Chess champ Magnus Carlsen, challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi square off in rare pre-match battle

Another week, another unwritten rule of the game thrown on the ash heap of history.

We wrote last week of the unusual sight of world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway and challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia actively competing on the world chess scene with their title match barely more than two months away. Time was when the prospective gladiators would withdraw totally from the arena, working in secret with seconds and trainers in preparation for the Big Match.

Not only are champ and challenger still out there in the lists, they actually played one another last week in an actual tournament, competing at the 9th annual EY Norway Tournament in Carlsen’s homeland. According to our research department (um, Wikipedia), such a pairing so close to a title match is unprecedented, at least since they changed the rules on how queens move back in the Renaissance.

In the first of two meetings during the double-round robin event, the Russian challenger managed to rather easily hold the draw against Carlsen from the Black side of a Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense in their Round 4 match-up at classical time controls, but Carlsen may have claimed a small psychological edge by winning their “armageddon” rapid playoff game.

Black — who had draw odds but only 7 minutes to White’s 10 for the game — comes close to equality in this Fianchetto Grunfeld without ever quite getting there. Carlsen grabs the edge in the battle of the queenside after 15. Rxa1 Qb6?! (the queen does little here to slow the White pawn advance) 16. b4 Nd7 (better might have been 16…dxc4 17. Qxc4 Na6 to save some grief on the a-file) 17. c5 Qc7 18. Ra7 Qb8 19. Qa2 Bxf3? (tougher was 19…Bd3; Black banks on a pin to bail him out, but falls victim to a stronger pin from Carlsen) 20. Bxf3 e5 21. b5 (Qa5 exd4 22. Bxd4 Bxd4 23. exd4 Nf6 24. Qb6 was also strong) e4 22. Be2 Nxc5? 23. Bb4! (dxc5? Bxc3 24. bxc6 bxc6 25. Ra6 Rc8, and Black has a slight edge) Na6 24. Bxf8, winning the exchange as 24…Qxa7? 25. Bc5 — another pin! — would leave Black a whole piece down.

White’s 25. Rxb7! is brutally efficient, though also winning was the cute 25. b6! Nb4 26. Rxb7!! Qxb7 27. Qa7 Qc8 28. b7, and the pawn must queen. There’s no hope in the opposite-colored bishop ending, as Black’s center pawns can’t be saved and Black’s bishop cannot both defend on the kingside and keep the b-pawn from advancing.

In the final position, after 40. Kh4 Ba5 41. b6!, Black can see the handwriting on the wall after 41…Bxb6 42. Kxh5 g3 43. Kh4 Ke7 44. Kxg3 Kd6 45. Kg4, with a trio of central passed about to advance, and resigned.


Carlsen’s good vibes from that encounter may have been dulled a bit a round, when he suffered a rare loss to Russian GM Sergey Karjakin.

It was Karjakin’s first win against Carlsen in 15 classical games dating back to their epic 2016 world title match, and it featured an inspired exchange that appeared to fluster the unusually unflappable champ. (The loss also came a day after Karjakin went down rather quickly to Nepomniachtchi, for what it’s worth.)

The truth is, it took an insanely brilliant concept from Karjakin to bring down the champ, who had built up a nice position from the Black side of a Sveshnikov Sicilian helped by the thematic sacrifice of the h-pawn. After 18. Bxh5 (Bxb5 Bg4 19. 0-0 Bf3 20. Qc4 f5 also looks iffy for White) Bd8! (redeploying with tempo via a5) 19. 0-0 Ne7! (another nice redeployment) 20. Bg5 Ba5 21. Qb3 Nf5 22. Ne2 Bb6 23. Rac1 Ra4! (see diagram), Black appears to hold all the positional trumps, with one threat — 24…g6 25. Bf3 e4 and 26…e3! — already on offer.

But that’s when White uncorks the remarkable 24. Rc6!!, giving away the exchange but forcing Black to shift gears mentally from aggression to consolidation. Carlsen almost immediately goes astray on 24…Bxc6?! (rejecting the poisoned chalice with 24…Bc5!? or 24…Qa7!? might have been the better course) 25. dxc6 Rc4 26. a4 Nd4? (White expected 26…Rxa4, with complex but still equal lines link 27. Bg6! Nd4 28. Nxd4 Bxd4 29. Be7 Rc4 30. Bd3 Rxc6 31. Bxf8 Kxf8) 27. Nxd4 Bxd4 28. axb5, and suddenly White has two beautiful passed pawns to work with.

The ensuing play is wickedly complex, but it is White who presses to simplify despite his material deficit. Black misses chances to complicate matters — 43…Qe1!? would have served up both mating perpetual check threats — and one last finesse gives White the point.

Thus: 45. gxf4 d3 36. Bxd3! Re3+ 47. Kg2 Rxd3 48. b6! (c7?! Rxb3 49. c8=Q Rxb5, and Black has excellent prospects of setting up an unbreachable defensive line along the fifth rank) Rxb3 49. b7 Rb6 50. h5! (wonderful play, breaking up Black’s kingside just in time) gxh5 51. Kh3 Rxc6 52. b8=Q Rc5 53. Qb2+ f6 54. Kh4 and there’s no way to keep out the White king and queen; Carlsen resigned.

Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi, Armageddon playoff, 9th EY Norway Tournament, Stavanger, Norway, September 2021

1. Nf3 Nf6 2. g3 d5 3. Bg2 g6 4. O-O Bg7 5. c4 c6 6. b3 Ne4 7. d4 O-O 8. Bb2 a5 9. Nc3 Bf5 10. e3 Nxc3 11. Bxc3 Be4 12. Qe2 a4 13. Rfc1 axb3 14. axb3 Rxa1 15. Rxa1 Qb6 16. b4 Nd7 17. c5 Qc7 18. Ra7 Qb8 19. Qa2 Bxf3 20. Bxf3 e5 21. b5 e4 22. Be2 Nxc5 23. Bb4 Na6 24. Bxf8 Bxf8 25. Rxb7 Qxb7 26. Qxa6 Qb8 27. Qxc6 Qd6 28. Qxd6 Bxd6 29. Bd1 Bc7 30. Bb3 Kg7 31. Bxd5 f5 32. g4 Kf6 33. h4 h6 34. Kg2 Bd8 35. h5 fxg4 36. hxg6 Kxg6 37. Bxe4+ Kg5 38. f4+ Kf6 39. Kg3 h5 40. Kh4 Ba5 41. b6 Black resigns.

Karjakin-Carlsen, 9th EY Norway Chess Tournament, Stavanger, Norway, September 2021

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5 6. Ndb5 d6 7. Nd5 Nxd5 8. exd5 Ne7 9. c4 Ng6 10. Qa4 Bd7 11. Qb4 Qb8 12. h4 h5 13. Be3 a6 14. Nc3 Be7 15. g3 O-O 16. Be2 b5 17. cxb5 axb5 18. Bxh5 Bd8 19. O-O Ne7 20. Bg5 Ba5 21. Qb3 Nf5 22. Ne2 Bb6 23. Rac1 Ra4 24. Rc6 Bxc6 25. dxc6 Rc4 26. a4 Nd4 27. Nxd4 Bxd4 28. axb5 d5 29. Rc1 Rxc1+ 30. Bxc1 Qb6 31. Be3 Bxe3 32. fxe3 Rd8 33. Kg2 g6 34. Be2 Kg7 35. Qc3 d4 36. exd4 exd4 37. Qd3 Qa5 38. Qc2 Qb4 39. b3 Re8 40. Bc4 Re7 41. Qf2 Qc3 42. Qf3 Qb4 43. Kh3 Qd6 44. Qf4 Qxf4 45. gxf4 d3 46. Bxd3 Re3+ 47. Kg2 Rxd3 48. b6 Rxb3 49. b7 Rb6 50. h5 gxh5 51. Kh3 Rxc6 52. b8=Q Rc5 53. Qb2+ f6 54. Kh4 Black resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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