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How chess champion Magnus Carlsen broke free to win

Magnus Carlsen had suffered 19 draws in a row before he out-maneuvered Ian Nepomniachtchi to win a game at the ongoing World Chess Championship

Magnus Carlsen at the World Chess Championship.
Magnus Carlsen at the World Chess Championship. (AP)

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When the first five games of the ongoing World Chess Championship in Dubai between defending champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi ended in draws, even diehard aficionados despaired of seeing a clear winner emerging from the tournament. In this era of chess engines using vast computer databases and powerful artificial intelligence neural networks to prepare top grandmasters for the best moves to make in response to whatever the opponent does, it’s hard to force a win. Although they cannot use the chess engines during a game, their memorization of various lines of play ensures that even the seemingly bottomless permutations and combinations on a chess board rarely stump them. 

The last world chess championship in 2018 in London had a series of 12 draws before Carlsen finally beat Fabiano Caruana 3-0 in the tiebreak games which have less time allocated for moves than the classical format. Considering that there is a separate rapid chess world championship, it’s somewhat of a travesty to decide the classical one by the rapid format as well. But even the previous 2016 classic world championship between Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin was resolved in a rapid tiebreak, although in that instance Karjakin had won the 8th game and Carlsen had equalised in the 10th. 

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What makes it imperative to preserve the traditional format is that hardcore followers of chess don’t want errors in rapid tiebreaks to determine the winner at the highest level of the game. In keeping with that sentiment, the world chess federation, FIDE, extended the number of classic games from 12 to 14 for the 2021 edition to reduce such a likelihood. Still, the first five draws in Dubai made it 19 in a row for Carlsen at the world chess championship, counting the 12 against Caruana in 2018 and the last two against Karjakin in 2016.

Inevitably, it raised questions about the relevance of this format where each player gets two hours for the first 40 moves, one hour for the next 20, and a further 15 minutes during which there’s an increment of 30 seconds for each move. Carlsen made it clear at the press conference after the very first game that he would not be drawn into any discussion about the format. But he has stated publicly that time controls should be shortened to produce more results, because essentially chess is a balanced game that will end in a draw if no mistakes are made by both sides. And computerised preparation keeps reducing the likelihood of mistakes by the best players. 

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ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: To be fair, it was Carlsen who tried to force the issue in the first half of this championship by taking the road less travelled instead of the safest ones. In the first game itself, despite playing with black pieces, where white gets the initiative by moving first, Carlsen deviated from theory in the eighth move by moving his knight to the last column. At the opening stage, players generally keep knights at the centre of the board where they can control more squares. Carlsen’s deviation led to a tense end game which is his forte, but Nepomniachtchi, aka Nepo, played accurately to ensure a draw. 

Carlsen was even more adventurous in the second game with an opening requiring a pawn sacrifice. But just when he appeared to be gaining a positional advantage, he failed to spot a countermove on which he lost a rook for a knight. This left Nepo significantly stronger in resources. But after many ups and downs, the world champion managed to hold on for a draw. This pattern continued game after game, with Carlsen being the first to deviate from frequently-used lines of play. Belying his reputation of being a risk-taker, Nepo’s strategy appeared to be to avoid mistakes and wait for Carlsen to overreach, which could give him a chance to pounce. This did happen in Game 2, but Nepo missed opportunities to force a win. 

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No matter what variations he tried, the challenger’s solid preparation and composure under pressure gave Carlsen no clear path to a win. In Game 6, he traded his queen for two rooks, which is usually a drawn position because the rooks require coordination whereas the queen has a full range. But the Norwegian world champion, known for being a virtuoso in long end games where he wears down his opponent, kept on applying pressure for microscopic advantages. He traded a rook for a bishop and a pawn to break down Nepo’s fortress and create more complications. Finally, the Russian grandmaster’s patience wore thin. 

Nepo resigned after 136 moves, making it the longest game ever in world chess championships, beating the 124-move Game 5 between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi in 1978. “Seven hours, 45 minutes of peak concentration at the highest level of competition. Remember this… when they say classical chess is dead!” exclaimed the legendary Garry Kasparov.

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BREAKOUT PHASE: With Game 7 being played the same day as Game 6, which went past midnight in Dubai, both players were visibly fatigued and played out a facile draw. But the next day, which marked the start of the second half of the 14-game championship, showed it’s now in an exciting breakout phase. This time it was Nepo who made an unusual move, pushing his kingside rook’s pawn forward instead of castling as Carlsen had done. This made the world champion ponder for 40 minutes, being unprepared for this line of play. He then offered a queen exchange twice, tacitly reconciling to a draw and giving up the initiative of playing white. 

But Nepo was having none of that, wanting a chaotic game to get an opportunity for an equalizing win. In the process, however, he kept weakening his position, while Carlsen’s technical mastery went on tightening the squeeze like a boa constrictor. Unfortunately, Nepo made a fatal blunder on move 21, which gave Carlsen a chance to take an undefended pawn after giving a check to Nepo’s king. 

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The challenger dragged out the game to the bitter end, hoping against hope that an oversight from Carlsen would allow him to escape with a draw. But that was never likely to happen, and the world champion accepted Nepo’s gift to extend his lead. It was deja vu for former world champion Viswanathan Anand, commentating live on a YouTube channel, who rued the easy draws he had spurned in 2013 when Carlsen took the title from him in Chennai. It’s rarely a good idea to prolong a game where the opponent has an advantage, especially when the opponent is Carlsen. 

But for viewers of this classical chess drama, the situation couldn’t have panned out better at the halfway stage. Nepo has come out of his shell to press for wins to equalize, instead of waiting for Carlsen to falter. This in turn creates more opportunities for the world champion. It has ended the trend of draws at the championship, and that’s a good thing for the game.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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