Quivering tension on the board, unexpected drama. Magnus Carlsen’s defense of his world chess title in Dubai began with a 45-stroke draw against Russian challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi – and a surprise intervention by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
The first match of the 14-game fixture, which was priced at € 2million, was eagerly watched by hundreds of thousands of spectators online – another sign of the chess boom that has gathered pace in the world. start of the pandemic and again after the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit.
It turned out to be an intriguing opening day, which began hours before the first move when Wada warned the chess governing body, Fide, that she had to change Nepomniachtchi’s flag or that she would violate them. rules of international sport.
As of December 2019, the flag, anthem and “name in any form” of Russia are no longer allowed to be shown at the world championships for two years. This meant that Nepomniachtchi’s flag, which initially said “Russian Chess Federation”, was considered illegal and had to be hastily replaced with the initials CFR.
Fide chairman Arkady Dvorkovich later confirmed Wada’s intervention to the Guardian, adding: “Yes, we are in contact. We have checked with them several times. Maybe at some point our team figured out that we could have the full name, but then they said ‘no, that should be an abbreviation’. It’s that simple. “
When the game started, Carlsen, the highest rated chess player in history, and Nepomniachtchi, who is a big underdog here, quickly hit their first shots in a Ruy Lopez.
From the eighth move, Carlsen surprised by playing Na5 who offered a pawn sacrifice. Yet his Russian opponent refused to blink and replied immediately by taking the pawn.
This is the way of modern chess: with players using chess engines and supercomputers to discover new poisons to inflict on their opponents – and to find antidotes.
The two men continued to probe each other cautiously, before finally, on the 13th move, Nepomniachtchi began to think. Computers showed he only had a slim advantage, despite his extra pawn, with Carlsen’s pair of bishops giving him compensation.
As a complex game entered the fourth hour, he appeared to be in a slightly better position. However, a minor inaccuracy meant the game ended in a repetition. “I should have played in Kf4,” admitted Carlsen. “It was a bit poor. I thought in the end maybe he could try to play, but I think realistically it was quite a long way from winning.
The game’s growing popularity is such that the world’s largest chess site, Chess.com, told The Guardian that the last time the World Championship was held in 2018, it was less than half a million. daily active users on its site. Today, there are more than four million. Another popular site, Lichess.org, said it expects an audience of between 1.5 and 2 million people spread over the entire three weeks of the match, on its various content mediums.
Meanwhile, Chess24 – which is owned by Carlsen – is also investing significantly in world championship coverage this year with studio TV production, multiple broadcasts for beginners as well as advanced chess players.
Those who watched certainly saw an intriguing build-up from the game. When the Guardian asked Nepomniachtchi about his flag ban, which came after Wada ruled Russia deliberately erased and manipulated doping data stored in a Moscow lab to prevent its athletes from being punished for having taken prohibited drugs, he admitted he was disappointed.
“The whole situation is really frustrating,” he said. “The country is not technically banned but the anthem and the flag must be replaced. It is therefore very sad. But at the same time, my patriotic feeling comes from within.
The decision applies to the world chess championships because Fide is recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the supreme body responsible for the organization of sport. Failure to comply with the ban could have serious consequences for Fide.
However Nepomniachtchi, who is ranked fifth in the world, said he was happy enough to start the first game with a draw despite the advantage of playing with the white pieces. “I was very slightly optimistic the whole game because it was a pretty curious line of black,” he said. “But while he had a pawn in the final phase, it was very difficult to win something for White. “
Carlsen also seemed quite satisfied, adding: “I wouldn’t say I was ever particularly optimistic about winning the game. I have the impression of being a little shaky sometimes. [There were] definitely things I could have done better, but overall I think the result was fair enough.
Another 13 matches will be played over the next three weeks and Carlsen’s popularity is such that more than a dozen Norwegian journalists are in Dubai to cover the event, which is also broadcast on the American television channel NBC.