GM Magnus Carlsen won the 2021 FIDE World Chess Championship on Friday after beating GM Ian Nepomniachtchi with the black pieces. The challenger made another big blunder and lost his fourth game in the match. The final score is 7.5-3.5 in favor of Carlsen, who won 1.2 million euros; the challenger won 800,000 euros.
“It’s sad; we know what he’s capable of and he didn’t get to show the world in this match,” said GM Robert Hess during the Chess.com broadcast today. The American grandmaster and commentator expressed what seems to be the general feeling in the chess world: that Nepomniachtchi’s painful collapse after game six did not reflect the high level that he had shown in the first half of this championship or at the Candidates Tournament.
At the same time, there was no doubt who the better player was as Carlsen convincingly clinched his fifth title match. “Obviously he couldn’t, at some point, show his best chess which is a pity for the excitement in the match but I think that’s what happens sometimes when you get in a difficult situation,” said Carlsen himself. “All of that preparation, everything doesn’t necessarily help if you can’t cope at the moment.”
The Norwegian superstar has now won one more match than the first champion Wilhelm Steinitz and the fourth champion Alexander Alekhine did. If we include ties, only two former world champions managed to win six matches: second world champion Emanuel Lasker and 13th world champion Garry Kasparov. The latter’s win against GM Nigel Short in 1993 was the last time someone won a match with a margin bigger than three points.
The 11th and final game of the match was anticlimactic, twice. For starters, Nepomniachtchi didn’t try very hard with the white pieces in what seemed to be his last serious chance to score a win. And secondly, there was a new blunder, which meant we wouldn’t get to see a game on Saturday.
For the first time, Nepomniachtchi played the Italian, a choice that made sense. GM Fabiano Caruana thought it could have been a “spur of the moment decision” but also considered the opening “maybe even more challenging these days” than the Spanish that we had seen before, with the bonus advantage that it avoids many forcing lines.
Carlsen responded with healthy and logical moves, and early in the game, the Chess.com commentators felt that Nepomniachtchi wasn’t playing the critical moves in order to fight for an advantage. For starters, 13.Bb5 is more ambitious than 13.Bxe6 in the game, and even more surprising was Nepo’s 20th move.
Why is he playing so quickly, I don’t get it.
It was also possible that after the moves 20…exd4 21.exd5 Re4 22.Qc2 Nepomniachtchi missed the move 22…Rf4, but if that was the case, this was the result of not spending enough time calculating variations until the end, Caruana argued.
This brings us to something that might have been a key factor in Nepo’s loss, apart from the tactical blunders: playing fast, maybe too fast—a known weakness he wasn’t able to fix before this match.
Carlsen’s total thinking time in this match was 21 hours and 38 minutes vs. 19 hours and 47 minutes for Nepo. On average, Carlsen spent two minutes and 17 seconds on a move; Nepomniachtchi two minutes and five seconds, over a total of 568 moves.
Ironically, Nepomniachtchi thought for nine and a half minutes before his blunder.
Here, he went 23.g3?? based on 23…fxe3 24.gxf4 exf2+ 25.Qxf2 and White is OK, but he didn’t expect the immediate 24…Qxg4+! instead. In their commentary, both top GMs Caruana and Anish Giri suggested that Nepomniachtchi had played 23.g3 as a way of resigning the match.
Carlsen, whose right armrest had broken off just before all this happened, reacted visibly surprised once again. He was instantly winning thanks to an exchange sacrifice that started an attack on the white king with tempo.
Hess: “It just feels like it was gift-wrapped to Magnus and that’s not how I ever want to remember any sort of chess event.”
“It’s hard to score more points when you make such a little bit weird moves which you probably wouldn’t even consider in blitz,” Nepomniachtchi would later say about what was his third major blunder in this match, and the one that closed it.
While the organizers didn’t gamble disturbing the world champion and decided against bringing a new chair immediately, Carlsen didn’t stumble in the remainder with just one armrest attached to the chair. Although he did miss one or two quicker “computer wins,” thereby making this fourth victory perhaps his least accurate game, he never let go of the win and converted in an instructive rook endgame.
Our Game of the Day annotator GM Sam Shankland looked back as follows: “It really felt like two matches were played. Nepo A played match one, and in my opinion, Nepo A is the second-best player in the world. Nepo B showed up for match two, and that was a farce. I really think if he can manage to consistently bring Nepo A to the board, he can be very ambitious about playing in another world championship match and giving Magnus a better fight someday.”
I think it was just a very good professional performance overall and I have just no regret at all.
The world champion’s view of the match is similar to that of Shankland in that it can easily be split into two different ones: “After five games there were five draws and I had very few chances to play for anything more,” said Carlsen. “Then, everything kind of clicked and then I think after that it all went my way. You don’t expect to necessarily run away with it in a world championship.”
Nepomniachtchi called it a “big experience” to have played the match and one that can only be experienced with actually playing it. He felt that his loss had “almost nothing to do with chess,” as he explained: “The match, of course, consists of many aspects, I mean, it’s not only chess preparation [but also] physical, psychological. Of course, it’s extremely tense, a little tenser than I expected but anyway the tension is not [an excuse] to overlook some simple things you would never overlook in a blitz game. Well, what can I say, I should find out why did it happen and improve.”
The key game was the sixth, a heroic and historic fight that could have gone either way but in the end, Carlsen won the longest-ever game in world championship history and took the lead in the match, after which Nepomniachtchi was a shadow of himself.
Carlsen: “I think game six was excellent and regardless of the quality of all the moves it was a great fight and yeah, I guess it just decided everything. So, that’s mainly what I’m taking away from an exciting perspective.”
Apart from that turning point in the match, Carlsen thought he also played more accurate chess: “I think in simple positions I make very few mistakes and that helps like both in terms of tactical and positional things. The few times that the position was very complicated we both made some mistakes but he made the last one. So I think that was maybe the main factor that I was just playing better in relatively simple positions.”
Just after the game and before the press conference, Nepomniachtchi commented on his opponent’s match strategy in an interview with Chess.com’s FM Mike Klein: “I was really puzzled with the strategy from my opponent because he never actually tried to press, he never actually tried to play for something real, I mean, he was only trying to equalize every position, doesn’t matter if it was the black or white pieces, but sometimes it looks like it’s [enough to] not to blunder and wait until your opponent does that job.”
He never actually tried to press, he never actually tried to play for something real.”
When hearing about this, Carlsen said: “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.”
Carlsen agreed that he played more conservatively than three years ago: “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.”
Dubai has been good for Carlsen. He gained the grandmaster title there in 2004, then won both the world rapid and blitz in 2014 and now the classical championship. Dubai was also mentioned as a possible location for this year’s world rapid and blitz (Dec. 26-30) after Kazakhstan had to withdraw, but in the end, it became Warsaw, Poland. Carlsen, who just defended his classical title successfully, will be playing and trying to retain all three titles before the end of the year.
One journalist reminded Carlsen of a tweet that he sent after winning Sochi 2014 (his second match vs. GM Vishy Anand) that went “two down, five to go,” which seemed to imply he wanted to become the player in history with the most match wins. Asked if he still feels that way, Carlsen somewhat mysteriously answered: “We’ll see.”
The world champion also gave a puzzling answer to the question of whether he expects to eventually let go of his title on his own terms or by losing to a new challenger. “First of all, that’s a very good question. I cannot answer it right now.” Was Carlsen hinting at perhaps not playing a new match? Probably not, although it wouldn’t be the first time he put his participation in doubt.
Especially if GM Alireza Firouzja wins the 2022 Candidates, it’s hard to believe Carlsen wouldn’t want to play his next match, tentatively scheduled for early 2023. One reporter asked him what he thought of the French-Iranian prodigy, and Carlsen said: “I have to say I was really really impressed with his performance in the Grand Swiss and in the European Team Championship and I would say that motivated me more than anything else.”