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Reports Dec 10, 2021 | 3:54 PMby Colin McGourty

Magnus Carlsen wins 5th World Championship title

Magnus Carlsen remains World Chess Champion after beating Ian Nepomniachtchi in Dubai with a crushing 7.5:3.5 scoreline. Ian blundered in a drawish position, but our commentators felt it was deliberate or subconscious chess suicide, since a draw would have meant a mission impossible — the Russian needing to win all three of the remaining games. Magnus has now held the title since beating Vishy Anand in 2013, and he'll have spent a decade as the champ when he next has to defend his title in 2023. GOAT? “I think there’s still some way to go, but I’m not done with my chess career yet!”

You can replay all the games with computer analysis using the selector below. 

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And here’s the final day’s live commentary from Judit Polgar, Anish Giri and guest Grzegorz Gajewski…

…and from the Champions Chess Tour team of David Howell, Kaja Snare and Jovanka Houska.

And here’s Danny King’s analysis of the game that ended the match. 

Magnus Carlsen leaves the stage after winning the 2021 World Chess Championship | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

By Game 11 on Friday December 10th there was essentially no doubt left about who was going to win the World Chess Championship title, but if Ian Nepomniachtchi was going to mount one last heroic fightback it had to be now, with the white pieces. Our female stars on the ground in Dubai were hoping for a fight, with Tania sure we would see “one hot game!”

While Judit wanted Ian to unleash the hounds.

Anish Giri had a historical precedent that might work in Ian’s favour, at least for one game. When Vladimir Kramnik was in a similarly desperate situation against Vishy Anand back in the 2008 World Championship match, having lost three games early on, he did manage to score a consolation win before the end of the match.

The start of what would become the final game | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

Whether Ian still believed in his heart of hearts is something we can’t know, but he at least went through the motions, and for the first time in the match after playing 1.e4 he didn’t go for the Ruy Lopez and the Anti-Marshall, but picked 3.Bc4.

Once again, however, it was Team Magnus who sprung the first micro-surprise, with the rare 7…Ba7.

Nepo’s reply 8.Na3 was immediate, but after Magnus went for 8…h6, Ian sank into an 18-minute think before playing 9.Nc2. It quickly became obvious that this just wasn’t going to be his day.

So it was another success for Magnus Carlsen’s team, which the World Champion would reveal afterwards in a both fascinating and hilarious video from their Spanish training camp, where he introduces the team members from Peter Heine Nielsen (“the adult in the room”) onwards.

Magnus summed up at the post-game press conference:

I’d like to thank my team for doing an amazing job, both obviously to Peter, who is here, and to all of the others at different locations. For me I think everybody from the last match was there except for Nils Grandelius — sorry, Nils, for name-checking you there, you did a wonderful job in 2016 and 2018, though — and a couple of new people.

The one new person who is revealed in the video is 22-year-old Tata Steel Masters Champion Jorden van Foreest, though Daniil Dubov may count as a small surprise for anyone who thought he wouldn’t work for Magnus against a Russian challenger. 

Sergey Karjakin, on Team Nepomniachtchi along with Vladimir Potkin, Peter Leko and other seconds who helped Ian during the Candidates, clearly didn’t approve.

But in the west chess players don’t tend to be so nationalistic! 

The chess24 link is again strong, with Laurent Fressinet and Jan Gustafsson a key part of the team. Jan was credited as the 1…e5 and Marshall expert — with the video made long before it turned out the Anti-Marshall would feature in the first four games Magnus drew comfortably with the black pieces. Ian tired of hitting his head against that wall and switched openings, but it only led to two defeats. 

Magnus would explain in the post-game press conference:

I definitely played a lot more conservatively as Black than I did in the match against Fabi. With White I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was that conservative. I was at least trying some different lines, trying to play, but you can see overall a lot of my decisions, when push came to shove, skewed conservative, and I think with hindsight it worked pretty well. 

Jan’s post-match tweet, identical to in 2018, suggests that despite COVID he once again made it to his spiritual home in Thailand, which he persuaded Magnus was a good location based on the fact the team there could work during the day due to the time difference and then present their analysis for Magnus when he woke up in Dubai.

Once again it was Peter Heine Nielsen, who's now been on the winning team for an incredible eight World Chess Championships, who coordinated it all in Dubai, and saved up incriminating photos for the post-match reveals. 

How well the opening battles went for Magnus was highlighted by someone who would know, Polish Grandmaster Grzegorz Gajewski, a long-term second of former World Champion Vishy Anand. He discussed strategy with Anish Giri during Game 11.

Gajewski: I think the main problem for Nepomniachtchi is that his whole strategy failed. In terms of opening preparation I’m sure they were both well-prepared, but if you look at Magnus’s games with White, he was basically playing like a boxing champion. I try to hit you with a right, then I try with a left, I try my hook and then I try my jab. This didn’t work out, so I will try that, and he was taking some risks, but at the same time he was creating some chances, and he was looking for some weak spots, and eventually it worked. Whereas Nepo’s strategy was more or less, I have great preparation, I’m not going to take any risk, and try to hit me. Basically the message that they were sending… those are two entirely different messages. Magnus was saying, I’m better, and I just have to find a weak spot and I’m going to beat you, and Nepo was saying, yeah, you are better, but I’m well-prepared and I’ll do my best to hold on for 12 rounds. 

Giri: Makes a lot of sense, I totally agree. Don’t you think that’s the reality, though? 

Gajewski: It is, but also Nepo’s style just doesn’t suit this strategy.

Giri: That is probably true, there are players that are more comfortable with that strategy. 

Gajewski: Yes, for this reason Magnus was suffering, for instance, with Sergey. He knew he was better, but it’s very difficult to prove it if your opponent is well-prepared, and we all know how difficult it is to get any kind of advantage with today’s preparation. I think a better strategy for Nepo would be to look for some kind of position that would suit his style, more dynamic, maybe he shouldn’t necessarily have given up on the Sicilian Defence and the Grünfeld, but ok. It’s easy to say now, but he was much better in this game [Game 2] and then he was almost winning in the other one [Game 6]. Then we would have said, what a great strategy! 

There was space for all the discussion, since there was little to report on the board for the first half of Game 11. Objectively White had nothing, and when Magnus played 19…d5 it looked like we would be quickly liquidating into a draw, postponing the almost inevitable end of the match to Saturday. 

Ian wanted to keep things alive, however, and played the sharp 20.d4!?, when after 20…exd4 21.exd5 Magnus needed to find the only move 21…Re4!

After 22.Qc2 Rf4 there was nothing better than for Ian to allow trades down into a dead-drawn position, but instead, as in Games 8 and 9, he found a pawn push that lost the game almost on the spot — 23.g3?

This felt like chess suicide, comparable to how Veselin Topalov had lost the final game of his match against Vishy Anand in 2010, with Anish Giri sure that at least subconsciously Ian now just wanted to get things over with at the first opportunity.

It was another move to puzzle both the World Champion and observers | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

It was clear to the naked eye that the position after 23…dxe3! 24.gxf4 Qxg4+ was insanely dangerous for White, and in fact it was simply lost. Play continued 25.Kf1 Qh3+ 26.Kg1 and, with the players blitzing, it seemed the match was going to be over almost before any of us had had a chance to process what had happened.

Here Magnus could have played 26…exf2+!, when 27.Kxf2 just loses the queen to 27…Qh2+, while after 27.Qxf2 Black wins instantly with 27…Rd6! and the mating threat of Rg6+. Instead Magnus played 26…Nf6!? and ran into 27.d6!

If the unspoken aim was to end the match fast, this wasn’t the way for Ian to go, and with 27…Nh4!? 28.fxe3 Qg3+ 29.Kf1 Nf3 30.Qf2 Qh3+ he was left with prolonged agony.

There was nothing better than 31.Qg2 Qxg2+ 32.Kxg2 Nxe1+ 33.Rxe1 Rxd6 and suddenly Magnus was left with the task of winning a pawn-up rook endgame to clinch the match. It had some echoes of the 2013 World Championship match, when Magnus had first won the title by grinding out small advantages. Magnus lated noted the whole match recalled that one.

It’s the most similar with my first match against Anand, which was quite even and nervous at the start, and when I got my first win it was kind of the same story that it was relatively clean from there on out.    

Magnus has become a more rounded player since 2013, but his greatest strength has perhaps remained unchanged. 

I think in simple positions I make very, very few mistakes, and that helps, both in terms of tactical and positional things, and the few times that the position was very complicated we both made some mistakes, he made the last one, so I think that was maybe the main factor, that I was just playing better in relatively simple positions.

The final stages of the game and match | photo: Niki Riga, FIDE

Our commentators felt the huge computer evaluation in Black’s favour concealed that the position was much harder for a human to win… but Magnus made it look very easy.

His decision to go for a position with queen against rook raised some eyebrows…

…but Magnus knew exactly what he was doing, and went on to play the final moves with a precision that was so relentless it almost compelled Ian to resign.

Ian Nepomniachtchi resigns and congratulates Magnus Carlsen on retaining his title | photo: Niki Riga, FIDE

So the match was over and Magnus Carlsen could celebrate what will be a decade as World Champion before he’s next called upon to defend his title. After two incredibly close matches, he’d won his fifth with three games to spare after winning four games and losing none.

Of course there wasn’t the sheer exhilaration of winning on tiebreaks or after incredible tension, with Magnus telling Tania Sachdev immediately after the game.

I’m relieved, of course, and it’s hard to feel great joy when the situation was so comfortable to begin with, but I’m happy with a very good performance overall. 

He continued:

You can point at things he could have done differently in every game, of course, but overall I’m happy with my play, very proud of my effort in the 6th game, and that laid the foundation for everything. The final score is probably a bit more lopsided than it could have been, but that’s the way some of the other matches also could have gone if I’d gotten a lead.

Tania Sachdev interviews the winner | photo: Niki Riga, FIDE

How did this win compare to previous wins?

The last one is always in a way the sweetest, but I’m just happy to have won!

Magnus continued the theme in the post-game press conference, saying it was “a very good, professional performance overall, and I’ve just no regrets at all”. For Ian, meanwhile, there was still a struggle to come to terms with what had happened. He began:

First of all, it was a big experience, which alas I couldn’t get another way, in theory, reading about some other matches. Of course the outcome, I don’t think it’s anything close to what it was in the match, but some bad news and good news. The good news: it was nothing about chess, of course, at least almost nothing about chess…

Ian Nepomniachtchi kept his good humour in the post-game press conference | photo: Niki Riga

This was the recurring theme from Ian, who struggled to explain why he’d made the three terrible blunders he had after Game 6, saying “tension is not a reason to overlook some simple things you would never overlook in a blitz game”. He isn’t planning to do the post-mortem immediately.

For now I guess it would be more clever, more smart to take some time and have some rest, but of course these things that happened here, they never happened to me basically in any events. In my career I lost quite some stupid games, but not as many in a short time.

This, however, was perhaps where you could argue, since a clear weakness throughout Nepomniachtchi's career has been precisely his lack of stability, that he can suddenly play far below his usual level, as highlighted by both Magnus and Vishy Anand in the run-up to the match. Even in one of Ian’s best years, 2019, he raced to +3 in the Croatia Grand Chess Tour and then ended on 50% after losing three of the last six games. He then lost the last two games of the Sinquefield Cup after a streak of three wins had taken him to +2. It felt more like an Achilles’ heel being brutally punished at just the worst moment. 

Nevertheless, Ian has qualified for the 2022 Candidates Tournament, where he’ll be up against Teimour Radjabov, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Sergey Karjakin, Alireza Firouzja, Fabiano Caruana and two more players to qualify from the Grand Prix. If he manages to win again he’ll get a second shot at Magnus, most likely in early 2023.

Job done for Magnus | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

It’s going to be tough, however, and in Firouzja we have a force of nature who has the potential to power towards a World Championship match with the momentum of the young Mikhail Tal in the late 1950s. We speculated in our pre-match preview that Alireza Firouzja might have an impact on the match, and afterwards Magnus confirmed that was the case, with the 18-year-old in fact a key factor in motivating him. 

In Dubai it was a question of getting a job done — and making a 2023 Carlsen-Firouzja match a possibility — with Magnus not too concerned that his landslide victory had meant the excitement didn’t last long.

No, that’s fine by me! I think Game 6 was excellent and regardless of the quality of all the moves it was a great fight, and it just decided everything. That’s mainly what I’m taking away from an excitement perspective. Otherwise, I think at a certain point your best strategy can be just to wait, knowing that you have the lead, and just be very serious and solid, and that can sometimes be the best way to play for a win as well. 

One inevitable question was about Magnus Carlsen’s position in the chess pantheon. Has he now surpassed Garry Kasparov?

First of all, I don’t think it’s up to me to judge, and secondly, I think there’s still some way to go, but I’m not done with my chess career yet!

Magnus felt the one area he could have been better was in his physical preparation, which wasn't helped by catching a cold in the week or two before the match | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

Magnus has now won five World Championship matches, compared to Garry’s six, and at a rating of 2865 after the match (61 points ahead of 2nd place Firouzja) is again rated higher than Garry’s peak rating. Where Kasparov still holds the edge is having been the no. 1 for almost a decade longer. The 13th World Chess Champion himself commented.

Magnus of course got congratulations from around the chess world, and the celebrations are likely to be lively in Dubai, especially if the Closing Ceremony is only held on Sunday, which seems to be the plan.

What next? Well, the World Rapid and Blitz Championship has hastily been rearranged to take place in Warsaw, Poland from December 26-30 after COVID restrictions made holding it in Kazakhstan impossible. Magnus described his bid to gain the triple crown of classical, rapid and blitz World Champion as a way to celebrate his victory in the match.

He’s going to have plenty of players celebrating with him!

Magnus Carlsen will have been World Champion for approaching a decade when he next needs to defend his title in 2013 | photo: Eric Rosen, FIDE

We hope you enjoyed our coverage here at chess24 and will stick around for all the upcoming events!

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