The start of the World Chess Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi was tense and entertaining. Many experts thought it was going to be the toughest challenge for the current world champion in his career. Some people even predicted he would lose the title this year.
After a series of exciting draws, he demonstrated his strength in the epic 6th game, the longest one in the history of the World Championship matches. That game made a bigger impact on the flow of the match than expected at first sight. It seemed to exhaust the challenger both mentally and physically. In the following games, his level of play dropped drastically, and Magnus increased the lead. After the horrible mistake of the challenger in the 9th game, it seemed that the match was over. There were only 5 games to play, and Nepomniachtchi had to score 4 points in them.
This is why most of the people expected him to go all-in as Black in Game 10 and play his favorite opening, the sharp Sicilian Najdorf.
Nevertheless, that still would not guarantee an exciting game. There are still many ways for White to calm down the game. But it definitely seemed worth at least a try.
Instead, Ian met 1.e4 with the Petroff Defense again. At the press conference, Magnus revealed what his expectations were, “Frankly I hadn’t thought about him playing the Petroff today at all. I was preparing for various sharp openings that he could play. The thought was that if he plays 1…e5, I didn’t think that making a draw against the Petroff would be a major issue.”
Nepomniachtchi explained his choice, “Playing as Black you don’t have such a big choice. Even if you play the so-called sharp openings like the Sicilian, if White wants to shut it down, they will surely shut it down.”
Carlsen, Magnus (2855) – Nepomniachtchi, Ian (2782) [C42]
FIDE World Championship 2021 Dubai (10.1), 08.12.2021
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nd3
This rare move was used by Magnus against Fabiano Caruana in the World Championship match in 2018. Interesting that Nepomniachtchi also has played it as White.
4…Nxe4 5.Qe2 Qe7 6.Nf4 This is the point. White is threatening to win the game immediately after Nf4-d5. In the meantime, the knight opened the road for the d-pawn.
6…Nf6 The most solid response.
In the above-mentioned game, Caruana played a novelty 6…Nc6. It led to entertaining knight dances: 7.Nd5 Nd4! 8.Nxe7 Nxe2 9.Nd5 Nd4 10.Na3 Ne6 11.f3 N4c5 12.d4 Nd7 13.c3 c6 14.Nf4 Nb6 with equal chances.
7.d4 Nc6N This is a novelty. Previously, Black was trying mostly 7…Qxe2+ 8.Bxe2 Bf5.
This was one of the most important moments of the game. Magnus spent here almost 20 minutes. He had a strong move 8.Be3, protecting the d4-pawn and planning to castle queenside. That would lead to a bit unbalanced position.
The other option was 8.c3, allowing the queen trade and an equal endgame. At the press conference, Magnus explained the decision he made, “8.Be3 was surely the critical move, but I wasn’t in the mood. The match situation explains that.”
8.c3 After this move the game transposed back to the known territory. Wesley So had played 8…g5 in this position, Levon Aronian had chosen 8…Bf5.
Both games ended peacefully. Nepomniachtchi instead played 8…d5 The pawn structure is now symmetrical. Both players continued developing pieces and overall played quite fast: 9.Nd2 Nd8 10.Nf3 Qxe2+ 11.Bxe2 Bd6 12.0–0 0–0 13.Bd3 Re8
14.Re1 Rxe1+ 15.Nxe1 It is a pity the knight should retreat to the first rank, but Magnus had an interesting route for it. 15…Ne6 16.Nxe6 Bxe6 17.g3!
At the press conference, Magnus shared he was quite happy with this move, “I kind of thought I might be getting a very slight edge at that point.” The idea was to trade the dark-squared bishops after Ng2, followed by Bf4.
17…g6 A little bit strange move, but the position remains equal. 18.Ng2 Re8 19.f3 Nh5 Preventing White’s pieces from coming to f4 and also planning to push the f-pawn at some point.
20.Kf2 c6 21.g4 Ng7 22.Bf4 Probably this was too early.
White could play 22.h3 Rf8 23.Nh6 instead, but the position would, of course, remain equal. The move in the game allowed Black to show some activity. 22…Bxf4 23.Nxf4
White would have had a slight advantage here if not Black’s following idea:
23…g5! 24.Ne2 f5! Now White’s pawn construction is under some pressure. 25.h3 Kf7 Black can now improve the position a little. 26.Rh1 h6
“I probably needed to be more patient since I was kind of hoping that after allowing this 23…g5, I could provoke …f5-f4 and then start pushing with h4. But it all holds very well together for Black, so there is nothing. I think if I played a little more patiently there, I could’ve had the tiniest of edges. But naturally, I would’ve haunted for it more diligently if the match situation was different,” – Magnus explained his ideas at the press conference.
Since he couldn’t provoke Black’s f-pawn movement, he decided to trade everything with 27.f4. Black could play, for example, 27…Kf6 here.
But Nepomniachtchi thought for 7 minutes and went to the direct 27…fxg4 28.hxg4 Bxg4 29.Rxh6. Now, Bg6+ was the threat, so he played 29…Bf5. After 30.Bxf5 Nxf5 31.Rh7+ Ng7 32.fxg5 Kg6,
Black won the pawn back and equalized the game completely. The players kept moving the pieces, but the draw was inevitable:
33.Rh3 Kxg5 34.Rg3+ Kf6 35.Rf3+ Ke7 36.Nf4 Kd6 37.Ng6 Re6 38.Ne5 Ne8 39.Rf7 Rf6+ 40.Rxf6+ Nxf6 41.Ke3, draw agreed.
It was quite an uneventful game.
Magnus Carlsen commented on this, “At this point, there are so few games to go that any draw is an excellent result.” He also said he had chosen 4.Nd3 mainly to get the queens off very soon and get a dry position.
Nepomniachtchi also explained his strategy for the rest of the match,
“I still have a couple of games with White pieces, a couple of tries in the remaining four games and, of course, it depends on what I will produce in the 11th game. But today the idea was to play a normal game, try not to blunder in one move. So I had some more realistic tasks. Not a lot of excitement today.”
Regarding the tension in the match, Magnus said, “I assume he will try to win, especially with the White pieces.” Let’s wait and see what will happen next.
On a side note, at the press conference, a popular chess-streamer Anna Cramling asked both players, “If you could only play 1.e4 or 1.d4 for the rest of your life, which move would you choose and why?”
Magnus said he I would probably go for 1.e4, “Seems like there is a little more variety in both closed and opened games. But otherwise, I’m thinking it is probably enough theory that we have already, and it is difficult enough to get an opening advantage. So to actually be restricted to only one move would be a bit of a nightmare.”
Ian chose the same move, “I guess about 100 years ago, Vsevolod Rauzer said that White wins after 1.e4. Quite some things changed since then. Overall it seems that 1.e4 is more forcing, but at the same time, I would say more fun. So let it be 1.e4.”
The last question of the press conference was directed to Nepomniachtchi, “If given the chance to reset the match and start again, what would you have done differently?”
Ian answered quickly, “Lose less and win more.“