easy target in the upcoming games," YouTube star Antonio Radic, AKA Agadmator, who analyses chess games on his hugely popular channel, offers, "The first opportunity he got, he made his point that the match is far from over. In his Game 6 against Caruana, he pulled himself back from the brink of defeat and made it amply clear that unless you play with surgical precision, you can't possibly take more than half a point from him. If I had to tell future generations who Magnus Carlsen was in pop culture terms, I would compare him to Superman or Goku. No one really understands chess on the level he does."
In Nepomniachtchi, Magnus was supposed to have a tricky opponent with a reputation for being aggressive and capricious. He came into the match with a 4-1 record over the world champion in classical chess, which has now been flattened. Nepomniachtchi tried blitzing Carlsen on a few occasions, in Game 9 for instance, but the latter didn't respond by blitzing in return, and instead remained calm and unhurried. The Russian wound up with a massive blunder.
At the start of this year, news emerged of Nepomniachtchi and his team having access to a supercomputer cluster, Zhores, from the Moscow-based Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. He was using it for his Candidates tournament preparation, a tournament he went on to win. He gained the challenger status for the World Championship and the Zhores supercomputer reportedly continued to be a mainstay in his team. Zhores was specifically designed to solve problems in machine learning and data-based modeling with a capacity of one Petaflop per second. To explain, a Petaflop is a quadrillion (1000 trillions) Floating point operations per second, a critical measure of computing speed and power. Players use computers and open-source AI engines to analyze openings, bolster preparation, scour for a bank of new ideas and to go down lines that the other is unlikely to have explored.
The tiny detail though is, that against Carlsen, it may not be enough. He has the notoriety of drawing opponents into obscure positions, hurling them out of preparation and into the deep end, often leading to a complex struggle. Whether you have the fastest supercomputer on your team then becomes almost irrelevant. It comes down to a battle of intuition, tactics and staying power, human to human. In such scenarios, almost always, Carlsen comes out on top. "[Nepomniachtchi] couldn't show his best chess...it's a pity for the excitement of the match," he said later, "I think that's what happens when you get into difficult situations...all the preparation doesn't necessarily help you if you can't cope in the moment."
The good thing about Carlsen being chess' most visible face is that he has things to say outside the sport too. At a time when chess is wooing new audiences, testing new mediums of engagement and breaking into fresh territories, he's a god-send. The 31-year-old is a Twitch star, fantasy football nut, entrepreneur with a flourishing chess empire of businesses, and battery of online tournaments, and his celebrity - young and full of chutzpah - is an instant seller. "He's a guy with well-rounded and varied interests. He is not merely the best chess player in the world," Hess points out, "That's an important distinction. It keeps him relevant as a mainstream celebrity. It feels essential particularly in individual sport. People love to root for names."
When interviewing Carlsen for a chess magazine back in 2014, Hess happened to drop a casual basketball mention. He was almost immediately drawn into a long discussion. "Carlsen seemed somewhat disinterested in the broad chess questions I was required to ask, but he was excited to chat about his favorite players and trends he had noticed in NBA," Hess says, "I'm sure he does not remember it, but that was the first time it struck me that this guy is intrigued by so many things outside of chess. At that moment, the fact that he was a world champion was irrelevant, he was more than glad to be just a fellow NBA fan."
Soon after his win on Friday, Carlsen announced he'd be "celebrating" by playing the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Warsaw, a fortnight from now. He presently holds both those titles and will be looking to renew his dominance across formats. It's one of the things that makes him the sort of champion he is - an ascetic devotion to the idea of winning. Or as he'd probably quip, finding beauty in repetition.