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King’s Gambit: Inside Magnus Carlsen’s quest to be a five-time World Champion

Magnus Carlsen is thirty and a four-time world champion already. Over the next three weeks in Dubai against Russia’s Ian Nepomniatchi, he will be favored to rouse himself for a fifth. Recently, he capped off an unbroken, decade-long run as World No 1 and is yet to drop a world title since his first in 2013.

Magnus.Inc – the man, his entrepreneurial kingdom, and everything he owns, believes and propagates, is predicated on absolute and complete domination. A win machine known to no half measures or gracious second places. “I predict that the person who scores the most points over the next three weeks is going to be the winner, and hopefully that’s going to be me,” Carlsen says, patently cocky, “And if I do win it will probably be because I made a lot of good moves and good decisions under pressure.”

Yet, Carlsen is only human. This is his fifth match in eight years for world champion status. “When you’re doing something for the first time it’s very exciting and you can’t believe how easily you’re motivated,” Viswanathan Anand, who’s won the world title five times, weighs in, “As players we are sort of hardwired to go to the chessboard and not want to lose. There’s a kind of base level motivation that kicks in. Magnus has put in some amount of work for this match and he wouldn’t want to let it slip away. The average level of Magnus’ game is very high. So even on a slightly good day and a slightly bad day, he’ll still perform very well. Whether that turns out to be sufficient will be up to Nepomniatchi. But I think even a base level of motivation is enough and especially for Magnus’ strength, it should be enough.”

Nepomniatchi, four months older to Carlsen, has never played a World Championship match before. The world No 4 with a man bun reportedly lost 10 kgs in weight over recent months to throw himself into shape and build endurance for long hours at the board. The interesting clash of playing styles – Nepomniatchi’s risky, aggressive preferences against Carlsen’s positional play and endgame superiority – lends an edge to the contest. While Carlsen is the overriding favorite for his strength, tenacity and experience in such contests, Nepomniatchi is seen as someone who can trouble him if he doesn’t self-combust. He holds a 4-1 record in classical chess over Carlsen, going back to meetings in their pre-teens.

Russia hasn’t had a world champion since three-time winner Vladimir Kramnik, in 2006. The country’s ban from international sporting events over WADA sanctions means that Nepomniatchi will be playing under a neutral flag. This year, the match will have 14 games instead of the earlier 12 and the first player to score 7.5 points will be declared winner. If the scores are even at 7-7, a tiebreak will decide the champion. The winner will, apart from taking home chess’ biggest title, also be rewarded with 60 percent of the $2million prize, to be split 55:45 if the match spills into tiebreak.

“I think this match will have quite a number of decisive games,” Kramnik says, “definitely more than the last couple of World Championships (all 12 games in 2018 ended in draws). The games might be sharper and players are likely to take more risks. The psychological stability of the players, I believe, is where the match will be decided.”

In the run-up to the match, Carlsen feasted on a diet of bullet and blitz; was spotted hanging out with Dortmund striker Erling Haaland at the Ajax game earlier this month and spent two weeks at a resort in Cadiz, Spain playing training games with his team of seconds. Carlsen will be opening with Black on Friday, and the sequence of colors will be reversed halfway through the match. He’s won two of his four titles – in 2014 and 2018 – starting with Black.

While Carlsen’s prowess isn’t in question, Anand draws upon his own experiences to exemplify the satiety and the urge to not lose, over the hunger to win that begins to take over with every successive title. “There can be horror scenarios in your head,” he says, “You have a bad dream of no longer being world champion and wonder how you’ll wake up the next morning. It happened to me. That could be enough to scare him as well. For me, in my match against (Boris) Gelfand in 2012, motivation was an issue I struggled with but Magnus is doing well everywhere. Motivation is not a general problem if you look at his results in other events, only that the World Championship isn’t his favorite place to be. But I think he wants it enough to be able to go on.”

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