The much-anticipated confrontation between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi kicked off at 16:30 local time in Dubai. The first game of the World Championship match finished in a draw. Playing black, Carlsen was the first one to deviate from well-known theoretical lines, but Nepomniachtchi proved to be prepared to face the variation chosen by the defending champion. A tense endgame developed, with both contenders missing small chances here and there. The draw was signed after 45 moves.
There is a distinct excitement surrounding a World Championship match. Chess aficionados all around the world eagerly tune in to follow the games. The stakes are so high that people almost get to feel the tension, even in positions that would otherwise get much less attention. And it could not be otherwise: we are witnessing history in the making, well aware that every single shift in the evaluation will be recorded in all sorts of outlets.
Going into the first game of this year’s match, there was no doubt that Ian Nepomniachtchi would be a tough challenger for the title. The Russian grandmaster — playing under the flag of the Chess Federation of Russia due to a ban by the World Anti-Doping Agency — mentioned once and again how hard he has been working with a more-than-capable team of seconds, including Vladimir Potkin, who helped Sergey Karjakin in his 2016 match.
Meanwhile, there is an almost universal agreement that Magnus Carlsen is the favourite to win the 14-game confrontation. Not much needs to be said about the Norwegian’s enormous talent and fighting spirit.
Given these conditions, the first game was certainly gratifying. There were no major blunders nor tactical fireworks, but even the smallest of chances granted to either player were felt as potential game-changers in a visibly tense atmosphere. Months of preparation had just come to an end, and it was time for the players to show their worth.
As had been predicted by Vishy Anand, who is providing live commentary for FIDE, Nepomniachtchi opened his first game with 1.e4 and went for the Ruy Lopez. Carlsen responded by entering a Marshall System. After Nepo’s 8.h3, a very popular variation, the world champion was the first to deviate to a lesser-known line with 8…Na5
The Marshall Attack is one of the most dynamic replies Black has at his disposal against 1.e4. At the cost of a pawn, Black takes over the initiative from the get – go and goes after the white king. Wrongly considered to be mainly a drawing weapon by some, this DVD offers many new ideas for Black, showing how to keep the queens on the board and to play for a win in almost all cases.
After 22…Bxf3 23.gxf3, the nature of the battle had been clarified. While at some point it seemed like Nepo would manage to fully neutralize Black’s activity and simply emerge a pawn up in a pure endgame, after Carlsen’s 33…b4 it was the defending champion who appeared to have slight winning chances.
The elite grandmasters handled the situation professionally, looking to provoke mistakes by the opponent, but correct play by both sides led to a draw by triple repetition.