Magnus Carlsen fought back from the brink of disaster to draw first blood against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the sixth game of their world championship showdown in Dubai, scoring a decisive result in a heart-stopping encounter that spanned 136 moves – and parts of two days – before ending after midnight in Dubai.
The gruelling back-and-forth marathon was the longest game in the 135-year history of world championship matchplay – surpassing the 124-move stalemate in game five of the 1978 title match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi in 1978 – with both players missing winning opportunities under extreme clock pressure at the first time control.
Carlsen, playing a version of the Pseudo-Catalan opening with the white pieces, opted for 10 Nbd2!, sacrificing a pawn in exchange for long-term initiative, same as in the first two games. Nepomniachtchi matched him blow for blow with precise defending but Carlsen pulled his opponent into dangerous waters after trading his queen for a pair of rooks (26 Qxc8 Rxc8 27 Rxc8) around the three-hour mark, pitting his rook, knight and two pawns against black’s lone queen.
From there Carlsen outplayed and outlasted his Russian rival throughout a tense endgame, only for the playing hall at the Dubai Exhibition Centre to erupt in applause when Nepomniachtchi resigned after 7hr 45min.
“It shouldn’t be easy in a world championship match,” Carlsen said. “You have to try for every chance, no matter how small it is. And part of it was by design at some point. I thought I should make the game as long as possible so that we would both be as tired as possible when the critical moment came. That turned out to be a good strategy.”
Nepomniachtchi said: “I would say that Magnus managed to capitalise on the very few chances he got.”
Carlsen holds a 3.5-2.5 lead in the best-of-14-games match with eight contests remaining. Play continues with games on Saturday and Sunday before Monday’s rest day.
The Norwegian defending champion’s breakthrough win marked the first decisive result in the classical stage of a world title match in more than five years. The five straight draws to open this year’s title match in Dubai had extended a record streak of 19 consecutive draws in classical world championship games, including Carlsen’s final two games with Sergey Karjakin in 2016 and all 12 against Fabiano Caruana in 2018.