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One Misplaced Pawn May Have Just Clinched The World Chess Championship

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

We didn’t see much of Ian Nepomniachtchi on Sunday, though the Russian grandmaster is nominally competing for the World Chess Championship in Dubai. He spent much of the day in a private room, hidden away from spectators and cameras, while the chess world watched his position deteriorate on the board.

Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the defending champion, played largely alone, and he took a commanding lead in the match, thrashing Nepomniachtchi in 46 relentless moves over four hours. Carlsen, who has held the world title since 2013, now leads 5-3 in a race to 7.5 points.

Sunday’s Game 8 saw the players begin in the Petrov defense, revisiting the early moves of Game 4. Eager knights jousted on a narrow tiltyard, quickly knocking each other out of play. After eight moves, the position was perfectly symmetrical, with a parade of pieces strung up the board.

This lovely arrangement appears 11 times in ChessBase’s database, historically leading to five wins for white and six draws, though it had only been played before by amateurs. Symmetrical positions rarely lead to symmetrical results at the highest levels, and the parade did not appeal to Nepomniachtchi, who had the black pieces — he grimaced, stared into space and buried his head in his arms.

Both grandmasters dug in for a fight, and it wasn’t lovely for long.

In the position above, Carlsen castled and Nepomniachtchi ventured a pawn h5, an unnatural-looking but bold move, representative of lessons recently taught to humans by advanced neural networks. Both players eschewed lines that appeared drawish, and all across the board, Carlsen began to accumulate the tiny edges he is famous for pursuing.

When Nepomniachtchi did appear in his chair, he moved quickly. On his 21st move, he moved his pawn forward to the b5 square, as shown below, pressuring Carlsen’s bishop and likely handing Carlsen the world championship.

In a match defined by accuracy, with so many moves earning the annotator’s exclamation point, this was roundly given a question mark or two. It blunders away a pawn: Carlsen moves his queen to a3, putting Nepomniachtchi in check. After the black king slides to safety, Carlsen grabs the pawn on a7 while invading Russian territory with his queen.

After this, Nepomniachtchi disappeared. 

Carlsen stood up and prowled the board.

Nepomniachtchi reappeared, made another reckless move,1 and disappeared again.

The Norwegian’s advantage grew to two pawns and then three, and converting such an edge is elementary for a super grandmaster. After a master class of Carlsen’s exacting endgame play, Nepomniachtchi reappeared to offer his hand in resignation. After the game, Nepomniachtchi called his play “a chain of slightly weird decisions” and apologized for his performance.

With six games remaining, the path to victory now for Nepomniachtchi is very narrow and very steep. The Chess by the Numbers model gives Carlsen a 98.5 percent chance to retain his title and cement his status as the greatest of all time.

Chart showing a line chart of Game 8 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. Magnus Carlsen held the better position throughout the game, with his advantage heightened after blunders from Ian Nepomniachtchi in Moves 21 and 24. Carlsen won the game, bringing the overall record to two wins for Carlsen and six draws.

The match rests tomorrow, and Game 9 begins Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern. We’ll be covering it here and on Twitter, prowling the keyboard.


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.

Footnotes

  1. 24 … Rd6, which expert commentators questioned and computer engines despised.

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.

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