The auditorium in Dubai hosting the 2021 World Chess Championship is reminiscent of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Each features a grand, darkened room with a glowing diorama, filled with motionless drama. And in both, a squid and a whale remain deadlocked in their boxes, caught in the middle of a grueling battle.
Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the longtime world No. 1, is defending his title against challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia, the world No. 5. On Saturday, the two played a roller coaster of a draw in 58 moves over 4.5 hours. They split the point, and the best-of-14 match sits level, 1-1. It has been more than five years since anyone won a regulation game in the World Chess Championship.
Here’s how the computer has seen the ebbs and flows of the games thus far this year:
Carlsen commanded the white pieces in the glass box on Saturday, moving first, with a cream-colored blazer to match. Before the game, the chesserati buzzed, wondering just how he would begin. In the 2018 world championship, Carlsen displayed a fun little pattern across his white games, opening with pawns to d4, c4, e4, d4, c4 and e4, which I assume sounds cool if you play it on a piano.
As it happened, Carlsen played d4 and for the second game in a row sacrificed a pawn to gain an early attacking initiative — perhaps counter to expectations against his famously aggressive Russian opponent. The players entered the Catalan opening. The Catalan is a “clash of concepts,” as explained by former world champion Viswanathan Anand on the official match broadcast: Which is more valuable, black’s extra pawn or white’s budding attack and bishop controlling the board’s longest diagonal?
After six moves in Dubai on Saturday, that clash of concepts looked like this:
Two moves later, Carlsen rode his knight into enemy territory, onto the e5 square — a rare, sharp move. When Nepomniachtchi responded, the position they had created had never before appeared on the tournament boards of top-level grandmasters. Shortly thereafter, Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi both walked away to take a brief rest, leaving the novel chess position sitting alone on a table in the box, like a still life in a museum display.
Expert observers admired Carlsen’s attacking chances but knew they wouldn’t come easy. “The position is dangerous and complicated, but it’s not one where white can immediately attack,” said Fabiano Caruana, the American No. 1, on Chess.com’s livestream. “It’s more long-term pressure.”
Despite the complexity, Carlsen appeared comfortable, likely well within his pregame preparation. He played quickly and opened a large time advantage — perhaps counter to expectations against the famously fast Nepomniachtchi.
But the clash of concepts eventually favored the pawn rather than the position, and the long-term investment never paid off. Nepomniachtchi defended and counterattacked with great precision. Around the 20th move, Carlsen sacrificed even more material, trading his rook for Nepomniachtchi’s knight to forestall a Russian equine invasion. On his 24th move, by this point heavily favored by the computer, Nepomniachtchi faced the position below:
The computer suggested the moves pawn-to-g6 or queen-to-e7, or taking the pawn on a4. Instead, Nepomniachtchi moved his pawn to c3, evidently a mistake, allowing Carlsen to reclaim some of his material deficit in the moves that followed. The game simplified (relatively!) after that — the position was roughly level for some 30 moves as pieces quickly left the board. The squid and the whale — I remain agnostic as to who is which — agreed to a draw with a rook and two pawns each.
“I thought I was doing well,” Carlsen said after the game, before admitting that he had simply overlooked the knight invasion that gave him so much trouble.
Nepomniachtchi also recalled the moment: “I thought, ‘Wow, suddenly it’s getting very nice for black.’”
But in the end, another day, another draw, another deadlocked diorama. “In general it was a very puzzling game,” Nepomniachtchi added. “It was very interesting and very chaotic.”
Game 3 begins Sunday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern. We’ll be covering the entire match here and on Twitter, and we’re excited to be puzzled as we stare into the glass box.
For even more writing on chess and other games, check out Roeder’s new book, “Seven Games: A Human History,” available in January.