The story goes that Benjamin Franklin, while negotiating a peace treaty in France in 1783, was in the crowd the day the first manned hot-air balloons soared above Paris. When an unimaginative skeptic in the crowd wondered at the utility of the newfangled invention, Franklin replied, “What good is a newborn baby?”
A chess equivalent might be that bored spectator wondering why bother watching a hall full of unknown 11-year-olds labor over their boards at the European Youth Chess Championship in Spain in the fall of 2002. But something equally unprecedented was going on for those with eyes to see: the first meeting between the two players who this fall will battle it out for the world championship crown.
As noted here last week, Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi has earned the right to challenge GM Magnus Carlsen for the world crown, which the Norwegian has held for seven years. “Nepo” is trying to be the first Russian to wear the crown since the now-retired Vladimir Kramnik back in 2007.
The implacable Carlsen starts out a slight favorite to retain his crown in the 12-game November match in Dubai, but the always talented Nepomniachtchi has embraced a new work ethic and fighting attitude at the board in recent years and has surged to third in the FIDE world rankings. Pundits say he has a genuine chance to take down the champ.
In what appears to be a first in the history of chess, we have a game between the two finalists played way back when both were still waiting for their voices to change at the Spanish tournament 19 years ago. Nepo took the game and the Under-12 European title over Carlsen on tiebreaks. (Remarkably, French star GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who came in second in the Candidates’ tournament last month, was in the same Under-12 field, while fellow candidates and now GMs Fabiano Caruana of the U.S. and Ding Liren of China were competing in the Under-10 section.)
That very first Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi encounter no doubt tells us little about how things will play out in November. Still, it’s irresistible to go back and play it through, if only for a first glimpse of the precocious talent on both sides of the board.
It’s a high-class positional battle out of an Alekhine’s Defense, in which, paradoxically, White’s play on the a-file more than offsets Carlsen’s dominance of the central d-file. Black holds his own for much of the game, but Nepomniachtchi, perhaps exploiting his 3½-month age advantage, breaks on top with a queenside push.
Thus: 32. Rb1! Be7?! (things still look equal after the tricky 32…Bc5!; e.g. 33. Rxb5 Bxd4 34. Rxd5 Rxd5 35. cxd4 Rxd4 36. Rc1 Kg7 37. Rc3 Rd1+ 38. Ke2 Rb1 39. Rc2 Ra1 40. Rxc4 Rxa6) 33. b3 Bd8 34. Ra2 Rxd4?! (blame the impatience of youth in an unpleasant position; on 34…cxb3 35. Rxb3 f6 36. f4 fxe5 37. fxe5 Kg7, White is still seeking a knockout blow) 35. cxd4 c3 36. b4 Bg5 37. Rc1 Rc7 38. Rc2, when 38…Bd2 39. Ke2 Rd7 40. Rdxc2 cxd2 41. Rxd2 Kf8 42. Ke3 Rc7 43. d5 is winning for White.
After the game’s 38…Be7, the pawn push 39. d5! proves decisive, as Nepo will get a killer passed pawn: 39…Bxb4 40. d6 Rc8 41. Rb1, and Black resigned facing lines like 41…Rc4 42. Rxb4! Rxb4 43. Rxc3 Rd4 44. Rc7 Kf8 45. Rxa7 Ke8 46. Re7+ Kd8 47. a7 Ra4 48. Rxf7 b4 49. a8=Q+! Rxa8 50. Rf8+ and wins.
As his challengers battled it out, Carlsen kept sharp by winning a string of top-flight rapid online events over the past years. He just added another e-trophy in the New In Chess Classic, part of the Champions Chess Tour, defeating American GM Hikaru Nakamura decisively in the weekend’s final.
In a critical game from Sunday’s second round, Carlsen on the Black side of a QGD Slav harnessed a pair of agile knights to push White back, following up with a beautifully timed exchange sacrifice: 23. Qc3 Ngh5 (with the knights in place, Black targets Nakamura’s one effective piece) 24. Qe1?! (see diagram; 24. e4!? offers a fighting chance, though Black is still calling the shots after 24…Qb6! 25. Kh2 c5!) Rxe5! 25. dxe5 Qxe5, and the Black queen and knights dominate the position.
The defensive burden proves too much: 34. Qe1? (34. Rxd5 was tougher, but on 34. Qf6 35. Bxe4 Qxh4 36. Qc2 Nxe4, the push g4-g3 looms over White’s defense) Qf6! (the h-pawn is won, and so is the game) 35. Rxd5 Qxh4 36. Bxe4 Qh1+ 37. Kf2 Nxe4+ 38. Ke2 Qxg2+ 39. Kd3, and White conceded not needing to see lines such as 39…b5! (threatening 40…c4+ 41. Kd4 Qxb2+ 42. Qc3 Qxc3 mate) 40. Rb1 Nf2+ 41. Kc2 Qxd5 42. Qxf2 Qc4+ 43. Kd2 Rd8+ 44. Ke1 Qd3 45. Rc1 Re8, and Black’s attack crashes through.
Nepomniachtchi-Carlsen, European Under-12 Championship, Peniscola, Spain, October 2002
1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. Nf3 d6 4. d4 dxe5 5. Nxe5 g6 6. Bc4 c6 7. Nc3 Be6 8. O-O Nd7 9. Qf3 Bg7 10. Re1 O-O 11. Qg3 Nxe5 12. dxe5 Nxc3 13. Qxc3 Bxc4 14. Qxc4 Qd5 15. Qe2 Rad8 16. Bg5 Qe6 17. Qe3 b6 18. a4 Rd5 19. Bf4 Qf5 20. Qe4 Qd7 21. c3 Rd8 22. h3 Qe6 23. Qe2 Rd3 24. a5 b5 25. a6 c5 26. Qe4 Qd5 27. Qxd5 R3xd5 28. Ra5 c4 29. Kf1 e6 30. Be3 R8d7 31. Bd4 Bf8 32. Rb1 Be7 33. b3 Bd8 34. Ra2 Rxd4 35. cxd4 c3 36. b4 Bg5 37. Rd1 Rc7 38. Rc2 Be7 39. d5 Bxb4 40. d6 Rc8 41. Rb1 Black resigns.
Nakamura-Carlsen, New In Chess Classic, Champions Chess Rapid Online Tour, April 2021
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 a6 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Bf4 Nf6 6. e3 Bd6 7. Bxd6 Qxd6 8. Bd3 Bg4 9. Qb3 Nc6 10. h3 Bh5 11. Nge2 Bxe2 12. Nxe2 O-O 13. Rc1 Nd8 14. Qa3 Qd7 15. O-O g6 16. Nf4 Re8 17. Bc2 c6 18. Nd3 Ne6 19. f4 Ng7 20. f5 g5 21. Ne5 Qc7 22. h4 g4 23. Qc3 Ngh5 24. Qe1 Rxe5 25. dxe5 Qxe5 26. Qc3 Qg3 27. Qe1 Qd6 28. Qf2 Re8 29. Rcd1 Qe5 30. Rd4 c5 31. Rd2 Ng3 32. Rfd1 Kf8 33. Rd3 Nfe4 34. Qe1 Qf6 35. Rxd5 Qxh4 36. Bxe4 Qh1+ 37. Kf2 Nxe4+ 38. Ke2 Qxg2+ 39. Kd3 and White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at email@example.com.