Many people thought the match was over after Magnus’ win in the 8th game. But the Russian team came up with a few unexpected moves. First of all, Sergey Karjakin arrived in Dubai to help Ian. Sergey so far is the only person who was leading in a World Championship match against Carlsen. He is also a great fighter and his advice could make a positive impact on Nepomniachtchi.
Secondly, the challenger came up with a new haircut. He assured everyone there was no hidden meaning for that: he wanted to do it for a long time already and the rest day was useful. Still, he must have needed some change to feel better after the losses.
— Olimpiu G. Urcan (@olimpiuurcan)
The third interesting moment happened on the chessboard. The young Indian prodigy grandmaster Praggnanandhaa made the first ceremonial move for Nepomniachtchi: he started the game with 1.c4. It made Magnus smile. At the press conference, he explained, “It was a slight surprise. I didn’t know if Pragg had any prior knowledge or just made a move he would have made. That’s why I smiled.”
The challenger started all of his previous games in the match with 1.e4, so this change indeed could surprise the world champion. It worked out well; at least, Sergey Karjakin was happy about the way the game had started:
Let’s see what happened on the board:
Nepomniachtchi, Ian (2782) – Carlsen, Magnus (2855) [A13]
FIDE World Championship 2021 Dubai (9.1), 07.12.2021
1.c4 e6 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2
3…d4 This move looks too aggressive for the situation when you do not need to play for a win. At the press conference, Magnus admitted this was prepared for the match and said, “I wasn’t sure if I should’ve gone for that or play more solidly.” During the game, he spent much time trying to remember the lines and ideas of this variation. 4.Nf3 Nc6 5.0–0 Bc5 6.d3 Nf6 7.Nbd2!
White’s plan is to place the knight on b3 and then break the center with e2-e3. This was probably still prepared by Ian, which is impressive since this is quite a rare opening line. Magnus remembered his preparation till about move 10.
7…a5 8.Nb3 Be7 9.e3
So far the players were following the game Gabuzyan, H – Bellahcene, B from the World Cup 2021. Bellahcene played the most natural 9…e5, but that gave White better prospects after 10.exd4 exd4 11.Re1. Instead, Magnus played a new move 9…dxe3N. After 10.Bxe3, the move he still remembered was 10…Ng4.
11.Bc5 0–0 At this moment, a famous English grandmaster Matthew Sadler left an interesting comment on Twitter.
The players indeed continued unknowingly following the game of the engines:
12.d4 a4 13.Bxe7 Qxe7 14.Nc5
At this point, Magnus deviated from Sadler’s engine line. 14…e5 was critical. After 15.Re1 Rd8, 16.b4! would have been a great move to make. The computers promise some advantage to White here.
Carlen played a more human move 14…a3 instead. Again, 15.b4! would have been strong at this point. Magnus was going to proceed with 15…Nxb4 16.Rb1 b6, after which the computers give some advantage to White, but the position would remain complicated. At the press conference, Nepomniachtchi himself mentioned this possibility, but it seemed like he had thought he would have got an easy advantage after the move in the game as well.
15.bxa3 Rd8 16.Nb3 Nf6 17.Re1 Here 17.Qe2 looked more sensible. 17…Qxa3 18.Qe2 h6 19.h4 Let’s mention that Nepomniachtchi was playing this game quite fast. His plan was probably to put Magnus into time trouble.
Both players made little improvement in their positions. Now Black decided to solve their main problem – the bishop on c8.
19…Bd7 20.Ne5 Be8! The bishop looks passive here, but it stabilizes Black’s position and neutralizes the threats of the e5-knight. Also, the rook from d8 now attacks the pawn on d4. 21.Qe3 Qb4! Putting pressure on White’s center and planning …Ra3. 22.Reb1 Nxe5 23.dxe5 Ng4
Magnus thought he would solidify the knight with …h5 and his position would be better already. But he overlooked White’s strong response 24.Qe1! It turns out that 24…Qxc4 allows trapping the knight on g4 after 25.f3! This is why Black couldn’t afford to waste time to retreat the queen and had to trade and then save the knight. 24…Qxe1+ 25.Rxe1 h5
Now the knight can retreat to h6 after f3. But this allows White to win the pawn on b7. At the press conference, Magnus shared his thought process during this part of the game, “I hadn’t seen 24.Qe1, I was considering all the other queen moves. 24.Qe1 was a shock at first because I realized I was losing a pawn. But I quickly stabilized and evaluated the position as a clear draw at that point.”
The computers agree with Carlsen’s evaluation. After the best for White 27.f3 Nh6 28.Be4 Nf5, the position would have been equal. At this point, White had 54 minutes on the clock versus Black’s 17 minutes. Magnus was close to getting into time trouble. Nevertheless, after 27.f3, the game most likely would have ended in a draw.
Instead, Ian played 27.c5?? This move is a horrible blunder. 27…c6! The bishop is trapped. Now Black is simply winning.
Magnus admitted he had seen this idea in advance, “I saw 27.c5 was losing to 27…c6, so seeing it on the board was pretty absurd. But what can you do.” Nepomniachtchi confessed he hadn’t seen this idea until Magnus actually played it, “I couldn’t imagine there existed a way to blunder in that position.”
Magnus also seemed shocked, “It was pretty absurd. You don’t expect to win a piece for nothing at this level.”
Magnus Carlsen waiting for Ian Nepomniachtchi to return at the board after 27…c6. He is not back for more than 10 minutes.
— International Chess Federation (@FIDE_chess)
Many people found a resemblance of Ian with Bobby Fischer. He let his bishop get trapped in a World Championship match too – against Spassky in 1972:
Here Bobby played 29…Bxh2. After 30.g3 h5 31.Ke2 h4 32.Kf3 Ke7 33.Ke2 hxg3 34.fxg3, he had to part with the bishop. Spassky won this game and also the following. The match started with 2-0. But Fischer made a comeback and eventually won the match. Will Nepomniachtchi be able to make a comeback too?
Many people expected the game to end here, but the challenger found the last trick. 28.f3 Nh6 29.Re4 Ra7 30.Rb4 Rb8 31.a4 If 31.Bxc6? Rxb4 32.Bxe8, then 32…Rxb3! 33.axb3 Rxa1 wins easily. 31…Raxb7
32.Rb6 White voluntarily give up the c5-pawn, intending to plant the knight there.
32…Rxb6 33.cxb6 Rxb6 34.Nc5 Nf5 35.a5 Rb8 36.a6
White has great pieces and a dangerous passed pawn but Black has too much material. Many people thought Magnus would play 36…Nd4, followed by …Nb5. That maneuver would neutralize White’s passed pawn and probably force the resignation. Magnus spent more than 7 minutes here and went for a risky 36…Nxg3. This is the best move according to the engine but it required some calculation. Magnus had only 4 minutes left, but it seemed enough. 37.Na4 c5 Opening the bishop.
38.a7 Rd8 Now 38.Rb1 would have been met by 38…Ra8 39.Rb8 Rxa7 40.Rxe8+ Kh7 41.Nxc5 Nf5. The h4-pawn falls and Black easily wins.
Nepomniachtchi saw that and went for 39.Nxc5, but after 39…Ra8, finally resigned.
Magnus concluded, “It was a tough game in which I was under pressure both on the time and on the clock. And the turnout like that was unexpected.”
He thought he was doing fairly well and the game was close to equal, whereas Nepomniachtchi felt more optimistic about his chances, “It was between slightly better and much better during most of the game.”
At the press conference, Magnus was asked whether he had felt sorry for Ian during the game. He answered, “It’s the World Championship. Basically, you prefer to beat an opponent who’s playing at his very best, but if he’s not, you take it any day of the week.”
Is the match over now? Nepomniachtchi admitted, “The situation is worse than I expected.”
Nevertheless, it seems like we still will see interesting games in this match. The challenger now has nothing to lose and can go for more aggressive play.