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Nepo Holds Carlsen With Petroff In Game 4 FIDE World Chess Championship
A comfortable draw for Nepomniachtchi in game four. Photo Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Nepo Holds Carlsen With Petroff In Game 4 FIDE World Chess Championship

PeterDoggers
| 100 | Chess Event Coverage

The score in the FIDE World Chess Championship is 2-2 after a fourth draw between GM Magnus Carlsen and GM Ian Nepomniachtchi on Tuesday. Did the challenger shut down Carlsen's 1.e4 in this match? It's too early to tell, but his preparation and accurate response to a nice idea from the reigning champion in the opening got Nepomniachtchi a comfortable draw. Game five is scheduled for Wednesday at 16:30 Dubai time (13:30 CET, 4:30 a.m. Pacific).

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Chess.com's commentators GM Fabiano Caruana, GM Robert Hess, and IM Daniel Rensch all predicted a win for Carlsen today, but the wish for a decisive game was father to the thought. On the day he turned 31, Carlsen didn't get a birthday gift from Nepomniachtchi, who scored the most comfortable draw for the black pieces in the match so far.

Playing his second white game, Carlsen deviated from the previous on his very first move. After playing the Catalan following his 1.d4 on Saturday, the champion switched to 1.e4 for this game, the move Nepomniachtchi had tried twice as well. And where the challenger avoided his usual Grunfeld in game one, also this time he did not choose a sharp opening such as the Najdorf—which he often plays—but the Petroff instead.

It was a surprise that we saw this opening, originally popularized in the mid-19th century by Alexander Petroff of Russia (therefore, also called "Russian Defense" in some languages), but not a big one.

Ian Nepomniachtchi Petroff Dubai 2021
The Petroff, played by Caruana against Carlsen as well three years ago, is suddenly also Nepomniachtchi's cup of tea. Photo Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

On the one hand, Nepomniachtchi had played it only twice in his long career in over-the-board chess. However, one of these games was against GM Wang Hao in April of this year at the important FIDE Candidates Tournament—a game that he managed to win as Black, and a tournament that he managed to win to qualify for this world championship match.

"I guess he wasn't very surprised," Nepomniachtchi would say after the game. "He went for a very long and forcing line which is, I believe for those who dig deep into the Petroff lately, these people should be familiar with this line."

Carlsen: "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. I couldn't know, obviously, which exact Petroff line he was gonna go for but the Petroff in itself was very much expected."

The Petroff in itself was very much expected."
—Magnus Carlsen

Carlsen Nepomniachtchi game 4 Dubai 2021
Carlsen wasn't surprised with Nepomniachtchi's Petroff. Photo Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Caruana, who drew twice against Carlsen using the Petroff back in 2018, said: "I thought that the most logical thing for Ian would be to play the Berlin; that seemed like a natural choice for him in case Magnus were to play 1.e4. But the Petroff is interesting, I really did not expect this." 

For historical reference, the Petroff was played 14 times in world championship matches before, where White won twice (Karpov-Korchnoi 1981 and Kasparov-Karpov 1985) and Black once (Leko-Kramnik, 2004), alongside 11 draws.

Carlsen might not have seen it as the most likely defense against 1.e4, but surely took it into account. His 5.d4, a major decision where 5.Nc3 has been mainline for years, was taken quickly.

After 15 moves, the players were still following the game Vachier-Lagrave vs. Caruana(!) played at the 2017 Norway Chess tournament. Why Carlsen went for this was revealed soon, when he played the stunning novelty 18.Nh4!?.

"18.Nh4 is fascinating,"  said Caruana. "I didn't know this move and this is probably an excellent idea from Magnus."

Position after 18.Nh4.

Afterward, Nepomniachtchi called 18.Nh4 "a very interesting try," adding: "Perhaps I even wanted to play this as White one day!"

One of the ideas of the move is to maneuver the knight via g2 to f4 or e3 and attack Black's isolated pawn on d5. For that, the g2-square needed to be made available next and Carlsen's 19.g4, which made things suddenly quite concrete, was also praised by the experts.

"This is beautiful stuff," said Caruana who explained that the double push of the pawn provided White the extra possibility of going g4-g5 at some point in the game, especially if Black would defend his d-pawn by putting a knight on f6.

Key Move of the Day: 19.g4

Today's choice was preceded by 18.Nh4, a novelty which Caruana called "fascinating" and "probably an excellent idea." 19.g4 is designed to discourage Black from playing 20...f5, prepare Ng2 and Bf4 to trade off Black's most active piece, and to re-route the knight to f4 or e3. Review the game's key moments, get coaching explanations, retry mistakes, and more with Chess.com's revolutionary Game Review tool.

Chess World Championship


However, just when commentators and fans started to get excited, the game saw a few trades following the move 22.Bf4 —played after three minutes, Carlsen's longest think up to that point. With that, the Norwegian player could bring a rook and a knight closer to Black's king. It looked like White might be able to create some kind of a checkmate pattern, but objectively speaking, Black was fine.

Around this time, Chess.com's FM Mike Klein interviewed one of Nepo's seconds who was on-site: GM Vladimir Potkin. The Russian trainer, who provides chess-technical as well as psychological help, did not reveal more names of the Russian team but admitted that some of its members work from home, as has been common at recent title matches.

About the endgame, he said: "It's a complex game. Black has their own chances; for example, we already have a passed pawn. If Magnus does not care about that, in some pawn endgame it might help us!" (He might have had game eight of the 2016 match in mind there, which Karjakin, also assisted by Potkin at the time, won with a passed a-pawn.)

Ian Nepomniachtchi walking Dubai 2021
Nepomniachtchi, on his way to his private resting area. Photo Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Carlsen's first really big think came on move 25, where he decided to go for a setup with a knight on f6 protected by a pawn on g5. Meanwhile, Nepomniachtchi's defense consisted of a counter-attack: he simply started running with his a-pawn, as his compatriot had done five years ago. And while his opponent was thinking, the Russian GM was away from the board a lot, spending ample time in his private resting area.

Although Carlsen always had a draw in hand by repeating knight checks, the big question was: does White have more?

Position after 29.a3.

Carlsen thought for 34 minutes in this position before giving two checks, and then another 14 minutes on move 32, but then decided to call it a day with a move repetition—a decision that also might have been affected by the clock. At the end of the game, Carlsen had 19 minutes left vs. more than an hour for his opponent.

Magnus Carlsen game 4 Dubai 2021
Carlsen, trying hard to find something that isn't there. Photo Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

"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," Carlsen said about this final phase. "My approach was very clear there that I didn't think particularly that I had anything, but I had two hours for the game and I should spend them all for whatever chances can be found."

Carlsen Nepomniachtchi game 4 Dubai 2021
Carlsen going for the move repetition. Photo Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Caruana called Carlsen's choice to repeat moves "a good practical decision under the circumstances" but at the same time felt the game was "a big success for Ian" in terms of preparation and psychology.

Our Game Of The Day annotator, GM Sam Shankland, agreed with Caruana, writing: "Magnus did not get much against the Petroff, and the moral victor of the day was certainly Nepo for making an easy draw with Black even when he was hit with a new idea."

The moral victor of the day was certainly Nepo for making an easy draw with Black even when he was hit with a new idea.
—Sam Shankland

Chess.com Game Of The Day Collection

So how much of this was preparation? Well, maybe, everything.

Nepomniachtchi said to Mike Klein right after the game: "I guess it was more or less the first line of the giants until the very end," where giants means chess engines. "My goal was simple: try not to mix up my prep."

At the press conference, he elaborated, specifically about 18.Nh4: "Fortunately, I knew the idea, and more or less I could remember what to do. Of course, I was kind of surprised, because it's one of the sidelines but at the same time it's very principled. It's better to remember your moves than to find them over the board."

And, after giving some more details about the end of the game, he remarked: "I believe more or less until the last move, I am not sure, but I think I have seen something like this."


Match score
Fed Name Rtg 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 Score
Magnus Carlsen 2855 ½ .½ ½ ½ . . . . . . . . . . 2
Ian Nepomniachtchi 2782 ½ ½ ½ ½ . . . . . . . . . . 2


Nepomniachtchi was obviously satisfied with the result, saying: "Well, since I played Petroff, indeed!"

Carlsen pointed out that a game like this is part of the deal when going for the approach he went for: "What can I say. I tried something concrete and it didn't work. But that's, I think, a normal result. I didn't expect him, obviously, to have missed the line that I played completely, but in some other iterations, there can be a lot of difficult decisions to make for Black. I think the way that he played, there are some different tries but there is just nothing and... the state of modern chess, not much else to say."

The state of modern chess, not much else to say.
—Magnus Carlsen

The world champion said it's not frustrating just yet: "It's OK. I've started with a lot more draws 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 gonna be very safe. So, obviously, I would have loved to win, would have loved to find more chances than I did, but I think, overall, it's a normal result against a well-prepared opponent."

Magnus Carlsen birthday Dubai 2021
Magnus Carlsen on his birthday in Dubai. Photo Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Carlsen has good memories of playing for the world title on his birthday; on November 30, 2016, he won the rapid tiebreak against GM Sergey Karjakin with two wins and two draws. Also at other events that he played over the years, the world champion never lost an over-the-board game on his birthday. (He did lose to GM Wesley So exactly one year ago in the online Skilling Open tournament.)

At the press conference, Nepomniachtchi said it's "never easy" to play on your birthday and that it normally means you don't party because you probably have to play the next day as well.

Nepomniachtchi birthday Carlsen Dubai 2021
Nepomniachtchi after the game: "My big goal was not to forget to congratulate Magnus, at least after the game. So once again, congratulations!" Photo Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Asked if he was going to share any birthday cake with team Nepo, Carlsen seemed to be referencing the famous yogurt incident of the 1978 Karpov-Korchnoi match when he said: "I think—with the history of world championship matches—I don't think you would accept any piece of food from the opposing team ever!" 

When WGM Anastasiya Karlovich pointed out that November 30 was also Winston Churchill's birthday, and whether Carlsen remembered any quotes from the former Prime Minister of the U.K., the world champion did not disappoint: "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.' I would say for my opponent that he's not a modest man and with good reason."


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