Editor: Dr Tim Harding
© Dr Tim Harding
10 December 2021
Magnus Carlsen of Norway has retained the World Chess Championship title for another two years after defeating his Russian challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi by the crushing margin of 7.5-3.5 in the world championship match in Dubai. This is the fifth title match he has won.
Today in the 11th game, Nepo' switched openings but failed to achieve any advantage. Then, looking for winning chances in an equal position, he blundered and allowed Carlsen to play a decisive exchange sacrifice.
Since Carlsen leads by four points, the last three scheduled games will not be played. This is the largest winning margin in a World Championship match since Kasparov beat Nigel Sgort in 1993, but at least Short had the consolation of winning one game.
Nepomniachtchi will now go down in chess history alongside the two other title challengers who failed to win a game. The worst result was that of Frank Marshall who lost to Emanuel Lasker by 0-8 (with 7 draws) in 1907. The other challenger who did not score a win was Fabiano Caruana against Carlsen in 2019, but he did draw all twelve classical games and only lost in the rapid tiebreak.
If Nepomniachtchi wants to see whether he can do better if he gets a second chance, he will have to try to win the next Candidates tournament (scheduled for mid-2022) for which he is now qualified.
Here, in brief, is how the games went:
Friday 26 November. Game 1. Nepomniachtchi-Carlsen DRAW. Nepo' played the Ruy Lopez, and answered Magnus Carlsen's 7...0-0 with the 8 h3 Anti-Marshall. Carlsen out-prepared his opponent, obtaining excellent compensation for a sacrificed pawn. Nepo' was able to return the pawn eventually and stabilise the position, leading to a repetition of moves shortly after move 40. Report on chess24.
Saturday 27 November. Game 2. Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi DRAW in a Catalan Opening. Carlsen seemed to surprise his opponent again but an oversight in the early middle-game meant he had to sacrifice the exchange for possibly insufficient compensation. A tense struggle ensued. Nepo' in turn made inaccuracies and eventually had to return the exchange and bail out into a theoretically drawn rook endgame a pawn down.
Sunday 28 November. Game 3. Nepomniachtchi-Carlsen DRAW. Nepo' played the Ruy Lopez again, but this time he answered Magnus Carlsen's 7...0-0 with the 8 a4 Anti-Marshall. Play seemed even throughout and peace was concluded in a bishop endgame after three hours and 41 moves.
(Somebody asked at the Game 3 press conference why the reversal of colour sequence mid-way, which was used in the last few matches, was not the rule this time. No satisfactory answer was given, but simple calculation will show that this cannot be done when the total number of games is not divisible by four without remainder.)
Monday 29 November. Free day.
Tuesday 30 November. Game 4. Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi DRAW in a Petroff Defence. Magnus tested his challenger's repertoire by opening 1 e4 this time and again was the one who played an innovation, 18 Nh4. This could have led to great complications, Carlsen said afterwards in the press conference, but his opponent found an apparently safe reply. Carlsen's pressure on the kingside was balanced by the potential of Nepo's outside passed pawn, which advanced to a3. After thinking for over half an hour on one move, Carlsen could find no alternative to forcing a draw by repetition of position.
Wednesday 1 December. Game 5. Nepomniachtchi-Carlsen. DRAW. Once more Nepo' played the Ruy Lopez, following up with the 8 a4 Anti-Marshall. Magnus replied 8...b4, varying from Game 3 in which he chose 8...Bb7. White obtained a slightly more promising position but may have missed a chance to increase the pressure by 20 c4!? Many exchanges followed and the game drifted towards equality.
Thursday 2 December. Free day.
Friday 3 December. Game 6. Carlsen 1 Nepomniachtchi 0. Magnus varied his 1 d4 move order to reach an unusual Catalan position. Black seemed to equalise but after he exchanged his two rooks for White's queen he found himself in unexpected difficulties. Carlsen could have won during the time scramble to move 40 during which both players made understandable, but then each player received an additional hour on the clock and it was clear that White had long-term winning chances.
Black missed a probable drawing line with 72...h4 73 gxh4 Bd8 it seems. After that White gradually made progress and then was able to transform the position to one with rook, knight and two pawns against queen. Although this was at first theoretically drawn, defence was practically impossible for a tired player. Nepo' made the fatal mistake at move 130 where Qc2 or Qb1 was required to keep options of checking the white king. The game only ended after midnight in Dubai and then the exhausted players had to go to a press conference. This was the longest-ever world championship match game, which lasted 136 moves and almost eight hours.
Saturday 4 December. Game 7. Nepomniachtchi-Carlsen: DRAW. Another 8 a4 Rb8 Anti-Marshall, in which White could not achieve any significant advantage, was drawn in 41 moves after two and a half hours play.
Sunday 5 December. Game 8. Carlsen 1 Nepomniachtchi 0. Carlsen switched his line against Nepo's Petroff Defence, choosing 3 d4 instead of 3 Nxe5 which was seen in game 4. Black made an effort to create complications with 9...h5!? and after 40 minutes thought Carlsen replied 10 Qe1+ expecting a queen exchange and early draw. However the challenger avoided this with 10...Kf8?! and made further suspect choices, culminating in an outright blunder 21...b5?? which cost a pawn, leading to a queen endgame. Carlsen played the final technical phase of the game very cautiously and secured the point.
Monday 6 December. Free day.
Tuesday 7 December. Game 9. Nepomniachtchi 0 Carlsen 1. Nepomniachtchi changed his hair style for this game and also changed his opening to 1 c4 e6 2 g3. The English soon transposed to a Reti. Nepo' tried to set his opponent new problems and rapidly obtained a half hour lead on the clock. He obtained a reasonably promising position but then at move 27 he ruined whatever chances he had left by another horrible one-move blunder that cost a piece. After capturing a pawn on b7, he allowed Carlsen to block his bishop's retreat. Carlsen looked shocked by this turn of events but ruthlessly cashed in his winning advantage and Nepo' resigned on move 40.
Wednesday 8 December. Game 10. Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi DRAW in a Petroff Defence. White deviated from usual lines but queens were soon exchanged and from quite early it became obvious that both players were satisfied to share the point. At move 41 in a symmetrical knight endgame, Carlsen offered a draw which was imemdiately accepted.
Thursday 9 December. Free day.
Friday 10 December. Game 11. Nepomniachtchi 0 Carlsen 1. The challenger switched from the Ruy Lopez, which he had played four times in the match, and played the Italian (3 Bc4 instead of 3 Bb5). The game soon entered little-known paths when White played an early Na3. Carlsen replied solidly, evidently happy with a draw which would have left him needing only one draw from three games, in two of which he would have played White.
Nepo's 23rd move was a colossal miscalculation, his third blunder in five games. Thereafter although Carlsen seemed to falter, missing a chance to force mate, the computer shows that he was still always winning. Ultimately he forced a winning rook endgame which still required some care and this led to a queen versus rook ending which Carlsen finished off efficiently.
The marathon Game 6 last Friday was clearly the turning point in the match. When definitive annotations of the games are published, we can expect top grandmasters to identify two or three single mistakes which cost Nepomniachtchi that game and ultimately the whole contest.
Before Game 6 there were five draws, in two of which Nepo had some chances to put pressure on Carlsen which he failed to take. After his eventual loss in Game 6, Nepo' seemed to collapse both technically and psychologically.
Carlsen said in an interview after the final game that he expects to play in the World Rapid and Blitz Championships which are due to start on 26 December. They had been scheduled for Kazakhstan but, because of new Covid regulations there, these tournaments will now be played in Warsaw, Poland.