Carlsen Triumphs Again
As Friday 3 December ticked over into Saturday morning in Dubai, Magnus Carlsen edged ahead with the sixth game of his title defence against Ian Nepomniachtchi. After five draws, Carlsen broke the deadlock by winning the longest game in World Chess Championship history: nearly eight hours of play and more than 130 moves each.
The extremely high levels of play from both players in the first week of the contest promised well for the second half of the fourteen-game match. But less than a week later it was all over: Nepomniachtchi contrived to lose three of the next five games, and Carlsen was declared the champion for the fifth time on Friday 10 December.
Nepomniachtchi’s match strategy appeared to work at first, as Carlsen overpressed in two of his early games with the white pieces, but the challenger failed to take his chances. The pivotal Game 6 initially looked unpromising for Carlsen. He consumed more allocated time than normal and repeatedly ran his clock down close to the limit. In the third hour, he appeared to get the yips as he went to make a move five times before choosing a surprising rook move. (Carlsen always cocks his arm with the elbow at shoulder height and touches his brow before reaching for a piece.)
He was clearly trying to create opportunities from a position that objectively favoured his opponent. His trade-off – consuming time to seek out obscure chances – nearly backfired when he left himself too little time to navigate the resulting complexities before the first time control (the first forty moves have to be made in two hours). After an exchange of inaccuracies, the only question was whether Carlsen could win. Nepomniachtchi nearly held on for a draw.
Both players were tearful and exhausted after the marathon, but Carlsen was buoyed by the result: it was the first time he’d gone ahead at this stage of a match in seven years, and his first win in nearly twenty title defence games at the main time limit. (Against Fabiano Caruana in 2018 he drew all twelve Classical games and won in the Rapid tie-break.)
Nepomniachtchi’s team didn’t prepare him well for the second week. His choice of openings indicated that he was aiming to contain Carlsen’s lead until the final games, when he would launch an assault to equalise. But the strategy didn’t suit Nepomniachtchi’s style of play, or his temperament: his lapses in Games 8 and 9 suggested his mind was not on the job in hand, but on what he would have to do in future games. His sense of danger deserted him and he blundered in a way that would trouble a journeyman. In one press conference, he apologised for playing ‘one of the worst games of my life’. At times, he was unable to remain at the board and hid away in his rest room to do his thinking.
In the final game, Nepomniachtchi with the white pieces had been hoping to push for one of the wins he needed to keep the match going, but at the 23rd move he realised Carlsen had finagled him into a drawn position. Instead of accepting that reality and coming back the next day, he tried a crass bluff, hoping that Carlsen’s nerves, so close to the winning tape, would tilt him. The champion did not choose the most effective counter but it was still enough to leave Nepomniachtchi with no hope.
Most of the discussion afterwards focused on Nepomniachtchi’s collapse rather than Carlsen’s astute reading of his opponent. Immediately before the match, the champion gave an interview to a Norwegian podcast. Nepomniachtchi ‘rarely plays well after having lost’, Carlsen said. ‘Perhaps that will be his biggest challenge, to handle the setbacks that will come.’
The last few world championships have been tight contests, but collapses are not uncommon at the top level. Garry Kasparov lost four of his first nine title games against Anatoly Karpov in 1984, and three on the bounce against him two years later; Viswanathan Anand lost four out of five after going one up against Kasparov in 1995; and Anand trounced Vladimir Kramnik 6.5-3.5 in 2008. Chess is brutal for the psyche.
It seems unlikely that Nepomniachtchi will be spoken of in that company, or that he will get another chance to face Carlsen. If he does, he will need a game plan that doesn’t rely on hoping that Carlsen makes mistakes. A rope-a-dope strategy may work if you are happy taking the punches, but that clearly isn’t Nepomniachtchi’s strength.
After the match, it was revealed that his compatriot Daniil Dubov had been the ‘ideas man’ in Carlsen’s camp. Social media bridled at the perceived betrayal: Nepomniachtchi sorely needed the kind of creativity Dubov offers. But Dubov – who is six years younger than Nepomniachtchi and Carlsen – has his own ambitions. He said that working with ‘the greatest player in history’ would benefit ‘one of the strongest Russian players’, meaning himself.
Carlsen will defend his title for the sixth time in early 2023 as the International Chess Federation (FIDE) seeks to restore the two-year cycle disrupted by the pandemic. Who gets to challenge him will be determined at an eight-player tournament next summer. Asked at the final press conference about the eighteen-year-old Alireza Firouzja, Carlsen complimented his play and said: ‘That motivated me more than anything else.’ He also repeated his longstanding criticism of the World Championship format, both as entertainment and as a way to establish who the best chess player in the world is. For the last decade that hasn’t been in doubt, but Firouzja leads a crop of teenagers who in the next few years will challenge Carlsen for dominance at any speed of play.