Nepo Fires Another Shot in the Spanish, "Weary" Carlsen Finds Refuge in Fortress

Wednesday saw a fifth consecutive draw in the 2021 FIDE World Chess Championship, and another shot in the Ruy Lopez possibly squandered by challenger GM Ian Nepomniachtchi in Dubai, UAE.

GM Magnus Carlsen, officially in the thick of his fourth title defense as World Champion, found his appearance under scrutiny on Wednesday, with online kibitzers observing the Norwegian looked weary and, perhaps, vulnerable.

Staying level in this match thus far, Norwegian GM Magnus Carlsen chose 8. ... Rb8, deviating from his 8. … Bb7 played in the Spanish seen in Game 3 last Sunday. Regardless, Nepomniachtchi raced by in preparation, doing his part to open the queenside and load the kingside with material.

The challenger might have maintained the advantage of first move when Carlsen entered his first deep think, which produced an uncomfortable 19. … Qe8. But the ensuing visit to the tank by Nepomniachtchi replied with a passive 20. Red1, later described as a welcome surprise by the World Champion.

A trade of the queens and some additional liquidation followed, and some passive defense by Black soon converted into a solid fortress. The players drew by repetition after 43 moves.

“The tension is rising and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that it’s going to be hard for either of us to break through … it’s not easy,” Carlsen said.

For a deeper dive into Wednesday’s Game 5 of the 2021 FIDE World Chess Championship, Chess Life Online brings you IM John Watson's exclusive thoughts and annotations. Watson writes:

Round 5 was pretty eventful, with Nepomniachtchi as White getting his first serious opening advantage (or early middlegame advantage, depending how you look at it). He repeated his anti-Marshall Ruy Lopez with 8. a4, and Carlsen deviated from Game 3 with 8. ... Rb8.

As in earlier games, Carlsen offered a pawn and with early central … d5 advance. Nepo declined the sacrifice and achieved a modest edge, which soon turned more serious when Carlsen failed to neutralize White’s positional plusses. Nepo also had a nice time advantage, and arguably should have taken a deeper think about how to prevent Carlsen from freeing his game, because one ineffective move cost him his advantage.

After that, the game seemed to be drifting towards a likely draw when Carlsen shocked commentators and observers by foregoing a straightforward equalizing maneuver in favor of a passive, awkward-looking reorganization which included not only seriously weakening his own pawn structure, but also entering into a position in which all of his pieces were inferior to White’s! See my notes to moves 27-33 in particular.

Several elite grandmasters (including two ex-World Champions) expressed their firm disapproval in commentary and tweets, and everyone seemed to expect a long, slow endgame grind. But the excitement was short-lived: it turns out that Carlsen had calculated perfectly, 10 moves or so in advance, that his apparently anti-positional play was leading by force to fortress position in which White didn’t even have a plan, much less a decent attempt for an advantage.

Of course there are many reasons why Magnus is a better player than I am, or more importantly, than his professional rivals. But I think that this ‘incident’ illustrates something that is often neglected. Were I playing Black, I would have rejected Carlsen’s setup as weakening, passive, and typical of the way I’ve been ground down in many games over the years. Once I saw that I was allowing White the h4-h5 push, securing a mighty knight on f5, while retaining the much better bishop (see the game itself below), I would start looking at other solutions, which were there to be had.

Even if I had envisioned the fortress he arrived at, I have nowhere near the clarity of mind necessary to be sure from the start that there wouldn’t be some way to break it down, or to prevent me from achieving it in all variations. Judging from the comments of players far stronger than myself, it sounds as though even they wouldn’t have pursued his line of thinking; they rejected it on general principle.

It’s a tribute to Carlsen’s calculating abilities, and his confidence in them, that he spotted the idea and stubbornly worked out all the details of its execution. The result of the game wasn’t changed thereby (there were easier ways to draw), but you get some insight into the concrete nature of his play.



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