A chess player almost won a game of chess

The Dubai auditorium which hosts the 2021 World Chess Championship is reminiscent of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Each has a large, dark room with a bright diorama, filled with still drama. And in either case, a squid and a whale get stuck in their crates, caught in the middle of a grueling battle.

Longtime world No.1 Magnus Carlsen of Norway defends his title against challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia, world No.5. On Saturday the two played the roller coaster of a draw in 58 moves in 4.5 hours. They shared the point and the best of 14 games is level 1-1. It has been more than five years since no one won a regulation game of the World Chess Championship.

Here’s how the computer has seen the ebb and flow of games so far this year:

Carlsen ordered the white pieces in the glass box on Saturday, moving first, with a matching cream-colored blazer. Before the match, the chesserati was buzzing, wondering how he was going to start. At the 2018 World Championship Carlsen displayed a fun little pattern in their shutouts, opening with pawns on d4, c4, e4, d4, c4, and e4, which I guess looks cool if you play it on a piano.

As it happened, Carlsen played d4 and for the second game in a row sacrificed a pawn to gain an early attacking initiative – perhaps against expectations against his famous aggressive Russian opponent. The players entered the Catalan opening. The Catalan is a “clash of concepts”, as former world champion Viswanathan Anand explained during the official broadcast of the match: what is more valuable, the extra pawn of black or the nascent attack by white and the bishop controlling the longest diagonal of the board?

After six moves to Dubai on Saturday, this clash of concepts looked like this:

Two hits later, Carlsen straddled his knight in enemy territory, on square e5 – a rare and precise move. When Nepomniachtchi responded, the position they had created had never been on the top Grandmasters tournament tables before. Soon after, Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi both moved away to rest briefly, leaving the new position of chess sitting alone on a table in the box, like a still life in a museum exhibit.

Expert observers admired Carlsen’s offensive chances but knew they wouldn’t be easy. “The position is dangerous and complicated, but it is not a position where White can attack immediately,” Fabiano Caruana, the US No.1, said on the Chess.com livestream. “It’s more of a long-term pressure.”

Despite the complexity, Carlsen seemed at ease, probably well in his pre-game preparation. He played fast and opened up a big time advantage – perhaps against the expectations against the famous Nepomniachtchi.

But the clash of concepts ultimately favored the pawn over position, and long-term investing never paid off. Nepomniachtchi defended and counterattacked with great precision. Around the 20th move, Carlsen sacrificed even more material, exchanging his tower for the Knight of Nepomniachtchi in order to prevent a Russian equine invasion. On his 24th move, at this heavily computer-favored stage, Nepomniachtchi faced the position below:

The computer suggested pawn-to-g6 or queen-to-e7 moves, or take the pawn on a4. Instead, Nepomniachtchi moved his pawn to c3, obviously a mistake, allowing Carlsen to recoup some of his material deficit in the moves that followed. The game got easier (relatively!) After that – the position was pretty much level for about 30 moves, as the pieces quickly left the board. The Squid and the Whale – I’m agnostic as to who’s who – agreed to a draw with one rook and two pawns each.

“I thought I was fine,” Carlsen said after the game, before admitting that he had simply overlooked the Knights’ invasion that had caused him so much trouble.

Nepomniachtchi also recalled the moment: “I was like, ‘Wow, all of a sudden it’s getting really nice for black people.'”

But in the end, another day, another draw, another deadlocked diorama. “Overall it was a very confusing game,” added Nepomniachtchi. “It was very interesting and very chaotic.”

Game 3 begins Sunday at 7:30 a.m. EST. We’ll cover the whole game here and on Twitter, and we’re delighted to be puzzled as we look in the glass box.

Seven games by Oliver Roeder

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

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