Chess 5
Norwegian Magnus Carlsen (right) will defend his world title against Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi in the 2021 Fide World Chess Championship from November 26, 2021 at Expo 2020 Dubai. Image Credit: Reuters

World chess has come to the UAE. Two of the world’s best players are in Dubai to pit their skills and brains against each other to decide the world champion. Magnus Carlsen is the defending champion, and Ian Nepomniachtchi is the challenger. The duel on 64 squares, which will start on Friday (November 26, 2021) at the Expo 2020, will be played on a best-of-14-game format over three weeks.

The Dubai championship has come 1,090 days since the last World Chess Championship. In these three years, the game has seen a resurgence with technology bringing chess to hand-held gadgets. The sport also received a fillip when the COVID-19 pandemic drove people indoors.

What’s chess?

Chess is a game played on a square board with 64 squares arranged in an eight-by-eight grid. Each of the two players has 16 pieces — one plays with white pieces and the other with black. The aim is to trap the opponent’s king.

It has become a truly global sport, with millions of players worldwide and more than 60 million games on average played every day.

A brief history of chess

Chess originated in India from the 7th-century game chaturanga, which translates to “four divisions”. The four divisions of the military — infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots — evolved into a pawn, knight, rook and bishop in modern chess.

From India, chess spread to Persia (present-day Iran) and the rest of Asia. After it reached Europe, the game developed over several centuries, and the modern version surfaced around the 16th century.

The international chess federation (Fédération Internationale des Échecs, or Fide), founded in Paris on July 20, 1924, is the governing body of chess, regulating international competitions. The federation, which now has its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, has 195 countries as affiliate members.

Chess fun facts
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The world championships at a glance

The United States hosted the first official World Chess Championship in 1886. Wilhelm Steinitz (Austria) defeated Johannes Zukertort (Britain) 10-5 in games played in New York, St. Louis and New Orleans.

From 1886 to 1946, the champion set the terms, and a challenger had to defeat the champion to become the new champion.

After the death of world champion Alexander Alekhine in 1946, the international chess federation (Fide) took over the championship and staged its first event in 1948. Some of the games were played at the Hague and the rest in Moscow.

In 1993, world champion Garry Kasparov broke away from Fide and created the Professional Chess Association. He remained PCA world champion for the next 13 years. The Fide and PCA titles were unified in 2006 in Elista, Russia.

The championship has been organised on a two-year cycle since 2014. Magnus Carlsen defeated Viswanathan Anand in 2013 and defended the title in 2014, 2016, and 2018. The championship match in 2020 was postponed to 2021 due to the global pandemic.

Chess in the UAE: A passion as old as the nation

Gautam Bhattacharyya, Senior Associate Editor

Chess has always been a popular pastime among the Emiratis, and it’s only befitting that the world championship is organised at the venue of one of the biggest spectacles in the UAE: Expo 2020

The United Arab Emirates Chess Federation (UAECF), launched in 1976, is one of the earliest national sports federations in the country after the formation of the Union. (The first was the UAE Football Association in 1971.) A representative team from the UAE took part in the Chess Olympiad in Libya in 1976, and the country became a Fide member the following year.

A precocious Saeed Ahmed Saeed won the 1979 Under-14 World Chess Championship in Mexico — the first achievement for UAE in international chess. He repeated the feat in 1981 and was called ‘The Arab Computer’ by the Arab media. Years later, Rouda Essa Al Serkal won the 2017 Under-8 world title in Brazil.

UAE Grandmaster Salem Saleh Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

In the last four decades chess has become more popular. The UAE now has a Grandmaster in Salem Saleh (Fide rating 2690) and IMs (International Masters) in Saeed Ishaq, Omar Noaman and Sultan Ibrahim. Much of the credit for the growth should go to the chess clubs Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah and Al Ain. The inauguration of the Chess & Culture Club for Sharjah Women in 1991 and Dubai Chess and Culture Club in 2000 gave women’s chess in the country a big boost.

There are now more than 16 clubs registered with the UAE Chess Federation. Two of the most prominent chess clubs of the country — the Dubai Chess and Culture Club (DCC) and Abu Dhabi Chess and Culture Club (ADCC) recently signed an agreement to collaborate for international competitions.

Interestingly, Magnus Carlsen, the four-time world champion, defending his crown from Friday, had earned his final GM norm at a Dubai event.

The World Chess Championship in Dubai

Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

Time to Say Dubai, Magnus Carlsen tweeted, referring to the world championship match at Expo 2021 Dubai from November 2021. And that time has come.

Will Magnus Carlsen defend his title again? Can Ian Nepomniachtchi dethrone him? The battle of two of the best brains in chess begins on Friday. The match was initially scheduled for last year but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nepomniachtchi qualified by winning the Candidates Tournament, an eight-player double-round robin tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Carlsen, who won the title in 2013 by defeating India’s Viswanathan Anand, defended it the following year before warding off the challenges of Sergey Karjakin in 2016 and Fabiano Caruana in 2018.

The Dubai match will be best-of-14 rounds, with tie breaks. All championships from 2006 were 12-game matches, but it was increased to 14 after all the 12-games were drawn in the 2018 championship.

The €2 million prize money will be split 60:40 between the winner and the loser. If the match is tied after 14 classical games, the prize will be split 55-45 in favour of the tiebreak winner.

When Dubai was announced as the venue, Mohammed Issa Al Ansari, Vice President of Strategic Communications at Expo 2020 Dubai, said: “Expo 2020 Dubai will be a global celebration of the very best of humankind, held in one of the world’s most welcoming and ambitious nations — what better place to host a thrilling showdown between the brightest minds in chess?

“Just as chess unites people of all ages and backgrounds from across the world, and encourages strategic thinking and problem solving, Expo 2020 will also bring the world together to build bridges and inspire solutions to some of the most pressing shared challenges of our time. The FIDE World Chess Championship will be an exciting highlight of Expo’s events calendar, enjoyed by millions of physical and virtual visitors worldwide,” Al Ansari was quoted as saying.

All eyes of the chess world will be on Dubai. Over the next three weeks, two of the sharpest minds will clash on the chequered board. The Carlsen-Nepo duel could well be a thriller.

Magnus Carlsen: The world champion

Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor

Four-times world champion Magnus Carlsen, 31, of Norway started learning chess from his father when he was five but took an interest in the game when he was eight to beat his sister, who had just started playing.

As a child, Carlsen had an exceptional memory — he could complete a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle at age two and memorise the names and population size of most of Norway’s 430 municipalities by age four.

He would sharpen his chess skills by playing by himself for hours, moving the pieces around, searching for combinations, and replaying games and positions.

In 2001, Carlsen’s family hired Norway’s top player, Grandmaster Simen Agdestein, to coach him. Agdestein said Carlsen was “the best natural player I had ever seen. He would play with almost perfect form. You would just say, ‘Whoa!’”

Carlsen beat former champion Anatoly Karpov in blitz chess at a 2004 tournament in Reykjavik. A month later, Carlsen became a grandmaster at age 13.

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In 2013, at 22, Carlsen defeated Viswanathan Anand to become the second-youngest world champion in history (the first being Garry Kasparov). He followed that up by claiming both the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in June 2014, before defending the title against Anand in November 2014, Sergey Karjakin in November 2016 and Fabiano Caruana in November 2018. He is the first person ever to hold the three titles simultaneously.

Christened ‘the Mozart of Chess’ by the Washington Post, Carlsen was coached by Kasparov in 2009-10. He can outplay his opponents from equal or worse positions after choosing what seem to be harmless opening moves.

When over-the-board chess was shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Carlsen and the PlayMagnus group organised the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, a $250,000 super-tournament that became the first event on the $1 million Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour.

Carlsen’s tournament winnings and a modelling contract for the fashion label G-Star have made him a multi-millionaire.

Ian Nepomniachtchi: The challenger

Ian Nepomniachtchi, 31, from Russia, learned to play chess when he was a four-and-a-half year old. His grandfather Boris Iosifovich Nepomniashchy was a famous teacher and lyricist in Bryansk.

Nepo (as he is better known) and his first coach, Valentin Evdokimenko, came to Bryansk at the age of five and trained until he was 13. Under the guidance of his coach, he took part in the World and European Championships.

Nepo won the European U10 and U12 championship (twice) and claimed the 2002 World U12 Championship ahead of Magnus Carlsen; much was expected. Nepo later admitted that success got the better of him, and he lost focus, allowing his peers to get ahead. But his talent never went away.

He made his mark in 2010 when he won the European Individual Championship and the Russian Championship. Soon he began to be invited to top tournaments and played well.

In rapid and blitz, he has scored numerous silver and bronze medals in the World Championships but is yet to win gold.

In 2019 Nepo broke into the top 10 for the first time, ending the year in the top 5. He finished second in the FIDE Grand Prix to qualify for the first time for a Candidates Tournament.

In the Dubai world championship, Nepo, who is 4-1 in head-to-head classical chess clashes against Carlsen, has the potential to be one of his toughest challengers yet.

World chess champs
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