IIt would count as one of the most seismic clashes in modern chess history if Magnus Carlsen lost his world title over the next three weeks here in Dubai. However, when his Russian opponent Ian Nepomniachtchi plays the first play 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, has a 4-1 record in classical chess over Carlsen, dating back to when they met as promising 12-year-olds. The second? He also has one of the fastest supercomputers in Russia, originally built for machine learning and artificial intelligence, as part of his team.
After qualifying to face Carlsen by winning the Fide candidate tournament in Yekaterinburg this year, Nepomniachtchi credited the supercomputer Zhores, based at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, for helping him and his team. to 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 hurt my chances,” he said. “And this particular supercomputer, because it is a huge data center that can be used for scientific research, hopefully it will be more efficient than others.”
The use of computers is not new to high-level chess. But having a machine that can calculate much faster, and potentially see deeper than others, can help players find surprise opening news or better assess the positions they may face on the board.
“You’re more confident your analysis is good when you see 500 million node positions than, say, 100 million,” added the 30-year-old, before downplaying how much it could help to have a supercomputer available around the clock. of the day, 7 days a week. “In general, all the best players have access to something similar. And it is chess engines, such as Stockfish and Leela Chess Zero, that are the main tool to help us prepare. Everybody has them. “
Another juicy subplot to all of this is that the chairman of the Skolkovo foundation is Arkady Dvorkovich, who is also the chairman of the world chess governing body, Fide, which is organizing the Carlsen v Nepomniachtchi match.
Nepomniachtchi is a good company, and he’s also happy to expand on the long history between him and Carlsen. “The first time we met was at the U-12 European Championships,” he says. “He played pretty well, but I didn’t feel like it was spectacular. And he was from Norway, which is not a chess country, so I really didn’t pay much attention to him. But when we played again shortly after, and finished in the top two in the U-12 world championship, it was clear that he was a strong player.
“In general, I think there is a difference if you have played a person before and have been successful,” he adds. “But some of our games were played almost 20 years ago. So while it’s good, the score is in my favor, it would be pretty silly to just rely on this. “
Instead, Nepomniachtchi attributes a change in mindset by turning him from a brilliant but erratic player into a true challenger for the crown.
“Before, I was perhaps the least hard-working person among the 20 best in the world,” he admits. “Normally, if chess players have a week or two between tournaments, they prepare for the next one. But I went to the football field three times a week or watched Marvel movies. And when the new season of Game of Thrones came out, I was like, ‘Come on, this is so cute!’ But I finally understood that I would soon be 30 years old and that I was not being serious and that I had not done anything really special.
“At some point you have to choose if you want your life to be full of joy, and you are probably not choosing to achieve too much, or if you sacrifice something and maybe you can move on. But it took me a long time to get off the ground with this new approach. “
Another problem, he admits, is that he was overconfident at times. “This was an issue that haunted me for years,” he says. “It was like, ‘I don’t really care who I play against, I’m going to beat them.’ Sometimes I didn’t respect my opponents. But after correcting my thinking, my results improved. “
Nepomniachtchi’s change of mind is also reflected in the fact that he has recently lost 10 kg from training camps which generally consisted of playing sports in the morning, before working on his chess for four to five hours starting at 3 pm, followed by more exercise in the evening. “The schedule was pretty boring,” he says, smiling. “But it helped.”
Meanwhile, Carlsen also appears to be fit and in good shape, following a recent training camp in Cádiz. Players typically spend the last few months before a world title match fizzles out. However, he has surprised observers by crushing all participants in a series of one-minute and three-minute bullet games online this month. When asked by the Guardian to explain his unusual preparation, Carlsen replied: “I’d say it’s a few different factors. Mostly it was because she had a cold and couldn’t go out much or do anything. But I also think any practice you can get is helpful, especially in blitz. “
So who will win? The general opinion is that Carlsen is a huge favorite, but Nepomniachtchi is talented enough that if he has a hot streak, anything could happen. As Vishy Anand, who held the title between 2007 and 2013, says: “Nepo is the only guy who doesn’t seem to be afraid of Magnus. That is important. Because you can’t give him that respect. You have to believe that you can beat it. Nepo does it. “
However, Anand acknowledges that Norwegian is still the clear favorite, with its 2855 Fide rating being 73 points above its Russian opponent. “Magnus doesn’t stop,” he adds. “That is probably what intimidates most people. And he doesn’t make glaring mistakes, which means his opponents have to hold the bar very high, and hold it, to land a hit.
“That doesn’t mean that Magnus can’t collapse sometimes. And there are certain types of positions that you don’t like. But it is much more difficult to catch it. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism