Carlsen On Verge Of Retaining Title As Nepo Blunders Piece
Carlsen had all the reasons to smile today after a third win. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Carlsen On Verge Of Retaining Title As Nepo Blunders Piece

| 178 | Chess Event Coverage

GM Magnus Carlsen is on the verge of defending his world title after scoring his third win in the 2021 FIDE World Chess Championship on Tuesday. GM Ian Nepomniachtchi committed an even bigger blunder than in the previous game, this time allowing a bishop to be trapped. Game 10 is scheduled for Wednesday at 16:30 Dubai time (13:30 CET, 4:30 a.m. Pacific).

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The challenger's task in this world championship went from climbing a very steep hill to reaching the top of Mount Everest. Only two players in world championship history managed to come back from a three-point deficit: Wilhelm Steinitz and Max Euwe, but they had more games to do so than the five remaining for Nepomniachtchi.

Carlsen, on his turn, needs to score just 1.5/5 to avoid the rapid/blitz playoff that he had to play in his last two title matches. He also has the comfort of three white games in the remaining five.

Magnus Carlsen Dubai 2021
Magnus Carlsen, on the brink of defending his title. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Before this ninth game, Carlsen had said in a podcast that his last three games had been "a dream" and that game six was something he was "really proud of." He expected "a regrouped Nepo and someone who will attack after the rest day."

That certainly was the case, with Nepomniachtchi bringing the first novelty (or you could say two novelties) to the board before a move had been made. For starters, when the challenger stepped out of the car in front of the building, he was joined not only by his main second GM Vladimir Potkin but also GM Sergey Karjakin—Carlsen's opponent in the 2016 match and also a man who has experience with coming back from a two-point deficit.

Sergey Karjakin Nepomniachtchi second 2021
Still famous in Norway for the 2016 title match, Karjakin was interviewed for Norwegian TV shortly after the start of the game. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Although he did make an appearance at the opening ceremony, Karjakin hadn't been seen afterward and was expected to be helping his compatriot from his home in Moscow. As it turned out, he had traveled back to Dubai during the rest day.

Speaking to Norwegian media, Karjakin said that he had been urgently asked to return: "They didn't ask me my opinion; they just sent me the ticket!" 

They didn't ask me my opinion; they just sent me the ticket!
—Sergey Karjakin

The second novelty was Nepomniachtchi's hairdo. He had been sporting a man bun in recent years, which he had removed during the rest day to arrive in the playing hall with a completely new look.

Ian Nepomniachtchi new hairdo
Nepomniachtchi, sporting a new hairdo. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

The third big change was Nepo's first move. It was, in fact, the Indian prodigy GM Praggnanandhaa R. who executed the ceremonial first move and played 1.c4. This time, Nepomniachtchi did not push back the pawn to its starting square but let it stand, provoking a little smile from his opponent.

"You expect everything, but obviously it was a slight surprise," said Carlsen. "I couldn't know if Pragg had any prior knowledge or if he was just making the move he would have made at the board. That's why I smiled."

Praggnanandhaa correctly guessed 1.c4. Photo: Niki Riga/FIDE.
Praggnanandhaa correctly guessed 1.c4. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Just like at the Candidates, after four games with 1.e4, Nepo tried his luck with the English. It made sense to go for something where it's harder to play forcing lines as Black, as one former world champion said from experience:

Carlsen tried to force things slightly anyway. After inviting his opponent into Queen's Gambit territory with 1...e6 and 2...d5, he changed the nature of the game completely by going 3...d4!?, a move first tried in 1911 by one of the greatest players who sadly never got a chance to play a world championship, Akiba Rubinstein.

Position after 3...d4.

Carlsen said it was the move he had been preparing for this match, but he wasn't sure whether to go for it or for something more solid. "The main problem was that I couldn't remember what was going on later there," he said. "I remembered that 10...Ng4 was the key move and then I guess that 5...Bc5 was correct and I couldn't remember the lines. So that's what I was mostly considering already when I played 3...d4 and then we reached the position anyway a lot later and I still hadn't figured it completely out so that was a bit dumb."

Magnus Carlsen thinking chess
Carlsen trying to remember the preparation for 1.c4. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

The game soon turned into what could be described as a reversed Schmid Benoni, with, despite the completely new ground in this match being explored, both players still in their preparation, although Carlsen needed more time on the clock to remember things.

After 6.d3, the world champion took almost 10 minutes on his response, at some point hiding his face behind both hands while digging into his memory. After 11 moves, he was not out of book yet but half an hour down on the clock anyway.

Once again, Nepomniachtchi couldn't complain about the opening. GM Fabiano Caruana, the broadcast: "The position is complicated, and it's basically what Ian needs: to go to complicated positions and try to outplay Magnus."

Position after 14...a3.

A key moment came after Carlsen's 14th move (see diagram above), where Nepomniachtchi could have played the interesting pawn sacrifice 15.b4!? with the point 15...Nxb4 16.Rb1 when Carlsen was intending 16...b6, and then 17.Rxb4 bxc5 18.Rb5! picks up the c-pawn because taking on d4 allows 19.Nxd4 with a double attack on g4 and a8.

Instead, Nepomniachtchi played 15.bxa3, and the general feeling was that he missed a chance. "To be honest, I also did not consider 15.bxa3," said GM Hou Yifan during her daily check-in at the live broadcast. "The decision is interesting. Due to the match situation, White probably wants to maintain tension."

"I wouldn't evaluate it as crushing but very promising," Nepo said about 15.b4 afterward.

Nepomniachtchi missed a chance on move 15. Photo: Maria Emelianova/
Nepomniachtchi missed a chance on move 15. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

A few moves later, something was captured on camera that's not a big deal at all but should be mentioned anyway if only because it was briefly discussed at the press conference (and much more on social media).

At move 18, with Nepomniachtchi not at the board, Carlsen adjusted his f6-knight while, from looking at his lips, he didn't seem to be uttering the words "j'adoube"—the typical French term often used in such cases, although simply "I adjust" is also allowed.

Carlsen was a bit annoyed when a Norwegian reporter asked him about this moment, pointing out that it was not the first world championship in which people asked this question and that it was clearly not intentional. "Do better," he snapped at the journalist.

Caruana: "I don't really understand the controversy. When nobody can hear you, you don't really talk."

Back to the game, where things started to get more interesting after 19.h4. According to Nepomniachtchi, with 19...Bd7 and 20...Be8 Black "stabilized" his position somewhat, although he felt he was still better.

Position after 23...Ng4.

Nepomniachtchi wasn't the only one who blundered today. At least, that was the word Carlsen used when the players talked right after the game on stage: that he had "blundered" the move 24.Qe1! (played in the diagram position) when going for 21...Qb4.

However, Black was OK anyway. Carlsen: "It turned out, as frankly happens pretty often, that good positional moves tend to work out well even if you've missed something."

Good positional moves tend to work out well even if you've missed something.
—Magnus Carlsen

"I was quite happy to find this idea 24.Qe1 and just get a pawn into the endgame," said Nepomniachtchi, who was referring to the b7-pawn. Black lost that pawn, but as it turned out, he had enough compensation and Carlsen considered the position rather drawish.

However, just one move after taking that pawn on b7, Nepomniachtchi committed the gravest blunder of the match so far, and one that cannot be omitted in future collections of biggest mistakes in matches for the highest title.

Position after 26...Ra4.

In what seemed another rushed moment, the challenger self-trapped his king's bishop when the game was instantly completely lost. Nepo played 27.c5??, a fine move to fight on in this position if the reply 27...c6! did not exist.

Carlsen was visibly surprised to see his opponent's pawn move appearing on the board. He had already seen in advance that his opponent's move just wasn't possible.

The world champion pushed 27...c6 after less than three minutes of checking things. It was that simple: the bishop on b7 had nowhere to go and would soon be collected.

It was only after seeing 27...c6 being played that Nepomniachtchi realized what he had done. Noting that the move ...c6 never works while White's pawn is on c4, he called it "some insanely bad luck."

The theme of the trapped piece is rather common in chess and something that is taught to kids in the early stages of their chess development. To see it in a match like this is almost unheard of.

Key Move of the Day: 27.c5??
The most important move in today's game is the blunder on move 27. This move allows Black to play 26...c6 and trap the white bishop, as in the game. Instead, 27.f3 is best to kick the knight away, with a more complicated game and equal chances for both sides. Review the game's key moments, get coaching explanations, retry mistakes, and more with's revolutionary Game Review tool.
chess world championship

It took 18 minutes for Nepomniachtchi to come back to the board. Although it was probably also a matter of getting himself together, he said that, once again, he had been using the television screen in his private resting area: "I was trying to calculate if there are any practical chances. Perhaps there is no big difference that you calculate sitting at the board or in the room."

When he came back to the board, Nepomniachtchi looked at Carlsen twice, with a quick smile, while writing down the move. He played a few more moves, indeed finding the best try, but his position was just hopeless. Game Of The Day Collection

Nepomniachtchi resigns game 9 Dubai 2021
Nepomniachtchi resigns. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

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 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 . . . . . 6
Ian Nepomniachtchi 2782 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ 0 0 . . . . . 3

"I couldn't imagine there is actually a way that exists to blunder in this position," said Nepo at the press conference, with a wry smile. "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?"

It's even funny that there is a way to blunder this position in one move, but yeah, who could know?
—Ian Nepomniachtchi

Once again, the Russian GM's demeanor at the press conference was commendable and he has earned a lot of respect for the way he has been dealing with the media. Asked about his general feeling, he replied: "It's worse than expected."

Ian Nepomniachtchi smiling
Nepomniachtchi at today's press conference. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Carlsen called what happened today "pretty absurd," explaining his word choice: "You don't expect to basically win a piece for nothing. What can I say? It's also a bit of bad luck that he doesn't have any try that gives him any chances. I think absurd actually covers it pretty nicely."

I think absurd actually covers it pretty nicely.
—Magnus Carlsen

"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," he added, before acknowledging that winning like this is not giving him as good a feeling as winning game six:

"In the standings, they look the same, but I think that goes for everybody, that earning a victory through really hard work is more rewarding than getting one handed to you by your opponent. Actually, that is not the case for everybody. I remember Donner wrote in his book that he appreciated a game won by luck a lot more than a game won by skill, but for me, I definitely feel a lot more satisfied when I actually win a good game. But I'll take it!"

Carlsen was referring to the late Dutch grandmaster Jan Hein Donner, famous for his chess writings, who penned down in January 1965 after beating GM Aleksandar Matanovic in the third round in Wijk aan Zee from a completely lost position:

"The emotions caused by such a rare piece of luck are indescribable. One feels the gods' favorite. One feels a triumph greater than after clinching a well-deserved victory in the finest attacking game."

Asked if he ever feels sorry for his opponent, Carlsen said: "I mean, it's the world championship. Basically, you prefer to beat an opponent who's playing at his very best, but if he's not, yeah, you take it any day of the week."

Magnus Carlsen smiling press conference Dubai 2021
Carlsen: "You prefer to beat an opponent who's playing at his very best." Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Having won his third game in this match, Carlsen has now also washed away the negative mutual score; before the match, it was 4-1 in Nepomniachtchi's favor and now it's 4-4. As he pointed out himself at the press conference, Carlsen did the same as the challenger in 2013 vs. GM Viswanathan Anand, when his three wins turned Anand's 6-3 plus score into 6-6 (now 12-8 in Carlsen's favor).

More importantly, Carlsen is now on the verge of winning his fifth world championship match, earlier than anyone expected. Theoretically, the match could be over on Friday.

Unfortunately, the challenger lost today after his bishop was trapped in his opponent's camp. Learn how to trap enemy pieces with WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni!
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