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After Another Blunder, The World Chess Championship Is Off The Rails

This article is part of our 2021 World Chess Championship series.

The Russian grandmaster desperately needed a win. After losses in an all-time classic Game 6 and a howler in Game 8, in which he blundered away a pawn, Ian Nepomniachtchi began Tuesday’s world championship game down 2 points to Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the defending world champion and the best chess player in the world.

The day began full of promise. Nepomniachtchi arrived at the board with a fresh haircut, without the man bun that had become his trademark, and with fresh reinforcements. Sergey Karjakin, his fellow super grandmaster who challenged Carlsen for the title in 2016, arrived in Dubai to aid the cause.

“They did not ask what I thought,” Karjakin told NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster, per a Google translation. “They just sent me a ticket.”

Three hours later, however, Nepomniachtchi blundered away his bishop and whatever sliver of hope he had of claiming the title. It is now all but guaranteed that Carlsen will retain the mantle he has held since 2013 — and cement his status as the greatest chess player of all time.

Chart showing a line chart of Game 9 of the World Chess Championship and a small multiple grid of line charts for all the games so far. Each line chart shows the advantage by player after each move. Ian Nepomniachtchi held an advantageous position until blunders in Moves 15 and 27, leading to a quick victory from Magnus Carlsen. The overall record is now three wins for Carlsen and six draws.

Nepomniachtchi, with the white pieces, early on Tuesday finally abandoned the Spanish game, which he had hammered on a few times before without profit, heading north instead for the English opening. ​​As early as the fifth move, the position had never before been played at the highest levels, and Nepomniachtchi got exactly what he needed: a playable edge in a sharp, complex position.

On the 15th move, however, Nepomniachtchi opted not to endeavor a promising pawn sacrifice, and the position appeared to level out, perhaps bound for a draw. Things would get much worse.

There was a brief interlude of “controversy” first. On his 19th move, Carlsen touched one of his knights! The laws of chess declare that a player must move a piece they touch, unless they say “j’adoube” — French for “I adjust,” indicating their intention merely to adjust a piece’s position on a square. Carlsen didn’t move the knight, and he didn’t appear to say anything before touching it.

Carlsen brushed away concerns after the game. “Do better,” he scolded the reporter who asked about it. (Magnus, if you’re reading, I’m sorry to bring it up.)

In any case, the real controversy would be the position that manifested a few moves later.

Nepomniachtchi has made a habit during the chess match of not often sitting at the chess board, disappearing for long stretches into his private room to the side of the stage. When he has appeared, he’s moved quickly. On his 27th move, Nepomniachtchi quickly pushed his pawn to c5, as shown below, and again vanished.

When Carlsen met the pawn with his own to c6, Nepomniachtchi’s bishop was trapped in the corner with no hope of escape.

“Seeing it on the board was pretty absurd,” Carlsen said after the game.

Carlsen sat alone, shaking his head in disbelief. Nepomniachtchi wouldn’t reappear for nearly 20 minutes. The taut game had quickly slackened, and a ruthless Carlsen consolidated his advantage. Nepomniachtchi resigned on the 39th move. Carlsen now leads 6-3 in the best-of-14 match.

“There is a lot of work to do to understand why it’s going on like this,” Nepomniachtchi said.

Game 10 begins Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern. We’ll be covering it here and on Twitter, shaking our heads in disbelief.

Seven Games by Oliver Roeder

For even more writing on chess and other games, check out Roeder’s new book, “Seven Games: A Human History,” available in January.

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Oliver Roeder was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied game theory and political competition.