Ian Nepomniachtchi took off his blazer on the third move, a record-fast time, and he played with a captured chess piece like it was a fidget spinner. Across the table from him in a glass box in Dubai sat Magnus Carlsen, the world No. 1. The two, locked in the middle of a weeks-long battle for the World Chess Championship, would be sitting there for a while. More than eight hours later, at the postgame press conference with his jacket back on, Nepomniachtchi would wonder what had gone wrong.
Within a few moves, Carlsen offered to sacrifice a pawn on the altar of attack, a gambit he had tried twice before in the match, which had yet to see a win. It was a creative idea, celebrated by the commentating experts, 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 piece of aggression. Chess analysts offer a variety of punctuation for notable moves. Nepomniachtchi’s 11th move was universally awarded an exclamation point — with “11 … b5!” he successfully navigated the opening with the black pieces and bared his teeth, showing his own willingness to do battle. A few moves later, Nepomniachtchi declined to trade queens, again demonstrating his tenacity. Two entrenched, well-equipped armies stared at each other across an empty no-man’s land in the middle of the board — the silence before the fury and long war of attrition to come.
Nepomniachtchi soon offered a trade of his own — one white queen for two blacks rooks. Carlsen accepted these terms, and the imbalanced position teetered precariously on the board. The players’ clocks ticked while they contemplated how it might all crash down.
Players begin world championship games with a bank of two hours — they gain a bonus hour only once they make their 40th move. If a player’s clock reaches 0:00, they lose. By the 30th move, Carlsen’s clock had drifted below 10 minutes. By the 35th, both his and Nepomniachtchi’s clocks were under five minutes.
For so much of the match, the computer evaluation had sat level near 0.00, representative of the dead-equal and nearly perfect chess played by both grandmasters. During this feverous stretch of time trouble that followed here, however, the computer twitched like a seismograph during the Big One.
Clocks draining, Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi were locked in an intricate battle for space and material in the board’s southwest corner — an asymmetric skirmish, queen and bishop versus rooks and knight. Carlsen was the first to see real winning chances, but he missed a chance to spring a fruitful long-distance attack on the black king. (Carlsen said after the game that this idea hadn’t been on his radar.) Shortly thereafter, Nepomniachtchi ought to have grabbed a free pawn but did not.
They each made their 40th moves with mere seconds to spare, the computer once again displayed 0.00, and the clocks wound to an hour apiece.
But four hours into play, there was still a rich, fraught endgame to come. With his king safely tucked away and some time on his clock, Carlsen was free to investigate his…