According to the scientific world, “Chaos Theory is a delicious contradiction – a science of predicting the behaviour of ‘inherently unpredictable’ systems.” In chess, and especially when you are playing in the intense arena of a World Championship match, sometimes you have to turn to a little chaos theory when things unexpectedly and inexorably go a little unpredictable.
And that’s just what happened in what’s turning out to be an intense psychological battle battle between Magnus Carlsen, and his Russian challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi, in their 14-game, $2m World Championship Match in Dubai, as the defending champion had to create a little bit of chaos theory to salvage a draw in Game 2.
It’s only the early stages of their 14-game match, but already it is turning into quite a street-fighting match: once again the world champion and his backroom team winning the battle of the openings cooked up in their Spanish training camp, with his aggressive early sharp play, and Nepomniachtchi having to be creative and resourceful in defending.
But all of Carlsen’s training camp work came undone by the complexities of what looked like a seemingly strong Catalan-like move, and the game swinging on the pendulum of a slip-up from either player. In the end, it petered out to a technically drawing R+P endgame – but for the second game running, it was yet again and engrossing, breathtaking clash with the challenger labelling it “chaotic”.
Games 3 gets underway on 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, or the regular Champions Chess Tour Oslo studio team of Kaja Snare, GM David Howell and WGM Jovanka Houska.
Carlsen 1-1 Nepomniachtchi
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
2021 World Chess Championship, (2)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Qc2 b5 Currently a very fashionable line against the Catalan, and favoured by another top Russian, Alexander Grischuk. 8.Ne5!? A rarity. Once again, Team Carlsen strikes an early blow with their opening preparation, as the text is seen as being slightly dubious, with the most common reply being 8.a4 – but it seems Magnus and his team begs to differ! 8…c6 9.a4 Nd5 10.Nc3 f6 11.Nf3 Qd7 12.e4 Nb4 13.Qe2 Nd3 Nepo has obtained, as Nigel Short was the first to remind and describe on Twitter, the “giant sprawling lobster” on d3, of Karpov-Kasparov fame. 14.e5! A common theme in the Catalan, not only opening up the long h1-a8 diagonal for the Catalan bishop, but also creating outposts on e4 and e5 for the knights. 14…Bb7 15.exf6 Bxf6 16.Ne4 Na6 In his post-game presser, Nepo said he was a little relieved now, and “I had some slight hope that I’m not going to be crushed.” 17.Ne5?! Carlsen wastes whatever hold he has on this position with this one move – which, to be fair, seems to be almost close to winning for White in all lines bar one, which he’d missed, but crucially Nepo hadn’t! And the look on the Russian’s face painted quite a picture as Carlsen played 17.Ne5, as he clearly believed it was a blunder. Some called it out as a blunder, but a more poker-faced Carlsen playing a little bit of mind-games, didn’t admit it to be a blunder, commenting after the game: “I didn’t intend to sac quite as much material as I actually did!” 17…Bxe5 18.dxe5 Nac5! This is what Carlsen had missed, and it must have hit him like a cold shower – and with it, suddenly the World Champion has to make things “messy” and rely on the chaos theory to survive. 19.Nd6 Objectively, the only try for survival. In an ideal Catalan world, Carlsen probably miscued his analysis, thinking that he was better after 19.Be3 Nxe4 20.Bxe4 but it’s not exactly rocket science that after the simple 20…c5! 21.Bxb7 Qxb7 22.axb5 Qxb5 Black has a decisive advantage and should go on to win this. 19…Nb3 20.Rb1 It’s a variation on a theme that sees Carlsen forced into sacrificing the exchange just to try to survive now. Chess24 commentators Judit Polgar and Anish Giri though seemed to prefer 20.Be3! Nxa1 21.Rxa1 Nxe5 22.Nxb7 Qxb7 23.axb5 Qxb5 24.Bd4 Nf7 25.Qxe6 Rae8 26.Bxc6 where White does seem to have genuine compensation with the bishop-pair and perhaps even Black’s two queenside pawns falling. But a lot has to be said for Carlsen’s choice, as it does retain a little hope for White winning, should Black not continue with care – and I think here the World Champion took the correct psychological path. 20…Nbxc1 21.Rbxc1 Nxc1 22.Rxc1 With the knight now a pain on d6, and Black having to work to unravel, Carlsen said in the presser “I did take some solace in the fact that you usually need to work pretty hard to win such positions as Black, and I thought I had at least reasonable counter-chances, but it wasn’t intentional.” 22…Rab8 The natural-looking move looks like 22…a6 but after 23.Qe3! suddenly it’s not so easy for Black to break free with Qc5 being threatened, and if …Rab8 perhaps even Qa7. 23.Rd1 The engine will tell you that Black is better, hovering around -1.17 to -1.25 – but the reality is that White’s position is the easier to play, as Black has to do some contortions to regroup. And thinking back to why Carlsen opted for 20.Rb1, we can see he made the right call, as just one slip from Nepo could spell disaster. 23…Ba8 An ugly move to have to make, but Nepo felt that after making it, he would be able to stage a successful breakout – but in making it, the game now takes another dramatic twist. The best try to stage a breakout was with the immediate 23…bxa4 and opening as many lines for Black’s rooks to work. 24.Be4!? Suddenly the position becomes double-edged – one where Judit Polgar thought any three results was now possible! 24…c3?! A sign of panic among the chaos from Nepo, who admitted it was “a little bit of a human reaction, to make sure I’m not going to get mated,” as he started to get worried about 24…bxa4 25.Bxh7+ Kxh7 26.Qh5+ Kg8 27.Rd4! Qe7 28.Rh4 and, as pointed out by Carlsen right after they agreed a draw, the only move was 28…Qxh4! the point being that 29.Qxh4 Rxb2 30.Qxc4 Rb1+ 31.Kg2 c5+ 32.Kh3 Bd5 33.Qxc5 a3 34.Qxa3 Rxf2 35.Qxa7 Rxh2+! 36.Kg4 Rf1 37.Kg5 and who knows if Black is winning or White can escape with a draw? 25.Qc2 Nepo’s rationale for flicking in 24…c3?! is justified if White goes for 25.bxc3 bxa4 and the ‘Greek gift’ sacrifice with 26.Bxh7+ Kxh7 27.Qh5+ Kg8 as now 28.Rd4 doesn’t work, as it all backfires to 28…Rb1+ 29.Kg2 c5+ picking up the rook. But yes, there were many speculative Bxh7+ ‘happenings’ in the air for Nepo to start to panic about, as was gleefully pointed out by Polgar & Giri in the commentary booth. 25…g6 26.bxc3 More accurate according to the talking heads was 26.Qxc3 bxa4 27.Rd2! with Qa5 coming next, and not an easy position for Black to unravel in. 26…bxa4 It involves a far-sighted move, but the consensus now was that Nepo’s last chance to try to win was with the speculative 26…Qg7! 27.f4 g5!? all easy to see when you are sitting in front of an engine, but just too complex to fathom out in the heat of battle during a World Championship match! 27.Qxa4 Carlsen has definitely improved his position, and now it is Nepo’s turn to have to play with great care, which the Russian challenger does. 27…Rfd8 28.Ra1 c5 29.Qc4 Bxe4 30.Nxe4 Kh8 31.Nd6 The knight is an almighty beast on d6, and this is what saves Carlsen. 31…Rb6 32.Qxc5 Rdb8 33.Kg2 a6 34.Kh3! A nice finesse from Carlsen, his king just sidestepping out of any possible …Qc6+ and the queens being exchanged, which would put Black back on top again. 34…Rc6 35.Qd4 Kg8 36.c4 Qc7 37.Qg4 Rxd6! [see diagram] It’s the all-too-pragmatic solution, just removing the troublesome knight from the equation. Now, with careful play from Nepo, the game inevitably moves towards a draw. 38.exd6 Qxd6 39.c5 Qxc5 40.Qxe6+ Kg7 41.Rxa6 Rf8! The pawn is taboo as 41…Qxf2?? 42.Qe5+ picks up the rook. But Nepo has it all worked out, forcing a technically drawing R+P ending, despite being a pawn to the worse. 42.f4 Qf5+ 43.Qxf5 Rxf5 44.Ra7+ We recently saw in this column ‘coming man’ Alirezja Firouzja winning a similar endgame against Shak Mamedyarov to better Carlsen’s 2800 age-record, but here Nepo is in no trouble of needing to find difficult drawing moves. 44…Kg8 45.Kg4 Rb5 46.Re7 Ra5 47.Re5 Ra7 48.h4 Kg7 49.h5 Kh6 50.Kh4 The (half) point is that after 50.hxg6 hxg6, in order to make any progress another pawn will have to be traded, and we’ll end up with the age-old endgame theory draw of the ‘Philidor position‘, with the Black king in front of the passed pawn. 50…Ra1! Always keep the rook long and active defending such R+P endings! 51.g4 Rh1+ 52.Kg3 gxh5 53.Re6+ Kg7 54.g5 Rg1+ 55.Kf2 Ra1 56.Rh6 Ra4 57.Kf3 Ra3+ 58.Kf2 Ra4 ½-½ The White king can’t escape the checks.