World Chess Championship, Dubai, Game 1: The defending champion Magnus Carlsen and this year’s challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi started their FIDE World Championship with a draw.
Playing with white pieces Nepo opened with 1. e4 to shuffle it to the Ruy Lopez (3.Bb5). The defending champ had the moment to go for the Berlin but he went for 3..a6 instead. He transformed the game with a Marshall Gambit setup but the Russian declined with 8.h3.
The defending champ surprised everyone with an 8…Na5 move which from a human point of view is the sixth most popular but Chess engine Leela loved that move.
Although it was a surprise for viewers, Nepo instantly replied with 9.Nxe5 showing how prepared he is for these championships. Until the 16th move, both players played it fast.
White had an extra pawn with compensation for Black as Bishop pair activity. “Nepomniachtchi is objectively better but Magnus knows the position,” as GM our star commentator GM Fabiano Caruana remarked in the Chess.com broadcast.
“I was very slightly optimistic during the whole game,” Nepomniachtchi would say afterward. “This is quite a curious line for Black with very thin compensation.”
“I didn’t particularly mind the position that I got,” countered Carlsen. “The opening that I played is not one you can afford to play if you’re not fine being down a pawn with the bishop pair. But after that, it does, in general, feel like White has a little bit more potential to maneuver and Black usually has to react a bit more.”
The Norwegian top player soon disrupted white’s kingside pawn structure with a trade of minor pieces. Saying his 22.Bf4 move “logical”, he said afterward, “But it doesn’t work due to some positional and tactical reasons,” he noted. “So, basically, after I let these exchanges happen, it was never something [where] I could [have more] than a draw.”
Carlsen, on that phase: “I was pretty happy with the plan that I found eventually: giving up the bishop pair to some extent looks very counter-intuitive, but I thought that I would still have reasonable compensation with his weakened pawn structure and relatively passive pieces. At least in the game, I was at least half vindicated.”
Afterward, Carlsen admitted he had been “slightly worried” earlier in the game but felt better here: “I was happy to find this idea with 33…b4, but I knew that if he remained prudent there and brought his king over I thought chances of winning the game were not realistic.”
The pressure was there on Ian Mepomniatchtchi in the final phase but he played some accurate moves to hinder the winning chance for Magnus.
Five moves after the time control, the game ended in a draw—shortly after Caruana had said about Nepomniachtchi: “He is not the type of player to force a draw in this position,” although the former challenger quickly added that things work differently in world championship matches.