World Chess Championship 2021 II
After 8 games of the 14 game match, the world championship is already all but decided. Going into the second rest day after game 5, the whole chess world could collectively be heard to say “is this going to be like 2018 all over again?” and people were already decrying the death of classical chess, with engines being the tyrannical force that had killed our once-beloved game. And then on Friday, Magnus did something that nobody had done since 2016, and won a classical game in a world chess championship match. He did it in what can only be considered vintage Magnus style, as he flexed a muscle that no other player in the world has developed as much as him - to draw blood from a stone in endgames. The endgame in question was admittedly dynamic - at move 40, the engine evaluates the position as completely equal, with Magnus playing white retaining two rooks, a knight, and four connected kingside pawns to Nepo’s queen, bishop and four awkward pawns - two doubled and two isolated. For the next 80 moves the evaluation hovers between 0.50 and 1.00 in white’s favour, which for almost anyone in the world would indicate that Nepo should hold with solid play. After 120 moves, Nepo’s sole remaining piece was his queen, while Magnus still had a veritable army comprised of a knight, a rook and two connected pawns, and while the engine might still back itself to hold as black, every human knows that white has ample room for error whereas black has none whatsoever, and combined with both players being on the increment at this point, perhaps it was inevitable that Magnus would put a stop to the drought for classical victories.
Given Nepo’s fiery, aggressive style, and the fact that his detractors all suggested that he would simply crumble after a single loss, when he had the white pieces on the next day, I hoped he would produce some fireworks and even the score to keep the match exciting. Instead, he played his fourth consecutive Anti-Marshall, and Magnus had probably the easiest draw with black of either player so far.
Nepo’s reliance on this variation with white, particularly in what must have seemed like a crucial game to him and his camp, seems to belay that he might not have any other weapons in his arsenal, but for Magnus it was quite a different story. Having scored his first victory with 1. d4 leading to a Catalan-type position, in his next game with the white pieces, played today, he went for 1. e4 and faced Nepo’s Petroff for the second time. The position was totally symmetrical after 8 moves, and Nepo seemed to have equalised out of the opening, until disaster struck with 21… b5 where he simply blundered a pawn. His position quickly untangled and he seemed to crumble, playing the equally questionable 23… Qd8 only two moves later. Magnus was his usual clinical self and duly liquidated into a much better endgame to comfortably win for the second time in only three days.
Before the match, many people questioned Nepo’s resilience in the face of bad moves, bad games and bad results, and now he has a rest day to collect himself once more before playing with the white pieces, this will be the test of whether he has overcome previously issues with controlling his emotions to bring his best chess. Magnus has shown so far that he is in fine form, but Nepo and his team will know that he isn’t infallible, and it’s not unthinkable he might get too comfortable on his +2 lead and make a mistake. Magnus appears to be solidifying his claim to the title of greatest of all time, but Nepo must surely think that if he can pull off a miracle and turn this match around then it will be one of the greatest world championship matches in history, and could etch his name into the history books forever.