How the longest game in the history of the World Chess Championship was won

Ian Nepomniachtchi took off his blazer on the third move, in record time, and he played with a captured chess piece as if it were a top. Across from him, in a glass box in Dubai, sat Magnus Carlsen, the world number 1. The two, locked in the middle of a weeks-long battle for the world chess championship, would sit there for a while. More than eight hours later, at the post-match press conference with his jacket back on, Nepomniachtchi would be wondering what went wrong.

With just a few hits, Carlsen offered to sacrifice a pawn on the altar of attack, a bet he had already attempted twice in the match, which had yet to see a victory. It was a creative idea, celebrated by expert commentators, in this version of the Catalan opening, territory they had also visited last weekend in Game 2.

Nepomniachtchi declined the pawn and offered his own aggression. Chess analysts offer a variety of punctuation marks for notable moves. Nepomniachtchi’s 11th move was universally rewarded with an exclamation mark – with “11… b5! He managed to navigate the opening with the black pieces and bared his teeth, showing his own will to fight. A few shots later, Nepomniachtchi refused to trade queens, again demonstrating his tenacity. Two entrenched and well-equipped armies gazed at each other across an empty no-man’s land in the middle of the plateau – the silence before the fury and the long war of attrition to come.

Nepomniachtchi soon offered his own profession: a white queen for two black towers. Carlsen agreed to these terms, and the unbalanced position faltered precariously on the board. The players’ clocks were ticking as they considered how this could all fall apart.

Players start World Championship matches with a bank of two hours – they only earn a bonus hour after making their 40th move. If a player’s clock reaches 0:00, they lose. By the 30th stroke, Carlsen’s clock had drifted below 10 minutes. On 35, his time and that of Nepomniachtchi were less than five minutes.

For much of the match, the computer rating remained at a level close to 0.00, representative of the tied and near-perfect failures played by the two grandmasters. During this feverish period of turmoil that followed here, however, the computer shook like a seismograph during the Big One.

With the clocks running out, Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi were locked in an intricate battle for space and material in the southwestern corner of the plateau – an asymmetrical, queen and bishop skirmish against towers and knight. Carlsen was the first to see any real chances of winning, but he missed a chance unleash a successful ranged attack on the Black King. (Carlsen said after the match that this idea had not been on his radar.) Soon after, Nepomniachtchi should have grabbed a free pawn but didn’t.

They each made their 40th movement with a few seconds to spare, the computer again displayed 0.00 and the clocks went back to one hour each.

But after four hours of play, there was still a rich and busy endgame to come. With his king in cover and some time on his clock, Carlsen was free to investigate his chances of attacking again.

A laborious dance took place over dozens of movements, as a few pawns were swallowed up and the pieces were rerouted to the right places. On move 80, Carlsen traded one of his towers for a pawn and a bishop, and the survivors were: a tower, a knight and three pawns for Carlsen; a queen and a pawn for Nepomniachtchi.

It took about 30 moves before another pawn moved, and no pieces were captured, as the larger guns swayed and weaved, entering and exiting traffic, and with similar consequences if they weren’t looking both ways. On the 100th move, Nepomniachtchi’s chair was visibly shaking, another seismic event. As moves slipped further and further into triple digits, Carlsen began to check his scoresheet, wanting to avoid the triple position reps that would be declared a draw, and instead pursue the win no matter how long it was. it would take.

By the 116th move, the game could be found in the end-of-game tables, those pre-calculated positions known to modern machines – the game was a theoretically guaranteed draw. This does not mean that the toss is easy for a human to perform. Nepo had to navigate a minefield while wiping off heavy fire, finding the right moves to hold the draw, while Carlsen played mostly risk-free.

On the 125th move, it became the longest match in the history of the world championship.

On the 130th move, Nepomniachtchi got it wrong. A powerful computer analyzing the match found a checkmate guaranteed 60 moves in the future.

It wouldn’t take that long. Nepomniachtchi offered his resignation after 136 moves over nearly eight hours, as Carlsen’s pawns were unstoppable, destined to be promoted to the other end of the board. Carlsen is now in the lead of the 14 best games, 3.5-2.5, and the competition could run until mid-December.

In a match defined by flawless play, a few human errors on Friday introduced deep drama and turned the game into an instant classic. Nepomniachtchi described both players’ play as “far from excellent”, but the play itself was superb.

“I was running on fumes at the end,” Carlsen said at the post-match press conference, calling the game a victory like any other, with familiar nonchalance.

And how does Nepomniachtchi bounce back? “I hope in style,” he said.

The game continues throughout the weekend, with Game 7 on Saturday and Game 8 on Sunday – both starting at 7:30 a.m. EST. We will cover it here and on Twitter, keeping a close eye on our clock.

Seven games by Oliver Roeder

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

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