Norway’s Magnus Carlsen is on the brink of retaining his world championship after defeating Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi for the second time in three days on Sunday in the eighth game of their €2m ($2.26m) showdown in Dubai, opening a practically insurmountable 5-3 advantage in the best-of-14 match with six contests remaining.
A fatal blunder by Nepomniachtchi donated a pawn to Carlsen in the middlegame, gifting the 31-year-old reigning champion an advantage he leveraged until the challenger resigned after a largely uncomfortable 4hr 6min.
The longtime Real Madrid left-back Míchel Salgado made the honorary first move (1 e1) and Carlsen, playing as white, left it on the board. Nepomniachtchi opened into the solid Petrov Defence (1 … e5 2 Nf3 Nf6) and the position immediately pointed toward a draw when the knights came off the board immediately after (3 d4 Nxe4 4 Bd3 d5 5 Nxe5 Nd7 6 Nxd7 Bxd7 7 Nd2 Nxd2 8 Bxd2 Bd6).
After Carlsen castled (9 O-O), Nepomniachtchi bypassed the natural O-O-O for the rare and provocative 9 … h5!, a novelty that brought both players out of known theory but left black slightly worse. Carlsen spent more than 40 minutes pondering his response before ultimately offering a trade of queens with the unambitious 10. Qe1+.
Nepomniachtchi responded with the ambitious 10 … Kf8, showing his intent to play for a win. He twice declined queen exchanges that would have driven toward a peaceful result over the next sequence of moves, but a pair of rare inaccuracies on consecutive moves (14 … Rh6 and 15 … c6) presented Carlsen the opportunity to press for a win with little risk.
But four minutes after Nepomniachtchi underscored his winning intent with 20 c4 followed by a pawn exchange that did nothing to improve black’s position, the challenger made a fatal blunder with 21 … b5.
“I suspected it was a mistake,” Carlsen said. “I thought it was just a blunder. But I had plenty of time so I thought I will double-check to see what he was intending. It turned out it was nothing.”
Nepomniachtchi said: “After (21 … b5), probably I didn’t defend in the best way. It becomes truly unpleasant and frankly speaking it’s hard to defend after such a blunder.”
After Carlsen found the winning 22 Qa3+, the challenger found himself in survival mode. A pure queen endgame loomed after the bishops and rooks came off (26 Bxe6 Rxe6 27 Rxe6 fxe6) with the Norwegian ruthlessly denying his opponent any chances for counterplay in the endgame.
Both players will look forward to Monday’s rest day before the competition resumes on Tuesday with Nepomniachtchi playing as white in game nine.
“It was pretty cagey at the start (of the match),” Carlsen said. “Obviously a win changes the dynamic of the match. I don’t think I would have won this game if I hadn’t won the first one.”