Magnus Carlsen has a 4:3 lead going into the second half of the FIDE World Chess Championship in Dubai after carefully dealing with some mild pressure from Ian Nepomniachtchi in Game 7. Magnus said, "I couldn't really sleep yesterday — I was way too excited!" after his victory in Game 6, while he wasn't surprised that Nepo didn't come out all guns blazing to try and bounce back. "You don't want to tilt after a day like yesterday", he told Tania Sachdev.
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Replay the day's live commentary and press conference with Judit Polgar and Anish Giri...
...or with our Challengers Chess Tour team of David Howell, Kaja Snare and Jovanka Houska.
And here's Danny King's video recap of the day's action.
This was very much the game after the night before, though in this case Game 6 had stretched into Saturday itself. Ian Nepomniachtchi would bring that up in the post-game press conference. After answering “absolutely not” to whether the previous loss had affected his choice of opening, he expanded:
By the way, it was quite a new experience to play two games on the same day. Somehow I thought that at the World Championship level it should be a little bit different than some open tournaments, but once we start that late it suddenly backfires, ending after dark.
Ian was referring to the decision to combine the long 7-hour time control with starting the games not at the traditional 15:00 but at 16:30 in Dubai. That was a decision the game’s governing body boasted off before the start, with FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky writing in a Russian post on his Facebook page when discussing the changes for this year’s match:
Starting at 16:30 Dubai time. I’ve written for a long time that the habit of starting at 15:00 local time, acquired in the last twenty years or so, doesn’t suit World Championship matches. It’s an event that should be followed all around the world. Therefore we’ve shifted the start of the games forward as much as possible. Keeping in mind the 7-hour time control, it was impossible to make it later.
The main advantage of the later time is that the games at least start at 07:30 in New York instead of 06:00, but as we saw, if a game lasts over 7.5 hours, as Game 6 did, it extends past midnight. It of course affected both players, with Magnus telling Tania after the game:
I couldn’t really sleep yesterday, I was just way too excited! But all the way today I was thinking, I’m tired, but it’s probably a lot worse for him.
Ian stated the obvious when he confirmed that it would have been easier to take if he’d got something out of the game. It was also clearly still weighing on him, as he summed up the match so far:
It’s not going too well, because I had quite some promising positions, I believe also yesterday. It was some kind of eclipse [black out] which prevented me from grabbing the b4-pawn twice in a row. Yesterday’s game was just kind of poor from both sides, especially during the time trouble.
While the scores had been level, the general feeling was that draws favoured the underdog, with the pressure growing on Magnus to try and break through. After his win, things had changed, but that wasn’t immediately obvious from Game 7.
Magnus had the black pieces, so he wore a dark suit, and when Ian again played 1.e4 and the Ruy Lopez, we once again got an Anti-Marshall, with Magnus repeating the 8…Rb8 he’d played in Game 5 and in the World Cup semi-final against Jan-Krzysztof Duda.
This time, however, it was Ian who got to spring the first new move, 11.d3 instead of 11.c3.
It was a rare position, and after 11…h6 12.Nc3 Re8 13.Nd5 there was only one predecessor, though it’s notable that the player who made the move previously didn’t recall it!
Ok, it was a rapid game, but it was also a relatively nondescript position, with Magnus once again showing a willingness to defend passively. He chose a setup that got the silicon stamp of approval, to the extent that as the moves were slowly played out Anish Giri wondered out loud if Magnus had everything prepared.
Magnus didn’t clarify afterwards if he was trying to remember, choose between things he remembered, or think over the board, explaining:
I was just trying to choose the way that I play, and there are some subtle differences between the choices. That was it, but in general I felt that it’s a position where it’s quite static and there’s not that much to fear.
Giri also pointed out that Game 6 appeared to have changed almost nothing.
Magnus wasn’t surprised:
I kind of expected him to play a bit carefully again today, seeing as you don’t want to tilt after a game like yesterday. I don’t know if it’s going to change very soon, but at some point obviously it has to.
To the question of when he was going to attack, Ian responded, “when the time comes!” The Russian commented, “I must say that I’m getting much more than I expected out of the opening”, and Magnus backed that up:
I would say it’s just hard in general to gain a big advantage, and you could look at it the other way as well. Ian is getting objectively slightly better positions from the opening, and how much more can you really expect, in a sense?
As you may have guessed from the discussion of strategy, there was little to report on the board. Both players pointed to the position where Ian took his longest think of the game, almost 18 minutes, after 19…Ng6.
Probably his only chance there at the end was to play 20.Rac1 instead of 20.Rec1, and then trade e4 for c7, and I thought he was a little bit better, but very, very little, and unrealistic that he can play for a win. I thought I’d gradually equalise there as well.
After 20.Rac1 Rxe4 21.Rxc7 the game would have gone on, and it feels very possible that Ian simply decided to go for the “inferior” 20.Rec1 to wrap things up quickly. After 20…c5! 21.e5 Qf5! there was no intrigue remaining.
The only surprise was how fast and efficiently the players then managed to trade everything off for a draw, beginning 22.dxc5 dxc5 23.Bxc5 Bxc5 24.Rxc5 Nxe5 25.Nxe5 Rxe5 26.Rxe5 Qxe5 and 27.Qc3 was the first non-capture, but was just played to remove the queens from the board as well.
All that remained was to cross move 40 when a draw could be agreed without the hassle of getting an arbiter to approve a draw by 3-fold repetition.
The players once again had a brief post-mortem afterwards at the board.
“It was a very, very balanced game and I believe it was just boring,” said Nepo, who isn’t in the business of sugar-coating things.
In the circumstances, however, it was a decent result for both players, who now have a chance to regroup before they play on Sunday in the last game before the rest day. Ian had avoided the fate of Vishy Anand, with Magnus commenting afterwards.
I obviously remembered my first match against Vishy where I broke through and won the 5th game, and then I managed to gradually equalise with Black in the 6th, and eventually win, so I was slightly hoping that we could follow a similar scenario, but a draw is obviously a very nice result as well.
“I think I’m in general mentally strong,” said Ian, who gave no signs of collapsing after his loss, though of course Magnus can be happier at the halfway point with a one-point lead.
Obviously with yesterday’s result it’s going pretty well, but it’s a long way to go, half the match still, but I’ve made my breakthrough, so the state is good.
It was almost as subdued a press conference as the game, but there were some sparks. Ian revealed what he does when he disappears to the room set aside for him during the games.
Sitting on the sofa, basically, and watching the screen! It reminded me of playing during the quarantine times. It’s very similar, you sit in front of your screen and you try to think, so maybe it’s even more familiar right now than playing regularly over the board.
Magnus was asked about the World Championship matches he would have wanted to watch. He replied:
It would be a close race. Probably Kasparov-Karpov from Seville, closely followed by Alekhine-Capablanca from Buenos Aires.
Those were awesome! Very tightly contested with great ideas between clearly the best players of their time.
It was surely unintentional, but that reply highlighted the fact that the current match, as is often the case, isn’t a match between two players with that status. Nevertheless, Ian has shown, even in the game he lost, that he can both match and inflict damage on Magnus, so that there’s still everything to play for.
On Sunday we cross into the second half of the match, with Magnus playing with the white pieces and no doubt eyeing the chance to take a commanding lead before his opponent has time to reset on the rest day.
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