Carlsen-Nepo, 1: Fierce battle ends in draw

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen looked to be taking over in a tense first game of the FIDE World Chess Championship in Dubai, but just when it seemed Ian Nepomniachtchi might be in for a long evening of suffering the game fizzled out into a 45-move draw. Both players could take positives from a contest in which Magnus came well-prepared in the opening with the black pieces, but Ian dug in and held a draw when required.

Replay Game 1 of the FIDE World Championship match in Dubai (for computer analysis check out our broadcast page).

1. e4
2. ♘f3
3. ♗b5
4. ♗a4
5. O-O
6. ♖e1
7. ♗b3
8. h3
9. ♘xe5
10. axb3
11. d3
12. exd5
13. ♕f3
14. ♔f1
15. ♕xd5
16. ♗d2
17. ♘f3
18. ♘c3
19. ♖ec1
20. ♘e2
21. ♗e3
22. ♗f4
23. gxf3
24. ♘xf4
25. ♖e1
26. c3
27. ♖e3
28. ♘g2
29. ♖e5
30. ♘e1
31. ♖e4
32. ♖e3
33. ♘g2
34. ♔e2
35. ♔d2
36. bxc3
37. ♔c2
38. h4
39. ♖ee1
40. ♘e3
41. ♘c4
42. ♘e5
43. ♘c4
44. ♘e5
45. ♘c4

And here’s Danny King’s video summary of the first day’s action.

You can also replay the live commentary here on chess24, either with Judit Polgar and Anish Giri…

…or David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare. 

There’s nothing as intense in chess as the World Championship match, and, until the match reaches its climax, nothing as nerve-wracking as the first game after the months of preparation and anticipation. The players face three weeks locked in combat behind a glass screen, with Tania Sachdev giving us a guided tour of the venue within the Dubai Expo 2020.

All we needed were the players, who arrived by car with their main coaches and support network.

For once there was no Woody Harrelson making the ceremonial first move. Instead the familiar chess figure of FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich did the honours by playing 1.e4, with Ian Nepomniachtchi allowing the pawn to remain there when the clocks were finally started. Anish Giri half-joked that given the nerves of a World Championship match you don’t want to take the risk of letting the celebrity make another move… just in case you’re suddenly forced to keep it on the board!

Ian commented in the post-game press conference:

Indeed you are normally very nervous until the thing starts, and once the first move has been made there is no more space, no more place, and not a good moment to be nervous. You’ve got to start playing and that’s particularly what I do from childhood. Playing chess.

The question was how the game would develop, and Anish had called it.

The brain was right, as Ian followed 2.Nf3 Nc6 with 3.Bb5, the Spanish, rather than 3.Bc4, the Italian.

Magnus chose the classical 3…a6 rather than the dreaded Berlin Defence of 3…Nf6. Then later with 7…0-0 Magnus was inviting the Marshall Attack, a pawn sacrifice line that’s considered solid but demands a huge amount of knowledge.

One of the world’s foremost experts is chess24’s own Jan Gustafsson, who has worked with Magnus for past World Championships, and the question of who was on Team Magnus this time round provided the comedy at the post-game press conference. Magnus commented.

It’s funny you should mention that you’re from a Danish chess magazine, because I can reveal a big secret that my chief trainer is actually Danish.

It’s absolutely no secret that Peter Heine Nielsen is Carlsen’s coach, or does he have a new coach this time round?

The same journalist then continued, referring to Jan, with the question, “the opening choice suggests a German is also involved on the team?” Magnus responded:

You may speculate as much as you want. I think that’s half the fun of being a journalist at a World Championship match!

In any case, Ian dodged the Marshall (8.c3 d5) with the move 8.h3, which was already a mild surprise to Anish Giri. Ian had never played it as an adult, but there was a link, since Ian’s coach Vladimir Potkin had been the second of Sergey Karjakin when he twice went for the move against Magnus in the 2016 World Championship match in New York. 

It was the next move that really announced the 2021 World Championship match had begun: 8…Na5!?

Black offers up the pawn on e5 in exchange for removing the bishop on b3 from the board. A bold concept, and one that had never been seen at the highest level in human games. Had Magnus managed to surprise his opponent?

For a couple of minutes it looked possible, but then 9.Nxe5! was played and the following moves came at breakneck pace. Anish later checked and confirmed that the move 8…Na5 was simply the first choice of the neural network Leela Chess Zero, and Ian would confirm at the press conference, answering in Russian:

I was familiar with it, but it’s not enough to be familiar, you also need to pose problems. 

We quickly saw 9…Nxb3 10.axb3 Bb7 11.d3 d5 12.exd5 Qxd5 13.Qf3 Bd6.

Here, just as fast, came a move you couldn’t make quickly unless you knew exactly what you were doing, 14.Kf1! The point is that if, for instance, you played the otherwise desirable 14.Nc3? you would run into 14…Qxe5!, and 15.Qxb7 isn’t an option since 15…Qxe1# is checkmate. 

Here, Magnus did the same trick and defended the undefended bishop with 14…Rfb8!, but there was a moment of panic for Carlsen fans as the live board malfunctioned and showed the move 14…Rfc8? instead.

It was soon corrected, and although Ian spent over 7 minutes on his next move, Anish felt he looked a lot calmer than Fabiano Caruana had in Game 1 of the 2018 World Championship match.

There was good reason, as we found out afterwards, since Ian confirmed he’d also prepared for Carlsen’s move. It was only after 16…c5 that both players slowed down. Nepo played the very human-looking move 17.Nf3, but it turned out 17.Nc3 had been the choice of our silicon frenemies.

Magnus took his first long think of the game — had he forgotten the analysis done by his team, or was he trying to work out what the knight move changed?

It was a strange position where neither player had a clear path. Ian commented that, “it’s very hard to prove something with White… but I felt maybe I can slowly build up something in the centre”. Magnus noted:

I didn’t particularly mind the position that I got. The opening that I played is not one you can afford to play if you’re not fine being down a pawn with the bishop pair. But after that it does in general feel like White has a little bit more potential to manoeuvre, and Black usually has to react a bit more. 

Giri discerned Magnus Carlsen’s secret for looking like a player who doesn’t make serious mistakes.

The slow-manoeuvring phase with mysterious rook and knight moves ended with 22.Bf4!?

It seems Ian should have gone for Giri’s suggestion of 22.d4 or a knight move, since he later commented:

I guess this Bf4 idea is logical, just to trade away a pair of bishops, but it doesn’t work due to some positional and tactical reasons, so basically after I let these exchanges happen I could never really hope for more than a draw.

Magnus gave up the pride and joy of his position, the bishop pair, with 22…Bxf3 23.gxf3 Bxf4 24.Nxf4, but explained:

Giving up the bishop pair to some extent looks very counter-intuitive, but I thought that I would still have reasonable compensation with his weakened pawn structure and relatively passive pieces. In the game I was at least half-vindicated.

Anish correctly predicted the follow-up 24…Rc6, and made the point that in the opening in general Magnus was playing the man and not the position. The Dutch no. 1 felt Magnus wouldn’t have tried such an opening against a player like Wesley So, who would have relished the technical task of trying to exploit the advantage. 

After 25.Re1 Nf5 26.c3 everything seemed to be going perfectly for Magnus.

Magnus for one move lived up to that praise with 26…Nh4!, but after 27.Re3 it seems Magnus missed a trick. 27…g6!, giving the knight an outpost on f5, seems to win a pawn almost by force, with Rf6 to follow. 27…Kf8!? was the kind of move that led Magnus afterwards to describe his play as “a little bit shaky at times”.

28.Ng2! swung the game in Nepo’s favour again, but not for long. The culprit seems to have been 30.Ne1!? a move that perhaps came from a new approach Ian has been taking. Asked if his opponent had changed his style, Magnus commented:

I think Ian was already quite a bit more solid in the Candidates and this, I guess, was a continuation of that, but overall he’s just a very good player. 

It took a body-language expert to reveal how Magnus saw the knight retreat, and luckily we had one on hand.  

It was passive-aggressive play from Ian, as he then followed 30…Ng7 with 31.Re4?!, a move that experts felt was clever, but flawed, since it ran into 31…f5! 32.Re3 Ne6 33.Ng2 b4!

Black’s plan is Rb8, taking on c3 and winning the b3-pawn. Magnus seemed to be taking over, again, and the grandmaster observers were in unison on the kind of position we had on the board. 

Magnus wasn’t getting carried away, however. He explained:

I was happy to find this idea with b4, but I knew that if he remained prudent there and just brought his king over the chances of winning the game were not realistic.

Ian took the correct decision to sacrifice the pawn and run with his king with 34.Ke2! Rb8 35.Kd2 bxc3+ 36.bxc3 Rxb3 37.Kc2, though after 37…Rb7 38.h4 the position remained very tricky, as Grandmaster Erwin l’Ami spotted.

White would by no means be obliged to take the a-pawn, but Black’s advantage would have increased. Instead, however, it was another trick that Magnus regretted after the game. Play continued 38…Kf7!? 39.Ree1 Kf6 40.Ne3

This looked like the moment Nepo could breathe a sigh of relief after a worrying period of play, with the knight finally returning to the centre of the board and a full hour added to his clock. Magnus himself had around 10 minutes, but told Tania Sachdev afterwards that his 40th move had been a mistake.

I made a bit of a blunder with 40…Rd7!?. I should have played 40…Nf4, but I didn’t want that because of 41.Ra4, but then 41…Rb2+ wins, so that was a bit poor. I thought at the end maybe he could try and play, but I think realistically it’s pretty far from winning.

The point of the 41…Rb2+! Magnus referred to was that after 42.Kxb2 Nxd3+ Black is winning. 

Instead in the game after 41.Nc4 Re7 Ian accepted the silently offered draw by repeating moves. Giri felt the challenger could have enjoyed the moment by delaying and playing hard to get, but Ian wasted no time. After 45 moves it was all over.

It had been a tense, hard-fought game with good and bad moves by both players. Our commentators summed up.

Anish expanded on that.

That was echoed in the press conference by both players expressing relative satisfaction with how things had gone. Ian had survived his first World Championship game intact and looked confident, but he expressed the logic of the starting colour in chess. 

I feel like you feel after a draw with the white pieces. That’s quite a usual result nowadays, but still obviously you want more. 

Magnus now has 7 Whites to go compared to Ian’s 6, but the match is only just getting started.


p class=”p1″>On Saturday we’ll get an idea what Magnus has planned with the white pieces, and what Ian might do to counter it. The players then play on Sunday as well, since for this match the number of rest days has been cut. 

Don’t miss all the action right here on chess24 from 16:30 local time (7:30 ET, 13:30 CET)! 

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