We are just past the halfway point of the Magnus Carlsen-Ian Nepomniachtchi World Chess Championship in Dubai.
The first five games got everyone excited. Ian looked confident and well prepared. Magnus attempted one surprise after another, but far from buckling, Ian reacted well. With White, he got an advantage in every game and though Magnus managed to draw, the trend looked promising. With Black, he equalised effortlessly after Magnus came up with a good novelty against the Petroff. He seemed to be prepared for everything.
The Catalan opening in Game 2 was the closest he came to landing a blow. He looked Carlsen’s equal and the only concern was that he hadn’t been able to capitalise on his advantage with White. The main thing though was that he hadn’t come close to losing.
Game 6 was dramatic. The match could have gone almost any way in that game. Magnus came armed with another rare continuation, continuing his strategy of drawing Ian out of his preparation. And Ian responded very well, with 11…b5 and 12…Nb4. A few moves later, he had an opportunity to sharpen the struggle with 18…e5, but instead went for a level position with Nd4.
As has been the case so far in the match, Ian continued baiting Magnus. 23..a5 and especially 25…Rac8 kept the tension at its peak. Neither player would back down and with limited time, the mistakes started flowing. Ian missed 29…Bb2
(Ian missed 29…Bb2)
And then Magnus missed two excellent chances to play Rc5. It’s not winning, but it would have been extremely hard for Ian to find the right way even if the players were not in time pressure.
On move 33, Magnus missed his biggest chance yet and instead of 33.Rcc2, he went for 33.Rd1 and now 35…Bxb4 would have given him a big advantage.
35…Bxb4 leaves Ian a healthy pawn ahead .
Instead he went 35…e5 and missed the idea even on the next move. In both cases, his approach would have paid off and he would have been in the driver’s seat. By 39…Qxb4, the game had turned around again. 40.Rdc2 would have been winning for White. Clearly, both of them were struggling with their nerves. In my opinion, Magnus’s wins were harder to find over the board and Ian squandered two relatively easy chances. His moves were obvious, one is tempted to ascribe his reaction to his impetuousness. An old problem of his, which he had controlled well until this point. They had drawn each other well out of their comfort zones!
After move 40, the position could only favour Magnus. He could try forever without any risk. Even so, Ian found a safe setup and his far advanced a -pawn should have safely led him to a draw. Instead of repeating 52…Kh6 he suddenly went for a tactical trick.
52…Qe4 instead of just waiting gave Magnus fresh hope.
This was totally unnecessary — he had no hopes of a win, so why look for a different fortress when you already have one? A pattern was emerging. Excellent defence followed by thoughtless blunders. The position wasn’t easy to win, but Magnus is a genius at this. He regrouped his pieces and went for the kill. There is only one player in the world who could have won this game with less than a minute left on the clock, but sadly for Ian, he was facing him. Magnus repeated moves to add a minute on the clock, then used it up, then did it again. After 7 hours and 48 minutes, Ian’s resistance was finally broken in the longest game in the history of the World Championship!
136.Ng7 and Ian resigned the longest game in the history of the world championship.
The game finished past midnight and everyone was drained. It was so engrossing that not a single spectator left the hall till it was over.
The situation was now looking bleak. With a one point deficit, Ian’s inability to sharpen the position with White was a serious handicap. How was he going to win a game? Still, there were 8 games remaining and something could be done.
The players played Game 7 a mere 15 hours later and it was understandable that they didn’t have the energy for a big struggle. The 8th game was a disaster.
Magnus showed great psychological cunning by opting for a near harmless line. It looks harmless, but Black has to navigate one or two mines before equalising. Ian reacted intelligently at first. 9…h5 was unexpected and threw Magnus off enough that he went for 10.Qe1+ allowing Ian to equalise easily with Qe7. Ian went for Kf8 and had a slightly unpleasant position. Nothing prepared anyone for the meltdown that was about to occur. Ian suddenly blundered with 21…b5, and lost without a fight. Suddenly a match which looked difficult looked hopeless. Two points down against a player who hardly ever loses a game.
Ian showed great sportsmanship by politely answering all questions at the press conference. He must be feeling devastated. A match which only two days ago looked so close, had taken a disastrous turn. Ian Nepomniachtchi will have to summon every ounce of his strength to continue fighting.