Magnus Carlsen, the champion, and Ian Nepomniachtchi, the challenger, resume their 14-game world title match in Dubai on Friday (12.30pm start) with the score 2.5-2.5 after five straight draws, which represents a small but significant success so far for the 31-year-old Russian underdog.
The next trio of games this weekend, with two Whites for the Norwegian, are critical if Carlsen is to regain momentum, because the following two rest days before games nine and 11 will precede Whites for Nepomniachtchi. Additionally, some observers already noted that Carlsen looked tired during game five, which could be ominous so early in the match.
Carlsen planned a fast start against an opponent he hoped would be nervous but Nepomniachtchi, besides holding his own at the board, has also matched verbals in the post-game press conference. He revealed after game four that his aides and/or the Zhores super-computer had already prepared him for Carlsen’s intended surprise 18 Nh4!? planning to regroup the knight via g2 to e3 or even a4 targeting pawns.
The concept behind 18 Nh4!? was reminiscent of a Czech talent test of long ago, with a white knight at a1 and black pawns at c6, f6, c3 and f3, where the knight has to go up the board to a8, rank by rank, while avoiding squares occupied or attacked by the pawns. The best talents, including the future world class Vlastimil Hort, could do this in two minutes.
Game two has been the most revealing so far for what could happen with both sides outside their prep, as Carlsen misplayed his attack before Nepomniachtchi played too safe at a critical moment. Their memory banks and super-computer back-ups are in good shape, so the question is who will cope better as the nervous tension becomes acute in the last few games.
Carlsen’s plan B seems to be to test his opponent’s resilience with low-risk probes, but the ambience will change dramatically if and when one side scores the first win. “If” is a necessary qualification here, since Carlsen’s ongoing record of championship draws in classical games stands at 19 – the last two against Sergey Karjakin in 2016, all 12 against Fabiano Caruana in 2018, and now another five. This breaks the record of 17 consecutive draws set by Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov in their “timeless test” match in Moscow 1984-85.
The opening of the match so far is the Anti-Marshall 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0-0 Be7 6 Re1 b5 7 Bb3 0-0 8 a4!? which avoids the Marshall Gambit 8 c3 d5. The variation’s last outing in a world title series was in 1993, when Kasparov won games one, three and seven against Nigel Short with it, effectively deciding the match at the start, although Short was unlucky in game one when he overstepped the time limit in the better position at move 40, the last before the time control. The fact that Nepomniachtchi, like Kasparov, got a superior position from the opening will probably make 8 a4 more popular, though Black players can easily avoid it by playing 7...d6 first, with 0-0 to follow.
The games to date might have been disappointing, but the huge growth in quality and quantity of online websites has meant that this has been the best ever world championship for online audiences of all playing standards.
For the casual viewer who knows little about chess and its top players, the Guardian’s own coverage by Sean Ingle and Bryan Armen Graham explains the plans, the controversies and the background without overloading the reader with too much technical detail, yet conveys the excitement when either player senses a breakthrough.
Keen newcomers to chess and average club players can find the ideas, attacks and defences analysed by the three-time British champion David Howell and England’s No 1 woman, Jovanka Houska, on Chess24, and the same site has coverage for advanced players and experts by the all-time No 1 woman, Judit Polgar, and the Netherlands world No 7, Anish Giri, who provide a mine of instruction, even though Giri talks too fast.
Vishy Anand’s sage judgments as an ex-world champion are a feature of the official Fide site, while US viewers will be interested in the all-American commentary team led by Caruana, the world No 4, on chess.com.
Jonathan Penrose, who died on Tuesday aged 88, won the British championship a record 10 times, defeated Mikhail Tal at the 1960 Olympiad, and nearly beat Bobby Fischer at the same event. Penrose was a true amateur, a college lecturer who only played tournaments during vacations, yet he will go down as one of the all-time greats of English chess.
Three of his most memorable moments at the board came when he was just 16, his brilliant wins against Efim Bogolyubov and Savielly Tartakower at Southsea 1950, and his 10-move miniature featured in this week’s puzzle.
3792 1....Bxf2+! 2 Kxf2 Ng4+ 3 Ke1(if 3 Kg1 Qb6+ forces mate) Ne3 4 Qa4+ Bd7 and White resigned. If 5 Qa3/b4 Nc2+ wins the queen.