Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi played to a fourth draw in as many games on Tuesday in the latest instalment of their €2m world championship showdown in Dubai, which left the best-of-14 match in a 2-2 deadlock with 10 contests remaining.
The peaceful result after 2hr 37min was the shortest of the encounter so far, where no blood has yet been drawn but which supercomputers evaluating the moves have indicated is the most accurate world title match ever played in the event’s history.
Carlsen, playing with the favoured white pieces, opened with 1 e4 before the players quickly found themselves looking at the Petrov Defence (1 … e5 2 Nf3 Nf6). The opening, seldom deployed by the Russian, took many observers by surprise but not Carlsen, who noted afterward that Nepomniachtchi played it during the eight-man candidates tournament where he secured his place as the world title challenger.
“It was one of the main openings that I expected seeing that he played it in the Candidates and also, in (Nepomniachtchi’s) first black game, he went for a more classical approach rather than a sharp one,” said Carlsen, who also faced the Petrov as white in the sixth and 11th contests of his third world title defence against the American Fabiano Caruana in London three years ago. “So it was very much expected. Couldn’t know obviously which exact Petrov line he was going to go for, but the Petrov in itself was very much expected.”
The queens came off the board within the first half-hour amid material exchanges that augured the quiet outcome ahead, though Carlsen was first to divert from the annals of known games with the rare 18 Nh4!? followed by the ambitious 19 g4. Further, the Norwegian’s decision to decline a draw by repetition with 27 d5 (instead of Nf6+) and the extensive time he spent on moves in the endgame when the draw appeared imminent – more than 22 minutes on 25 Nf6+ and nearly 35 minutes on 30 Ne8+ – indicated that he was still in search of winning chances.
But much like the opening three games, where Nepomniachtchi was made to rely on accurate play to secure a half-point after Carlsen was first to stray from familiar theory, the challenger operated with extraordinary precision until the affair concluded with a threefold repetition of position after 33 moves.
“It’s OK, I’ve started with a lot more draws than this [in the 2016 and 2018 world title matches], said Carlsen, brushing aside questions of whether he was frustrated by Tuesday’s relatively dry proceedings. “When you play a forced line as today, you don’t expect to hit very often. But the idea is to hit once in a while, take your opponent by surprise, and the other times you’ve usually got to be very safe.
“Obviously I would have loved to win, would have loved to find more chances than I did, but I think overall it’s a normal result against a world-prepared opponent.”
Carlsen, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Tuesday, has been at No 1 in the Fide ratings for 10 straight years and was considered the world’s best player even before he deposed Vishy Anand for the title in 2013. He is making his fourth defense of the world championship against Nepomniachtchi, also 31, who is the world No 5.
Asked whether the half-point was a satisfying result, Nepomniachtchi was to the point: “Since I played Petrov, indeed.”