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It’s All Gone To Hell For Ian Nepomniachtchi At The World Chess Championship

Russia's grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi and Norway's grandmaster Magnus Carlsen play game nice during the FIDE World Chess Championship Dubai 2021, at the Dubai Expo 2020 in the Gulf emirate, on December 7, 2021. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP) (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)
Giuseppe Cacace/Getty Images

Ian Nepomniachtchi entered Tuesday’s Game 9 of the World Chess Championship determined to shake himself out of his dire position. The Russian challenger had just cost himself Game 8 with a crippling blunder, and he wouldn’t have a clearer chance to put the pressure back on Magnus Carlsen than a game with the white pieces after a rest day. Nepo embraced change: He snipped off his signature bunlet, rolled up to the game with fellow Russian grandmaster and 2016 Carlsen challenger Sergey Karjakin, and opted for a somewhat unexpected English Opening. His strategy was clearly to try and force unfamiliar positions on Carlsen and hope he could out-fox him in the middlegame. Instead, he made yet another inexplicable error and all but killed off his chances of mounting a comeback for the World Championship.

Nepo’s English Opening led to an unforeseen position by just the fifth move, and the challenger succeeded in leveraging his preparation edge into a significant time advantage. He lost a bit of his edge when he declined a pawn sacrifice on the 15th move, and four moves later, Carlsen courted a tiny bit of controversy when he adjusted a piece without following proper etiquette (it involves saying something in French). A few moves later, Nepo pushed his light-square bishop forward, then promptly trapped the piece by playing 27.c5. This was an even more consequential mistake than Nepo’s dropped pawn from Game 8, and Carlsen forced the Russian to resign in short order. Trapping material like this is an elementary error, rarely seen at this level of chess. Immediately after Nepo made the move, commentary teams were shocked, and the computer’s victory bar dipped immediately from around 50-50 to show a decisive win for black. Carlsen shook his head in disbelief at the winning position he’d been gifted.

Carlsen now needs just 1.5 points from the next five games, three of which he’ll start with the white pieces. Nepo once again handled his defeat with grace, though it seems that the experience of losing a marathon Game 6, blundering away Game 8, then blundering again has worn him out. Defector senior chess correspondent Ben Tippett (and for that matter, Nepo himself) observed that the Game 8 mistake was the error of an exhausted player giving into tough circumstances. Commentators and observers have noted Nepo’s penchant for tilting through the course of long tournaments, and when he spoke to the press after the game, he sounded pretty drained. “I couldn’t imagine there is actually a way that exists to blunder in this position,” he said after the match. “Of course, this 27.c5, it’s even funny that there is a way to blunder this position in one move, but yeah, who could know?” He added, “There is a lot of work to do to understand why it’s going on like this.”

Carlsen called the circumstances of his win “pretty absurd,” adding, “It was a tough game in which I was under pressure both on the board and on the clock, and just to turn around like that was unexpected.” Even though today’s result essentially guaranteed the title for Carlsen, he also said winning Game 9 didn’t feel as good as winning Game 6, since he had to lathe out the win with painstaking care rather than lucking into one like he did today. The three wins across the first nine games of the tournament brings Carlsen’s lifetime record against Nepo up to 4-4, erasing one of the few lingering losing records Carlsen has against any opposition. Barring a meteor hitting Dubai, or chess being outlawed across the world, or Nepo simply becoming a computer (actually no, Carlsen would still probably be able to earn draws), his title defense is sewn up.