World Championship Game 8: Nepomniachtchi self-destructs

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
12/5/2021 – Magnus Carlsen now has a two-point lead at the World Championship match in Dubai, after beating Ian Nepomniachtchi’s Petroff Defence in Sunday’s game 8. Nepo made a couple of inexplicable moves in positions that seemed to be all but forcefully heading to an inevitable draw. Find here the crucial encounter analysed by elite grandmaster and theoretical expert Anish Giri. | Photo: Eric Rosen

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A new match begins

Replay full analysis of the game by world number six Anish Giri at the end of the article!

Magnus CarlsenAfter not winning a single classical game in a World Championship match since 2016, Magnus Carlsen has won twice in three days at the battle for the crown in Dubai. With six games to go, it would be truly surprising if Ian Nepomniachtchi manages to bounce back, especially after having suffered such painful defeats.

While Friday’s game will go down in World Championship history as a memorable struggle, Carlsen’s latest win had more to do with what appear to be psychological difficulties suffered by his opponent. In the end, it was a dream three-day series for the defending champion, who not only won both his games with white but also got a clean, quick draw in his one game with the black pieces.

After such an optimal result in the games following the second rest day, one would think Carlsen would be ecstatic in the post-game press conference. However, he looked markedly tired, a perception which was confirmed by the Norwegian himself while answering to journalists’ questions. This was not the kind of win a player of Carlsen’s calibre celebrates excessively.

Anish Giri — whose annotations you can find at the end of the article — noted that for him and his colleagues it seldom feels good to beat Nepomniachtchi. Much like in Saturday’s encounter, the Russian tends to lose games after overestimating his chances and losing control of the position. Giri described the phenomenon concisely:

Nobody ever beats him.

It is certainly difficult to imagine Nepo managing to recover from a two-point deficit given how strongly Carlsen has been playing in Dubai — and how well-prepared he looks in his fifth outing at a World Championship match. Nonetheless, the fighting Russian is likely to revert back to the kinds of sharp openings and defences that gave him so many victories during his career — i.e. the Grünfeld.

The fact that the challenger is all but forced to employ a new, aggressive approach might end up being just what he needed to put up more of a fight. Or maybe this weekend will simply decide the whole match in Carlsen’s favour...

Out of a Petroff Defence, Carlsen played an innocent-looking system with 7.Nd2. As Nepo himself noted later on, though, White can create some trouble in this setup. The first critical position was reached as early as on move 10.


Breaking the perfect symmetry of the game, Nepo had played 9...h5 after thinking for over 16 minutes. Surprisingly, Carlsen was out of book here — and what was even more unexpected was to see him spend 40 minutes before going for 10.Qe1.

The most logical alternative was 10.c4, which might end up working for White, albeit not without complications. As mentioned above, the defending champion was tired after Friday’s marathon, which turned out to be the crucial factor in him going for what might be considered as an implicit draw offer.

And, indeed, a draw would have most likely followed Black responding with 10...Qe7. However, Nepo opted for 10...Kf8, which is by no means a mistake. After the game, a disheartened — yet serene — Nepo mentioned:

In other iteration, it would be a draw in like fifteen moves, after 10...Qe7

Ian Nepomniachtchi

The stare — Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Niki Riga

Following Nepo’s tenth move, the fight continued with a symmetrical pawn structure but with Black unable to castle. A critical psychological moment was seen on move 14.


Giri described Nepo’s 14...Rh6 as ‘questionable’, but more importantly he refers to the fact that the Russian played this move way too quickly:

This questionable move was played too fast, and I started to get worried for Black here. It started to become clear that Ian was out of balance on this day.

The weight of the situation seemed to be getting into Nepo’s head, who at times makes impulsive decisions even in very important games. And Giri’s instinct was right, as the Russian made the first big blunder of the match seven moves later.


21...b5 is not the kind of mistake you see in a World Championship match. The pawn push allows 22.Qa3+ Kg8 23.Qxa7, when White grabs a pawn and attacks the bishop on d7 at the same time.

Carlsen had a clear advantage, and Nepo needed to deal with the fact that he had just made an awful mistake. The Russian could have put up more of a fight, but as Giri reflected right out of the opening, the challenger was simply out of balance. The game continued until move 46, but there was little doubt that the defending champion would manage to score his second win of the match.

It is time to regroup for Nepo and his team, who will get a chance to create a whole new plan going forward during Monday’s rest day. Time for a King’s Gambit?

Expert analysis by GM Anish Giri


Ian Nepomniachtchi

It’s time to examine new ideas | Photo: Eric Rosen

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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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Aighearach Aighearach 12/7/2021 02:07
nobody forgot that, but most of the games were a long time ago.
The more recent game Carlsen lost was after a dubious exchange sac and over-pressing.
turok turok 12/6/2021 09:59
sorry I never felt this was gonna be close-not the best challenger to take on the champion
das monde das monde 12/6/2021 07:23
After 5 solid games Nepo shows much impatience and carelessness. As he tends to start tournaments strong but fades later, the restrained start was perhaps not a good strategy for the championship match.
hserusk hserusk 12/6/2021 02:59
At this time, most folks seem to forget that Nepo has beaten Carlsen in classical chess before.
Kasparov said it best in his book. "Never watch your opposition more than you watch yourself".
It's time for Nepo to play like himself. That's all that he should focus on from here on.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 12/6/2021 02:33
I hope Nepo will manage to turn the tables. However, in this grim situation I think he still has a reason to be optimistic about. If he goes down, at least it should be in style with epic fights. And, coincidentally, this is very much in the line the situation demands. I really hope he will come out of the motte and force Carlsen to play some really interesting positions!
calcomar calcomar 12/6/2021 10:52
@bookmove - Indeed, thanks for pointing it out. It's fixed now!
rakerchess rakerchess 12/6/2021 05:32
Interestingly, the Beast (Fat Fritz 2 running on 48 cores) evaluates the position as equal all the way until move 21. It is not bothered by moves like Nepo's 9....h5, Carlsen's 10 Qe1+, Nepo's 14....Rh6, and Carlsen's 18 Qe3, as, in its view, all the alternatives likewise lead to equality.

For example, if, instead of 10 Qe1+, Carlsen had played 10 c4, the Beast sees 10....dc4 11 Re1+ Kf8 12 Bc4 Qf6 13 Qb3 h4 14 Re3 (if 14 Qb7 Bc6!=, since White cannot take the Bc6 because of 15....Bh2+, and White loses his Queen) Rh5= (only move).

Nepo's 21.....b5??+- was a blunder, since 21....Kg8 22 b3 Kf8 23 Qd2 b6= leads to equality.

However, Nepo could still have made a fight of it on the next move, as the Beast sees it, if, instead of playing 22....Kg8, he had played 22....Qd6, since this would have required Carlsen to make a series of "only moves" in order to keep his winning advantage.

For example, 23 Qa7 g5 (to create "luft" for the King) 24 Bb3 Be6 (only move) 25 Bc2 (only move) Bd5 26 Qc5 (only move) Kg7 27 Re5 (only move) Qc5 28 dc5 Re6 29 Re6 (only move) fe6 (only move) 30 b3 (only move) b4 31 f3 (only move) Kf7 32 Kf2 Kf6+-.

In this series of moves, if, instead of 29 Re6+-, Carlsen had played the obvious 29 Rg5+??=, Nepo would have achieved equality with 29....Kf8 30 Bb3 Re1+ 31 Kh2 Bb3 (only move) 32 ab3 Re2 33 b4 Rf2 33 b4 Rf2 34 b3 Rb2 35 Rh5 Rb3 36 Rh4 f5 37 Rf4 Kg7 38 g3 Rb2+ 39 Kg1 Rb1+ 40 Kf2 Rb2=, even with White's material advantage. Not at all obvious for me, but this is what the Beast tells me.
bookmove bookmove 12/6/2021 04:56
"After not winning a single classical game in two consecutive 12-game World Championship matches..."
Are we not counting the game (10) he won to tie up his match with Karjakin?
karavamudan karavamudan 12/6/2021 04:36
Oh well. Which is better? Correct draw or decisive game after oppo(nent) makes mistakes?

No wonder, the Russians trained in their so called school of chess feel two draws are better than a loss and a win.
Aighearach Aighearach 12/6/2021 01:51
If a club player played h5?! there and lost, people would just say, "well, it's not a surprise." It wasn't a blunder in the sense of there being an immediate line that punishes it, but without having gotten anything in return he quickly lost all his pawns because his king wasn't safe. A strange innovation. Surprising Carlsen in the opening has no value at all. It doesn't fluster him. A novelty should be good, or at least safe.