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The World’s Best Chess Players Are Too Good To Win

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Since Friday, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi have been spending their days in a glass box in Dubai, vying for the 2021 World Chess Championship. It’s a title that challenger Nepomniachtchi is hoping to wrest from Carlsen, the world No. 1, who has held it since 2013. But neither has yet yielded any ground, and Tuesday’s Game 4 ended in a 33-move draw over 2.5 hours, the quickest game of the match so far. After four consecutive draws, the score sits level, 2-2. The best-of-14-game match could stretch until mid-December.

While neither grandmaster has won a game, their match remains impressive in its own right: It appears to be the most accurate world chess championship ever played, the closest to achieving the game’s Platonic perfection.

Carlsen controlled the white pieces on Tuesday, his 31st birthday. After two pawns and two knights entered the fray, mirror images of one another, the grandmasters found themselves in the Petrov opening for the first time in the match, to the surprise of many onlookers but likely not to Carlsen.

“Magnus has prepared extensively for the Petrov,” said Robert Hess, commentating for Chess.com, noting that Carlsen had faced Fabiano Caruana, the top American and one of the opening’s great practitioners, in the previous world championship.

The queens were traded off the board early, and the game stayed well within the known database until the 18th move, when Carlsen essayed a novel knight to h4, which was soon accompanied by a pawn boldly launched to g4. Perhaps an attack was on!

“This is beautiful stuff,” said the Petrov expert Caruana, commentating alongside Hess.

For a moment, it did seem like Carlsen was on to something — if something small. “We’re talking about microscopic advantages, but there’s no one better in the world at taking advantage of microscopic advantages than Magnus Carlsen,” said former world champion Viswanathan Anand on the official match broadcast.

But the microscopic advantage never multiplied, dying on its laboratory slide. Nepomniachtchi responded accurately — despite (or because of) the fact that he’d both removed his blazer and untucked his shirt — and the game ended after a perpetual check and a threefold repetition of position.

“I tried something concrete, and it didn’t work,” Carlsen said after the game. “The state of modern chess, what can I say?”

Accurate is the word of the match so far. Inevitably, the string of draws is the main narrative out of Dubai; no one has won a regulation game in the world championship in more than five years. But wins at this rarefied level most often come thanks to an opponent’s mistake, as Nepomniachtchi himself noted earlier in the match, and these players simply haven’t made mistakes. Many suspect that chess, with perfect play, is a guaranteed draw.

The chess website Lichess and its community of developers investigated this accuracy this week, using the computer engine Stockfish to analyze every world championship game ever played, comparing players’ actual moves to the computer’s calculated moves.

Accuracy has been increasing over the decades, and accelerating as superhuman computers have imparted their lessons. So far, this year’s world championship has seen the most perfect play in the 135-year history of the event; Sunday’s Game 3 appears to be the most accurate championship game ever played, and Game 4 looked similarly strong. 

Chess games are often assessed by computers with the metric “average centipawn loss” — that is, how many hundredths of a pawn on average a player deviated from the strongest available move. Zero represents perfectly accurate play. The chart below shows players’ combined average centipawn loss by game, sliding toward zero across more than 1,000 games.

Despite the near-perfection, the string of draws has renewed calls, led by Carlsen himself, to revamp the world championship format. A common suggestion is to decrease the players’ time allotment, allowing them less time to consider their computer-driven preparation and reintroducing — dare I say it — the human element, mistakes and all. ​​(Nepomniachtchi, for example, suggested on Tuesday that he had reviewed all the moves that would transpire in Game 4 in his preparation for it.) It could even — gasp — reintroduce wins and losses. ​​Nepomniachtchi, for his part, said he values tradition.

Game 5 begins Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern. We’ll be covering the entire match here and on Twitter, and we, too, will strive for computer perfection, clinging to our centipawns.

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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