Ian Nepomniachtchi did quite well in the four previous games of the match. He had a slightly better position as White in the third game; he had chances to win as Black in the second game, and he gave White no chances whatsoever as Black in the fourth game. Magnus, on the other hand, seemed a little bit out of his element. In a way, it is logical: after drawing 18 games in the World Championship matches in a row, it is possible to lose confidence.
He still plays well, of course, but we got used to seeing him doing better.
That feeling of having to work after a birthday party. pic.twitter.com/03RORIi0VG
— Olimpiu G. Urcan (@olimpiuurcan) December 1, 2021
The reason might be connected with the big psychological pressure both players are experiencing during the match. It is indeed hard to risk when there is so much at stake. There is also something important regarding the opening choices of the champion. From the press conferences, it is known that Magnus tries to avoid the Russian team’s opening ideas. He varies the lines both as White and Black.
The fifth game went with the same scenario. Magnus was the one who deviated first. Nepomniachtchi again impressed everyone with his preparation: he knew how to treat another very rare line quite deeply. Ian emerged out of the opening with a promising position. At some point, it was hard to find what to do for Black. Nevertheless, the Norwegian defended his position comfortably. It is mostly thanks to White’s 20th move which led to an easier life for Carlsen. At the press conference, he admitted “Seeing 20.Red1, I thought the worst was over.” We can only guess what would happen if Nepomniachtchi tried 20.c4! instead…
Nepomniachtchi, Ian (2782) – Carlsen, Magnus (2855) [C88]
FIDE World Championship 2021 Dubai (5.1), 01.12.2021
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 The Ruy Lopez Opening again. Will we see the Scotch in this match? a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0–0 8.a4 Rb8
This is the third most popular move in the position. 8…Bb7 was tried earlier in the match. Magnus initially got a little bit worse position there but equalized confidently. This time he decides not to check what expected him in the same line and changes the direction first. 9.axb5 axb5 10.h3!? d6 11.c3
This resembles the main position of the classical Ruy Lopez Opening. The difference is that the a-file is opened and the Black rook is on b8 already. These nuances make some of Black’s regular plans impossible (for example, there are no moves …Na5 and …Nb8 anymore) but at the same time, give additional possibilities.
One of these was used by Carlsen immediately. 11…b4 Black opens the b-files for the rook and trades more pawns. 12.d3! It looked more principal to play 12.d4, but then 12…bxc3 13.bxc3 exd4 14.cxd5 d5! would lead to an equal position. Nepomniachtchi’s move is more restrained and keeps the position complex.
Only one game has reached this position before. It was played back almost 30 years ago. Black chose 13…Nd7 but it led to White’s advantage (Balashov, Y (2565) – Janocha, W (2330) Wisla 1992). Magnus’ novelty was better: 13…d5N Surprisingly, Ian spent no time on his next move. It shows he still was following his home analysis.
14.Nbd2 dxe4 15.dxe4
This kind of position is usually close to equal but unpleasant to play over the board as Black. The best move seemed to be 15…h6 but Magnus probably wanted to get off Ian’s analysis and preferred 15…Bd6 Black strengthens the e5-pawn and prepares a typical Nc6-e7-g6 maneuver. The drawback of this move is that it blocks the d-file. Now White could play 16.Nf1! immediately. 16.Qc2 The most reasonable explanation of this move is that Nepomniachtchi remembered this move was in his analysis and wanted to transpose it.
Indeed, in the case of the strongest 15…h6, the computer’s suggestion is 16.Qc2! This move would prepare the Nf1-g3 maneuver without letting Black trade the queens. But since Black’s last move blocked the d-file, White could do that immediately. Turns out the challenger’s good preparation backfired at this point! 16…h6 17.Nf1 Nepomniachtchi is still following his analysis. 17…Ne7 18.Ng3 Ng6 19.Be3
Here Magnus spent 20 minutes and played 19…Qe8 with the idea to play Be6. This is perhaps when the challenger’s preparation ended, and he spent 9 minutes on his next move. 20.Red1 Instead, 20.c4! looks promising. If Black tries to stop the pawn with 20…c5, White would have a strong bishop maneuver after 21.Ba4!
The bishop goes to d5. Black’s position is unpleasant.
After the move in the game, Carlsen got optimistic and started playing faster. 20…Be6 21.Ba4 White could try 21.c4 here but after 21…Qc6! the position, White would not have any advantage. 21…Bd7 Offering to trade the bishops.
White couldn’t find any good ways to keep the tension. In a few moves, also a pair of rooks and the queens left the board.
22.Nd2 Bxa4 23.Qxa4 Qxa4 24.Rxa4 Ra8 25.Rda1 Rxa4 26.Rxa4 Rb8 27.Ra6
Here Black had an active approach: 27…Nf4 28.Nc4 Rb3, attacking White’s only weakness.
But Magnus had a very passive but bullet-proof setup in mind. 27…Ne8 28.Kf1 Nf8 29.Nf5 Ne6 30.Nc4 White has a certain initiative, but Black can easily defend everything. Turned out there were not enough resources to pose problems. 30…Rd8 31.f3 f6 32.g4 Kf7 33.h4 Bf8 34.Ke2 Nd6 35.Ncxd6+ Bxd6 36.h5 Bf8
White’s position looks beautiful, but Black has everything covered. At the press conference, Ian regretted moving the pawn to g4 earlier on, because otherwise, he would have had a plan of playing g2-g3 followed by f3-f4. The same can be applied to the move h4-h5, after which White no longer could hope to breakthrough with g4-g5. Many people also noticed the similarity of White’s pawn expansion on the kingside with the minority attack in Carlsbad. The g4-g5 pawn break would be similar to the most typical plan there.
37.Ra5 Ke8 38.Rd5 Ra8 39.Rd1 Ra2+ 40.Rd2 Ra1 41.Rd1 Ra2+ 42.Rd2 Ra1 43.Rd1 Draw was agreed.
At the press conference, Magnus shared his thoughts about the game, “Obviously I’m not thrilled with the game… Unless you count …Ra2 and …Ra1 at the end, I didn’t make a single active move. But the result is fine.”
Ian Nepomniachtchi seemed disappointed with the result. He had good chances today but let the opponent get away rather easily.
It is not clear what the challenger has to do in the match to show his superiority. The Former World Chess Championship finalist Nigel Short has had a look into the history of chess and assumed that Ian could try playing in Magnus’ style to win the match.
Although so far it seems like Nepomniachtchi is lacking his old courageous play at certain points of the game. There will be a rest day tomorrow, so the team will have time to think and make adjustments if needed.
At the same time, Magnus Carlsen finally got to try his birthday cake. Will the positive emotions affect his future play in the match?
Lastly, another funny thing happened at the press conference.
A popular chess streamer Andrea Botez guessed the players got tired of serious chess questions and asked, “How does the knight move?” While Ian seemed a bit surprised and confused by such a question, Magnus liked it and gave an interesting explanation, “It generally moves like an L and sometimes, in blitz games, it can be really unpredictable.”
Let’s hope the match will also be a bit more unpredictable than 14 draws in a row!
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