It has been 5 years since the last decisive game in the classical games of the World Championship matches – 17 draws till this day. The fourth game of the match against Ian Nepomniachtchi must have felt for Magnus Carlsen like the most symbolic moment to finally strike.
First of all, he would play as White after a rest day, which means more time for his team to prepare a worthy opening idea. Secondly, the game had to be played on Magnus’ birthday! He has had a good experience of playing on such a day: he defeated Sergey Karjakin in a tie-break match to defend his title in 2016.
On the other hand, Magnus did not seem to be happy with his last birthday. He lost the final match to Wesley So in the Skilling Open. It seemed especially painful since the champion turned 30 that day. Interestingly enough, after that loss, Magnus Carlsen stopped winning chess tournaments for a while. He played five tournaments in five months and didn’t finish first in any of them. In Tata Steel 2021, he even became 6th. People started talking about a curse of 30 and even the fall of the champion. Nevertheless, Magnus won three of the following four tournaments he played in and made things go back to the way they were before.
As you could see, this would be a great scenario for the world champion and an excellent present for his own birthday. He started the game with 1.e4 – the move that can lead to sharp and complicated positions. Unfortunately for Magnus, his opponent was also determined to show his best. Ian Nepomniachtchi would not give up his dream only because someone had a special occasion. The Russian grandmaster met Carlsen’s aggressive attempt with the Petroff Defense (also known as the Russian Defense). This opening has a rich history of serving the best players in the world. Let’s only mention it was Fabiano Caruana’s main shield in the last World Championship match. Magnus could not crack it and had to try something other than 1.e4. He failed to crack it against Nepomniachtchi today as well.
Ian Nepomniachtchi is known for his aggressive dynamic style. His main Black openings were the sharp Grunfeld and Sicilian Defenses. This time we see him going for the safest and solid openings against both 1.e4 and 1.d4. This indicates how much work was done by the challenger before the match. So far we have been witnessing the results of it.
Could Magnus expect the Petroff defense or did come as a surprise? Carlsen commented on this, “It was one of the main openings I’ve expected seeing since he played it in the Candidates. And also, in the first Black game, he went for the more classical approach rather than the sharp one. So it was very much expected. I couldn’t know, of course, which exactly Petroff line he was going to go for, but the Petroff in itself was very much expected.”
Carlsen, Magnus (2855) – Nepomniachtchi, Ian (2782) [C42]
FIDE World Championship 2021 Dubai (4.1), 30.11.2021
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 In the sixth game of the World Championship match against Caruana, Magnus tried the unusual 4.Nd3 but that also didn’t bring him a positive result. 4…Nxe4 5.d4 In the eleventh game, he tried one of the main moves 5.Nc3, but Black felt comfortable there as well. 5…d5 6.Bd3 Bd6 Black also often puts this bishop on e7 or starts with 6…Nc6. The move chosen by Ian is popular lately. 7.0–0 0–0
You can see why the Petroff Defense has the reputation of a drawish opening: the position is symmetrical, neither side has weaknesses. The only difference is that Black’s knight position is a bit shaky. With his next moves, White tries to undermine it.
8.c4 c6 9.Re1 Bf5 Black reinforces the knight. 10.Qb3 Qd7 11.Nc3 Nxc3 12.Bxf5 Qxf5
The players are still following one of the main theoretical lines. At this point, 13.Qxb7 was possible. After 13…Ne4 14.Qxa8 Qd7, Black will eventually trap the queen but White will get two rooks in exchange. The arising positions are considered equal as well.
13.bxc3 b6 14.cxd5 cxd5 15.Qb5
This is still nothing new. It was played by Michael Adams and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The idea is to stop Black’s development. If now 15…Nd7?, then White wins after 16.Qc6 Bb8 17.Kh1, avoiding the discovery check (Bxh2+) and planning to safely capture the rook on a8. 15…Qd7! 16.a4 Qxb5 This move is new to practical chess but was tested by correspondence players. 17.axb5 a5
18.Nh4!?N This move seems to be new even if we take into account correspondence chess! Although at the press conference, Ian Nepomniachtchi revealed he was aware of this idea and could even try it as White himself! At the same time, the idea is a bit risky. Black now has a protected passed pawn on the edge of the board. No wonder in all of the previous games 18.bxa6 was played. 18…g6 Not letting the knight to f5. 19.g4!
The point. Turns out White’s knight was going after the d5 pawn. Black reacted quite precisely. 19…Nd7 20.Ng2! Rfc8! 21.Bf4 Bxf4 22.Nxf4 Rxc3 23.Nxd5 Rd3! 24.Re7 Nf8!
Black’s plan became clear. The knight will stay seemingly off the game on f8 but defend the king. The passed pawn will march forward, supported by the rooks. Carlsen gave a credit to this idea at the press conference, “I think what he did was very sensible. An approach that looks a bit dubious at first – your knight is going to be locked in – but with concrete calculation, you can make it work.”
25.Nf6+ Kg7 26.Ne8+ Nepomniachtchi admitted he knew this position. He was not sure what was the best square for the king but remembered that g8 was good enough. 26…Kg8. 27.d5 a4! 28.Nf6+ Kg7 29.g5 a3
On his next move, Magnus thought for 35 minutes. In all of the arising variations from here, Black’s pawn seems to be too fast and dangerous. White had an interesting move 30.Kg2. If now Black replies with something careless like 30…Rb3?, White wins after 31.Rc1! with Rcc7 and mating attack coming inevitably. Unfortunately, after a simple move 30…a2, White wouldn’t have any advantage. Another beautiful but drawish line would be 30.Rc1 immediately. After 30…a2 31.Rxf7! Kxf7 32.Rc7+ Nd7 33.Rxd7+ Kf8 34.Nxh7+ Ke8 35.Nf6+, White would give a perpetual check.
30.Ne8+ Kg8 31.Nf6+ Kg7 After repetition, the same position occurred. Here Carlsen spent another 14 minutes but didn’t find anything better than to call it a day. 32.Ne8+ Kg8 33.Nf6+ Draw by repetition.
This was the 18th drawn game in the World Championship matches in a row. It seems like White didn’t pose any problems for Black in this game whatsoever. Why did this happen? At the press conference, Ian Nepomniachtchi confessed he was well prepared and probably had even seen the very final position in his home analysis!
The Ukrainian grandmaster Pavel Eljanov complimented the challenger’s current shape.
Magnus assured he could have had chances had his opponent been less prepared, “The approach that he chose is not the only one. In the other variations, it’s insanely complicated and very-very risky for Black. There are many-many other options for Black that lead to much more complications than what happened in the game.”
Now, the question is, will Carlsen find a way to play against such a well-prepared opponent? Will Nepomniachtchi seize the initiative in the match and put pressure tomorrow with White pieces? We will find out soon.
On a final note, someone asked about Carlsen’s rest day football matches. Magnus joked, “I was on the winning team the whole time in football. I don’t know if they threw intentionally, but if they did – I don’t really care. But it definitely raised my spirit.”
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