It’s the subject of a Billy Wilder harrowing 1946 multi-Oscar-winning noir classic movie. But chess-wise, for Ian Nepomniachtchi, the ‘lost weekend’ theme became the moment the Russian challenger realised he had been psychologically broken by defending champion Magnus Carlsen, who over the weekend, took a commanding 5-3 lead in their $2m World Championship Match in Dubai.
After being dramatically ground down by Carlsen in a world championship record-breaking 136-move epic ending in Game 6 on Friday, and Game 7 the following day easily drawn by the Norwegian, the killer blow for Nepomniachtchi came with a big blunder in Sunday’s Game 8 that completed his lost weekend, as he now faces a monumental uphill task to now getback into the 14-game match with games fast running out.
And as Carlsen easily converted the win, he now takes a giant step towards regaining his title for a fourth time. Nepomniachtchi looks to be a broken man, frayed at the edges after seeing his position devastatingly collapse in Game 8 – grimacing in pain at the wreckage of his position, unable even to sit at the board, as he constantly retreated to the bunker of his private rest area.
In the post-game presser, Carlsen admitted he was “Very happy with the result. Obviously, what can I say, it’s huge. Otherwise I’m pretty tired and looking forward to the rest day.” When asked about his challenger’s strange approach in the opening, he admitted he was puzzled: “I’m tired, let’s see if can get a tiny advantage, otherwise I can make a draw,” was how he felt after replying to 9…h5 – but after 10…Kf8, he began to be encouraged to press and probe his opponent’s weakness, and was rewarded for his perseverance.
And Carlsen wasn’t going to be drawn when asked if taking such a commanding lead would see a change to his match strategy of shutting the remaining six games down safely. “We will see, won’t we? The match clock is ticking down, and that is in my favour.”
Games 9 & 10 takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday. Play starts at 12.30pm GMT (07:30 EST | 04:30 PST), which can be followed live and free online at Chess24, with commentaries from elite stars Judit Polgar and Anish Giri, or the Champions Chess Tour team of Kaja Snare, GM David Howell and WGM Jovanka Houska.
Carlsen 5-3 Nepomniachtchi
Photo: The pain of a ‘lost weekend’ is clearly etched on the challenger’s face | © Eric Rosen / FIDE World Championship
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
2021 World Chess Championship, (8)
Petroff’s Defence, Modern Attack
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.d4 The Modern Attack vs the Petroff comes as no surprise from Carlsen, as the World Champion has played this in the past – but does Nepo have something against it? 3…Nxe4 4.Bd3 d5 5.Nxe5 Nd7 6.Nxd7 Bxd7 7.Nd2 Considered a sideline, but Carlsen has a cunning ploy. 7…Nxd2 This just plays into Carlsen’s hands. The way to go, according to Dutch GM Erwin l’Ami, was with 7…f5. 8.Bxd2 Bd6 Played far too quickly to achieve the perfect symmetry. And with it, as Chess24 talking-head Anish Giri observed, he thought Magnus is now playing here for a risk-free advantage rather than just to make a draw to preserve his match lead. 9.0-0 h5?! It’s desperate times with the Black pieces when you reach early doors for Harry the h-pawn! And to reinforce what Giri meant in the previous note, if you continue the symmetry with the almost natural-looking 9…0-0? There comes the hidden tactical minefield of 10.Qh5! and suddenly Black is in a deep hole. 10.Qe1+ And played after going 40 min deep into the tank; but Carlsen finds the most awkward move for Nepo to meet, given the match score, as a timely Bb4 will see Black’s best-placed bishop being traded off to leave a harmless position. I would imagine the reason for the long think was that Carlsen was conflicted with the engine No.1 move of 10.Qf3!? allowing 10…Qh4 11.g3 Qxd4 12.Bc3 Qg4 13.Qxd5 Bc6 14.Bb5! 0-0 all of which is just a little “messy”, so he opted for the simpler, safer option. 10…Kf8 11.Bb4 Qe7 12.Bxd6 Qxd6 13.Qd2! A cunning little move, as Carlsen threatens to take command with Rae1 and Qg5. This forces Nepo to make ugly moves he wouldn’t normally like to consider. 13…Re8 14.Rae1 Rh6 A nice idea, but ultimately flawed with one very good move – and Carlsen finds it! 15.Qg5! Stopping Nepo’s rook swinging into the game via the e-file, as now the loose Harry the h-pawn suddenly becomes a big liability. 15…c6 16.Rxe8+ Bxe8 17.Re1 Qf6 18.Qe3! Trading queens only helps to ease Nepo’s difficult position. It isn’t lost per se, it’s just difficult, and Magnus thrives on making difficult positions even more difficult for his opponents! 18…Bd7 19.h3 h4 20.c4 dxc4 21.Bxc4 b5?? [see diagram] That’s the match breaking point right there, as Nepo has what can only be politely described in a family column as a ‘brain freeze’, not realising he’d overlooked a cruel, game-winning cross check from Carlsen’s queen. The position was extremely difficult, but the challenger was on the brink of equality had he found 21…Kg8! and we’re back to the realms of a “normal” position, with the best White has looks like: 22.d5!? b6 23.Bd3 Renewing a mating threat with Qe8+!, forcing 23…Qd6 24.Qe7 Qxe7 25.Rxe7 Rd6 26.dxc6 Bxc6 27.Bc4 Bd5 28.Bxd5 Rxd5 29.Rxa7 and a slightly awkward R+P ending for Black to defend, but after 29…Rd1+ 30.Kh2 Rd2 31.Ra8+ Kh7 32.Ra4 Rxb2 33.Rxh4+ Kg8 34.f3 Rxa2 35.Rb4 Ra6 36.h4 with correct technique and patience, Black should be able to hold this – although he will eventually have to give up hope on the b-pawn to activate his rook, but even a 3:2 pawn majority on the kingside should be a draw. 22.Qa3+! Kg8 It seems that what Nepo had missed, was that the “natural” defence to this cross check was 22…Qd6 but alas 23.Qxa7! wins a pawn with a crushing position as there’s a flaw with the king being on f8, as the White bishop can’t be taken because of Qa8+ and Qxe8 mate! 23.Qxa7 Qd8?! Totally busted and broken, and not even able to look at the board now, Nepo collapses further, not realising that there was a little hope with 23…Bxh3! and the ‘Hail Mary’ save of 24.Bxf7?? Rg6!! – but after the correct 24.Qxf7!, White retains a big advantage, as pointed out by Carlsen. 24.Bb3 Rd6 25.Re4! The rook lift both defends d4 and threatens to swing over to f4 to attack f7, forcing Nepo into further exchanges, as Carlsen ruthlessly trades down to an easily winning endgame. 25…Be6 The only slim hope Nepo has to salvage something from the wreckage is to try for the Q+P ending and pray that the world champ falls into a perpetual check. But alas, “slim” and “hope” have long departed the building. 26.Bxe6 Rxe6 27.Rxe6 fxe6 28.Qc5 Qa5 29.Qxc6 Qe1+ 30.Kh2 Qxf2 The only hope is that Carlsen somehow blunders into a …Qg3+ and …Qe1+ repetition – but the the world champion carefully picks his winning plan. 31.Qxe6+ Kh7 32.Qe4+ Kg8 33.b3 Carlsen’s queen covers the …Qe1+, and this deflects Nepo’s queen away from the action by capturing on a2. 33…Qxa2 34.Qe8+ Kh7 35.Qxb5 Qf2 36.Qe5 And now Carlsen’s queen doubly prevents the …Qg3+/Qe1+ perpetual, and no way for Nepo to stop those extra passed queenside pawns storming up the board. 36…Qb2 37.Qe4+ Kg8 38.Qd3 Both defending …Qg3+ and the b-pawn. 38…Qf2 39.Qc3 Stopping the new …Qf4+/Qc1+ threat. There’s likely many quicker ways to win this ending, but Carlsen, with the extra pawns, is just taking the über-cautious path to securing the full point to go 2-0 up in the match. 39…Qf4+ 40.Kg1 Kh7 41.Qd3+ g6 42.Qd1 That’s game over – the perpetual check has now gone, and Carlsen will roll his d-pawn up the board. 42…Qe3+ 43.Kh1 g5 44.d5 g4 45.hxg4 Even quicker was 45.d6 gxh3 46.Qh5+ Kg7 47.Qg4+ Kh6 (This is the added problem Nepo had, is that he was restricted from moving his king over to cover the d-pawn, as 47…Kf7 48.Qf3+! Qxf3 49.gxf3 and the K+P ending is the simplest of simple wins.) 45…h3 46.Qf3 1-0 And Nepo throws the towel in, as 46…hxg2+ 47.Kxg2 Qd2+ 48.Kg3 Kg7 49.g5! Qxg5+ (No better is 49…Qe1+ 50.Kg4 Qb4+ 51.Kh5 Qd6 52.b4! Qg6+ 53.Kg4 and Black runs out of checks and moves) 50.Qg4 etc.