The news, not exactly surprising, was stunning nonetheless — world chess champion Magnus Carlsen was voluntarily relinquishing his crown and would not play a second title defense match against Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi planned for 2023.
While vowing to remain an active tournament player, the Norwegian superstar had been openly signaling his lack of interest in yet another grinding defense of the title he won in 2013 and has successfully defended four times since then, including a convincing win over Nepomniachtchi less than a year ago.
“It’s very simple, that I am not motivated to play another match,” Carlsen confirmed in a podcast interview last week. “I simply feel that I don’t have a lot to gain, I don’t particularly like it, and although I’m sure a match would be interesting for historical reasons and all of that, I don’t have any inclination to play, and I will simply not play the match.”
Having two world chess champs may soon come to be like having two living popes — a little weird but something one can get used to so long as everyone behaves.
And there will still be a world title match next year: Chinese superGM Ding Liren won a slot in the 2023 title match by finishing second to Nepomniachtchi at the recent Candidates tournament in Madrid.
Nepomniachtchi played magnificently in dominating the Madrid event — including a Round 1 defeat of Ding — but the coming title match should be an intriguing clash between two players in their prime.
Nepo has a slight 3-2 edge over the years in head-to-head classical games (with eight draws), and a 10-7 edge in rapid games, which could prove critical if the match goes to tiebreaks. But Ding, looking to be the first Chinese man to claim the world title, has had his successes, including a nice knockout of the Russian at a strong tournament in Croatia in 2019.
Ding’s style is hard to characterize, with a strong technical base, a preference for positional openings, and a penchant for making moves few other grandmasters might consider. Here 14. f3! and 19. e4! crack open the center when it’s not clear which player is attacking.
Nepomniachtchi’s king gets caught in the center and White ruthlessly exploits its vulnerability. After 24. d5!? (a4 is annoying as 24…Bh3 25. Be4 Qh5 26. Qb4 Bxf1 27. Qxd6+ Nd7 28. Bxc6 Qf5 28. Bxa8 is winning) c5 (see diagram) 25. a4! is a brave move sacrificing a pawn when it appeared White had less risky options.
But things work out nicely after 25…Bxa4 26. Qa3 Re8 27. b4! (also strong was 27. Re6), when losing for Black is 27…cxb4 28. Bxb6+ axb6 29. Qxb4 Kc7 30. Re6! Rxe6 31. Rc1+ Kb7 32. dxe6+.
Black’s hoped-for kingside attack never materializes and Nepo’s attempt to disrupt White’s assault only opens up another line of attack: 31. Kg2 Qc2 32. Qe3! (threatening mate on the move) Rc7 33. Qe6 Rd7 (the threat was 34. Qg8+ Kd7 35. Qe8+ Kd6 36. Re6 mate) 34. d6 Kc8 35. Rh1, and Black had seen enough. After 35…Kb8 38. Rh8+ Nc8 37. Qd5, mate is coming either at b7 or a8.
We slightly slighted the DMV’s own WGM Jennifer Yu in our coverage of the U.S. title tournaments for seniors, juniors and junior girls in St. Louis last week. The Ashburn, Virginia-raised Yu, now studying at Harvard, added to her 2019 U.S. women’s title earlier this month with a playoff victory in the U.S. Junior Girls Championship at the St. Louis Chess Club.
Yu scored a big point over a top rival with a Round 5 victory over FM Ruiyang Yan, the No. 2 seed in the field based on ranking. Yu had to win this Closed Ruy Lopez twice, missing one devastating shot but recovering to find a second.
In a tense maneuvering game, White’s jettisoning of a pawn with 16. e5 Bxe5 17. Nxe5 dxe5 18. Re1 looks perfectly reasonable, as the doubled, backward e-pawns are a defensive burden for Black. But Yan’s 27. Rb7?! (the game’s first real inaccuracy) Qc1! 28. Rh4 Qg5 29. Re4 Qc1 30. Rh4 Kh6 suddenly has White on the ropes, with the Black rook poised to come to the second rank with devastating effect.
But Black misses a put-away volley on 31. Rb6 Rc6?! (g6! looks close to winning, in lines like 32. Rxe6 Rc2 33. Qg4 Qf4+ 34. Qxf4+ exf4, and if 35. b4, then 35…Kg5 36. g3 Rxf2+ 37. Kg1 fxg3 is crushing) 32. Rxc6 Qxc6 33. Qd2+, and the fight goes on.
But Yan is still confined to passive defense, and Yu doesn’t let the second chance slip through her fingers after 40. g3?! b4 41. Kg2? (b4, to prevent Black’s next, was mandatory) b3 42. g4 Rg5!, and the kingside pressure plus the latent power of the advanced b-pawn prove too much for White to handle. It takes some technique, but Black is on the winning track after 43. Kg3 Qg1+ 44. Qg2 Qag2+ 45. Kxg2 Rg8!, and the rook will redeploy to c2 for the win.
Black cleans up the pawn ending efficiently with 50. Kxe2 e4! 51. dxe4 e5 52. Kd3 Kg5 53. Kc4 Kxg4 54. Kxb3 (finally eliminating the troublesome pawn, but it’s too late) Kf3 55. Kc2 Ke2 and the pawn must queen; White resigned.
Ding-Nepomniachtchi, Grand Chess Tour, Zagreb, Croatia, June 2019
1. c4 e5 2. g3 Nf6 3. Bg2 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. O-O Be7 7. d4 e4 8. Ne5 f5 9. Nxc6 bxc6 10. Qc2 Nb4 11. Qa4 Bd7 12. a3 Nd5 13. Nc3 Bd6 14. f3 exf3 15. Bxf3 Nb6 16. Qb3 Qf6 17. Be3 Qg6 18. Bf2 h5 19. e4 h4 20. exf5 Qxf5 21. Rae1+ Kd8 22. Ne4 Qg6 23. Nxd6 cxd6 24. d5 c5 25. a4 Bxa4 26. Qa3 Re8 27. b4 Rc8 28. bxc5 Rxe1 29. Rxe1 hxg3 30. hxg3 dxc5 31. Kg2 Qc2 32. Qe3 Rc7 33. Qe6 Rd7 34. d6 Kc8 35. Rh1 Black resigns.
Yan-Yu, U.S. Junior Girls Championship, St. Louis, July 2022
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O b5 6. Bb3 Be7 7. d3 O-O 8. Nc3 d6 9. a3 Bg4 10. Be3 Nd4 11. Bxd4 exd4 12. Nd5 c5 13. h3 Be6 14. Nxf6+ Bxf6 15. Bxe6 fxe6 16. e5 Bxe5 17. Nxe5 dxe5 18. Re1 Rf5 19. Re4 c4 20. a4 Rc8 21. axb5 axb5 22. Ra7 Qf6 23. Qe1 cxd3 24. cxd3 h5 25. Qe2 Qg5 26. Kh2 Kh7 27. Rb7 Qc1 28. Rh4 Qg5 29. Re4 Qc1 30. Rh4 Kh6 31. Rb6 Rc6 32. Rxc6 Qxc6 33. Qd2+ Kg6 34. Re4 Kf7 35. f3 g5 36. h4 Kg6 37. Qe2 gxh4 38. Rxh4 Qc1 39. Re4 Kf6 40. g3 b4 41. Kg2 b3 42. g4 Rg5 43. Kg3 Qg1+ 44. Qg2 Qxg2+ 45. Kxg2 Rg8 46. Kg3 hxg4 47. fxg4 Rc8 48. Re2 Rc2 49. Kf3 Rxe2 50. Kxe2 e4 51. dxe4 e5 52. Kd3 Kg5 53. Kc4 Kxg4 54. Kxb3 Kf3 55. Kc2 Ke2 White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]