Yesterday IM David Martinez published an excellent article on chess24.com, pondering whether or not Wei Yi should be considered to be “ahead of Magnus Carlsen at the same age”. I started to respond with my thoughts in that article’s comments section, but when I reached the character limit I realized it should be a blog post instead.
Ultimately, in my view, the question of whether Wei Yi or Magnus Carlsen proves to be the more impressive prodigy will come down not to anything that has happened yet, but to the coming year.
Wei just had a published rating of 2721, a day before his 16th birthday, while Carlsen had his 2698 rating 56 days before his own 16th birthday (although he dropped to 2690 on the first list published after he turned 16).
23 ELO is a solid edge, but Carlsen has the counterargument of a higher world ranking, and ratings inflation. Ultimately they are relatively close right now, and have been for a long time. Carlsen was rated a little higher from the ages of 12 to 14, Wei higher from 14 to 15, and from 15 to 16 they tread nearly identical ratings paths:
However it’s worth noting that Carlsen had a bit of a mini-plateau around the 2700 mark. After hitting 2698 in October 2006, he didn’t break 2700 until July 2007, and in October 2007 he was still “only” 2714. Now let’s not get carried away with somehow pretending 2714 isn’t insanely impressive. It was good enough for him to be ranked 16th in the world, and remember he was still 16 years old at the time. That said, he was 10 months older when that rating was published than Wei Yi is now, and Wei is already rated higher!
Now if Wei Yi has a mini-plateau of his own, and 10 months from now his rating remains in the range of ~2720, then he and Magnus will remain neck and neck. In that case, the argument can continue with no clear winner (which is fine – Magnus doesn’t need to forever remain the “greatest prodigy ever”, as he has moved on and is now working on building a case for the more important unofficial title of “greatest world champion ever”).
On the other hand, if Wei Yi wants to cement himself as the top prodigy of all time, this is his chance. If by the time he’s 17 he has achieved significant additional rating gains and finally managed to put some separation between his graph and Carlsen’s then the crown could be his. A good mark might be cracking the top 15 in the world (which would probably require a rating somewhere in the 2750 range), as this would greatly weaken the ratings inflation argument. If 10 months from now Wei were not only rated 35 points higher than Magnus was at the same age, but was also ranked higher than Magnus’ #16 ranking from October 2007, then things would be pretty clear in my view.
And as we discussed last time I posted about Wei Yi: there is reason to suspect that he has in fact not plateaued yet, so rating gains over the coming 10 months may be likely. Since that article went up, all he’s done is won his first national championship. In May he defeated five of his countrymen, including most notably a win over Ding Liren, en route to a clean victory in the tournament. A loss in the final game put a small damper on the statistical side of things, costing six rating points and leaving his tournament performance rating at “only” 2730, but that doesn’t reduce the brilliance of the result for the then-15-year-old.
So when will Wei Yi and Magnus Carlsen get a chance to “settle” this over the board? Of course one game won’t actually settle anything, statistically speaking, a long match would be much better, but let’s not be greedy! We’ll take a game whenever it comes up! As it so happens, it seems extremely likely that the two will play at least one game at classical time controls before our 10 month window is complete. After crushing the Challengers section at Tata Steel, Wei Yi has earned an invitation to play in the Masters section next January. Presumably we should see Magnus playing that supertournament as well, to defend his title. It’s a long way off, and right now I’m more focused on seeing how Wei Yi performs at the World Cup this fall, or in any other major tournament he may play in that hasn’t been announced yet, but fast forwarding seven months it appears that we should get our showdown. How patient are you?