The press conference in Dubai ahead of the World Chess Championship is running 30 minutes late. However, that hasn’t quelled the feverish anticipation of the crowd of journalists clambering for a good spot to photograph Magnus Carlsen, the world’s best chess player.
He will face off against challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi across 14 games for an eye-watering prize fund of $2.24 million. Friday’s opening match was drawn as game two on Saturday.
Interest in chess spiked at the beginning of the pandemic, and again in October 2020 after the release of the Netflix series, “The Queen’s Gambit.” In the first three weeks after its debut, sales of chess sets went up by 87% in the US and sales of books about chess leaped 603%, according to marketing research company NPD Group.
Not since the 1970s, when American legend Bobby Fischer burst onto the scene, has the game captured the attention of the world like this. Is chess sexy again? It doesn’t matter for Carlsen, as he prepares to defend his title.
“The question is whether smart is the new sexy? And in that case, chess most certainly is. Personally, I don’t really care,” he told CNN’s Connect the World in an exclusive television interview ahead of his first game.
A soft laugh when saying this comes as a surprise, considering his dour attitude throughout the day. It didn’t take long for him to drop his smile and refocus on what he does best – winning.
“The world championship is not a question of enjoyment so much. In events like this, it’s more business.”
Seizing the moment
Carlsen tries hard to be indifferent toward anything at all during the press conference and interview. But he does have strong opinions on how the game should be changed to make sure it holds the attention of the current groundswell of interested players.
“I’ve been somebody who’s supported having quicker games in the world championship for a long time,” he said. “I think for people who are not into chess at all, who don’t know anything about the game, you’re more naturally attracted to quicker games.”
World championship games can last hours and often end in ties because mistakes are so rare. Carlsen’s last two championship matches ended in ties and the players had to be separated by tiebreakers.
It rankles the Norwegian grandmaster that he didn’t win outright and he aims to show what he is truly capable of against Nepomniachtchi.
“I didn’t show nearly what I was capable of in the critical moments,” he said. “I feel it’s a lot about myself and I’m just really, really anxious to get going and to show more of what I’m capable of than I have been able to [so far].”
Carlsen’s love of fast-paced chess isn’t surprising, considering he is the current world champion in both “Rapid” and “Blitz” formats – games that generally last for 15 minutes or less.
His tiebreak wins in previous championship games were both in the rapid format and there are numerous videos on YouTube where his quick thinking is showcased.
Computers are now powerful enough to calculate billions of possible move combinations in seconds, ably deciding the best possible option. It makes preparation more exacting and less enjoyable, and Carlsen thinks quicker games would help solve that.
“If people are attracted to the game, if they enjoy it, whatever motivation they have for that – whether it’s because others love it or it comes from within – I think it’s great regardless.”
The greatest ever?
Carlsen could rightly be considered the greatest chess player ever. He has been the world champion for eight years and holds the longest unbeaten run in history.
He only trails Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov in weeks spent as the highest rated player.
“I would say that Garry dominated for 20 years. And even if I were to win this championship, I would still have a way to go to reach his heights,” Carlsen said. “And if I don’t, that will not lose me any sleep.”
Now, a new challenger is being tipped to eclipse both their achievements. Alireza Firouzja beat one of Carlsen’s own records just this week. The 18-year-old Iranian-born French player became the youngest-ever to reach an Elo rating of 2,800, a feat only achieved by 14 other players in history.
While Carlsen is confident he can beat Nepomniachtchi – as do the majority of pundits – he is not so sure about the new world no. 2, Firouzja.
“His achievements are simply extraordinary, and it’s clear that he’s been all already dubbed the crown prince for a long time. He’s the one to watch both for me and for others. And hopefully, that will motivate all of us,” he said.
For now, Carlsen reigns supreme over the world of chess and will continue to do so for years to come if he can win in Dubai over this next fortnight.