Game 1: World Chess Championship Match 2021

Game 1: World Chess Championship Match 2021

The most awaited chess event of the year, the World Championship match, started today in Dubai. In the first game, the candidate Ian Nepomniachtchi from Russia had White pieces against the current world champion Magnus Carlsen from Norway.

Apart from the results, to most of the viewers, the most interesting part was to see what opening choices both players had prepared. Ian Nepomniachtchi started the game with his usual weapon 1.e4 – no surprises so far. In his previous World Championship match against Fabiano Caruana, Magnus went for the sharp Sicilian Defense.

This time, he preferred a solid move 1…e5, but still, put the position out of balance later. You can see more detailed explanations of this interesting game below.

Nepomniachtchi, Ian (2782) – Carlsen, Magnus (2855) [C88]

FIDE World Championship 2021 Dubai (1.1), 26.11.2021

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5


The Ruy Lopez Defense is on the board. Many people expected the Scotch Opening from Nepomniachtchi, but he preferred to start the match with the more classical and solid option.

3…a6 Another popular choice is 3…Nf6 with the invitation into the Berlin endgame. 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0


At this point, Magnus could opt for fashionable aggressive lines with 5…b5 6.Bb3 Bc5 or 5…Bc5 immediately, but he kept it solid with the traditional 5…Be7.

The game continued 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 Now Magnus had another serious choice.


The classical approach would be to play 7…d6 when after 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 the following position arises:

This is basically the main position of the Ruy Lopez Defense. Here one of Black’s main ideas is to play 9…Na5 10.Bc2 c5, strengthening the control over the center. The arising positions are interesting and playable for both sides, but still Black is a bit passive there.

Magnus decided to play more actively and castled immediately 7…0–0 Now the difference is that if White goes for the same move 8.c3, preparing d2-d4 and freeing the escape square c2 for the bishop, Black would go for 8…d5!

This is called the Marshall Attack (or Gambit).

The variation is named after Frank Marshall, who used this line against Capablanca back in 1918. It is often said that he invented this idea much earlier but had to wait for a few years until he got a chance to use it against the Cuban maestro.

Interesting, that Capablanca was not familiar with it and spent a lot of time in the opening, but eventually figured out how to react correctly and won the game. After 9.exd5 Nxd5, White wins the central pawn with 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5, Black gets enough compensation thanks to the activity of their pieces after 11…c6, followed by …Bd6 and …Qh4.

The Marshall Attack is a popular opening line nowadays, and Black’s results are good here. This is why Nepomniachtchi decided to go for the Anti-Marshall system with 8.h3.

Now if Black goes 8…d6, the game transposes to the classical Ruy Lopez positions after 9.c3. We briefly discussed it above. The other popular option for Black is 8…Bb7, which was twice played by Carlsen against Sergey Karjakin in the World Championship match in 2016. Most likely the Russian team had prepared something special against this, but Magnus deviates first.

8…Na5 This had been played in several games only.

Black gives up the central pawn but gains the bishop pair advantage and active pieces to compensate for that. Probably this was supposed to be a surprise, but Nepomniachtchi was aware of this idea and both players blitzed out the following moves: 9.Nxe5 Nxb3 10.axb3 Bb7 11.d3 d5 12.exd5 Qxd5 13.Qf3 Bd6


At this point, it was easy to go wrong with a move like 14.Nc3??, after which Black would win immediately with 14…Qxe5! White wouldn’t be able to play 15.Qxb7, because of the hanging rook on e1. This explains Nepomniachtchi’s next move: 14.Kf1! The candidate was still following his home analysis!

But the World Champion was even better prepared: 14…Rfb8! This move protects the bishop on b7 and renews the threat of …Qxe5. Only now Ian Nepomniachtchi started thinking: this move turned out to be new for him, although it was already featured in a few correspondence games.

15.Qxd5 Nxd5 16.Bd2 c5


The game transitioned into an endgame. Black has a bishop pair, more space better-placed pieces. But White is a pawn up!

17.Nf3 This move apparently was not considered by Magnus in the home analysis. He played all the previous moves quickly, but the next one took him 20 minutes to play.

17…Rd8 18.Nc3 Nb4


Here White had to decide which rook to put on c1. Nepomniachtchi played 19.Rec1, keeping the other rook on the a-file. The computer suggests 19.Rac1, planning to place the other rook on d1 and prepare d3-d4.

19…Rac8 20.Ne2


It is hard for White to make anything out of the extra pawn. Black could increase the pressure by rerouting the bishop to f6 via e7. The knight could stay on b4: if White ever takes on b4, it makes the c2 pawn a good target for Black’s rooks. This is why it came as a surprise when Magnus played 20…Nc6. Probably White should have reacted with 21.Rd1, aiming for the d3-d4 break at some point. The position would still remain complicated.

Instead, Ian played 21.Be3, and after 21…Ne7, his bishop became a target for Black’s knight:

This is the critical moment of the game. White could retain some advantage after 22.Ng3! or 22.Nc3, but instead went wrong with 22.Bf4?! At the press conference, Nepomniachtchi admitted he had misevaluated the arising trades.

22…Bxf3! 23.gxf3 Bxf4 24.Nxf4 Rc6


Black’s rook is not only defending the a6 pawn but also aiming to attack White’s kingside weaknesses. White is now also vulnerable on the dark-squares: there is no bishop anymore to limit black’s knight activity. Carlsen’s position became a bit more preferable and the candidate was soon compelled to defend.

25.Re1 Nf5 26.c3 Nh4 27.Re3


Here Black had an interesting move 27…g6, threatening …Rf6. Now after 28.Ng2 Nf5, White would not have 29.Re5 as in the game because the knight would be protected by the pawn from g6. After 29…Rxd3 Black would enjoy a big advantage. White perhaps would meet 27…g6 with 28.Ke2, which is better for Black than what happened in the game.

27…Kf8 28.Ng2 Nf5 29.Re5 g6 This move turned to be necessary anyways. 30.Ne1 At this point, Magnus decided to transfer his knight to f4.


30…Ng7 31.Re4 Threatening b3-b4, which would considerably improve White’s pawn structure.


This is why Magnus gets rid of White’s rook with 31…f5 32.Re3 Ne6 33.Ng2 Not letting the knight to f4. At this moment Magnus found a strong idea.


33…b4! White can’t move the c3 pawn because that would weaken the d4 square. Meanwhile, Black is planning to double the rooks on the b-file and open it by taking on c3. At the press conference, Magnus said he was happy to find this plan but still thought White had had enough resources to make a draw. Nepomniachtchi confessed this was the moment when he realized he had to defend accurately and play for a draw.

He decided to bring his king to the center and sacrifice the b3 pawn. The game continued 34.Ke2 Rb8 35.Kd2 bxc3+ 36.bxc3 Rxb3 37.Kc2 Rb7 38.h4


Here Magnus had a strong idea 38…a5! that could pose certain problems for White. After that, the Black rook would go to a6 and support the pawn’s march further. The tactical point is that 39.Rxa5? loses to 39…Nd4! After 40.Kd1 Rb1+ 41.Kd2, it was important to see 41…Rcb6!


White is lost. 42.cxd4 cxd4 43.Ra8+ Kf7 44.Ra7+ Kf6, and there are no checks anymore.

Instead, 38…Kf7 was played. After 39.Ree1 Kf6, White’s knight got back into the game and position became equal.


40.Ne3 Rd7 41.Nc4 Threatening the fork on e5. The players decided to repeat the moves and call it a day. 41…Re7 42.Ne5 Rd6 43.Nc4 Rc6 44.Ne5 Rd6 45.Nc4 Draw.

Quite an intense game! It will be curious to see if the players will enter this line in the match again. But tomorrow Magnus has White pieces and will definitely try to put more pressure on the candidate.

Image Credits:

Lennart Ootes, FIDE World FR Chess Championship 2019 – Magnus Carlsen, CC BY-SA 4.0

Etery Kublashvili, Ian Nepomniachtchi at Superfinal of the Russian Chess Championship, Satka, 2018, CC BY-SA 3.0

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Updated 01.02.2024