The fifth world championship game between Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia on Wednesday in Dubai ended as the first four did. With a draw.
Though the games so far have brought a Carlsen pawn sacrifice and a few minor complications and blunders to excite the hard-core aficionados, they have not come close to providing what more casual observers generally like to see at sporting events: a winner.
“It’s becoming clearer and clear that it’s going to be hard for either of us to break through,” Carlsen said after the game.
It is not unusual to have a lot of draws in major chess events. In the previous championship in 2018, Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana of the United States drew 12 straight times before Carlsen kept his title in tie break games.
But all those draws can be a turnoff to casual and even serious fans, who would like to see someone win one. Even Carlsen has been critical of the match’s format.
Carlsen, now 31, is widely considered the best chess player since at least Garry Kasparov, and perhaps the best of all time. He won the world title in 2013 at age 22 and has defended it three times since then.
The game has changed significantly since Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky captivated viewers around the world in Reykjavík in 1972. The IBM computer Deep Blue was the first to make the machine over man breakthrough, defeating Kasparov in 1997. Computers are now significantly better than any human player.
Players at the world championships aren’t allowed to use computers during the match of course, but they will come up with opening tactics and analyze each other’s play on computers before and after matches.
Live commentators also have the advantage of looking smart by saying something like “Bb3 is the best move here” knowing that the computer that told them this is more likely to be right than the world championship contenders themselves.
The sport has become more lucrative, as well, at least at the top. The winner of the match will get $1.2 million and the loser $800,000. In contrast, Fischer and Spassky played for a total of $150,000. Carlsen has also built a $100 million business, Play Magnus, that has online play and teaching.
The normally dignified sport had a brief contretemps at the time of the opening game this year. The flag displayed by Nepomniachtchi, who is also 31, read “Chess Federation of Russia.” But the World Anti-Doping Agency stepped in and insisted that because of the two-year ban on Russia for state-sanctioned athletic doping, the word “Russia” could not appear. The flag was changed to read “CFR” instead.
The initial 14 games of this match are played at the stately pace associated with chess: Players get two hours for the first 40 moves. The preponderance of draws makes it quite possible the match will end with 14 of them. Carlsen has been critical of the long format, urging quicker games, while Nepomniachtchi was more supportive of it.
Asked about the format on Tuesday, Carlsen said, “There’s a saying that if you don’t have anything nice to say you shouldn’t say anything at all, so I’m going to invoke that particular saying right here.”
Should each player wind up with an equal number of wins — or if all 14 games end in draw — the match will proceed to faster games, which are much more likely to end with someone winning.
First, they will play four games of 25 minutes each. If still tied, they will move on to five minute games.
If the tie can still not be broken, a sudden death game will be played. The player on the white pieces will get five minutes and black will get four. If that game too ends in a draw, black will be declared the winner.
Should Carlsen see off Nepomniachtchi — he is a 3-5 favorite to do so — a future opponent might well be the wunderkind Alireza Firouzja, an Iranian-born French 18-year-old who has climbed into the world’s top 10 and is creating some of the same buzz Carlsen did as a youngster.
Fans have been eager to see a Carlsen-Firouzja match. And they would probably like it even more if some of the games wound up with a winner.