Battle begins once again for Magnus Carlsen with his latest title defence officially kicking off on Friday, as the Norwegian finally traded blows with his Russian challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, in the first of their scheduled 14-game, $2m World Championship Match being staged in Dubai as part of the pandemic-delayed 2020 World Expo – and what an intriguing opening game to the match it turned out to be!
Carlsen is the ultimate mind-game ninja, and during one of his many pre-match media interviews this week – with Sean Ingle for The Guardian – the big impression the World Champion gave was that he was less motivated this time round, proclaiming “I’m less hungry. I think you’re always going to be if you’re playing for the world title for the fifth time, rather than the first.”
But if Nepomniachtchi though this could be a sign of weakness from the World Champion, he was very quickly disillusioned, because as early as move 8 in the opening game, “Black Friday” turned out to be something more than just a global commercial high-point, as Carlsen fittingly chose the infamous shopping day on the calendar to go on the offensive early doors with the Black pieces with a big opening surprise.
And such was the magnitude of Team Carlsen’s novelty that they can lay claim to have struck the first blow in the match with their big psychological impact in Game 1, with Carlsen bossing his Russian challenger with his cunning pawn sacrifice, as he easily made the transition to an endgame grind that has all but become his trademark, in the wake leaving Nepomniachtchi to negotiate a potentially dangerous position to safeguard the draw.
“I guess I can’t say much,” Nepomniachtchi said in the post-game presser about the pressures of taking part in his first title match. “I was white and normally we want to try to win but a draw is also somewhat a result. Just a fine game from Magnus. I don’t feel something specific.”
As for a slight more relaxed Carlsen: “The result was solid. I do feel like I was a little bit shaky at times. Certainly things that I could have done better but overall I think the result was fair enough.”
Games 2 & 3 gets underway on Saturday and Sunday (rest day Monday). Play starts at 12.30pm GMT (07:30 EST | 04:30 PST) throughout the match, which can be followed live and free online at Chess24, with expert commentaries from elite stars Judit Polgar and Anish Giri on the official FIDE broadcast, or the regular Champions Chess Tour Oslo studio team of Kaja Snare, GM David Howell and WGM Jovanka Houska.
Photo: The battle begins, as Fide president Arkady Dvorkovich makes the opening move of the match | © Eric Rosen / FIDE Official World Championship website
GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Magnus Carlsen
2021 World Chess Championship, (1)
Ruy Lopez, Anti-Marshall
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 So no Berlin Defence from Carlsen, but then again, of late, the World Champion has been opting for more standard lines against the Lopez rather than 3…Nf6 that was Vladimir Kramnik’s big surprise weapon against Garry Kasparov during his successful title challenge in 2000, as he rehabilitated the venerable old line at elite-level after over a century in the wilderness. 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.h3 Could this title match become a big battle of the Anti-Marshall, as Kasparov-Short was in 1993? Back then, Kasparov relied on the sage advice from the legendary Soviet openings guru, Efim Geller, to defuse the English challenger’s Marshall Attack. Now Carlsen’s and his backroom team, led by Peter Heine Nielsen, cannily figured this could well be a system used by Nepo, as its been favoured by his main seconds, Vladimir Potkin & Sergey Karjakin – and if so, then they’ve struck something of an early psychological blow in the match with their better preparation! 8…Na5!?N Team Carlsen has come to the match armed with a very early novelty and pawn sacrifice that has Nepo going into the tank early doors. 9.Nxe5! The best and really only reply, as Nepo realises that all the lines are forced on him – but as the game opens up, we clearly see that Carlsen has excellent compensation for his sacrificed pawn. 9…Nxb3 10.axb3 Bb7 11.d3 d5 12.exd5 Qxd5 13.Qf3 Bd6 14.Kf1 Pure prophylaxis, circumventing any problematic pin down the e-file. 14…Rfb8!? Not the most obvious move you might think of here, but with the e-file pin now covered, we see the depth of Team Carlsen’s research, as the World Champion confidently heads into the endgame sans pawn, but still holding the balance by threatening to open up on the queenside. 15.Qxd5 Nxd5 16.Bd2 Again forced on Nepo, as other tries, such as 16.Nc3? Nb4! 17.Re2 Re8! 18.d4 f6 19.Nd3 Rxe2 20.Nxb4 Ree8 sees Black taking a decisive material and positional advantage. 16…c5 It’s just all a little awkward for Nepo to complete his development with …Nb4 hanging in the air; and he now realises that to do so, it will more than likely see his kingside pawn structure having to be compromised. 17.Nf3 Rd8 There was a minor moment of puzzlement here, as the official relay showed 17…Rc8, and the many talking heads beginning to elaborate on the depth of Carlsen’s thinking here – and then a few minutes later having to retracting it all, realising it was just a relay error, and Carlsen had in fact played the more natural text move with an x-ray attack on the Bd2! 18.Nc3 Nb4 19.Rec1 Rac8 Carlsen has almost effortlessly re-arrange his ‘heavy furniture’, putting his rooks on better squares, while Nepo’s rooks are still somewhat awkward. 20.Ne2 Nc6 21.Be3 A little strange, as the natural plan looked like 21.Ng3 with the idea of swinging into f5 or even e4. 21…Ne7! But Carlsen doesn’t miss a beat, realising his knight can menacingly now swing into f5 (or possibly even …Ng6-f4 or even e5). 22.Bf4 Bxf3! Despite being a pawn down, Carlsen is the one in charge here, as White’s kingside pawn structure is compromised, and his rooks ideally placed to swing in now to capitalise on the developing situation. 23.gxf3 Bxf4 24.Nxf4 Rc6 This is what’s lovingly described in chess by Jennifer Shahade to be “the rover complex”, with the rook not only protecting a6, but ready to swing over to the kingside to attack the crippled pawns. 25.Re1 Nf5 This is exactly the sort of position Nepo should be trying to avoid against Carlsen in the match, as even still sans pawn, the world champion’s position is such that he can relentlessly grind away here, doing what he does best of all, squeezing and squeezing an opponent into making a mistake – will Nepo crack? 26.c3 Nepo simply had to prevent Carlsen from playing …Nd4 – but in doing so, he’s given himself another pawn weakness on d3 to worry about. 26…Nh4 27.Re3 Kf8 Not falling for 27…Rf6 28.Nd5! and the back-rank mating threats comes to White’s advantage, where now 28…Rfd6 29.c4 Nf5 30.Re4 and White is more than back in the game. 28.Ng2 You could almost feel the tension in the position here between the two combatants, as Nepo decides he really needs to liquidate the position, even if it means returning the pawn. 28…Nf5 29.Re5 g6 30.Ne1 It’s just a little awkward still for Nepo, while the natural moves looks like 30.Ke2 he would be worried that after 30…f6 31.Re4 Nd6 32.Rh4 Rd7 his rook is a little misplaced on h4, and a coming …g5 sees it looking a little embarrassed for good squares. Rather than that, Nepo opts to keep his options a little more ‘fluid’ for now. 30…Ng7! A nice retreating finesse from Carlsen, looking to grab more space with …f5 and following up with ..Ne6 and …Kf7-f6. 31.Re4?! Clever but ultimately flawed, as the talking head experts armed with their engines soon saw through this move, which just allows Carlsen to play what he wants to play anyway. 31…f5! 32.Re3 [As the commentary team of Judit Polgar and Anish Giri were quick to point out, it’s a disaster for White after 32.Rh4?? because of 32…g5! 33.Rxh7 Kg8 and not only is the rook lost, but White’s position is also lost! 32…Ne6 Despite being a pawn down for about 20 moves now, it’s amazing how Carlsen has ingeniously found ways to ratchet up the pressure on his Russian challenger. But Nepo resolutely refuses to crack. 33.Ng2 b4! [see diagram] The critical moment in this intriguing opening game, with many wondering if Carlsen was now starting to seize a potentially winning position. 34.Ke2 This looks dangerous, but Nepo has finely calculated that if he is to survive here, then he needs to start seeing pawns and pieces being exchanged, even if it involves an element of risk and returning the pawn. 34…Rb8 35.Kd2 bxc3+ 36.bxc3 Rxb3 37.Kc2 Rb7 38.h4 Stopping …g5 from being played. Basically, Nepo’s vision in the worst-case scenario, is to see the queenside pawns traded off, along with the knights and a set of rooks, and a defendable R+P endgame with all the pawns confined to the kingside. 38…Kf7 Would 38…a5!?, as brilliantly pointed out by Dutch GM Erwin l’Ami have offered Carlsen better hopes of grinding on? It looks promising, as White’s hand is forced into 39.Re2 (The point is that 39.Rxa5?? walks right into the clever trap of 39…Nd4+! 40.Kd1 (The other point – and this could explain a little why it might have been missed by Carlsen – is that White can’t play 40.Kc1?? as 40…Nb3+ forks king and rook. Such details are difficult to analyse at the board.) 40…Rb1+ 41.Kd2 Rcb6 42.cxd4 cxd4 and White either has to lose the rook or be mated on b2.) 39…Rcb6 and White has to play with great care to defend. 39.Ree1 Kf6 Now if 39…Rcb6? 40.Ra2 Kf6 41.Ne3! Nf4 42.Nc4 and Black is set to lose the a6-pawn shortly. 40.Ne3 Rd7?! Any hope now Carlsen had of having the better end of the grind disappeared with this move, that all but cedes the draw. After the game, Carlsen readily admitted his move was stupid, as the only move in town was the clearly obvious and superior 40…Nf4! and Black clearly has a little “something” extra to grind on with, thanks to the strategically better-placed knight. But after 41.Nc4 Re7 42.Re3! Ra7 43.Ra4 the bottom line is that the game is going to just peter out to a draw anyway. 41.Nc4 Re7 42.Ne5 Rd6 43.Nc4 After being under the cosh for so long, Nepo takes a mini time-out to reassess the position and his slightly improving fortunes, but decides it was time to take the draw by repetition to conclude Game 1 with honours even. 43…Rc6 44.Ne5 Rd6 45.Nc4 ½-½