Carlsen vs. Nepomniachtchi: Decisive Encounters

Ian Nepomniachtchi goes into the match against Magnus Carlsen in Dubai as the last man standing with a plus score against the World Champion: an amazing 4:1 lead in decisive classical games. They’ve played just 13 games, however — before Carlsen-Caruana, 33 classical games had been played, with Magnus winning 10 to Fabi’s 5. Sean Marsh takes a look at the decisive encounters, two of which took place before Magnus was yet a teenager.

It is no longer a simple matter to collate and present the lifetime score for one player against another, due to the extraordinary array of different events and the myriad of formats and times on the clocks. 

A game of chess played at the classical discipline will always be more noteworthy in relation to a pre-title match analysis than anything played at the rapid or blitz level. After all, the two players are competing for the ultimate title and they need plenty of time to think.

The figures make for interesting reading, however. Nepomniachtchi leads Carlsen 4-1 in wins in classical games, with eight draws (replay all the games with computer analysis here).

  1. Nepomniachtchi 0-1 Carlsen, European Under-12, Peniscola, Spain, 3 October 2002
  2. Carlsen 1/2 Nepomniachtchi, World Under-12, Heraklion, Greece, 21 November 2002
  3. Nepomniachtchi 1-0 Carlsen, World Under-14, Halkidiki, Greece, 2 November 2003
  4. Carlsen 0-1 Nepomniachtchi, Tata Steel, Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, 26 January 2011
  5. Carlsen 1/2 Nepomniachtchi, Tal Memoriał, Moscow, Russia, 23 November 2011
  6. Nepomniachtchi 1/2 Carlsen, Tata Steel, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 19 January 2017
  7. Nepomniachtchi 1/2 Carlsen, Sinquefield Cup, St. Louis, USA, 10 August 2017
  8. Carlsen 0-1 Nepomniachtchi, London Chess Classic, London, UK, 10 December 2017
  9. Carlsen 1/2 Nepomniachtchi, Tata Steel, Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, 13 January 2019
  10. Nepomniachtchi 0-1 Carlsen, Croatia GCT, Zagreb, Croatia, 2 July 2019
  11. Carlsen 1/2 Nepomniachtchi, Sinquefield Cup, St. Louis, USA, 24 August, 2019
  12. Carlsen 1/2 Nepomniachtchi, Norway Chess, Stavanger, Norway, 10 September, 2021
  13. Nepomniachtchi 1/2 Carlsen, Norway Chess, Stavanger, Norway, 17 September, 2021

Yet the total score between the two players — taking into account rapid and blitz games, tells a very different story, with Carlsen currently leading 23-14 in wins, with 40 draws.They have been competing against each since 2002, with the first game played at the European Under-12 Championship. 

Nepomniachtchi beat Carlsen’s Alekhine Defence on that particular occasion, but neither player was triumphant in the tournament. The winner — finishing half a point above Nepomniachtchi — was Dmitry Andreikin.

Ian Nepomniachtchi 1-0 Magnus Carlsen (replay the game)

European Under-12 Championship, Peniscola, Spain, 2002

Carlsen now played an ambitious exchange sacrifice.

34…Rxd4 35.cxd4 c3 

However, after various inaccuracies, White ended up with a winning position. 1-041 moves.

Remarkably, their next decisive game brought another exchange sacrifice, on the same square.

Ian Nepomniachtchi 1-0 Magnus Carlsen (replay the game)

World Under-14 Championship, Halkidiki, Greece, 2003

32…Rxd4 33.Bxd4 Rxd4

In fact, we don’t have to wait too long to see the next exchange sacrifice, as both players got in on the act later in the same game.

38…Rxc4!? Perhaps worried by the impending knight invasion on d6, Carlsen heads for very unclear waters, and two bishops and extra pawns against two rooks.

It is well-known that one of the benefits of having a material advantage is to have the scope to sacrifice some of it to turn an unclear position into one with a clear-cut winning path, and Nepomniachtchi is quick to spot the opportunity to do so.

51.Rxd5! exd5 52.Kd4 Bd6 53.f5 1-0

At least two of Black’s pawns are doomed, and White’s king and rook will also assist the passed pawn on its journey to promotion.

Tata Steel 2011

Hikaru Nakamura won this event, despite losing to Carlsen. The World Champion was beaten by Nepomniachtchi on the white side of a Sicilian Najdorf.

Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi played a classical game again after an over 7-year gap… and Ian won! | photo: ChessVibes

This was the first “adult” classical game between the two players, and it’s interesting to read what Sergey Shipov, one of Ian’s early coaches, wrote at the start of his live commentary before the game began:

Today we’re going to watch the battle of two peers, two bright talents with varying fates. First it’s worth returning to the past. In junior competitions Magnus and Ian played each other and competed in tournaments on numerous occasions, and back then the advantage was on the side of the Russian. After that the Norwegian dramatically improved, got into the jet stream and rose to the very top of the chess world. 

Now Carlsen is stronger overall, despite the recent successes of Nepomniachtchi, but in a one-on-one encounter ratings, reputation and even the experience of participating in elite tournaments count for little. The bitterness of past defeats isn’t forgotten. Childhood experiences are the most vivid. 

Therefore, from a psychological point of view, Ian might be a very inconvenient opponent for Magnus. I don’t think that Nepomniachtchi fears Carlsen at all, in contrast to the majority of other chess players. Beating your former “client” out of habit – what could be simpler? Of course, the “client” has changed a little, but his first name and surname have remained the same… 

The words would prove prophetic.

Magnus Carlsen 0-1 Ian Nepomniachtchi (replay the game)

Tata Steel Masters, Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, 2011

Carlsen had turned down a draw by three-fold repetition earlier in the game. He was then outplayed, but once again sacrificed the exchange to muddy the waters.

44.Rxe4 fxe4 45.Qxe4+, with complications, but not enough to throw Nepomniachtchi off the scent of another victory. 0-166 moves.

Remarkably, after one more classical game in Moscow later that year, they wouldn’t play again for another six years, until battle resumed in 2017, with draws in Wijk aan Zee and Saint Louis. Then the stage moved to London. 

London Chess Classic, 2017

Magnus waits to be interviewed after losing to Nepo, as a young fan looks on | photo: Lennart Ootes

Carlsen’s loss to Nepomniachtchi led to the World Champion having to settle for a share of third place again, this time with Wesley So and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Nepomniachtchi shared first space with Fabiano Caruana, but lost the rapid tiebreaker match.

Magnus Carlsen 0-1 Ian Nepomniachtchi (Replay the game

London Chess Classic, 2017

Carlsen is a pawn ahead but both c4 and d4 are hanging. It is here where Carlsen starts to lose the thread of the game.

33.c5 Rxc5 34.dxc5 Qxa1+ 35.Kh2 Qxa5 36.Qc6?? 

Unfortunately he had to try 36.cxb6 Qxb6, which would have left Black a sound pawn up.

36…Qa4! and Nepomniachtchi wins material, followed by the game. 0-140 moves.

A tough day at the office as Magnus lost his 4th game without reply | photo: Lennart Ootes

GCT Croatia Tournament 2019

The World Champion was on fabulous form in Croatia, taking clear first place without losing a single game. Nepomniachtchi was two and a half points behind Carlsen and lost their individual encounter.

Magnus gets down to work | photo: Lennart Ootes

The World Champion finally got to work on reducing the 4-0 lead enjoyed by Nepomniachtchi in classical chess!

Ian Nepomniachtchi 0-1 Magnus Carlsen (Replay the game)

GCT Croatia, Zagreb, Croatia

The game was an enthralling strategic struggle, but essentially turned on one move. Magnus said he “got very excited” when the position began to open up around move 25, but right up until 27…f5!? it remained completely in the balance.

“If I’d thought for longer I wouldn’t have played f5, and the game would probably have been a draw”, said Magnus, who also called the move “a bit silly” and an accidental “bluff”. 

The point was that after 28.exf5! Magnus had just assumed he was winning, missing that after 28…Bd4+ 29.Kg2 Qe2+ the king could simply take refuge on h3. He’d actually missed even more, as he discovered during the post-game interview, since the king also wouldn’t get mated on h1.

It didn’t matter, however, since Nepomniachtchi took just a minute to blunder away the game with 28.gxf5??, when 28…g4!, a move crying out to be played, left White with no hope of surviving an assault on the dark squares around his king.

Yasser Seirawan said of the g4-move:

Magnus knows, once he sees that move, he’s got this game cold, and yet he just writes down the move, reaches for his pawn. Garry Kasparov would have gotten up from the board, done a backwards flip, come down on both feet and then rubbed the pawn onto the g4-square and let you know you’d just blundered and lost.

Nepomniachtchi is a brilliant tactician and realised what he’d done instantly, so that 29.d4 Qh4+ 30.Ke2 Qh2+ 31.Rf2 gxf3+ 0-1 was blitzed out.

Jan Gustafsson analysed that game at the time.

So Magnus had narrowed the score to a still gaping 4:1 in Ian’s favour. That would certainly weigh heavily upon the minds of club players but, as usual, statistics can be argued about in many ways (do we really count junior games, for example?) and it is unlikely to have much of an effect on the champion and the challenger during the match.

However, Nepomniachtchi clearly has no fear of Carlsen and, as shown by the snippets above, he clearly has the power to outplay the champion when the opportunities present themselves.

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