Considering the long list of achievements that Magnus Carlsen has with regards to his chess career, it can be rather surprising when something comes up that he hasn’t managed yet. One such milestone remaining elusive for him, is a win over Ian Nepomniachtchi … in classical chess anyway.
By contrast, Nepomniachtchi has taken a full point from Carlsen not once, but four times. These would be, the European Championships (Under 12’s) 2002, World Youth Championships 2003, Tata Steel (Group A) 2011 and the most recent in 2017 at the London Chess Classic.
One would have to say, then, that if Magnus wanted to begin to even things up, their encounter in round seven of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour 2019, was a very good opportunity. It was, after all, the first round after the rest day. With this said, and the two sharing the top of the standings (along with Wesley So), there was certainly some buzz going around among the internet’s chess fans.
And the game was not disappointing, other than from Ian Nepomniachtchi’s perspective. After building up what would seem a rather solid and stable position, he would watch it crumble around him thanks to one clanger of a move. To be fair though, this clanger was facilitated by insightful play by his opponent.
The game was a Sicilian Defence, with Ian playing White. Playing Black, Magnus raised a few eyebrows with his opening play, making 6 pawn moves in the first 10. The diagram, below, shows the position after Black’s 10…0-0.
I don’t know about you, but I am not a huge fan of Carlsen’s set up here. His pieces seem in the way of each other. Not only that, but there is some air around the Black King already. With the utmost of respect to the World Champion, if I had a student, I would not want them to be opening the game in this way.
However, I suppose Magnus Carlsen, can take certain liberties. Not only is he a remarkable chess talent, but he is in a class of his own at the moment and brimming with confidence. This matters a lot. Furthermore, Carlsen likes to get out of theory sometimes and just play chess. He is also second to none when it comes to generating play where there isn’t any — where there ‘shouldn’t’ be any. This showed itself just a little bit later in the game.
The diagram, above, shows the position after Ian Nepomniachtchi has played 20.Bc3. Magnus replied 20…Bxd5. I really like this move, Black trades his rather useless bishop for White’s well placed knight. In this type of position, knights are a bit more prized than bishops, because their mobility is not limited by all the pawns. This is also why Carlsen thinks nothing of giving Nepomniachtchi the bishop pair.
The other aspect about 20…Bxd5, is that it lures the light-squared bishop away from its coverage of the f1-a6 diagonal. 21.Bxd5 (exd5(??) is ridiculous and Black has a huge initiative upon 21…f5) allowed Carlsen to begin expanding on the Queenside, with 21…a6. All of a sudden, Black was doing things.
There followed: 22.Bd2 (for exactly the same reason as 21…Bxd5, White seeks to trade this bishop for Black’s knight on f4, but this will open the long diagonal for the bishop on g7) Qe7 23.Rf1 b5 24.axb5 axb5 25.Kf2 c4 26.Bxf4 (Nepomniachtchi obviously did not fancy 26.dxc4 bxc4 27.Bxc4 f5, which leads to knife-edged play) exf4.
As shown in the diagram, above, out of the two it is Blacks position that is much improved. And it was about to get better, when after 27.Rad1 f5, Nepomniachtchi suffered what is commonly known as a ‘brain fart’ and played 28.gxf5(?).
Taking with the g-pawn was all kinds of wrong, (it had to be exf5, but even so, things are finely balanced), and Carlsen’s 28…g4(!) was to the point (see diagram, below).
After being in a position of stability, Nepomniachtchi is confronted with widescale problems. The most threatening being the prospect of Carlsen’s Queen coming to h4 and delivering a mighty check. To this, there was no satisfactory answer and Nepomniachtchi was soon facing an onslaught and resigning.
A satisfying win for Magnus Carlsen, then, his first classical one over Ian Nepomniachtchi. It would ultimately see the World Champion in sole lead of the tournament at the end of the round, which saw the other games drawn. By contrast, Ian Nepomniachtchi was demoted to joint third.
Standings after round 7 of 11:
Carlsen — 5.0
So — 4.5
Caruana, Nepomniachtchi, Ding Liren, Aronian — 4.0
Anand, Karjakin, Vachier-Lagrave — 3.0
Giri, Nakamura, Mamedyarov — 2.5