Carlsen vs Nepomniachtchi: Strengths, weaknesses and a prognosis

by Romain Edouard
11/26/2021 – The World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi promises exciting games. After all, the World Champion and his Challenger have very different styles. French GM Romain Edouard took a close look at the strengths and weaknesses of both players to find out who has the better chances to win the match - and why. | Image: FIDE

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The Titleholder

Magnus Carlsen – Norway – age 30 – World No. 1

1. Openings

9

Carlsen is not only very well prepared in the main lines, but he can also choose to play a "quiet" variation at any time to torment his opponent in an even position. This ability to play any kind of position, and the opening knowledge he has accumulated since his first World Championship match in 2013, make Magnus an unpredictable player.

2. Middlegames and transition phases

8.5

The world champion, to put it simply, has no weaknesses. He calculates well, and is able to discover hidden possibilities when it comes to long-term compensation. One example – of many – is his masterpiece against Richard Rapport.

 

3. Endgames and transpositions

9.5

If transposing to an endgame or making a drastic change in the position is to his advantage, Magnus Carlsen will know how to assess these positions with great ease. In endgames, he's capable of realizing microscopic advantages in positions, in which most players would agree to a draw. One example – of many – is his victory in an equal ending against Alireza Firouzja, just a few months ago...

 

4. Strategy and general chess understanding

9.5

Magnus has the best general chess understanding in the world – there is a reason why he is the world’s number 1!

5. Tactics / Calculation

8.5

Of course, Carlsen calculates extremely well, but I do not believe that this is his greatest strength – though this is compensated by his incredibly good instincts. This is a part of the game, where Nepomniachtchi will have to try to catch out his opponent, but when Magnus is in top form, he will not be caught out.

6. Time management

9.5

Magnus Carlsen manages his time excellently: he never plays too fast, but very rarely finds himself in uncomfortable time-trouble.

7. Team and ability to work

8

Magnus has been working with Peter-Heine Nielsen and Laurent Fressinet for many years, while other players on his team seem to be changing year after year. He often invites young talents for training sessions, as he did with players such as Alireza Firouzja, Nils Grandelius and… Ian Nepomniachtchi! Obviously, we do not know who will assist him this year. I expect that several strong players will help him, but perhaps his opponent’s team is stronger, depending how much the best Russian players are involved. In terms of work, it is known that Carlsen is almost always deeply involved with chess, however, I believe he does not work as hard as players like Anish Giri, Fabiano Caruana, or Vladimir Kramnik when he was still active.

8. Psychology / mental strength

9

Carlsen has shown his psychological strengh in his previous World Championship matches. However, if things do not go his way – which does not happen very often – he can collapse. Although the World Champion appears confident in his interviews, his score against Nempomniachtchi in classical games (+4 -1 =6) could have an impact as well, though I I do not think it will.

9. Physical condition

9.5

The world champion is known for his love of sport. Apart from his pure fitness training, he regularly plays football, tennis, and other sports. He has a reasonable level in most of them, a consistency that he probably owes to the fact that he "hates losing", as some of his friends reveal. Physical fitness will be another big asset for Magnus in this long match.

10. Experience

9

Carlsen won his first World Championship match in 2013 and defended his title in three World Championship matches after that. As both players have almost the same age, Carlsen’s match experience should be more than enough to outclass an opponent who has never played a World Championship before.

Overall 90/100

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The Challenger

Ian Nepomniachtchi – Russia – age 31 – World No. 5

1. Openings

7.5

In general, Ian Nepomniachtchi is seriously behind in terms of opening preparation, however, there is no doubt he has tried to catch up with several months of intense work. Sometimes, he ends up in pretty bad positions after the opening – but that should not happen in Dubai if he prepared for he match the way he should!

2. Middlegames and transition phases

8.5

"Nepo" has great chess instincts, and I think, he relies more on them than on exact calculation. The middlegame is clearly the part of the game where he can pose the most problems for Magnus Carlsen, who is better prepared and a better endgame player.

3. Endgames and transpositions

8

Of course, Nepomniachtchi is excellent in all areas of the game, but nevertheless Carlsen outclasses him in endgames and the transposition to endgames.

4. Strategy and general chess understanding

7.5

Nepomniachtchi has an excellent understanding of dynamics, but Carlsen is the better strategic player. Nepomniachtchi is of course capable of playing great positional games, but from time to time he happens to play moves that are positionally awful – I don’t think, he is very consistent here.

5. Tactics / Calculation

9.5

Tactics and calculation are Nepomniachtchi's strong points, and they could make him World Champion! One example – of many – is the following fine victory against Firouzja. It was a blitz game but shows Nepomniachtchi’s dynamic abilities!

 

6. Time management

8

It is very unusual to see Nepomniachtchi in time-trouble. Nevertheless... I believe he has a tendency to play too quickly, which could be fatal against Carlsen who is unlikely to miss a good opportunity if he is given one. However, Nepomniachtchi is able to see a phenomenal amount of stuff in a short period of time.

7. Team and ability to work

7

Aside from Vladimir Potkin, no name has been officially disclosed from the "Nepo" squad (as far as I know), although we can imagine he will be heavily supported by Russia. I do not think he is what we can call a "really hard worker" compared to some other top level guys, however, we can easily imagine that he has worked pretty intensively during the last six months.

8. Psychology

9.5

That’s another strength of Nepomniachtchi: he is not afraid of anyone and goes to Dubai with the firm intention to win. His self-confidence explains his positive score against Carlsen, who this time will not benefit from the advantage of a slightly "scared" opponent as in his three previous matches. Nepomniachtchi is one of the few players in the world who is able to slaughter Carlsen in a game, without the slightest fear of a turnaround – the game below being pretty self-explanatory!

 

9. Physical condition

7.5

While the Russian is young and in fine shape, he is far away from Carlsen's overall physical condition, although "Nepo" revealed that he went on a serious diet and followed a rigorous exercise-plan over the last few months, which definitely grant him extra marks.

10. Experience

7

Nepomniachtchi has been part of the world’s elite for a long time and he won the Candidates tournament relatively easily, though Maxime Vachier-Lagrave almost ruined his party! However, it will be Nepomniachtchi’s first World Championship match, and that is still different from playing in top tournaments.

Overall 100:80

The opinion of Veselin Topalov, World Champion 2005: "Naturally Carlsen is the big favourite. Nevertheless, his last two matches have not been a walk in the park, especially against Karjakin. Nepomniachtchi will have a chance if he is the first to win a game and gets a psychological advantage. A tiebreak is unlikely in a 14-game match."

My prognosis: Carlsen dominates most of the tournaments he plays with an impressive consistency. Keeping his crown longer than anyone ever did must surely be his biggest goal in chess so we may expect him to take these three weeks seriously. He might think they are the only really important ones of the year.

And though I expect a lot of fresh ideas from Nepomniachtchi, I believe Carlsen has at least a 75% to win the match. If the Norwegian avoids slippery grounds (especially very tactical positions), the Russian will have a hard time trying to outclass his opponent.

However, three three things give Nepomiachtchi chances to win the match: his self-confidence, his calculation skills, and his strength in games with shortened time control in case of a tie-break (a serious difference compared to the previous two matches).

This article first appeared in French in the French chess magazine Europe Echecs. Translated and reprinted with kind permission.

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Romain (peak rating of 2702) has been part of the French National Team since 2011. As a teenager, he notably won a gold medal in the European U16 Championship in 2006, and silver medals in the Europe and World Championships under 18 in 2007. Since becoming a GM at 17, he has won numerous international events, including the 2012 Al Ain Open, the 2014 Dubai Open and the 2015 World Open, among others. He is a regular columnist and the Editor-in-Chief of Thinkers Publishing.
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AlphaZero1 AlphaZero1 11/27/2021 09:58
I will wait and see. Will not take long anyway.
AlphaZero1 AlphaZero1 11/27/2021 09:57
BS.
Aighearach Aighearach 11/27/2021 06:04
Carlsen is 2842 in rapid and 2892 in blitz. Nepomniatchi is 2798 rapid, 2792 blitz. It seems a bit absurd to think Carlsen lacks a big advantage if it goes to tiebreaks. It seems predicated just on the fact that Nepo often moves quickly? Their difference at rapid is about the same as classical, but in blitz Carlsen is a full 100 points higher rated.
Sendemann Sendemann 11/26/2021 05:18
How to compare the two overall scores of 90/100 and 100:80?
1