It would count as one of the more seismic shocks in modern chess history if Magnus Carlsen were to lose his world title over 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 is widely known – holds a 4-1 record in classical chess over Carlsen, dating back to when they first met as promising 12-year-olds. The second? He also has one of Russia’s fastest supercomputers, originally built 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 in the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, as helping him and his team evaluate tens of millions of positions per second. This week the Russian confirmed to the Guardian that he was using it again to prepare for Carlsen.
“It can’t harm my chances,” he said. “And this particular supercomputer, because it is a huge data centre which can be used for scientific research, is hopefully more effective than others.”
The use of computers is hardly new at top level chess. But having a machine that can calculate much faster – and potentially see deeper – than others can potentially help players come up with surprise opening novelties or better evaluate positions they may face on the board.
“You’re more sure that your analysis is good when you see 500 million node positions than, say 100 million,” added the 30-year-old, before downplaying how much having a supercomputer on call 24/7 might actually help. “In general all the top players have access to something similar. And it’s the chess engines, such as Stockfish and Leela Chess Zero, which are the main tool in helping us prepare. Everyone has those.”
Another juicy subplot to all this is that the chairman of the Skolkovo foundation is Arkady Dvorkovich, who also happens to be the president of chess’s world governing body, Fide, who are organising the Carlsen v Nepomniachtchi match.
Nepomniachtchi makes for good company, and he is also happy to expand on the long history between him and Carlsen. “The first time we met was in the European under-12 championships,” he says. “He played quite well, but I didn’t feel like he was something spectacular. And he was from Norway, which is not a chess country, so I didn’t really take that much notice. But when we played again not long after, and we finished top two at the under-12 world championships, it was clear he was a strong player.
“In general I think it makes some difference if you’ve played a person before and been successful,” he adds. “But some of our games were played nearly 20 years ago. So while it is good the score is in my favour, it would be quite foolish to rely on this alone.”
Instead Nepomniachtchi credits a change in mindset from turning him from a brilliant but erratic player into a true challenger for the crown.
“Before I was maybe the least hard working person out of the world’s top 20,” he admits. “Normally if chess players have a week or two between tournaments, they prepare for the next one. But I would be going to the football pitch three times a week or watching Marvel movies. And when the new season of Game of Thrones came out, I thought: ‘Come on, this is pretty nice!’ But eventually I understood that soon I was going to be 30 and I wasn’t being serious, and had done nothing really special.
“At some point you have to choose if you want your life to be full of joy – and probably you’re not choosing to achieve too much – or you sacrifice something and then maybe you can move forward. But it took me quite some time to take off with this new approach.”
Another problem, he admits, is that sometimes he was too overconfident. “This was an issue which hounded me for years” he says. “It was like: ‘I don’t really care who I play, I am going to beat them.’ Sometimes I lacked respect for my opponents. But after I corrected my mindset my results became better.”
Nepomniachtchi’s change in mindset is also reflected in the fact he has recently lost 10kg from training camps which typically consisted of playing sports in the morning, before working on his chess for four to five hours from 3pm, followed by more exercise in the evening. “The schedule was quite boring,” he says, smiling. “But it helped.”
Meanwhile Carlsen also appears fit and in good form, following a recent training camp in Cadiz. Usually players spend the last couple of months before a world title encounter squirrelled away. However he has surprised observers by crushing all-comers in a series of one-minute bullet and three-minute blitz games online this month. Asked by the Guardian to explain his unusual preparation, Carlsen replied: “I would say it’s a few different factors. Mostly it was because I had a cold and I couldn’t really go outside 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 view is Carlsen is a warm favourite, but Nepomniachtchi is talented enough that if he hits a hot streak anything could happen. As Vishy Anand, who held the title between 2007 and 2013, puts it: “Nepo is the one guy who doesn’t seem scared of Magnus. That is important. Because you cannot give him that respect. You have to believe you can beat him. Nepo does.”
However Anand concedes that Norwegian remains the clear favourite, with his Fide rating of 2855 being 73 points clear of his Russian opponent. “Magnus doesn’t stop,” he adds. “That’s probably the thing that intimidates most people. And he doesn’t make glaring mistakes, which means his opponents have to keep the level really high, and sustain it, to land a hit.
“That doesn’t mean Magnus can’t collapse sometimes. And there are certain kinds of positions that he dislikes. But it’s much harder to catch him out.”