Magnus Carlsen, the Fide world chess champion, says Dubai has played a special role in his career as he won his decisive GM norm here as a teenager. Image Credit: EPA

Dubai: The Fide World Chess Championship match, scheduled to be held as part of Expo 2020 Dubai between the three-time world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, will be certainly one of the marquee events of the six-month extravaganza.

Carlsen, now 30, had been nothing short of a chess prodigy. He became a Grandmaster at the age of 13, made the chess world sit up and take note when he dethroned India’s cult figure Viswanathan Anand in 2013 to become the world champion for the first time. His lease on the world title has continued from there onwards as he defended it in 2016 and 2018, while the championships match in 2020 was postponed along with Dubai Expo due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He has also, along the way, completed a decade at the top of Fide rankings - a feat held by only Garri Kasparov before. In an email interview with Gulf News, the numero uno of chess has spoken at length about his upcoming battle with challenger Nepomniachtchi, to be held from November 24 to December 16 at Dubai Exhibition Centre, his journey so far, the experience of matching wits with Anand and of course - the role Dubai has played in his career.

Following are the excerpts:

Question: Thanks for doing this one. Your world championship game against Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi has been billed as one of the marquee events of Expo 2020. What’s your take on it?

Answer: You are welcome. I think organizing the World Championship match in chess at the Expo 2020 is a very good idea. With hundreds of thousands of daily visitors to Expo 2020 and the relatively broad global coverage of the World Championship match digitally, I hope the execution of the match will bring out synergies for both Expo 2020 and for the chess world.


Nepomniachtchi is one of the few players in the world who has a decent record against you. How do you assess him as the challenger?

Obviously, I enter every World Championship match with huge respect for my opponent. To become the World Championship Challenger, you have to show world class chess consistently throughout the qualifications as well as mental fortitude during critical moments. Ian and I are contemporaries and know each other well. He has deserved his place in the match and I just have to try to be the best version of myself in the upcoming fierce battle.

This will be the fourth time you will be defending the crown since beating becoming the champion in 2013. Can you talk us through your preparation plan a bit for the big match?

World Championship matches are particularly mentally taxing and I tried not to think about the next match until the challenger (Ian Nepomniachtchi) was determined seven months ago. Gradually, it takes more and more of your focus.

There are three main aspects in preparing for this match: the pure chess part, physical training and mental preparation. In addition, you need a good team around you during the actual match.

As usual, both players each has a team of chess seconds consisting of strong grandmasters, mainly working on opening preparations for months. You want to be as well-prepared as possible for any surprise or opening novelty that your opponent may throw at you, while trying to surprise your opponent yourself. After the initial games of the match, the real time critical work starts of adapting your opening preparations to the development of the match and the openings played so far.

This year, you completed a decade at the top of world rankings – a feat achieved only by Garri Kasparov. How has been the journey so far?

While I try to look ahead and not rest on laurels, the decade-long reign as top ranked player was a significant milestone. Sometimes I have been lucky to maintain the top spot as individual games easily could have gone differently on several occasions and changed the standing. Overall, it is fair to say that I have been the best player for most of the decade.

I have a bit of a lead in the ranking right now, but it is going to get more and more difficult to maintain the No.1 position. Currently I’m highly motivated to try.

Carlsen (right) in action against Viswanathan Anand during the world title match in 2013. Image Credit: PTI

You may be aware of the influence of Vishy Anand, whom you beat in 2013 to first land the world title, on Indian chess and the chess revolution he led there. Any thoughts on Anand the competitor?

Anand has been a formidable chess player for more than three decades and at nearly 52, he is still capable of beating anyone in the world. His influence on Indian chess cannot be exaggerated. He was the decisive force in bringing India from an untapped potential into arguably the strongest chess nation in the world.

He was a formidable opponent in 2013 and 2014, and I was may be fortunate not having to play against the probably even stronger version of him a few years earlier.

There is quite a following for chess in the UAE, with Dubai and Al Ain hosting a series of global tournaments over more than a decade. Are you aware of that?

I secured my third and decisive Grandmaster norm in the Dubai Open in 2004 and I played in the Rapid and Blitz World Championship in Dubai in 2014 winning both, so that I’m well aware of and appreciate the chess interest in the UAE. It will be nice to come back for the World Championship match in 2021 having such wonderful memories from 2004 and 2014. Hopefully, the match can help popularise chess in the UAE even further!

You became a GM at 13 years of age but not everyone can be a Carlsen. So, what’s the right age to take up chess as a sport?

For me, chess is all about passion and interest. I learnt the game around the age of five, while it was not until I turned eight that I became really interested and passionate about it. If you want to become a very good chess player you have to start early, but I think you can learn and enjoy chess at any age!


Fide World Chess Championship match

Magnus Carlsen (Norway), champion vs Ian Nepomniachtchi, challenger

Rating: 2855 (world No. 1): Rating: 2782 (No. 5)

Venue: Dubai Exhibition Centre

Dates: November 24-December 16, 2021

Prize fund: $2 million euros. The winner will earn 60% of the prize fund and 40% goes to the runner-up.