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Neither Grandmaster Yields In A Chess Tug Of War

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

A game, the philosopher Bernard Suits wrote, is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” It’s one thing to shove a fistful of chess pieces across the board to surround the enemy king. It’s quite another to get them there in accordance with the ancient game’s intricate rules, and while your grandmaster opponent tries to do the same.

Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia are currently overcoming obstacles in a glass box in Dubai, competing for the World Chess Championship. Neither has yet been able to surround the other’s king. After a 41-move draw over less than three hours in Sunday’s Game 3, their best-of-14-game match remains level at 1.5-1.5. It has now been 1,830 days since anyone won a regulation game in the World Chess Championship.

Nepomniachtchi moved first, minding the white pieces. The grandmasters played the Ruy Lopez opening, specifically its anti-Marshall variation, visiting once again some of the most well-trod ground in chess theory — “the mother opening,” per former world champion Viswanathan Anand on the official broadcast. Indeed, the first seven moves exactly matched those of Game 1

For nearly the entire game, both players maneuvered their pieces nimbly and quickly, clearly familiar with the theory, and the computer’s all-seeing eye hardly blinked on Sunday, as the position was essentially level from start to finish.

Chart showing a line chart of Game 3 of the 2021 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. In Game 3, in moves 1-21, Ian Nepomniachtchi held the advantage. Game 3 ended in a draw, bringing the overall record of the championship to three draws.

The famously fast Nepomniachtchi thought for 30 minutes in the position below, his 21st move, the longest he’s spent by far on any move in the match, and perhaps the game’s only speed bump.

He eventually pushed his pawn forward to h3. A few moves later, queens and minor pieces were traded off the board in a flurry, dulling whatever little edge was present in the game. The rooks left, too, in short order, and the grandmasters shook hands and agreed to a draw in the position below, neither able to make further progress.

While a string of chess draws could be seen as boring, or as a failure of attacking prowess, it should also be seen as a great success, a testament to the deep preparation and precise execution of the game’s master craftsmen — a drawn tug of war not between weaklings but between Goliaths. 

“This is the current status of chess theory,” Nepomniachtchi said after the game. “It’s hard to find some advantage.”

Why do we volunteer to overcome games’ unnecessary obstacles? We play games “because we want to have a certain kind of struggle,” writes C. Thi Nguyen, a philosopher at the University of Utah. “And we can do so for the sake of aesthetic experiences of striving — of our own gracefulness, of the delicious perfection of an intellectual epiphany, of the intensity of the struggle, or of the dramatic arc of the whole thing.”

The match rests tomorrow, and Game 4 begins Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern. We’ll be covering the entire dramatic arc, drawish or otherwise, here and on Twitter, and we await the delicious perfection.

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.