The Russian grandmaster desperately needed a win. After losses in an all-time classic Game 6 and a howler in Game 8, in which he blundered away a pawn, Ian Nepomniachtchi began Tuesday’s world championship game down 2 points to Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the defending world champion and the best chess player in the world.
The day began full of promise. Nepomniachtchi arrived at the board with a fresh haircut, without the man bun that had become his trademark, and with fresh reinforcements. Sergey Karjakin, his fellow super grandmaster who challenged Carlsen for the title in 2016, arrived in Dubai to aid the cause.
“They did not ask what I thought,” Karjakin told NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster, per a Google translation. “They just sent me a ticket.”
Three hours later, however, Nepomniachtchi blundered away his bishop and whatever sliver of hope he had of claiming the title. It is now all but guaranteed that Carlsen will retain the mantle he has held since 2013 — and cement his status as the greatest chess player of all time.
Nepomniachtchi, with the white pieces, early on Tuesday finally abandoned the Spanish game, which he had hammered on a few times before without profit, heading north instead for the English opening. As early as the fifth move, the position had never before been played at the highest levels, and Nepomniachtchi got exactly what he needed: a playable edge in a sharp, complex position.
On the 15th move, however, Nepomniachtchi opted not to endeavor a promising pawn sacrifice, and the position appeared to level out, perhaps bound for a draw. Things would get much worse.
There was a brief interlude of “controversy” first. On his 19th move, Carlsen touched one of his knights! The laws of chess declare that a player must move a piece they touch, unless they say “j’adoube” — French for “I adjust,” indicating their intention merely to adjust a piece’s position on a square. Carlsen didn’t move the knight, and he didn’t appear to say anything before touching it.