GM Joel Benjamin
The 2021 World Championship ended with a whimper on one side and a bang on the other. Unable to get anywhere with what was expected to be his last White, Nepomniachtchi fell on his sword, giving Carlsen a match victory by the score of 7.5-3.5.
The flank opening from round 9 had produced a more unconventional position than Nepo’s other games with White, but the horrific blunder may have killed Ian’s desire to repeat. So it was back to 1.e4, this time replacing the Ruy Lopez with the Giuocco Piano.
Until the last few years, the Italian Game had become something of an opening for kids, not seen in the World Championship since 1892! But gradually it has supplanted the Ruy as the main battleground for top-level games. This is largely due to difficulties White has found in sidestepping the Marshall (as we saw in this match) and Berlin endgame. It’s hard to say how much confidence Nepo has in the opening; he might well have tossed it in earlier in the match, to gauge which 1.e4 e5 system would give him the best opportunities to win.
Carlsen of course has much experience here, and he has wisely availed himself of many different move orders. He chose to play the very 21st century 6…a5, a contemporary riff on the traditional a7-a6 move which also provides a comfy retreat for the c5-bishop. The new move for Magnus was 7…Ba7, delaying castling for a few moves. In two games this year Carlsen played 7…0-0, to which Nepo would have been well-advised to repeat a move Magnus has favored himself, 8.Bg5. Regardless of the strength of the pin, it is one of the few ways White can inject some genuine tension in this opening. The standard reaction is to throw the kingside pawns forward and bury the bishop, which at least somewhat reduces the draw danger. Carlsen cautiously eliminated any notion of the pin with a prophylactic h7-6 before castling.
Nepo brought about a rare-in-practice position after 8.Na3, utilizing a different route to the center than the traditional Nbd2-f1-e3.
The idea has actually become fairly standard, though there are lots more examples with the pawn on a6. Here White does not need a preparatory a2-a4, as Nc6-a5 snagging the bishop is not legal. Unfortunately, there isn’t much more I have to say about the opening after that. Both players maneuvered in completely routine ways. 17.Nh2 was perhaps unexpected; though removing the f6 knight may have opened some possibilities for White’s other knight, taking pressure off the e5-pawn invited Carlsen to support d6-d5.
Nepo created the first conflict of the game with 20.d4, a move which can hardly be criticized because there isn’t much else to suggest.
Carlsen had a question to answer, but it wasn’t a particularly complicated one. 20…dxe4 21.dxe5 Qe8 22.Nc4 Rxd1 23.Qxd1 Nc6 probably would have held comfortably, but his 20….exd4 21.exd5 Re4! was even more to the point. After 22.Qc2 Rf4, White had to acquiesce to 23.Rxd4 Rxd4 24.cxd4 Nxd5 25.Nxd5 Qxd5 26.Qxc7 Qxd4 with a dead draw. Instead, Nepo forced Carlsen to play a winning exchange sacrifice with 23.g3?? I’m sure every commentator had already pointed out that this move would lead to a loss. Giri suggested that Nepo did not want to play again tomorrow. I don’t know what truly fueled Nepo’s appetite for self-destruction, but it provided the only really interesting moments in the game.
Magnus could actually force perpetual check, as 26.Ke2 exf2 27.Rf1 Nf5 would be a massacre. But gifted such a position he had to play for a win—Carlsen didn’t want to play another day either. What is remarkable is how elusive the knockout proved to be.
Here 26...exf2+ 27.Qxf2 Rd6 28.Qf1 Rg6+ 29.Kf2 Qh2+ looks like a pretty convincing path. There was nothing wrong with 26...Nf5, but Nepo threw a spanner in the works with 27.d6! It was strange and a bit sad that one of Nepomniachtchi’s best moments in the match came in bringing a resignable position down to simply lost.
Carlsen sidestepped the trap 28...Nf3+ 29.Kf2 Nxe1? (29...Rxd6 30.Rxd6 Qh2+ 31.Kxf3 Qxc2 should still win) 30.dxc7 Qf3+ 31.Kg1! (31.Kxe1 Qxe3+ 32.Kf1 Qf3+ wins) 31...Qg4+ 32.Kf2 Rxd1? 33.Qxd1 Qxd1 34.c8Q+ Kh7 35.Qf5 with perpetual check.
The resulting rook ending could have been mishandled but Carlsen is the right man for the job, and Nepo didn’t seem inspired to hold it anyway. Game, set, and match.
We saw fatal flaws in Nepomniachtchi’s strategy and temperament. Carlsen’s last two WC opponents extended him to the playoff with their solid play, and Nepo seemed to go for that, too. With White, he pursued a “two-result” strategy that did not come close to denting Carlsen’s (non-Berlin) wall. He was perhaps a bit more ambitious with Black, perhaps feeling the best way to beat Carlsen is to take advantage when he overpresses. The problem was he had no response when he fell behind. Nepo had no sharper lines with White to coax a decisive result. Didn’t he used to play the Scotch—couldn’t he have tried that? If the match hadn’t completely gotten away from him, we might have seen a more combative defense to 1.e4; Ian certainly could have used one.
Nepo’s play deteriorated after the first loss, so we can’t say we saw a lot of psychological toughness. It seemed under the stress of falling behind, demons that have occasionally plagued Nepo came to the forefront. He lost all chances with a pair of terrible blunders in games eight and nine. Those howlers came after thinking for just four minutes. Carlsen in contrast took his time and played virtually blunder free (the one exception being when he was in time pressure in game six).
The future of classical world championship matches is a question in the minds of chess fans. Carlsen has said himself that he is weary of defending these long classical matches…even though he is pretty good at it. Some have suggested that the players should start with a tiebreak so that the loser would have more incentive to produce decisive games. But here the match worsened after Carlsen took the lead. Even with four decisive games, the match was not particularly interesting. That one player won all those games was only part of the problem. The long technical grind Carlsen executed in game six was the closest we came to a signature achievement, and even in that game, Carlsen missed a clear win and gifted Nepo a large advantage in one move. The other Carlsen wins came on blunders. While there were a few dramatic moments, there wasn’t a lot of particularly good chess. That’s something we used to see a lot of in World Championship matches. Who knows where we go from here.