“April is the cruelest month,” wrote TS Eliot in his masterpiece The Waste Land. But for Ian Nepomniachtchi, December proved to be much, much crueler, as a rampant Magnus Carlsen showed no mercy on his beleaguered and demoralised Russian title challenger, as he capitalised big-time on yet another howler in their $2m World Championship Match in Dubai, for a fourth win in Game 11 to romp to a fifth title win on Friday.
In the post-game presser, a jubilant Carlsen commented: “It’s hard to feel great joy when the situation was so comfortable, to begin with, but I’m happy with a very good performance overall!” The newly-minted World Champion was also quizzed on why he was able to dominate in the match, adding: “In simple positions, I made very few mistakes. A few times the position was very complicated, we both made mistakes, but he made the last one.”
The very last one came in Game 11 that lasted 49 moves and went down to a rook and pawn ending – but it could all so easily have been wrapped up by Carlsen 20 moves earlier, who seemed to be dumbfounded and taken completely by surprise at his opponent’s self-inflicted tragic downfall. And that, in a nutshell, is what decided the match: a series of soul-destroying winter blunderland howlers from Nepomniachtchi.
After getting off to a solid 2½-2½ start and shaping up to be a close match, the turning moment for Nempomniachtchi was unquestionable that epic 136-move Game 6 marathon – which now goes into the annals as the longest world championship game in history – miraculously won by Carlsen, which he said he was “very proud of…and that sort of laid the foundation for everything.” Indeed, this is what psychologically broke the Russian’s spirit.
The heavy defeat for Nepomniachtchi proved to be one of the most lopsided title matches ever, eerily on a par with Jose Capablanca’s +4 defeat (also without a loss) of Emanuel Lasker, exactly a century ago in 1921 – though not nearly as bad as Lasker-Janowski 1910, which Lasker won 8-0.
But the magnitude of Nepomniachtchi’s four losses was a personal one for Carlsen, as it proved to be the ultimate revenge on his longtime rival, as it completely blew away all the pre-match pseudo-hype of his title challenger’s 4-1 classical score advantage – admittedly, accumulated when both were pre-teens in youth championships in the early noughties – over the Norwegian, who now takes a career 5-4 advantage.
In victory, Carlsen paid tribute to “Team Carlsen” by releasing on the Chess24 YouTube channel a video filmed at his Spanish training camp, that revealed who exactly was in his backroom team and their duties – all the usual suspects plus two surprise newcomers, Daniil Dubov and Jorden van Foreest.
Final Match score:
Carlsen 7½-3½ Nepomniachtchi
GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Magnus Carlsen
2021 World Championship, (11)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The Giuoco Piano is one of the oldest recorded openings, first recorded in the annals in the 16th century. And Giuoco Piano means ‘quiet game’ in Italian – and like its name, it’s clear by now that Nepo just wanted to end the misery and his ill-fated title challenge in a quiet and tame way. 3…Nf6 4.d3 Bc5 5.c3 d6 6.0-0 a5 7.Re1 Ba7 8.Na3 h6 9.Nc2 0-0 10.Be3 Bxe3 11.Nxe3 Re8 12.a4 Be6 13.Bxe6 Rxe6 14.Qb3 b6 If you are feeling a little more adventurous, then you can also play 14…Ne7 15.Rad1 (The point is that it is dangerous to take on b7. After 15.Qxb7 Rb8 16.Qa6 Rb6! 17.Qc4 (17.Qxa5?? Nc6! wins the queen.) 17…Rxb2 with a good game.) 15…b6 and back to as in the game, or even go for 15…Ng6. 15.Rad1 Ne7 16.h3 Qd7 17.Nh2 Rd8 18.Nhg4 The pain is evident: Nepo just wants it to end it with a whimper rather than going out with a do-or-die bang, and I’m sure Carlsen would have been only too happy to oblige with two draws to retain his title. But alas, Nepo makes yet another game-losing blunder from an equal position. 18…Nxg4 19.hxg4 d5 20.d4 exd4 21.exd5 Re4 22.Qc2 The simple solution was just 22.Rxd4 Rxd4 23.cxd4 Nxd5 24.Nxd5 Qxd5 25.Re8+ Kh7 26.Qd3+ g6 27.Rxd8 Qxd8 28.Qc4 Qe7 and a draw looming. 22…Rf4 23.g3?? Oopsie, big-time. Again, what was needed was 23.Rxd4 Rxd4 24.cxd4 Nxd5 25.Nxd5 Qxd5 26.Qxc7 Qxd4 and the game will peter out to a draw. But with another blunder, Nepo all but gifts Carlsen an early Christmas present of an easy title defence. 23…dxe3! [see diagram] Boom! By the look on Carlsen’s face, it was almost as if he was pinching himself, unable to believe that this move was missed by his opponent, sacrificing the exchange to blow open a path to the White king. 24.gxf4 Qxg4+ 25.Kf1 Qh3+ 26.Kg1 Nf5 I think even Carlsen was dumbfounded by Nepo’s inexplicable blunder, because, with the direction of the game dramatically twisting, there’s so many ways to win now that he missed the clinical kill with 26…exf2+! 27.Qxf2 (There’s no defence: 27.Kxf2 Qh2+ wins the queen.) 27…Rd6! and there’s no stopping the rook swinging over to g6 for a game-winning king hunt. For example: 28.Qf1 Rg6+ 29.Kf2 Qh2+ 30.Kf3 Rg3+ 31.Ke4 Qh5! Likely the move that Carlsen couldn’t spot in his analysis, as the king now can’t run to safety via d4 due to …Qxd5 mate! 32.Qh1 Qf5+ 33.Kd4 Qxf4+ 34.Re4 Nf5+ 35.Kc4 Nd6+ and White can resign with the heavy loss of material. 27.d6 The only possible move in a desperate position. 27…Nh4 Carlsen’s nerves had to be jangling here after receiving this enormous slice of luck with Nepo’s unexpected blunder, as now it was not clear where the clean kill was, despite all the armchair grandmasters screaming out for the engine win with the slightly obscure 27…Qg4+! 28.Kf1 Qf3 29.Kg1 Qg4+ 30.Kf1 cxd6! 31.fxe3 Re8! and White can’t stop …Nxe3+ or even 32.e4 Ng3+ and White can resign. All easy to see when you have an engine chugging away in the background, but …cxd6 is not easy to spot at the board, as your gut would be telling you there’s has to be something concrete here to force a win – and Carlsen opted for that. 28.fxe3 Qg3+ 29.Kf1 Nf3 30.Qf2 Qh3+ 31.Qg2 Qxg2+ 32.Kxg2 Nxe1+ 33.Rxe1 Rxd6 And Carlsen just took the “easy-option” of forcing the R+P ending where he has the extra pawn, an outside passed h-pawn, and a very active rook – what’s not to like here? 34.Kf3 Nepo is doomed regardless now. After 34.Re2 Rd1! White is left in a passive position and no way to stop …Ra1 and …Rb1 picking off the queenside pawns. 34…Rd2! 35.Rb1 g6 36.b4 axb4 37.Rxb4 If 37.cxb4 Ra2 and the a-pawn also falls. 37…Ra2 38.Ke4 h5! There’s R+P endings where you are sans the pawn and can hold the draw, but not here with White’s queenside pawns split, Black’s rook über-active, and now the h-pawn storming up the board. 39.Kd5 Rc2 40.Rb3 h4 There’s no stopping the h-pawn. 41.Kc6 h3 42.Kxc7 h2 43.Rb1 Rxc3+ 44.Kxb6 Rb3+! Winning the title with just a dash of élan, by sacrificing the rook to queen the h-pawn. 45.Rxb3 h1Q 46.a5 Qe4 47.Ka7 Qe7+ 48.Ka8 Kg7 49.Rb6 Qc5 0-1 And Nepo finally throws the towel in, as 50.Ra6 Qxe3 51.Kb7 Qxf4 52.Rb6 Qe4+ 53.Ka7 g5 even in the worst-case scenario, Black can sac his queen for the a-pawn whilst promoting his own g-pawn.