It took 136 moves in one game and one fateful oversight in another, but we finally got a pair of decisive results from the title match between Norwegian champion Magnus Carlsen and Russian challenger GM Ian Nepomniachtchi in their scheduled 14-game match just past the halfway point in Dubai.
After the match opened with five straight draws, Carlsen employed his trademark grit and sheer cussedness to break through with a win in Game 6, an epic struggle that goes down in the record books as the longest game in the 150-year history of world championship matches. It eclipsed a 124-move draw in the bitter 1978 title fight between Soviet champion Anatoly Karpov and Soviet challenger Viktor Korchnoi.
The contest seemed to take a lot out of Nepomniachtchi. He played a tame Ruy Lopez Anti-Marshall line with White for a dull draw in Game 7 and then committed an elementary tactical blunder to throw away Game 8 on Sunday in a more sensible 41 moves.
With just six games left in the match, the champ now holds an imposing 5-3 lead, putting him on track to retain the title he has held since 2013. Nepomniachtchi will be under increasing pressure to score his first full point Tuesday when he again has the White pieces in Game 9.
Both players looked exhausted after the strain of three straight games beginning Friday. Nepomniachtchi in particular appeared rueful and resigned as he faced reporters’ questions about the disaster that was Game 8 and how he expected to turn things around.
“I’d like to apologize for today’s performance,” Nepomniachtchi joked in the postgame press briefing. “It was probably far below — not even, let’s say — my normal level but below GM level.”
Game 6 might merit a full book of its own someday, but at heart it was a textbook example of Carlsen’s ability to squeeze a win out of the tiniest of advantages. The challenger actually got a slightly better game with Black out of this Catalan, but Carlsen was able to defend and — according to a world full of silicon and human kibitzers — missed a close-to-winning shot with 33. Rcc2! (instead of the game’s 33. Rd1) Bxa3 34. Nf4!, with the idea that White can ignore the queenside pawns while whipping up a decisive kingside attack with his rooks and knight. Little did either player suspect it would take another 103 moves to decide the issue.
White’s decision to trade his queen for Black’s two rooks worked out well, as in the ensuing endgame it was only Carlsen playing for the win. Black defended heroically, but after White’s pawns patiently worked their way up the board, it was over in a flash after 130. Kh3 (see diagram) Qe6? (the engines say both 130…Qb1 and 130…Qc2 are mandatory to hold the position) 131. Kh4 (the king joins the push with decisive impact, protected by some clever knight forks) Qh6+ 132. Nh5 Qh7 133. e6! (the beginning of the end; 133…Qxf5 134. Nxg7+ wins) Qg6 134. Rf7 Kd8 (Qxe6 135. Ng7+ Kxf7 136. Nxe6 Kxe6 137. Kh5 is an elementary endgame win) 135. f5 Qg1 136. Ng7, and Black had to resign as the pawn has a clear path to the queening square after the queen checks run out.
After the uneventful Game 7 draw, disaster struck for the challenger in Sunday’s Game 8.
Facing the Petroff’s Defense for the second time in the match, Carlsen’s maneuvering with the relatively rare line 7. Nd2 and the subtle 10. Qe1+!? (played after 40 minutes of thought) forced Black to be creative just to maintain equality. Eschewing the natural (and extremely drawish) 10…Qe7, Nepomniachtchi missed several chances to neutralize White’s play and then committed the worst blunder of the match so far: simply losing a pawn without compensation.
The key moves came on 20. c4 dxc4 21. Bxc4 b5?? (21…Kg8, sidestepping the check, was close to mandatory), losing a pawn to the simple tactic of 22. Qa3+ Kg8 23. Qxa7, and if 23…bxc4, White gets back the bishop with 24. Qxd7. The discouraged challenger failed to put up tough resistance (23…Bxh3! 24. Qxf7+! Qxf7 24. Re8+ Kh7 25. Bxf7 Bf5 afforded at least some drawing chances), as Carlsen simplified down to a queen ending where he had two extra pawns.
When Black’s hopes of generating checks against the White king disintegrated after 44. d5 g4 45. hxg4 h3 46. Qf3, the Russian resigned from the game.
Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi, World Championship Match, Game 6, Dubai, December 2021
1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 d5 3. g3 e6 4. Bg2 Be7 5. O-O O-O 6. b3 c5 7. dxc5 Bxc5 8. c4 dxc4 9. Qc2 Qe7 10. Nbd2 Nc6 11. Nxc4 b5 12. Nce5 Nb4 13. Qb2 Bb7 14. a3 Nc6 15. Nd3 Bb6 16. Bg5 Rfd8 17. Bxf6 gxf6 18. Rac1 Nd4 19. Nxd4 Bxd4 20. Qa2 Bxg2 21. Kxg2 Qb7+ 22. Kg1 Qe4 23. Qc2 a5 24. Rfd1 Kg7 25. Rd2 Rac8 26. Qxc8 Rxc8 27. Rxc8 Qd5 28. b4 a4 29. e3 Be5 30. h4 h5 31. Kh2 Bb2 32. Rc5 Qd6 33. Rd1 Bxa3 34. Rxb5 Qd7 35. Rc5 e5 36. Rc2 Qd5 37. Rdd2 Qb3 38. Ra2 e4 39. Nc5 Qxb4 40. Nxe4 Qb3 41. Rac2 Bf8 42. Nc5 Qb5 43. Nd3 a3 44. Nf4 Qa5 45. Ra2 Bb4 46. Rd3 Kh6 47. Rd1 Qa4 48. Rda1 Bd6 49. Kg1 Qb3 50. Ne2 Qd3 51. Nd4 Kh7 52. Kh2 Qe4 53. Rxa3 Qxh4+ 54. Kg1 Qe4 55. Ra4 Be5 56. Ne2 Qc2 57. R1a2 Qb3 58. Kg2 Qd5+ 59. f3 Qd1 60. f4 Bc7 61. Kf2 Bb6 62. Ra1 Qb3 63. Re4 Kg7 64. Re8 f5 65. Raa8 Qb4 66. Rac8 Ba5 67. Rc1 Bb6 68. Re5 Qb3 69. Re8 Qd5 70. Rcc8 Qh1 71. Rc1 Qd5 72. Rb1 Ba7 73. Re7 Bc5 74. Re5 Qd3 75. Rb7 Qc2 76. Rb5 Ba7 77. Ra5 Bb6 78. Rab5 Ba7 79. Rxf5 Qd3 80. Rxf7+ Kxf7 81. Rb7+ Kg6 82. Rxa7 Qd5 83. Ra6+ Kh7 84. Ra1 Kg6 85. Nd4 Qb7 86. Ra2 Qh1 87. Ra6+ Kf7 88. Nf3 Qb1 89. Rd6 Kg7 90. Rd5 Qa2+ 91. Rd2 Qb1 92. Re2 Qb6 93. Rc2 Qb1 94. Nd4 Qh1 95. Rc7+ Kf6 96. Rc6+ Kf7 97. Nf3 Qb1 98. Ng5+ Kg7 99. Ne6+ Kf7 100. Nd4 Qh1 101. Rc7+ Kf6 102. Nf3 Qb1 103. Rd7 Qb2+ 104. Rd2 Qb1 105. Ng1 Qb4 106. Rd1 Qb3 107. Rd6+ Kg7 108. Rd4 Qb2+ 109. Ne2 Qb1 110. e4 Qh1 111. Rd7+ Kg8 112. Rd4 Qh2+ 113. Ke3 h4 114. gxh4 Qh3+ 115. Kd2 Qxh4 116. Rd3 Kf8 117. Rf3 Qd8+ 118. Ke3 Qa5 119. Kf2 Qa7+ 120. Re3 Qd7 121. Ng3 Qd2+ 122. Kf3 Qd1+ 123. Re2 Qb3+ 124. Kg2 Qb7 125. Rd2 Qb3 126. Rd5 Ke7 127. Re5+ Kf7 128. Rf5+ Ke8 129. e5 Qa2+ 130. Kh3 Qe6 131. Kh4 Qh6+ 132. Nh5 Qh7 133. e6 Qg6 134. Rf7 Kd8 135. f5 Qg1 136. Ng7 Black resigns.
Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi, World Championship Match, Game 8, Dubai, December 2021
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. d4 Nxe4 4. Bd3 d5 5. Nxe5 Nd7 6. Nxd7 Bxd7 7. Nd2 Nxd2 8. Bxd2 Bd6 9. O-O h5 10. Qe1+ Kf8 11. Bb4 Qe7 12. Bxd6 Qxd6 13. Qd2 Re8 14. Rae1 Rh6 15. Qg5 c6 16. Rxe8+ Bxe8 17. Re1 Qf6 18. Qe3 Bd7 19. h3 h4 20. c4 dxc4 21. Bxc4 b5 22. Qa3+ Kg8 23. Qxa7 Qd8 24. Bb3 Rd6 25. Re4 Be6 26. Bxe6 Rxe6 27. Rxe6 fxe6 28. Qc5 Qa5 29. Qxc6 Qe1+ 30. Kh2 Qxf2 31. Qxe6+ Kh7 32. Qe4+ Kg8 33. b3 Qxa2 34. Qe8+ Kh7 35. Qxb5 Qf2 36. Qe5 Qb2 37. Qe4+ Kg8 38. Qd3 Qf2 39. Qc3 Qf4+ 40. Kg1 Kh7 41. Qd3+ g6 42. Qd1 Qe3+ 43. Kh1 g5 44. d5 g4 45. hxg4 h3 46. Qf3 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.