This article is part of our 2021 World Chess Championship series.
Magnus Carlsen of Norway successfully defended his world chess championship title on Friday, extending an unbroken reign atop the game that began in 2013. He defeated his challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia, in the most lopsided championship in recent memory, over a series of 11 games in Dubai that began two weeks ago.
The championship match featured some of the strongest chess ever played by humans alongside some baffling errors. Carlsen, the world No. 1, won four games and never lost. He emerged victorious in a marathon battle in Game 6, an instant classic and the longest world championship game ever played. In Games 8 and 9, he was the beneficiary of inexplicable blunders that saw Nepomniachtchi, the world No. 5, surrender a pawn and a bishop. And on Friday, perhaps most egregiously, Nepomniachtchi blundered yet again.
Carlsen controlled the black pieces in Game 11. Nepomniachtchi, in desperate need of something new, opted for the Italian game, a rich, subtle opening that has seen a recent resurgence among top players. It’s also known as the Giuoco Piano, or the quiet game, but on Friday, it would crash on the board like shattering glass.
For the umpteenth time, Nepomniachtchi emerged from the opening with a small attacking edge, while Carlsen battened down his hatches. No pawns were captured until the 20th move as artillery maneuvered behind the phalanx. But Nepomniachtchi missed some sharp ideas, Carlsen played with familiar precision, and the tension cooled into what seemed to be a sure draw.
But on the 23rd move, Nepomniachtchi pushed his pawn to g3, as shown below.
Instantly, the computer’s evaluation plummeted from 0 to negative 8 — from dead-level terms to a clearly winning position for Carlsen. Nepomniachtchi’s position quickly unraveled. After the knight on e3 and rook on f4 were traded, black’s queen flew in, capturing the pawn on g4 and spearheading a terrifying attack on the white king.
Carlsen missed the clean kill, but when the carnage of the attack was cleared off the board, he remained up a pawn in a rook-vs.-rook endgame. One of those pawns became a queen, and Nepomniachtchi had no defense. After Move 49, Nepomniachtchi offered his hand in resignation, handing Carlsen his fifth world title.
“In my career, I’ve lost some stupid games,” Nepomniachtchi said afterward. “But not as many in such a short amount of time.”
Whether the 23rd move was an honest mistake or a gesture of resignation, the match was hard to watch at times. A defeated and seemingly uninterested Nepomniachtchi, his jacket off and shirt untucked, spent much of the game hidden in his private breakroom out of view of spectators and cameras, appearing only to move a piece quickly and disappear again. This had become the norm. The indelible image of the match will be Carlsen, defending his world title against an empty office chair.
“I would like to apologize for the way it went in the end,” Nepomniachtchi told Chess.com after the game.
While Carlsen has been reluctant to discuss his legacy, in the view of many chess observers, the victory cements his status as the greatest player of all time.
“It’s really between him and Garry Kasparov — most people think it’s neck and neck,” Jennifer Shahade, the two-time U.S. women’s chess champion, told me before the match. And with yet another world title, Carlsen adds a bold line to an already sterling resume and pulls a length ahead.
It’s unclear exactly when and where Carlsen will defend his title again, after the pandemic disrupted the regular cycle. The elite Candidates Tournament, which will determine his next challenger, will be held sometime next year. Its participants will include Nepomniachtchi himself; Fabiano Caruana, the American No. 1 who fought Carlsen to 12 straight draws in 2018; Sergey Karjakin, the Russian grandmaster who sent the championship to tiebreakers in 2016; and Alireza Firouzja, the 18-year-old world No. 2, who’s rated even higher than Carlsen was at his age.
But that’s for another day.
“I’m very happy, of course,” Carlsen said after the game. “I didn’t expect it to go quite like this.”
Carlsen was also asked if the imprecision of his opponent’s play, and the lack of chess style points, had diminished his latest championship.
“No,” he said. “That’s fine by me.”
For even more writing on chess and other games, check out Roeder’s new book, “Seven Games: A Human History,” available in January.