Magnus Carlsen is, albeit reluctantly, in place in Sochi, Russia to defend his world championship title in chess. He didn’t want to play in Russia, given its current political tension with the west, and has a dizzying year behind him, but Carlsen claims he’s “very ready” to take on top rival Vishy Anand of India once again.
The two squared off just last November in a wild, much-hyped world championship match on Anand’s home turf in Chennai that Carlsen won. This time, the scene seems much quieter, with the tournament due to play out in the former press center built for last winter’s lavish Olympics in Adler, about 30 kilometers outside Sochi. The venue has not attracted the huge crowds of last year’s world championship in India, and the hysteria leading up to the Chennai tournament is noticeably absent.
So are the prize amounts, with newspaper Dagsavisen reporting that the Russians have only budgeted around NOK 18 million (USD 2.5 million) for the event with the total prize pot set at around NOK 8 million. The 23-year-old Carlsen alone took with him around NOK 9 million last year, after sharing proceeds with Anand.
Carlsen finally arrived in Sochi late Tuesday evening, and the unusual decline in self-confidence that he displayed after last summer’s disappointing Chess Olympiad in Tromsø was gone. He claims he’s back on top going into the games against the 44-year-old Anand, and has prepared himself like any other top athlete would for competition.
“I am very ready for this,” he told Norwegian reporters on Wednesday. “But I must start the action better than I did a year ago.”
He spent much of his preparation time at a high-altitude training camp in Zermatt, Switzerland, where he played chess and went skiing every day. He had his Danish coach Peter Heine and his Norwegian sparring partner, and grand master, Jon Ludvig Hammer with him. Norwegian chess experts think Carlsen will prevail and retain his World Champion title, but he’s meeting a far more aggressive Anand this time around.
“I’m 80 percent certain Magnus will win, he’s the big favourite,” said Leif Erlend Johannessen, expert chess commentator for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “What’s exciting is how Anand will play. When he was young, he was like a wild man who went aggressively on the attack with no restraint. He was unrecognizable last year (playing in defense of his World Championship title at the time) but during the candidates’ tour, he was back with his good old-fashioned aggression.” In short, Anand is now on the offensive instead of the defensive this time around, and that may likely change the character of his play compared to his last championship rounds with Carlsen.
Busy year behind him
Carlsen, meanwhile, has had an exciting if challenging year since they met in India. He’s traveled around the world, played against some of its biggest international celebrities, swooped up more prizes for his chess proficiency and the honor it brought to Norway, been invited to a gala banquet at the Royal Palace in Oslo, had a Norwegian stamp fashioned after him and had the privilege of taking part in exclusive experiences like kicking off a football match for his favorite club Real Madrid and attending the Olympics as a VIP. He’s been courted by royals, prime ministers and international business leaders, and tried to keep a level head and continue training through it all.
“For him, this is all just stuff that follows his success,” Carlsen’s long-time manager Espen Agdestein told newspaper Aftenposten earlier this week. “For him, his job at the chess board is the most important. And turning up for sponsors and the media is part of the job.”
The new world championship action was due to get underway on Saturday and run through most of the rest of the month.