World Championship Game 4: Hesitant birthday boy

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
11/30/2021 – The match for the World Championship in Dubai is still tied, as Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi signed a fourth consecutive draw on Tuesday. The defending champion went for his first 1.e4 with the white pieces, to which Nepo responded by setting up a Petroff Defence. Carlsen spent quite a while investigating options that might create trouble for his opponent, but ended up going for a triple repetition on move 30. | Photo: Niki Riga

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Full expert analysis of the game will be published shortly on our news site. Game 3 will be annotated by English grandmaster Luke McShane.


Magnus CarlsenThis is the fifth time Magnus Carlsen is playing a World Championship match, and it is the fifth time the event is organized in November. Since his birthday is on November 30, and he has prevailed in all four matches he has played so far, turning 23, 24, 26 and 28 years old have all been joyous occasions for the Norwegian — in 2016, he beat Sergey Karjakin in playoffs exactly on November 30.

In his current battle against Ian Nepomniachtchi, though, celebrations will most likely have to wait until the end of the match. On his 31st birthday, the world champion got his second white of the match, and could not even put his opponent under pressure before signing the shortest draw of the match so far.

Nepo responded to Carlsen’s 1.e4 with the Petroff, the main weapon used by Fabiano Caruana in his 2018 match against the world champion. While Carlsen himself later said that this was one of the main setups they prepared since Nepo had played it in the Candidates Tournament, Caruana was a bit more puzzled by the decision.

Following the trend we saw on the first three days of the match, Nepo played principled chess from the start, allowing his opponent to be the first one to deviate from the most popular theoretical variations.

 

Both contenders pretty much blitzed all their moves up to this point, when after Nepo’s 17...a5 theory continued with 18.bxa6 Nxa6. However, Carlsen had prepared 18.Nh4, looking to reroute his knight to attack d5 while not fearing Black’s passed pawn on the a-file.

For the first time in the game, Nepo spent more than 3 minutes considering his next move — but it was not much more than that, as he responded with the natural 18...g6 a bit over 5 minutes after Carlsen had played the novelty of the game. This fact alone is not very telling, since all other potential moves are clearly inferior. However, the fact that the Russian finished the game (after 33 moves) with more than one hour on his clock demonstrates that he was, yet again, well prepared against Carlsen’s early deviations.

When asked about whether he was surprised by his opponent’s knight jump on move 18, Nepo responded with a smile:

Perhaps I even wanted to play this with white one day... 

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Excellently prepared — Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Eric Rosen

The challenger continued to play natural moves, leaving Carlsen to decide how to proceed first on move 25 and then on move 30.

 

The world champion invested over 20 minutes thinking in this position. In the end, he opted for the principled 25.Nf6+, although 25...Nxb6 was also playable. Five moves later, he was given the option of forcing a draw by repetition...

 

...and after thinking for over half an hour, he took it — 30.Ne8+ Kg8 31.Nf6+ Kg7, etcetera.

Alternative plans for White included a combination of d6-d7, Kg2, h4 and Re2. Carlsen was checking all these lines and concluded that Black could hold the balance in all of them, a sentiment that was shared by Vishy Anand in the commentary booth. Naturally, the world champion was asked about his long thinks in the press conference, and he explained:

The approach that he chose is not the only one. In other variations, it’s insanely complicated and really risky for black. To be honest, the one he chose...it looks really risky to leave the knight on f8 and bank everything on the a-pawn. If you’ve miscalculated something, you just lose, without any chances.

Magnus Carlsen, Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ten games to go... | Photo: Niki Riga

Since the World Championship match is the most popular chess event in terms of coverage on mainstream media, a number of people new to the game probably have trouble grasping what Carlsen meant when he talked about a ‘really risky approach’ while referring to a game that finished drawn rather quickly without any tactical fireworks to be accounted for.

A curious illustration of this phenomenon was shared by photographer extraordinaire Lennart Ootes, who is working on the games’ broadcast from Dubai.

Nevertheless, chess aficionados all around the world seem to be getting eager to see decisive results in the match. After all, the challenger is known for having more of an impulsive, aggressive style.

However, as the Russian proved — especially in the second half of the Candidates — he has worked on keeping things under control when such an approach will help him achieve better results down the line. And can we blame him for doing just that in his first match against a player of Carlsen’s calibre?

Game 4 has certainly been the less exciting of the match so far. We can only wait and see if we will get the kind of battles that erupted in the first two encounters — it is highly unlikely that similar fights will continue to produce draws in such a tense 14-game match.

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.

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