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Russia Looks To New Challenger To Claim World Chess Crown

  • May 03, 2021

Russian chess grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi has won the right to challenge the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, raising the prospect of the world chess crown returning to Russia—where skill at chess has long been greatly valued and associated with wise and successful leadership.

Nepomniachtchi— who, like Carlsen, is 30 years old—won the right to play for the world title after triumphing in the Candidates Tournament organized by the International Chess Federation (known by its French acronym, FIDE) in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

As Reuters reported April 27, when Nepomniachtchi secured victory, the tournament was originally due to be completed in 2020, but was suspended in March that year when the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe.

‘A Huge Milestone’ In Chess Grandmaster’s Career

In remarks at a FIDE news conference—following his success, Nepomniachtchi recognized the challenge involved in completing the contest. “In the current situation to start this tournament was big courage and to end it – an act of heroism,” the grandmaster said, according to the FIDE website.

Thanking the organizers and his own support team, Nepomniachtchi suggested that he was “just moving the pieces,”—but it’s clear the nature of his success is sinking in. “It’s a huge milestone in my career and perhaps in my life,” Nepomniachtchi said after winning, according to Reuters. “I am extremely tired. It was one year of thinking about this tournament, one year of preparation.”

Now the preparation will continue ahead of the match against Carlsen, scheduled to take place in Dubai in November. At stake is a €2 million ($2.4 million) prize, according to the Russian news agency, TASS.

Challenger’s Chances According To Former World Chess Champion

In Russia, this contest is about more than the money. For Russia is a country that loves chess, and, for long periods of the history of international chess competition, has dominated the global game.

One former Russian world champion, Anatoly Karpov, has sounded a slightly cautious note on Nepomniachtchi’s chances of taking the world chess crown. In remarks reported by TASS, Karpov offered the view that Carlsen was technically stronger—and counselled that Nepomniachtchi would therefore have to go for “sharpness” and “complication” in order to succeed in November.

Karpov is just one of the great players the Soviet Union produced. In the last century—as the Cold War between West and East overshadowed global politics—chess could not avoid being drawn in.

Chess In Russia’s Political History

When, in 1972, the United States’ Bobby Fischer took on defending world champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union, it was as if a new front had been opened in the ideological confrontation between Washington and Moscow. The authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow even called their 2004 account of the classic match Bobby Fischer Goes To War.

Chess has a special place in Russian life. It is played in places as diverse as on park benches and sidewalks, especially during long summer evenings.

It also has a place in politics. The early 20th century poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, in verses praising the Soviet revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, wrote approvingly of Lenin’s love of chess—a pastime “useful to leaders.”

More recently, another former champion, Garry Kasparov, has become an implacable critic of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Kasparov—whom I interviewed about his anti-Putin campaign when I was a correspondent in Moscow—has lived in the United States since 2013, but remains outspoken, telling a Guardian interviewer April 30, “I haven’t stopped my fight against the regime.”

Kasparov also said he did not think Carlsen would be “at any risk” of losing to Nepomniachtchi. Yet even in a world where chess’ popularity has soared during lockdown (and also thanks to the successful TV series, The Queen’s Gambit), it is hard to imagine that the contest between the world champion and the challenger will be watched more closely anywhere other than Russia.

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