Today’s game will supply a bit more information about the general match strategy of the players. Pundits tend to read the opening moves and systems to infer the wider ranging approach to the match. So far we have seen a slightly unexpected solid, cautious approach from challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi when having the advantage of the first move, and one risky, full-blooded charge from champion Magnus Carlsen when he played white. A larger sample size is needed!
One thing we do know in terms of overall strategy, is that Carlsen clearly remembers the crippling nerves that affected him and his challengers in their debut matches. He declared openly in interviews that he was keeping this in mind and would make an extra effort to try and strike early, before his opponent felt settled. Magnus said that debutant nerves lasted 3-4 games, which means that today this particular window of opportunity is closing – and this might inspire a bolder stance.
It remains to be seen whether the challenger will adopt the frustrate and provoke strategy that nearly allowed Sergey Karjakin to unseat Carlsen in 2016 – Karjakin is a member of Team Nepomniachtchi here in Dubai – or whether both players are doing what they feel best suits the early phase of the duel.
For the third game in a row Magnus did not emerge when announced, taking a few minutes before rushing out of the players’ offstage rest area. Ian came onstage promptly, with his customary thermos of tea.
Today’s special guest was Secretary General of Dubai Sports Council, His Excellency Saeed Mohd Hareb, who made the ceremonial first move with FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich attending. The electronic board does not seem to be live before the actual game starts any more, so that the possibility of slightly misleading excitement from an unexpected move was absent.
Hostilities began on a new front, and plenty of new information was provided by move two. Carlsen switched to Nepomniachtchi’s favoured 1.e4 and was quickly informed by Ian’s second move that the safety first tactics are still in force from the challenger. Nepo chose the Petroff, or Russian, Defence, which was a favourite and reliable brick wall for the previous challenger, the US grandmaster (GM) Fabiano Caruana, in London 2018.
Reading the tea leaves
Already here, experts could mull over a variety of topics: Carlsen’s switch of first move could mean that he wants to play on a wide number of fronts; Nepomniachtchi looks intent, at least in the early phase of the match, on following the match strategy of another predecessor, his assistant Karjakin; and the choice of an atypically quiet and purely defensive system raises the constant talking point of how drawish title matches can be.
Other topics of debate included whether adopting a defence that Carlsen and his team have worked on for years is a good idea, even if the Petroff held up well for Caruana; and if a match strategy of neutralization is suited to the challenger’s perceived style and temperament, or even wise in general against a champion who has been devastating in faster-paced tie-breaks.
Here again the question of the advantage of the first move in a modern title match returns: In the three decisive classical games between Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi in their adult careers, Nepo has a 2-1 edge. All wins came with the black pieces, and in all of them Carlsen was the aggressor. When Carlsen fell behind versus Karjakin in New York 2016, it was after overextending completely – with white – after a long series of frustrating draws.
One final observation – Nepomniachtchi adopted the Petroff Defence when trying to safeguard his lead at the Candidates tournament which earned him this title challenge – and defeated Chinese GM Wang Hao. Carlsen referred to this after the game, saying this encounter had made the opening a natural target of his pre-match preparation.
A new idea
The game featured a flurry of early material exchanges, a customary harbinger of a peaceful outcome. Carlsen appeared to be the first to surprise in a well-known and briskly played opening, unveiling a new and sharper idea on his 18th move. Experts were not convinced that this was anything more than choosing an obscure and slightly tricky line from a large selection of objectively equal alternatives.
Despite the challenger being the first to sink into thought, he continued to play quite quickly, and official match commentator and former world champion Vishwanathan Anand suspected that the entire game could well be in both players’ prepared files, and that any hesitations were due to them checking their memory.
The position remained in balance, with the champion having one advantage – that he could always force a draw by repetition of moves. With this in mind, he invested time and energy in an effort to unearth some way to drum up subtle problems for the challenger to solve.
Carlsen thought for over half an hour on his 30th move in search of a way forward, but finally acquiesced to splitting the point by repeating the position, and after a third repetition a draw could be claimed. The players discussed the course of the game, and both sounded confident that the black position had been impervious to real danger.
With the history of world championship matches I don’t think you would accept any piece of food from the opposing team ever!Magnus Carlsen
Both players implied that the game had been more of a memory in exercise than calculation. Nepomniachtchi told Norwegian broadcasters NRK that he had not played any of ‘his own’ moves, and that a draw was the usual result when both players were well prepared.
At the post-game press conference Carlsen referred to the ‘Insanely complicated’ positions that could have resulted from his new idea, but that the challenger’s optically risky but in fact sensible way of playing the position just worked. “That’s the state of modern chess,” Carlsen said, also referring to the massive intervention of computer analysis. “Not much else to say.”
The session ended with the daily question from FIDE’s social media followers, with an offbeat query getting some world champion humour in reply. Asked if he would be sharing any birthday cake with ‘Team Nepo’, Carlsen was at first puzzled, but managed a quip: “That’s a weird question…but I think with the history of world championship matches I don’t think you would accept any piece of food from the opposing team ever!”
Game five, with challenger Nepomniachtchi trying to create something with the white pieces, will take place tomorrow, 1 December.
FACT SHEET, Game 4, FIDE (International Chess Federation) World Championship:
White: Magnus Carlsen
Black: Ian Nepomniachtchi
Match score: 2-2
Game length: 33 moves
Opening: Petroff/Russian Defence
Trivia: Today (30 November) is Magnus Carlsen’s 31st birthday
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