GM Joel Benjamin
The big news of the off day was the arrival of Sergey Karjakin in Dubai. It doesn’t seem such a big deal as Karjakin was helping Nepo before, but the timing hints at a directive from the Kremlin. In 2016 Karjakin had pressed Carlsen into mistakes after a frustrating series of draws, but he had no experience in overcoming a deficit against Magnus. I don’t think there is a player out there than can teach you how to do that. If we thought Nepo had hit rock bottom, we learned there was still further to go, as Ian committed a major and decisive blunder for the second game running.
Nepo opened with 1.c4 and 2.g3, a dramatic shift in opening approach. He hadn’t managed any success with a more concrete approach in the anti-Marshall. Perhaps he achieved small edges on paper but could not demonstrate any genuine winning chances. Today he proceeded in the style of Kasparov when he desperately needed a win in the last match game against Karpov in 1987. Flank openings are designed to push the battle into the future, avoiding the kind of immediate clarification we see so often in contemporary opening theory. This goes according to the principle that the most important thing in a must-win game is to keep the game going.
Carlsen’s 3…d4!? was certainly an interesting decision. By grabbing space Black can aspire to more than equality, but he has the challenge of backing it up, too. One might question if it is the right path with a two-point lead; Carlsen reasoned that if he believed in the move, it would still work at any match score.
With a non-mainstream opening, it’s a little less surprising to reach a new position. The trail runs thin after 7.Nbd2 (7.Na3 is more common), while 12…dxe3 (12…e5 had been played once) produced a novel position.
The position required a slightly unconventional approach. Black suffers from the inactivity of his bishop, yet the natural 10…e5? would walk into 11.d4, when all the White pieces come alive.
Most commentators have pointed to this as a critical moment in the game. The strength of 15.b4 isn’t obvious, but the desirability of the move is. Black will be choked for space if he doesn’t capture, but 15…Nxb4 16.Rb1 demands accurate play from Black. 16...Nxa2? 17.Qd2 is right out; 16…Nc6 17.Nxb7 Rb8? 18.Na5! is a more subtle trap, with a big White advantage. So Black should play 16…b6 17.Rxb4 bxc5 18.Rb5! Since 18…cxd4? 19.Nxd4 costs material, White will play 19.Rxc5 with a positional advantage. It may well have been manageable for Magnus, but at least he would have been under some pressure. Nepo has faltered at every moment in the match where he was on the verge of creating real chances. My brilliant friend and colleague Alex Yermolinsky has applied the football concept “time of possession” to chess. If you can consolidate an advantage to stay on offense, you have a good chance of wearing down the defense, just like in football. But Nepomniachtchi just hasn’t gotten the job done.
15.bxa3 was a move he shouldn’t have been easily satisfied by. Black gets a more solid pawn structure, and the isolated a-pawn, not to mention Black’s use of the a-file, limits White’s opportunities. I feel it is an example of the superficiality I will focus on later in the game.
There was some weird drama on the eighteenth move. The video shows Carlsen adjusting his f6-knight, then recoiling and making a strange gesture. He played 18…h6 a moment later. Magnus later brushed it off as a simple j’adoubing. Nepo might have said something if he had been at the board, but he was away from the table, as he has been for a large percentage of game time.
By 20…Be8, the worst was clearly over. White can saddle Black with ugly doubled c-pawns, but White’s pawns are just as vulnerable. Nepo’s game was sloping downhill, but there was no real damage until the game came crashing down in one move.
The engine suggested that it could be marginally better to drive away the bishop with 26…Ra7 (instead of 26…Ra4), but we found out that the bishop is not resting as comfortably on b7 as it appears.
I rather serendipitously turned on the Judit and Anish show at this point. Judit unwittingly predicted the future by suggesting 27.c5??, to which Anish politely inquired why she wasn’t concerned about c6. At first, Judit started to answer that c5-c6 was something she was considering when the shoe dropped. I confess that I was wondering about 27.c5 myself; why wasn’t the move appearing on Stockfish’s list? I even played the move and saw all the bells and whistles go off. [Giri saw the refutation “instantly.” Know-it-all!] It is actually an easy mistake to make, looking at the position casually. The response 27…c6! is quite anti-positional; it buries Black’s bishop and creates a juicy target. It’s a move you wouldn’t even consider unless there was a weird tactical justification.
That’s a reason for the move escaping Nepo’s attention. While Magnus thought for a minute or so (due diligence again) Ian still did not realize his mistake until he saw the killing reply on the board. But of course, it’s no excuse. Your Spidey-sense has to pick up that the bishop, deep in enemy territory, might be in trouble if it can’t retreat. Sure, it is rather surprising that the White pieces are so ill-equipped to aid their stranded comrade, but they don’t look particularly active right now. The knight is tragically dominated by Black’s rooks.
Nepomniachtchi has a rather higher penchant for blundering than most elite players. He likes to play in rhythm, but this confidence can lead to superficiality. His howler came after a mere four minutes of thought, the same amount of time needed to produce his blunder of the previous game.
Carlsen on the other hand, has played extremely slowly in this match. He tends to play in rhythm too, but in Dubai he has rather uncharacteristically found himself in time pressure in a number of games. Not classic Reshevsky/Benko style time pressure, but enough to impact his decision making in critical moments, particularly in game six.
Carlsen was pretty slow on this day as well; he was down to about fifteen minutes when he received the great gift. I’m not saying that Magnus has been intentionally seeking out time pressure, but it may well be in his mind that a little time shortage could have some benefits as well. Perhaps the ticking clock can lull Nepo into a false sense of security.
Nepo worked through his misery for seventeen minutes from the wings. He actually found a fairly clever attempt at survival, turning his a-pawn into a fast runner. The problem was he had to give up a few pawns, so Carlsen could offer the piece back and coast to victory.
We have a winner in the most boring game of the match. So indulge me while I tell a little story: In 2000 I was paired in the first round of the FIDE World Championship Knockout (later rebranded as the World Cup) with a considerably lower-rated opponent for the first and only time. I won the first game with black against the Argentine IM Fiorito, and was shocked to face, despite my opponent’s must-win situation, the Petroff Defense. I had a history of losing the first round in excruciating ways, so I figured it made sense to play things safe. I can’t possibly lose if I play Qe2 and trade queens, can I?
Meanwhile, my opponent was coughing and sniffling with great frequency and intensity. These days a nasal swab would put us both out of our miseries…but I was compelled to finish the game without chance of forfeiture. I figured the suffering wretch would take a few cheap Elo points, but no—he turned down my draw offer.
The game went on, and eventually I reached a winning position. Then he offered a draw, and I figured I can’t let him get away with that. So I thought for twenty minutes and found no way of possibly losing, then played a move. He resigned two moves later. [I didn’t get sick, but I lost to Leitao in the second round]
Joel Benjamin (2577) – Fabian Fiorito (2418) [C42]
FIDE-Wch Knockout New Delhi (1.2), 2000
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Qe2 Qe7 6.d3 Nf6 7.Bg5 Qxe2+ 8.Bxe2 Be7 9.Nc3 c6 10.0–0–0 Na6 11.Ne4 Nxe4 12.dxe4 Nc5 13.Bxe7 Kxe7 14.Rd4 Ne6 15.Rd2 Nf4 16.Bf1 Bg4 17.Nd4 Rad8 18.h3 Bc8 19.g3 Ng6 20.f4 Nf8 21.Bg2 g6 22.Rhd1 Ne6 23.Nb3 Ng7 24.Na5 h5 25.Nc4 Ne8 26.Rd4 f6 27.R4d3 Be6 28.Ne3 f5 29.h4 Nf6 30.exf5 gxf5 31.Ra3 Rhg8 32.Re1 Kf7 33.Rxa7 Rd7 34.Nf1 d5 35.Ra3 d4 36.Nd2 d3 37.Re3 dxc2 38.Nf3 Ng4 39.Ng5+ Rxg5 40.hxg5 Rd1+ 41.Kxc2 Rg1 42.Re2 Bc4 43.Rd2 Re1 (draw offer) 44.Ra7 Ke6 45.b3 Ba6 46.Bxc6 1–0
The moral of the story is, don’t play the Petroff if you need to win.
Magnus has done the same math we have and knows he doesn’t have to win any more games to keep his title. So he traded queens, with even more confidence than I had in New Delhi, that he could not possibly lose.
Carlsen had experience with this line against Caruana in their 2018 title match. Fabi went for a dynamic path to equalization, 6…Nc6!? 7.Nd5 Nd4, ultimately reaching a winning ending but failing to find the complicated computer move to reel in the point. Nepo’s 6…Nf6 is a more solid choice, leading to a surprisingly new position after 7.d4 Nc6.
I don’t think there was any chance the game would not end in a draw, but I like the way Carlsen achieved it, proactively but without a trace of groveling.
With 25.h3 Kf7 26.Rh1 h6 27.f4, Magnus created a slight appearance of pressing, though there was nothing there at all. After much liquidation the players reached move 40, where they could shake hands without the need for a contrived repetition.
When he isn’t too ambitious, Nepo has shown a steady hand (excepting game eight) in holding off Carlsen. Of course, it is too late for that to help. I have to believe that Ian came to the match with a more combative 1.e4 defense for must-win situations, but reeling from back-to-back blunder games, he didn’t feel this was a time to go that route. He played the Petroff with the understanding that a draw would result. There is no question anymore about the match’s winner. Nepo isn’t thinking about winning three games; he wants to win one. With one strong game, one strong win, he can earn a little respectability. He can go for it with White after the rest day. But he will run out of tries if he doesn’t put a score on the board soon.