The Psychological Drama of the World Chess Championship – The New Yorker

The Psychological Drama of the World Chess Championship – The New Yorker

For nearly eight hours, they probed, maneuvered, thrust, and parried. Throughout the sixth game of the World Chess Championship, Magnus Carlsen, the four-time defending champion, and his challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, sprang small surprises, found refutations, took long thinks, scrambled. The tension rose, ebbed, and rose some more. Up until this game, the best-of-fourteen match between Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi had been a disappointment. With nine games to go, there had been five draws, all of them quite correct—computers can now precisely determine which move will give a player the greatest advantage, and these games were among the most accurately played in recorded history—and none of them particularly interesting.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The match had been billed as a contrast between styles. On one side, there was the preternatural perfectionism of Carlsen, perhaps the greatest player ever. On the other, Nepomniachtchi: aggressive, unpredictable. As a boy, Nepomniachtchi had been tapped as a tremendous talent; at thirty-one, he seemed to be rounding into form. The last two World Championships had gone to tiebreaks; in 2018, when Carlsen had played Fabiano Caruana, every game in the classical portion—that is, before the tiebreaks, which are played with faster time controls—had been a draw. This time, Carlsen was the clear favorite, but Nepomniachtchi is the only active top player with a positive classical score in his career against him. That’s mostly because of games the two played as children, but, still, it was a sign that something unusual might happen.

And, finally, in the sixth game, it did. Carlsen began boldly, gambiting a pawn in exchange for initiative. But Nepomniachtchi declined it, defending ably, and then made a risky move of his own, taking Carlsen’s queen in exchange for both of his rooks. On paper—or, rather, computer—the trade is a roughly equal one, but, by imbalancing the position, it opened up dynamic possibilities. A complex position emerged, and Nepomniachtchi, always a quick player, pressed his advantage on the clock. (At one point, Carlsen had only four minutes to make ten moves; if he did that, more time would be added to the clock.) The endgame was a complicated setup: Nepomniachtchi had his powerful queen, and Carlsen had a rook, a knight, and two pawns. With perfectly correct play, the contest would result in a draw. But, in practice, it was a difficult position for the queen to hold—particularly against Carlsen, who was moving his pieces in harmony. Nepomniachtchi made one inaccurate move, and, after nearly eight hours and a hundred and thirty-six moves, that was all that Carlsen needed to win what had become the longest game in World Championship history.

The game had ended after midnight. Later that same day, the pair returned to the board, and played, unsurprisingly, to an exhausted draw. Each passing round brought more pressure for Nepomniachtchi: he needed a win to level the match. That would have been hard enough facing only Carlsen, but he seemed to be engaged in a simultaneous battle against himself. In Game 8, he opted for a conservative opening, Petrov’s Defense, which has a drawish reputation. But his ensuing play was far from calm. He spent much of the …….