Carlsen-Nepo 4: No birthday gifts for Magnus

Magnus Carlsen’s 31st birthday started promisingly as he once again came up with a new idea against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the opening, but the Russian lived up to his pre-game promise not to give the World Champion any gifts as he turned out to know exactly what he was doing. Magnus began to burn up time as he looked for a winning plan, but in the end he forced a draw by repetition when it seemed there might have been ways to try for more. The match is tied 2:2, with Ian playing White on Wednesday. 

You can replay all the World Championship match games from Dubai using the selector below.

Replay the live commentary from Judit Polgar and Anish Giri, including the post-game press conference.

And here are David Howell, Kaja Snare and Jovanka Houska. 

And check out Danny King’s recap of all the Game 4 action:

Magnus Carlsen might have had an idea of what kind of birthday he was going to have if he’d seen Ian Nepomniachtchi’s Facebook post before the game. 

Vishy Anand told Tania Sachdev that the problem on your birthday is other people. 

Magnus later explained at the press conference that his birthday record is pretty good.

I would have, of course, loved to have a rest day on the eve of my birthday, so I could have at least a token celebration. Apart from that, I would say it’s pretty good. I think I won at least one game in the World Cup, against Amonatov in 2005, and obviously the match in 2016 [against Sergey Karjakin] was decided on my birthday, in the tiebreak, so it’s going to take a lot for me to have bad recollections of me playing on my birthday, even though I lost to So last year [in the Skilling Open final].

On this occasion even the cake got delivered to his father Henrik instead.

Henrik was shown photos of himself with a very young Magnus and was asked to name one quality that had seen Magnus go so far. He didn’t hesitate. 

We saw how that will to win works even in football, when GM Hans Niemann mentioned to Magnus at the press conference that he’d been afraid to injure him in the rest day football.

I think a lot of people would indeed have that mentality that they would not want to injure somebody important to a lot of people. I’ve played with some professional footballers in my life, and my approach then was very different. I always felt it would be a fun story if I injured them when they played on their spare time. So I always went extra hard against them, and it gave me an edge, because it forced them to shy away instead… so a little tip there!

Sometimes you can’t get what you want in chess, however, and the way Game 4 of the match went would end up being typical of modern chess at the very highest level. 

First, however, let’s get back to the opening, when everything still seemed possible.

Against Fabiano Caruana in the 2018 World Championship match, Magnus demonstrated his flexibility by starting his games with the white pieces with 1.d4, then 1.c4, then 1.e4, and then repeated that 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.e4 sequence in the second half of the match. Having a wide repertoire of course has the advantage of forcing your opponent to cover a huge range of ground, while it was also speculated that cycling through the openings allowed his team the maximum time to fix and adapt whatever they’d played in the first game before trying that first move again.

It’s too early to say if Magnus will do something similar again this time, but he started with 1.d4 in Game 2 and now in Game 4 he switched to 1.e4. After 1…e5 2.Nf3 Ian Nepomniachtchi decided to use one of Caruana’s main weapons, 2…Nf6, the Petroff.

Magnus kept being asked afterwards if that had been a surprise, and responded:

No, it was one of the main openings that I expected, seeing that he played it in the Candidates, and also in the first black game he went for a more classical approach rather than a sharp one, so it was very much expected. Couldn’t know obviously which exact Petroff line he was going to go for, but the Petroff in itself was very much expected.

There were only short pauses by both players as we moved through a long, theoretical line, and although 16…Qxb5 was technically a novelty, the moves 17.axb5 a5 also came fast. 

This was the position where Team Magnus was putting its hopes. On a relatively low depth the Stockfish engine recommends capturing en passant with 18.bxa6, and then comes up with “normal-looking” moves such as 18.Ne5 and 18.Bg5. Instead Magnus spent 7 seconds on 18.Nh4!?

18.Nh4 is that extra level of depth that you can afford when you’re preparing for a World Championship match,” said Anish Giri, with White immediately threatening to jump with the knight to f5, but also including some more exotic plans such as rerouting the knight all the way to a4 to attack the b6-pawn. 

The problem with World Championship preparation, however, is that both teams have just as long, just as many highly-talented experts, and comparable mind-blowing computing power at their disposal. “It turned out it was new, but not for everyone,” quipped Ian when he answered his daily question in Russian, and he elaborated in English:

Even without analysing this position it’s obvious that playing Nh4 and letting the pawn live on a5, as a passed pawn that is protected well by a pawn on b6, is quite risky, so that’s what you can figure out without preparation. But fortunately I knew the idea and, more or less, I could remember what to do, so of course I was kind of surprised, because this is one of the sidelines, but it’s very principled at the same time, and it’s of course better to remember your moves instead of finding them over the board.

It was even worse than that for Magnus, since Ian revealed he’d actually thought about playing the move himself with the white pieces.

Nh4 is a very interesting try, but perhaps I even wanted to play this with White one day. In general, the task was more or less not to mix up things, not to do something stupid, because as far as I know this line is more or less safe for Black, so of course I was checking twice everything and also calculating a lot, but in general I think this is quite safe. 

The way Ian played during the game made it hard to be certain he was still in preparation, since he spent over five minutes on the reply 18…g6, though after 19.g4!? he took just three minutes.

19…Nd7 wasn’t the kind of move you’d make so fast if only seeing the position for the first time, unless you were bluffing, and after 20.Ng2 he needed under a minute for what may have been a critical decision for all the subsequent play.

20…Nf6 is an engine-approved move that might have led to very interesting play. Magnus would say afterwards:

There are insanely complicated lines. The approach that he chose is not the only one that Black can choose, and in other variations it’s insanely complicated and really, really risky for Black.

Ian went for 20…Rfc8, and play continued 21.Bf4 Bxf4 22.Nxf4 Rxc3 23.Nxd5 Rd3 24.Re7 Nf8, and here Magnus sank into a 22-minute think. Anish Giri thought Magnus might have been doing it to lure his opponent into a trap. 

Instead, if we can believe the press conference, it was more that Magnus was mildly shocked that Ian had gone for this line and was trying to find if there was a way to exploit the ugly black setup.

To be honest, the [line] he chooses looks really, really risky, to leave the knight on f8 and bank everything on the a-pawn. If you’ve miscalculated something you just lose, without any chances, but it’s a lot easier, of course, when you’ve studied it and you know that it’s a draw, and you can kind of work it out from there. But believe me, there are many, many other options for Black that lead to much more complications than what happened in the game, so I think what he did was just very sensible — an approach that looks a bit dubious at first since your knight’s going to be locked in, but with concrete calculation you can make it work, and that’s how you usually solve your opening problems. You try to avoid the lines where you have to remember everything and try to choose something where you can remember the main points from. 

Magnus began what could have been a draw by repetition with 25.Nf6+ Kg7 26.Ne8+ Kg8.

Here, however, he did push with 27.d5, based on the little tactic that 27…Rxd5?? would run into 28.Nf6+, winning the rook.

That dangerous a-pawn Nepo had talked about was set in motion with 27…a4, and play continued 28.Nf6+ Kg7 29.g5 a3. This was when Magnus really dug deep, thinking for over half an hour.

Magnus was later asked what he’d been thinking about and, in what was perhaps a mildly surprising display of press conference openness, he answered.

I was considering a lot of things, like d6, Kg2, followed by Re8, also Ra2, followed by Re3 after Rb3, but Black just seemed to hold everywhere. I guess d6 was kind of the most obvious way to try and find something, but I didn’t think it was close.

As well as the specific moves, however, it was a deliberate approach.

I think it sometimes happens at World Championships that you work a lot before the match, and you work a lot during the match on openings and such, and somehow this makes you work less over the board. My approach was very clear there that I didn’t think particularly that I had anything, but I had two hours for the games, so I should spend them all looking for whatever chances can be found. 

In the end, however, the fruit of the long think was a move that altered nothing, 30.Ne8+. A move appearing did at least give a chance for Anish to display his artistic talents. 

The move was, in a way, just an interlude, since after 30…Kg8 31.Nf6+ Kg7 Magnus took another 14-minute think, in the same position. He could have made a new move, then repeated, then made a new move, and so on, to reach the time control and have even more time to think, but perhaps the spectre of over-pushing and losing on his birthday was lurking somewhere in the back of his mind.

He decided the time had come to end the game with a draw by 3-fold repetition of the position. 

Then what remained was the short drive to the press conference venue…

…and the daily ordeal of facing the press. Magnus probably felt better about his decision to curtail the game when the depth of his opponent’s preparation became clear. How far had Ian been “in book”?

I believe more or less until the last move, I’m not quite sure, but I think I have seen something like this. 

Is Magnus, the clear pre-match favourite, frustrated with four draws so far?

No, it’s ok. I’ve started with a lot more draws than this earlier, and when you play a forced line as today you don’t expect to hit very often, but the idea is to hit once in a while, take your opponent by surprise, and the other times you’re usually going to be very safe. So obviously I would have loved to win, I would have loved to find more chances than I did, but I think overall it’s a normal result against a well-prepared opponent. 

That was it for the chess, but it wouldn’t be a World Chess Championship press conference without some more random questions. Magnus shares a birthday not only with Laurent Fressinet and Simon Williams but, it turns out, also with Winston Churchill. Magnus was asked if he knew any quotes by the former British Prime Minister, and was up to the task:

There was this quote from Churchill on one of his opponents, I think, that he was a very modest man and he had great reasons to be modest. So I would say for my opponent that he’s not a modest man and with good reason!

And was Magnus planning to share his cake with Team Nepo?

That’s a weird question. First of all, I don’t know if I’ll have any. Maybe a little bit tomorrow, but with the history of World Championship matches I don’t think you would accept any piece of food from the opposing team ever!

And with that, another World Championship day was over. It’s now 2:2, and there are 10 games remaining.

There’s one game on Wednesday before the second rest day, and Ian Nepomniachtchi will have the white pieces for a 3rd time. Will we again see a Marshall (Ian played 8.h3 in Game 1 and 8.a4 in Game 3) or is it time for the Russian to try something different? Whatever happens, the tension only continues to grow!

All the action will be live right here on chess24 from 16:30 local time (7:30 ET, 13:30 CET) each day

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