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Reports Nov 27, 2021 | 5:04 PMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen-Nepo 2: Magnus blunders but survives

Magnus Carlsen unleashed what Anish Giri described as "very cool prep" against Ian Nepomniachtchi in Game 2 of the FIDE World Chess Championship match, but just when he looked to have real winning chances, he slipped. Ian Nepomniachtchi was suddenly in his element, playing fast, dangerous moves as Magnus was balancing on the brink of a 5th classical loss to Nepo. There was another twist, however, as Magnus stabilised and was the only one playing for a win before reaching a 58-move draw.

A fitting stage for a fantastic battle, but in the end both players could breathe a sigh of relief after Game 2 ended in a draw | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

Replay the games with computer analysis by clicking on a result below.

Replay the day's live commentary from Judit Polgar and Anish Giri...

...and from David Howell, Kaja Snare and Jovanka Houska.

And here's Danny King's recap of Game 2.

“Worst game ever played in a World Championship match,” was Ian Nepomniachtchi’s opening gambit caught by microphones in the playing hall in the immediate aftermath of Game 2 in Dubai. That was by no means a fair assessment, however, with Ian himself having revised his opinion before the press conference.

In general I think it was a very puzzling game, and I would say that during the game I thought we both are playing not so well, but now I started thinking that, ok, it was just very interesting and very chaotic!

Up to a point, everything was going the way of World Champion Magnus Carlsen. In a video filmed at their Spanish training camp, head coach Peter Heine Nielsen explained the task of the grandmasters helping Magnus prepare for the match.

In very short, our job is to create an opening database for Magnus to use in the World Championship match. The head of the team is Magnus. Magnus gives us some directions where we want to go and we try to fulfil these kind of wishes. Here you’re up against someone who’s probably also spent half a year together with a team. We have so much time that we have to create this big puzzle of options and such. 

Our assumption is just that Magnus is the best player in the World, and it’s not our job to win games. If we are the underdog we might try such, but we think Magnus is the best player in the world, even by quite some margin, so we more have to neutralise and make sure he gets in territory where he can show he’s the best player. Our role is to make sure Magnus gets the ability to show he’s the best player in the world. So we shouldn’t make mistakes, we shouldn’t get him into deep trouble, but to have brilliant preparation for him to win — we don’t see it as a necessity.

So far, however, we’re two games into the match and in both of them Magnus has come up with the first fresh idea. In Game 2 he even surprised our commentator Anish Giri, though the Dutchman wouldn’t admit defeat so easily. 

Instead of the Grünfeld we got the Catalan, with Ian going for a fashionable line with 7…b5.

This was still very familiar territory for Magnus, who had used the move himself to score a “special” win over Ding Liren in Croatia in 2019. Back then, after crossing 2880 on the live rating list, he revealed that the novelty he played was leftover preparation from the 2018 World Championship match against Fabiano Caruana.

Ding had played the standard response, 8.a4, but now Magnus went for 8.Ne5!? It wasn’t an entirely new move and had even been seen in the recent FIDE Grand Swiss tournament, but Egypt’s Ahmed Adly, by far the highest-rated player ever to employ it, spent 17 minutes at the board before going for it and got nothing against Maxim Matlakov before that game eventually ended in a draw. If Magnus was blitzing it out in a World Championship match it meant a different level of menace entirely!

The players said of the move afterwards:

Ian: 8.Ne5 is more or less not the most popular move, but I think it was a very nice idea behind it, so I really had a tough time facing this over the board.

Magnus: 7…b5 is one of the lines that a lot of people play now, so it was not surprising, but what can I say, obviously as Ian said, 8.Ne5 was a bit unusual and it leads to a lot sharper play than the normal lines. 

Ian took half an hour on his next three moves, and you could cut the tension in the venue with a knife.

Soon we would get a theme of the game, a knight on the 6th rank on the d-file. Such knights have different names...

Magnus himself took a 15-minute think, which was perhaps the first glimmer of hope for Ian, though the move that followed was the best in the position — the 14.e5! referred to by Nigel.

The conventional wisdom is that the challenger is at his most vulnerable early on in the World Championship match, before he’s managed fully to adapt to the immense pressure on the players. That makes it a good time for the champion to strike, and Magnus looked to be doing everything right as play continued 14…Bb7 15.exf6 Bxf6 16.Ne4 Na6. Around about this time Ian later commented, “I had some slight hope that I'm not going to be crushed”.

It was a tough start to the game for Ian | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

The two games so far have been jam-packed with twists and turns, however, and we suddenly got a huge one, when Magnus went for 17.Ne5?

Magnus would admit immediately after the game that he’d just blundered, saying, “I didn’t intend to sac quite as much material as I actually did!”

Nepo had instantly come to the same conclusion during the game.

Magnus had seen Black’s first move, which as Giri pointed out was strictly the only option, 17…Bxe5, but after 18.dxe5 he’d overlooked something critical. 

18…Nac5! came as a very cold shower. He said at the press conference:

I kind of missed his last move there, 18…Nac5. I actually thought I was doing well. I was mainly focusing on other tries, for instance 18…Nab4, and then I get to install my knight on d6 and I’m doing well, but somehow the move Nc5 had just completely escaped my attention, so that was a pretty unpleasant surprise.

It would go from bad to worse for Magnus after 19.Nd6 (still the best try) 19…Nb3.

Here the computers still felt White was more or less ok after 20.Be3!, but Magnus went for 20.Rb1. Nepo echoed our silicon friends:

I thought, wow, suddenly it’s getting very nice for Black, and probably 20.Rb1 was a little too much. Be3 was called for to keep things under control.

Magnus had been forced to change track completely, saying of his exchange “sacrifice”:

I did take some solace in the fact that you usually need to work pretty hard to win such positions as Black, and I thought I had at least reasonable counterchances, but it wasn’t intentional. 

The move in the game at least achieved the objective of getting rid of the knight on d3, with 20…Nbxc1 21.Rbxc1 Nxc1 22.Rxc1 Rab8 following. Nepo was playing fast and well.

After 23.Rd1 Ba8 (23…bxa4 is very strong according to the computer) Nepo felt he was a couple of moves away from being completely winning, but he was rocked by the start of a fightback with 24.Be4!?

Nepo later commented:

I should give huge credit to Magnus, because he just played in a very interesting way. This 24.Be4 was a very nice resource, and actually it started to look really double-edged.

You couldn't take your eyes off the game | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

The threat of taking on h7 wasn’t subtle, but it was much less clear if it was real. Nepo decided not to take any chances and went for a pawn sacrifice which shocked the chess world, not least because it saw the computer’s evaluation plummet back down to 0.00.

Ian later described it as “a little bit a human reaction, to make sure I’m not going to get mated”, and the point was brilliant: after 25.bxc3 bxa4 the sacrifice 26.Bxh7+ Kxh7 27.Qh5+ Kg8 and swinging the rook over with 28.Rd4 doesn’t work as the b-file is open and Black wins with Rb1+ and c5+. 

The issue with the move, however, was that it was unnecessary, since after e.g. 24…bxa4 25.Bxh7+ Kxh7 26.Qh5+ Kg8 27.Rd4 Qe7 28.Rh4 Black would in fact still be on top, but you had to have foreseen a queen sacrifice. 

28…Qxh4! is strictly the only move to save the game, but it leaves Black well on top. We know Magnus had spotted that idea, since he pointed it out to Nepo immediately after the game in their post-mortem in the playing hall. 

The danger still hadn’t passed for Magnus, however, since after 25.Qc2 g6 26.bxc3 (26.Qxc3 seems to be better) there was a last chance for Ian to stake a claim for victory. 

26…Qg7! 27.f4 g5! was the tricky try that Ian said he was told about on the way from the venue to the press conference. It was the kind of move you could imagine such a tactical beast as Nepo playing, but it’s impossible not to miss things in such a game, as 1993 World Championship challenger Nigel Short reminded us. 

After 26…bxa4 27.Qxa4 instead White’s position had stabilised, with Nepo essentially having jettisoned the c3-pawn for nothing. Magnus still found himself an exchange down, with a knight for his opponent’s rook, but it was a wonderful knight. As the 13th World Champion described it.

Or to put things slightly differently…

Suddenly, as in Game 1, it looked as though Magnus might put all the chaos and ups and downs behind him and take over. He was finding stylish solutions, with his king going on a short walk from g1 to h3. 

The immediate goal now looked to be to reach the time control on move 40 with the same tension in the position, when Magnus could regroup and set about trying to torture his opponent.

As in Game 1, however, Magnus, down to his last few minutes, was unable to pose any problems, with 37.Qg4 essentially an admission that it was going to be a draw.

Nepo seized his chance to eliminate the knight by giving back the exchange with 37…Rxd6! 38.exd6 Qxd6, and when Magnus forced things further with 39.c5 Qxc5 40.Qxe6+ Kg7 we’d reached move 40. The players got an extra hour on their clocks and could afford to leave the battleground. 

Magnus later explained:

I didn’t feel that I had any great chances per se. I did feel that my position was improving quite a bit, but when I for this Qg4 my time was ticking down and I couldn’t really see a way to comfortably improve my position, and that’s why I decided to basically force a draw there, which was probably the best position I had in the game. I just didn’t really see the way, and obviously after what had transpired earlier in the game having a completely safe position was nice, but obviously if this had been a must-win game then I might have treated it a bit differently. 

It was mainly about survival for Magnus in Game 2 | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

In Magnus’ defence, 37.Qg4 was the computer’s first choice, while in most other lines Black also gets to exchange a rook for White's knight. The game entered its final stage after 42.f4.

42…Qf5+ 43.Qxf5 Rxf5 was a drawn rook endgame, where the extra pawn gave Magnus only a nominal advantage. The only risk was that Ian might play a little too automatically and miss some nuance, but although Anish Giri felt the challenger was slightly inaccurate at one point the game did indeed fizzle out into a draw. The final stages had given the players and fans a chance to calm down after an absolute thriller. 

That meant the score was level at 1:1.

It had been an intriguing start to the match, with Magnus struggling to describe it.

It’s very hard to say so far, because the games, they’ve been, for lack of a better word, they’ve been a bit atypical for both of us.

Asked to expand on that later, he could only add:

I would just say that the games are not following any specific pattern and they’ve frankly been different from what I’ve seen before, and I don’t think there’s a clear pattern of what anybody’s trying to do. It’s just a fight, but we’ll see eventually if the match will settle down a bit.

Ian Nepomniachtchi is looking pretty comfortable playing a World Championship match | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

One thing that’s been consistent so far is Magnus getting the one real laugh of the post-game press conference. Asked if they’d be watching Anand, Giri or Caruana commentating if they weren’t playing the match, Nepo replied:

Since I did some commentary for the previous match it probably should be my commentary. 

Good answer, but then Magnus brought the press conference to a close, after some reflection.

The World Champion could be satisfied with a day when he’d survived some very scary moments, though he’d also spoilt an opening surprise that had given him almost everything he could have wanted. Mood?

In previous World Championship matches the players would now be settling in to a well-earned rest day, but this time round they have to play a 3rd game in a row before resting on Monday. Ian Nepomniachtchi will be back with the white pieces, and we’ll get to see if his team feels ready to take on Magnus’ Marshall again…

Though of course there’s no guarantee that Magnus would go for the same line either!

Don't miss Sunday's Game 3, right here on chess24 from 16:30 local time (7:30 ET, 13:30 CET)! 

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