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The World Chess Championship Opens With An Endless Knight-Rook Dance

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With a tense draw lasting four hours and 45 moves, Magnus Carlsen on Friday began the latest defense of his World Chess Championship title. The Norwegian grandmaster has been No. 1 in the world for a decade and has held the sport’s top title since 2013. His challenger, Russian grandmaster and world No. 5 Ian Nepomniachtchi, won the right to challenge for the title by winning the elite Candidates Tournament in April.

The match sits level at 0.5-0.5 in a race to 7.5 points. The best-of-14-game contest could stretch over the next three weeks.

The two players met in a glowing, glass-encased stage in Dubai, which struck at least one reporter as vaguely reminiscent of the VIP area in “Squid Game” — though no blood has yet been drawn here. Nepomniachtchi marshalled the white pieces — determined by a procedure at an opening gala involving confetti-filled balloons — and the two began in the main line of the Ruy Lopez opening, well-trod territory named for a 16th-century Spanish priest.

The mind games had started days earlier. Last week, on the Norwegian-language Løperekka podcast, Carlsen called Nepomniachtchi a “very moody player” and a “wild card,” according to a translation on chess24. He also suggested that Nepomniachtchi might not be able to handle the pressures of a world championship and that other players would have made stronger challengers. Carlsen also said he would try to strike early.

The two grandmasters quickly blitzed out the first dozen or so moves of the game, but it soon became subtle and complex, emblematic of modern chess, where computer engines mine the game for every last edge and grandmasters internalize the lessons like gospel. Even after 17 moves, and the universe of possibility those moves might contain, both players appeared to be comfortably within the scope of their prematch preparation. 

By this point, the position in Dubai had never before appeared in the vast databases of accumulated human chess history.

Carlsen did try to strike, sacrificing a pawn earlier to kindle a nascent attack, led by his pair of bishops. Nepomniachtchi, constantly sipping from his mug, clung to his small material advantage, while Carlsen nursed his positional advantage, trying to break through.

“Ideas come more naturally from black’s side,” said Robert Hess, a grandmaster commentating for Chess.com.

“It’s much harder to make progress with white,” said Viswanathan Anand, a former world champion working the official match live stream.

Carlsen even removed his blazer.

But Nepomniachtchi, blazer already off, handled the pressure just fine, and the Norwegian attack never quite ignited. A flurry of midgame trades saw both of Carlsen’s bishops exit the scene, leaving each side with two rooks and a knight to maneuver among a thicket of pawns as they entered an intricate endgame. Even still, it seemed briefly that Carlsen had earned the sort of slight advantage that he is famous for chasing to the bitter end.

This, too, evaporated. The players agreed to a draw in the position below, as white’s knight and black’s rook were caught in an endless, repetitious dance.

The postgame press conference was something of a draw, too, with both players deflecting questions about their winning chances and their feelings on the outcome.

“I wouldn’t say I was ever optimistic, in terms of winning the game,” Carlsen said.

“A draw is also somewhat a result,” Nepomniachtchi said. “I don’t feel anything specific.”

Here’s how things went move by move in Game 1, per the evaluations of the superhuman chess engine Stockfish. (We’ll update the chart below throughout the match.)

Chart showing a line chart of game 1 of the 2021 World Chess Championship and a small multiple grid of line charts for all the games so far. Each line chart shows the advantage by player after each move. In game 1, Ian Nepomniachtchi had a slight advantage over Magnus Carlsen for the first half. In the second half, neither player held an advantageous position for very long, and the game ended in a draw.

Game 2 begins Saturday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern. We’ll be covering the entire match here and on Twitter, and hoping to feel many specific things.

Seven Games by Oliver Roeder

For even more writing on chess and other games, check out Roeder’s new book, “Seven Games: A Human History,” available in January.

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