IIt would count as one of the most seismic shocks in modern chess history if Magnus Carlsen were to lose his world title in the next three weeks here in Dubai. Yet when his Russian opponent Ian Nepomniachtchi plays the first move of their 14-game match on Friday, he will be armed with two potentially intriguing advantages.
The first is that Nepomniachtchi – or Nepo as he’s widely known – holds a 4-1 classic chess record against Carlsen, dating back to their first meeting as a promising 12-year-old. The second? He also owns one of the fastest supercomputers in Russia, originally designed for machine learning and artificial intelligence, as part of his team.
After qualifying to face Carlsen by winning the Fide Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg this year, Nepomniachtchi credited the Zhores supercomputer, based at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, for helping him and his team, evaluating tens of millions of positions per second. This week, the Russian confirmed to the Guardian that he is using it again to prepare for Carlsen.
“It can’t hurt my chances,” he said. “And this supercomputer in particular, because it’s a huge data center that can be used for scientific research, is hopefully more efficient than others.”
The use of computers is not new to high-level chess. But having a machine that can calculate much faster – and potentially see deeper – than others can potentially help players come up with some surprise opening novelties or better assess the positions they may face on the board.
“You’re more sure your analysis is right when you see 500 million node positions than, say, 100 million,” the 30-year-old added, before downplaying how much having a guard supercomputer 24/7 could really help. “Usually all the top players have access to something similar. And it’s the chess engines, such as Stockfish and Leela Chess Zero, that are the main tool in helping us prepare. Everyone has them.
Another juicy plot to all of this is that the chairman of the Skolkovo foundation is Arkady Dvorkovich, who also happens to be the chairman of the world chess governing body, Fide, which hosts the Carlsen v Nepomniachtchi match.
Nepomniachtchi is a good company, and he is also happy to develop the long history between him and Carlsen. “The first time we met was at the European Under-12 Championships,” he says. “He played really well, but I didn’t feel like he was anything spectacular. And he was from Norway, which is not a chess country, so I didn’t really pay attention to it. But when we played again soon after and finished in the top two at the U-12 world championships, it was clear that he was a strong player.
“In general, I think it makes a difference if you’ve played against someone before and you’ve been successful,” he adds. “But some of our games were played almost 20 years ago. So even though it’s good, the score is in my favor, it would be pretty foolish to just rely on that.
Instead, Nepomniachtchi credits a change in mindset by transforming him from a brilliant but erratic player into a true challenger for the crown.
“Before, I was perhaps the least hardworking of the 20 best people in the world,” he admits. “Normally, if chess players have a week or two between tournaments, they prepare for the next one. But I would go to the soccer field three times a week or watch Marvel movies. And when the new season of Game of Thrones was released, I said to myself: “Come on, it’s pretty cool!” But finally I realized that I was soon going to be 30 years old and that I was not serious, and that I had nothing really special.
“At some point you have to choose whether you want your life to be full of joy – and you probably don’t choose to accomplish too much – or if you sacrifice something and then maybe you can move on. But it took me a while to get off the ground with this new approach.
Another problem, he admits, is that he was sometimes overconfident. “It was a problem that harassed me for years,” he says. “It was like, ‘I don’t care who I play, I’m going to beat them.’ Sometimes I lacked respect for my opponents, but after correcting my state of mind my results improved.
Nepomniachtchi’s change of mind is also reflected in the fact that he recently lost 10kg during training camps which usually consisted of doing sports in the morning, before working on his failures for four to five hours. from 3 p.m., followed by more exercise in the evening. “The schedule was pretty boring,” he smiles. “But it helped.”
Meanwhile, Carlsen also looks fit and in good shape, after a recent training camp in Cadiz. Usually, players spend the last two months before a world title meeting collapses. However, he surprised observers by crushing all comers in a series of one-minute and three-minute online matches this month. Asked by the Guardian to explain his unusual preparation, Carlsen replied, “I would say it’s several different factors. It was mostly because I had a cold and couldn’t really go out much or do anything. But I also think that any practice you can get is useful, especially in blitz.
So who will win? The general opinion is Carlsen is a warm favorite, but Nepomniachtchi is talented enough that if he pulls off a streak of success anything could happen. As Vishy Anand, who held the title between 2007 and 2013, puts it, “Nepo is the only guy who doesn’t seem to be afraid of Magnus. It is important. Because you can’t give him that respect. You have to believe you can beat him. Nepo does.
However, Anand concedes that the Norwegian remains the clear favorite, with his Fide rating of 2,855, 73 points ahead of his Russian opponent. “Magnus doesn’t stop,” he adds. “This is probably the thing that intimidates most people. And he doesn’t make glaring mistakes, which means his opponents have to keep the level super high and keep it up to get a hit.
“That doesn’t mean Magnus can’t break down sometimes. And there are certain types of positions that he doesn’t like. But it’s much more difficult to catch up with him.