Drawn out: Bloodless opening to Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi world chess title match

‘We try.”

That was a more than slightly peeved Magnus Carlsen, as the Norwegian world chess champion and challenger GM Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia faced questions Sunday over the three (now four) draws to open their scheduled 14-game title match in Dubai. That makes for a string of 18 consecutive draws in world title matches at classical time controls stretching back through Carlsen’s 2018 12-game match against American GM Fabiano Caruana and the final three games of Carlsen’s previous title fight with Russian Sergey Karjakin. Carlsen won both those matches in rapid-play playoffs.

Chess lovers are starting to feel like soccer partisans who have to defend the subtle beauty of a 0-0 match or football fans who insist a 6-3 defensive struggle was actually worth watching. All four games so far have had real points of drama, but so far neither player has come close to tipping over his king.

After Monday’s rest day, the challenger surprised Carlsen with a Petroff’s Defense, apparently the first time the Russian has employed it in a serious game. White pressed a little, but once again, Carlsen‘s efforts to generate real chances were frustrated by Nepomniachtchi’s solid defense. “Nepo” will have the White pieces Wednesday in the next chance for a decisive result.

Overall, the Russian has proven a worthy challenger, not thrown by the champ’s opening surprises or fazed — so far — by the Norwegian’s trademark ability to squeeze a win out of the tiniest of endgame advantages. The way things are going, the first player to draw blood may enjoy a perhaps decisive advantage in the match.

The story so far:

In Game 1, Carlsen was down a pawn early in a sharp anti-Marshall Gambit line of the Ruy Lopez, but managed to equalize with trades that broke up White’s pawn structure and neutralized his opponent’s advantage.

In the end, it was Carlsen who was pressing for the win, but Nepomniachtchi returned his extra pawn to ease the pressure and an inaccuracy by the champion on Move 40 allowed White to effectively force a drawn position, as Black’s rook must shuttle along the sixth rank to protect his a-pawn.

Game 2 provided the sharpest struggle so far, after Carlsen as White mishandled a sharp Closed Catalan to give Nepomniachtchi real winning chances. The champ conceded he simply overlooked the force of Black’s 17. Ne5?! Bxe5 18. dxe5 (see diagram) Nac5!, when 19. Nxc5?! Nxc5 20. Be3 (axb5 cxb5 21. Rd1 Nd3 is even worse for White) Nxa4 21. Rxa4 bxa4 22. Qxc4 c5 23. Bxb7 Qxb7 24. Qxe6+ Kh8 25. Bxc5 Rfe8 preserves Black’s material edge and leaves White fighting for a draw.

But Black fails to capitalize on his advantage after the unambitious 19. Nd6 Nb3 20. Rb1 Nbxc1 21. Rbxc1 Nxc1 22. Rxc1 Rab8 23. Rd1 Ba8?! 24. Be4! c3?! (Qe7 appears to be the last best chance to play for a win) 25. Qc2, and Carlsen’s active play and powerfully posted knight on d6 eventually force Black to return the exchange. Carlsen emerged a pawn to the good in a rook ending, but with all the remaining pawns on the kingside, there was no chance for a breakthrough to obtain a passed pawn and the play soon petered out.

Sunday’s Game 3, another anti-Marshall Ruy Lopez line, was the tamest of the match so far. Despite an unusual repositioning of the Black pieces starting with the relatively rare 10 … Re8!?, Carlsen was easily able to neutralize White’s mild threats out of the opening.

A flurry of central exchanges followed by the elimination of both players’ rooks led to a bishop-and-pawn ending in which Black’s slightly more active bishop and king could not make progress against the challenger’s solid defense. The two players agreed to a draw just after reaching the first time control at 40 moves.

And Tuesday’s Game 4 once again began with the promise of a real fight only to end in deadlock

The Norwegian champion opened with 1. e4, after experiencing some opening discomfort with a Closed Catalan in Game 2. White stuck with the main theoretical lines and obtained some mild pressure entering the middlegame — while using far more time on his clock than the Russian.

But an early queen trade left White struggling to generate chances, even after Carlsen was able to trade bishops and get a rook and a knight planted deep in his opponent’s position.

A passed a-pawn gave Black plenty of compensation, and in the end, a frustrated White settled for repeated checks against Black’s boxed-in king, leading to a draw after 36 moves.


On the local front, organizers are taking entries for the 2021 D.C. Championship, a four-round Swiss to be held December 11-12 at the Hilton Garden Inn at 1225 First Street NE just off Capitol Hill. The fee if $50, the registration deadline is Dec. 10, and the field will be limited to just 16 players, so act fast.

Online registration is through King Registration at KingRegistration.com/event/dcchamps21. For more info, contact organizer Milo Nekvasil at flam19@aol.com.

And organizers of the venerable Arlington Chess Club, the region’s oldest, say they are close to reopening at a still-to-be-determined new playing site early in the new year. Play at the club, as elsewhere, has been shut down for months but the COVID-19 pandemic. Keep an eye on the club’s website ArlingtonChessClub.com for the updates.

Nepomniachtchi-Carlsen, World Championship Match, Game 1, Dubai, November 2021

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 O-O 8. h3 Na5 9. Nxe5 Nxb3 10. axb3 Bb7 11. d3 d5 12. exd5 Qxd5 13. Qf3 Bd6 14. Kf1 Rfb8 15. Qxd5 Nxd5 16. Bd2 c5 17. Nf3 Rd8 18. Nc3 Nb4 19. Rec1 Rac8 20. Ne2 Nc6 21. Be3 Ne7 22. Bf4 Bxf3 23. gxf3 Bxf4 24. Nxf4 Rc6 25. Re1 Nf5 26. c3 Nh4 27. Re3 Kf8 28. Ng2 Nf5 29. Re5 g6 30. Ne1 Ng7 31. Re4 f5 32. Re3 Ne6 33. Ng2 b4 34. Ke2 Rb8 35. Kd2 bxc3+ 36. bxc3 Rxb3 37. Kc2 Rb7 38. h4 Kf7 39. Ree1 Kf6 40. Ne3 Rd7 41. Nc4 Re7 42. Ne5 Rd6 43. Nc4 Rc6 44. Ne5 Rd6 45. Nc4 Draw agreed.

Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi, World Championship Match, Game 2, Dubai, November 2021

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. g3 Be7 5. Bg2 O-O 6. O-O dxc4 7. Qc2 b5 8. Ne5 c6 9. a4 Nd5 10. Nc3 f6 11. Nf3 Qd7 12. e4 Nb4 13. Qe2 Nd3 14. e5 Bb7 15. exf6 Bxf6 16. Ne4 Na6 17. Ne5 Bxe5 18. dxe5 Nac5 19. Nd6 Nb3 20. Rb1 Nbxc1 21. Rbxc1 Nxc1 22. Rxc1 Rab8 23. Rd1 Ba8 24. Be4 c3 25. Qc2 g6 26. bxc3 bxa4 27. Qxa4 Rfd8 28. Ra1 c5 29. Qc4 Bxe4 30. Nxe4 Kh8 31. Nd6 Rb6 32. Qxc5 Rdb8 33. Kg2 a6 34. Kh3 Rc6 35. Qd4 Kg8 36. c4 Qc7 37. Qg4 Rxd6 38. exd6 Qxd6 39. c5 Qxc5 40. Qxe6+ Kg7 41. Rxa6 Rf8 42. f4 Qf5+ 43. Qxf5 Rxf5 44. Ra7+ Kg8 45. Kg4 Rb5 46. Re7 Ra5 47. Re5 Ra7 48. h4 Kg7 49. h5 Kh6 50. Kh4 Ra1 51. g4 Rh1+ 52. Kg3 gxh5 53. Re6+ Kg7 54. g5 Rg1+ 55. Kf2 Ra1 56. Rh6 Ra4 57. Kf3 Ra3+ 58. Kf2 Ra4 Draw agreed.

Nepomniachtchi-Carlsen, World Championship Match, Game 3, Dubai, November 2021

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 O-O 8. a4 Bb7 9. d3 d6 10. Nbd2 Re8 11. Nf1 h6 12. Bd2 Bf8 13. Ne3 Ne7 14. c4 bxc4 15. Nxc4 Nc6 16. Rc1 a5 17. Bc3 Bc8 18. d4 exd4 19. Nxd4 Nxd4 20. Qxd4 Be6 21. h3 c6 22. Bc2 d5 23. e5 dxc4 24. Qxd8 Rexd8 25. exf6 Bb4 26. fxg7 Bxc3 27. bxc3 Kxg7 28. Kf1 Rab8 29. Rb1 Kf6 30. Rxb8 Rxb8 31. Rb1 Rxb1+ 32. Bxb1 Ke5 33. Ke2 f5 34. Bc2 f4 35. Bb1 c5 36. Bc2 Bd7 37. f3 Kf6 38. h4 Ke5 39. Kf2 Kf6 40. Ke2 Ke5 41. Kf2 Draw agreed.

Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi, World Chess Championship, Game 4, Dubai, November 2021

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. d4 d5 6. Bd3 Bd6 7. O-O O-O 8. c4 c6 9. Re1 Bf5 10. Qb3 Qd7 11. Nc3 Nxc3 12. Bxf5 Qxf5 13. bxc3 b6 14. cxd5 cxd5 15. Qb5 Qd7 16. a4 Qxb5 17. axb5 a5 18. Nh4 g6 19. g4 Nd7 20. Ng2 Rfc8 21. Bf4 Bxf4 22. Nxf4 Rxc3 23. Nxd5 Rd3 24. Re7 Nf8 25. Nf6+ Kg7 26. Ne8+ Kg8 27. d5 a4 28. Nf6+ Kg7 29. g5 a3 30. Ne8+ Kg8 31. Nf6+ Kg7 32. Ne8+ Kg8 33. Nf6+ Draw agreed.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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