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Norway Chess 4: Carlsen gets to torture Nepomniachtchi

“I thought it would be nice to torture him!” said Magnus Carlsen of the endgame kill he chose to defeat his World Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi in Armageddon.

“I thought it would be nice to torture him!” said Magnus Carlsen of the endgame kill he chose to defeat his World Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi in Armageddon. The first game of their Round 4 Norway Chess clash was a draw in the Berlin Endgame, “the type of opening where neither side enjoys the game,” as Nepo put it. 

These guys are going to be seeing a lot of each other | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

You can replay all the games from the 2021 edition of Norway Chess here with live commentary from Judit Polgar and Jovanka Houska here.

Carlsen 1/2-1/2 Nepomniachtchi (Magnus wins in Armageddon)

“It will be different when we play in the match, but now it’s just a normal tournament game,” said Ian Nepomniachtchi about the first of two clashes with Magnus Carlsen in Norway Chess this year, but in the run-up to the World Championship, by far the biggest event in chess, encounters between the two players are never entirely “normal”. As usual, Magnus left his opponent waiting…

When he did arrive Magnus played 1.e4 and soon we had the Berlin on the board.

Chess fans will be hoping the Berlin won’t feature too heavily in Dubai this November | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

It was an important fork in the road. Would we get one of the instant 14-move draws we’ve seen so many of in the last couple of years, or perhaps the Anti-Berlin with 4.d3 with the potential for rich, complicated middlegame positions. In the end Magnus opted for 4.0-0 and heading straight for the Berlin Endgame where Garry Kasparov’s World Championship hopes were thwarted against Vladimir Kramnik in London in 2000. Magnus commented:

I just wanted to play a normal game and I was not expecting the Berlin, so I had to kind of improvise. 

The improvisation for both players was perhaps more about avoiding anything they might play in the World Championship match, with Magnus going for an old line where Ian’s light-squared bishop came out to e6 only to return to c8. 

Sergey Karjakin later remarked:

We studied these types of positions together with Kramnik before the Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk in 2010! It was a long time ago, but this Be6, Bc8, we kind of spent some time on this line with him, and we thought it’s holdable for Black, and today we could see that probably we were right!

Whichever way you look at it the Berlin is tough to play… | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

Magnus talked about how he’d suffered on the black side of these Berlin Endgames so wanted to try them with White, but, as so often in the Berlin, it’s incredibly hard to say if or when any real chances were missed. One moment Magnus pointed to after the game came after 22…b6.

Maybe I need to play 23.g4 immediately. I felt that this was not a concrete position, I thought that I can just build up, but it turns he has some ideas there which are very hard to meet.

Magnus went for 23.Rd2!? and after 23…Rd8 Nepo managed to neutralise any white edge with little trouble. 23.g4! does look better, but as Magnus himself explained:

I checked briefly and the computer says g4 — it’s still a draw, but he has to play very precisely.

So at first you might say it was advantage Nepo when it came to bragging rights. He’d held with the black pieces and kept his 4:1 lead in classical wins against the World Champion. 

But as Ian explained:

I found out that in this format you are basically punished for a draw! You get not half a point, but a third part of the point, and then you’ve got to win Armageddon to make it look like a normal draw. This time I was punished for my draw.

Ian is right, since a classical win is worth 3 points, but to get half that, or 1.5, you need to win the Armageddon. The loser gets 1 point. That’s not news to Magnus, who has now played and won four Armageddons:

As long as I’m not winning any classical games so far I absolutely need to win the Armageddon games to have any chance in the tournament, and it’s nice to gain some confidence against him as well with the win!

What was that? | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

The Armageddon took a new path already from 1.Nf3, with Magnus pointing out that the position that arose was very similar to one he’d had against Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the Aimchess US Rapid quarterfinals. Nepo played more accurately than Duda, until 15…Qb6!? raised eyebrows.

Magnus told Judit:

Qb6 was strange. I thought he would play 15…c5… I think I’ve been tricked like this before in some game, and then just everything disappears.

Ian agreed:

It was, I believe, quite drawish, so I could draw immediately with a move like c5 instead of Qb6, just trade away all the pieces and all the pawns.

Already after 16.b4 Nd7!? 17.c5 Magnus was grabbing space, while everything fell apart for Nepo after 17…Qc7 18.Ra7 Qb8 19.Qa2 Bxf3 20.Bxf3 e5 21.b5.

Both players noted that 21…exd4 was normal here, and after e.g. 22.Bxd4 Bxd4 (22…Ne5!? is another option) 23.exd4 Nf6 Black is under pressure but still has good chances of holding. It was here, however, that Ian noted, “I found a brilliant combination after which I just wanted to resign immediately!” 

He went for 21…e4? 22.Be2 Nxc5. Nepo realised by now that his sacrifice didn’t work, but commented: 

Maybe it was not necessary to burn all the bridges and take on c5, but I was just too angry…

It’s unlikely not capturing on c5 would have changed the outcome of the game, since Black is strategically busted, but after the capture on c5 Magnus was able to reply 23.Bb4! and it was essentially game over. 

The game continued 23…Na6 24.Bxf8 Bxf8 25.Rxb7 Qxb7 26.Qxa6 Qb8 27.Qxc6 Qd6.

Here Magnus exchanged queens, much to the disapproval of the chess engines, but as he explained, he was approaching the conversion of the position with two principles in mind:

I had a couple of thoughts. First of all, I wanted to win 100% sure… and also, I thought it would be nice to torture him!

Magnus said he’d already seen in advance that this was one game in which there was going to be no fortress, with the plan becoming clear after 31…f5

32.g4! Kf6 (32…h5!? is an interesting computer suggestion) 33.h4! and, with h5 soon following, Black’s position collapsed. 

41.b6! was a nice final touch, to distract the bishop while White picks up the kingside pawns, but even falling into the “trap” with 41.Kxh5 Bd2! 42.Kxg4 was winning, since as Judit Polgar pointed out, the ending with White “only” having passed pawns on the b and f-files is also a win.

So it was a game where Nepo could have some serious regrets, while Magnus had barely put a foot wrong… until he almost shook hands at the end!

He summed up how he’s feeling:

I’m feeling very good, obviously! I’m not too thrilled about the classical game, as at some point I felt that I was putting some pressure, but still, most of the days it’s been a disappointing game and then I’ve won Armageddon by some luck, but at least I played a decent Armageddon game today, and everything that I can gain before the World Championship is quite nice.

First blood to Magnus, but Nepo has a 2nd chance in Norway, and of course nothing that happens before the match will really matter | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

Nepo will have a chance to get revenge when he has the white pieces in the final round of the tournament, with a curiosity being that Magnus has won the last two editions of Norway Chess with a round to spare — and then seen his mood spoilt by losing on the final day! 

That may be Ian’s last classical game before the World Championship match, while Magnus will be heading straight to North Macedonia after Stavanger. As he put it:

I’m playing the European Club Cup, but frankly that’s more of a social tournament for me, because it’s with Offerspill, my club, and we’re not particularly trying to win or anything. It’s just a nice trip!

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