When Carlsen said it was a good outcome to face Nepo rather than Fabiano Caruana or Ding Liren in the World Chess Championship 2021, many thought he was teasing Nepo; Playing mind games to destabilize his opponent’s mind. Currently, it doesn’t seem like Carlsen was playing games. At this point, we can say he was being honest. Inflicting a third loss on Ian Nepomniachtchi in four games pretty much settles this championship in Carlsen’s favor. Nepo now has a mountain to climb with 5 games to go. He must win at least 3 of the 5 games and avoid another loss to stand a chance in this tournament.
Ian showed up to game 9 with a new haircut. Some suspect that reading through fans’ comments on social media influenced the decision. Perhaps, he now meant serious business in this match, in which he was trailing 5-3. A haircut is not the only new thing Nepo brought into game 9, as he surprised everyone with a new opening. Having drawn so many games with the Ruy Lopez, Nepo opted for the English Opening for a change. It would seem that Nepo prepared this opening to spring a surprise at Carlsen to finally bag a win. It appeared to be working at first because Carlsen spent so much time on the opening moves that Nepo had a 30-minute lead.
Carlsen responded to 1.c4 with 1…e6, the Agincourt Defense of the English Opening. Nepo then prepared to attack the center with a fianchettoed bishop on g2. Carlsen responded to 3.Bg2 with d4, a move not loved by Stockfish but didn’t cause any problems either. The d4 pawn, supported by several defenders, attempted to close down the game, but Nepo would not allow it. He played 9.e3, attempting to remove the trespassing pawn and open up the game. At this point, Nepo had only used 9 minutes of his time. Could one of his game 9 strategies be to throw the World Champion into a Zeitnot?
Carlsen accepted the exchange invite and resumed the offense with 10…Ng4. With a center secured by Nepo after 12.d4, Magnus played 12…a4. The move urged Nepo to correctly use an intermezzo to gain more ground in enemy territory with 14.Nc5. Now, Stockfish gave a +0.6 reading in this position. Magnus played a move that is common in bullet games, and it was 14…a3. Stockfish did not enjoy the move and evaluated the position as +0.8. Nepo’s attempt to develop a rook with Re1 caused a fine balance in the game with a 0.0 evaluation.
The engine started to admire Black’s position a bit after 22.Reb1, but parity was restored not long after. 24.Qe1 Qxe1 meant that the queens had taken their bow from the game, as the end game beckons. With their time now 37 minutes apart, Nepo proceeded with his strategy of using the clock against Carlsen. He captured the pawn on b7 and refused to allow Carlsen to compensate for it. Carlsen’s 26…Ra4 drew a lackadaisical move from Nepo. He blundered by advancing the c pawn to c5, giving the Norwegian the perfect opportunity to block the b7 bishop’s exit with 27…c6.
Nepo’s attempt to rescue a lost bishop made the position a lot worse, and the engine’s evaluation read -5.1 after 34.Nc5. A final attacking threat to promote the a pawn was laced with wishful hopes of a Carlsen blunder. Neutralizing the minor threat led Nepo to throw in the towel again in defeat. This loss proves the correctness of a statement made by Carlsen before the match. Magnus said, “In Norway Chess, he seemed very strong in the first 3-4 rounds. He had a small setback, and then he collapsed. That’s not something he can afford himself in the World Championship match.”
“I am not going to fall, even if I am hit in the face once. Perhaps, that will be his biggest challenge, to handle the setbacks that will come. Regardless of whether it’s a good position he fails to convert or a game that he should have held to a draw but ends up losing, or opening preparation that goes wrong—that will be a huge challenge for him.”, he pointed out. It’s not over yet as Nepo now has a huge mountain to climb in the coming games. How do you think he will respond to the loss in this game?