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Carlsen vs Nepo World Championship 2021 Game 6: 136 moves of pure symphony

by Sagar Shah - 04/12/2021

It was the longest game ever at a World Championship Match, lasting 136 moves. It was 7 hours and 45 minutes of hard fought struggle. Magnus Carlsen eventually was able to subdue Ian Nepomniachtchi with some brilliant play. The game had so many things in it right from tactical opportunities, positional finesses, time pressure, endgame brilliance and a lot of psychology. In this article IM Sagar Shah breaks down the entire game and gives you an idea of what happened. There are 29 board diagrams, all carefully explained to take you through the entire game! You will get the feel of the entire day after reading our illustrated report from Dubai. For now Magnus leads the match with a score of 3.5-2.5.

The longest World Championship game - Carlsen leads 3.5-2.5

By Sagar and Amruta from Dubai


If someone were to be asked to pick a game from 1972 World Championship Match between Fischer and Spassky, majority of the people would choose game no.6 and I think the same would be the case with the 2021 World Championship Match between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi. It seems the crowd erupted in applause after Fischer had beaten Spassky in that fateful encounter and Spassky being the sportsman that he is, had joined in the applause. The same happened with Nepo. The audience applauded Magnus' mammoth technical grind not only after the game was completed but also when players entered the press conference. Just like Spassky, Nepo, was the perfect sportsman, praising Carlsen for his play and giving him credit for finding every possible chance to win the game.

Magnus Carlsen entered in good spirits for the sixth game of the match! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Nepo comes in with his trusted second Vladimir Potkin by his side | Photo: Amruta Mokal

The sixth game of the World Championship Match was simply out of the world! It beat the record of the longest World Championship game ever (124 moves by Korchnoi vs Karpov) with 136 moves! It lasted for 7 hours 45 minutes! The game started at 4.30 p.m. on 3rd of December which meant that it ended on the 4th of December! Until game 5 Ian Nepomniachtchi looked like a player who was extremely difficult to beat. He came well prepared to the games, fought hard, has shown ambition and has applied himself on the board. How did Magnus Carlsen manage to subdue him? "It wasn't easy! And that's how World Championship game should be!", says Magnus. We break down the game in 10 parts which makes it easily understandable to you as to how the Mozart of Chess achieved the victory, in spite of the fact that the computers were shouting 0.00 evaluation all throughout the game.

David Llada, one of the best chess photographers in the world: "To my taste, this is the best photo of the match so far, taken by Eric Rosen."
Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi enter the playing venue

1. Magnus' opening idea

Little did Magnus and Ian know that they would be inside this enclosure for the next 7 hours and 45 minutes! | Photo: Eric Rosen

The Mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, plays 1.e4 | Photo: Niki Riga

Carlsen and Nepo have their internal joke with regards to the opening move that was played! | Photo: Niki Riga

Ian Nepomniachtchi had come to the World Championship Match with an aim to kill all of Carlsen's opening ideas with thorough and in-depth preparation. The choice was left to Magnus whether he should compete with Ian on his terrain, i.e go deeper into the openings than his opponent, or change the terrain itself, i.e play something which is offbeat and hope that Nepo and his team would not be prepared for it. The latter seemed like the more plausible approach. The challenge here is to choose an opening which is offbeat, but not so offbeat that Black is able to equalize with ease. For this game Magnus chose 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.g3!?

The idea of the move g3 is to take Ian slightly out of his deep preparation. It's Catalan but without the c4 move. And Ian has to now decide whether he wants to stay within the terrain of his deep preparation with 3...e6 or play 3...c5 which might be the best move in the above position, but the Challenger has not analyzed it in depth.

What shall I do?! Nepo's look after Magnus Carlsen went 3.g3!? | Photo: Amruta Mokal

After some thought Nepo played the move 3...e6. A mini victory for Magnus.

Carlsen didn't rush with c4. Instead he played his pawn to b3, keeping the game as non-theoretical as possible

2. Nepo's fantastic retort

...b5! was a fantastic move by Black. It showed that Nepo was ready to take risks and chances in order to equalize. At this Magnus forgot his preparation and had to start thinking over the board. One of the reasons why ...b5 is such a great move is because the problem piece for Black is always his bishop on c8. With this move he is getting it ready to be developed on b7. At the same time the pressure on the h1-a8 diagonal can be taken care off with tactical knight jumps like Nb4.

At this point Magnus played it safe with a3 when Black had comfortably equalized after...Nc6. Instead of a3, a move that is worthy of consideration is Bg5, with the idea that h6 is met with Bh4. This might be very risky as the bishop has chances of getting trapped on h4. However, there are always sacrifices in the air and White seems to have very good attacking chances in the position.

3. Nepo gets ambitious

Carlsen has just taken the knight on f6. This position is a clear indication that Nepo too was trying in the game for a win. Taking with the queen doesn't look so bad. And when you are weakening your kingside, the first thing you want to do is exchange the queens. However, as Nepo mentioned in the press conference, he was beginning to get ambitious at this point with his bishop pair. That's the reason why he took directly gxf6. This one ambitious decision had to be backed up by another one.

Moving the knight to d4 was played in the game. But instead ...e5 deserved serious consideration. Mainly e4 is a big threat. And if White were to go Nh4, trying to take advantage of the weakened f5 square, then Black can jump in with ...Nd4 and it seems like Black has no issues whatsoever in the position.

4. The weird Rac8 decision

White's knight is well placed on d3, the perfect spot for a Catalan position. However, Black has so much activity that the position is balanced. A very nice move here for Black would have been b4!? There are ideas of Bc3 next so White might want to take axb4 axb4. But now Nxb4 is met with Bxf2+ followed by Qxb4 when Black is doing very well. Instead, in the above position Ian Nepomniachtchi went Rac8. Now this was a very questionable decision. Why give up two rooks for a queen when you are not forced to do so. In the press conference, I asked both Ian and Magnus about the move Rac8 and this is what they had to say:


Nepo: "Well, Rac8 was, I believe, a little bit unnecessary. But I guess Black had very nice play there. At some point it became quite chaotic and I thought Rac8 might be a way to complicate things. There wasn't any serious risk. And then once the time pressure set in, I guess there were many ways to improve. Clearly, Rac8 wasn't the problem in this game."

Carlsen: "Yeah, I was happy to see Rac8 on the board. As you said, b4 was a move - and probably others as well - after which I didn't actually think I could be better. Rac8 at least gave me a target. We both were risking, but I thought Black was risking a bit more. And it meant we would get into a serious struggle, which I was happy with."

Always ready for a serious grind | Photo: Niki Riga

5. The missed win and the time pressure

Until the first five games, both players had found 2 hours for 40 moves to be more than enough. However, in the 6th game, time started become a very relevant factor. In fact this is the first time in quite some time where there is no increment until move 60. So when Magnus was down to 3 minutes with close to 10 moves to make, it was real time pressure where if he didn't take care, he could literally lose on time! When Ian blundered, Magnus got an opportunity to finish off the game in his favour. However, he had only 3 minutes left to figure things out.

...Bb2 by Nepo was clearly a very tempting move. The knight cannot take the bishop as the rook on d2 would be hanging. And if Rxb2, then the knight on d3 is hanging. After Qxd3 the a3 pawn is very weak. So ...Bb2 looks like a fine move. But there is a catch to it.

An excellent move first deflecting the queen away from d5. Why is that important? Because if you go Rcc2 directly then after Bxa3 Nf4, the queen sits safely on f3 and because of the attack on the f2 pawn, both the white rooks are tied down.

Here Carlsen had to decide between taking on b5 or coming back Rcc2. He took on b5, but that let Nepo off the hook. Rcc2 was the winning move. When Maurice Ashley asked Magnus about this move in the press conference, Magnus was surprised. He hadn't seen the combination. One cannot reprimand the World Champion for missing it as he had so little time on the clock. But the combination is beautiful and at the same time aesthetic.

This is the point! You move your knight to f4 and combined with the two rooks launch a decisive attack against the black king. Black can either take the pawn on b4 or he can just wait with Qe7. In both cases the finish is picturesque.

When the queen passively guards the 7th, the rooks infiltrate on the 8th

When the queen goes active, the rooks occupy the 7th rank and finish off the black king

Carlsen is a very practical player. If he thinks that he has less time on the clock and if someone shows him the win, rather than getting flustered, he just accepts that he cannot play flawless chess under time pressure | Photo: Eric Rosen

6. Why didn't Nepo take the pawn?

...Qd7! was an excellent move by Nepo. This was missed by Magnus. The rook has to leave the b4 pawn. If he goes Rb6 or Rb8, it would be met with Qc7 and then the queen enters on c2. So the rook has to relinquish the support of the b4 pawn.

Now everyone expected Nepo to pick up the b4 pawn, when he has no chances of losing. In fact if anyone is better it has to be Black.

The chance to take on b4 arose once again on the next move and once again Nepo didn't go for it. This time he played ...Qd5 and after Rdd2 White was no longer worse.

Time pressure was definitely a reason why Nepo couldn't find the best moves in the position | Photo: Eric Rosen

7. Will they agree for a draw?

On the 40th move Magnus had a small chance to win the game. It's White to play here. Carlsen had only 30 seconds on clock. He had the very pretty Rdc2. The point of this move is that the bishop on a3 is trapped. On the next move White takes on a4 with his knight, Black goes Qxa4 and after Rc3, you win back the bishop and in a 4 vs 4 endgame, two rooks should be able to trump the queen. Instead Magnus chose Nxe4 in the above position and after Qb3 we reached the 40th move.

The players finally got a breather (an extra hour) after 40 moves had been completed | Photo: Eric Rosen

Both of them needed some time off and the table was empty with the chief arbiter waiting for the players to return | Photo Eric Rosen

After Nepo played his 40th move, we reached the following position:

The engines showed it as 0.00. Commentators who tried to explain his position also felt it was a draw. Mainly because Black will remove his bishop from a3 and then push his a-pawn to a3. This will paralyze at least one of White's pieces and would make it very difficult for White to play for a win.

But Carlsen is Carlsen... just when everyone thinks it's a draw, he launches into the next gear | Photo: Amruta Mokal

8. Always be on the lookout for the smallest of chances

Magnus made a plan. The plan was to move his knight from f4 to e2 to d4 to c2 when he would gobble the a3 pawn and win the game. This sounds good in theory, but in practice Nepo found a nice defensive idea.

The knight can move to c2 here. However, it would be met with Be5! attacking the rook on a1. You cannot take on a3 with the knight as a1 would hang and taking on a3 with the rook hangs the knight on c2. These technical difficulties ensured that Nepo was always in the game.

A lapse in concentration? Nepo gets his queen to e4 and now Magnus, alert as ever chops off the pawn on a3!

How can this be a good move? Well, after Bxa3 Rxa3 we reach the following position

This is a nightmare for Black. Why? The h5, pawn is weak and White is slowly going to bring his knight on f4 and then improve his rook and Black will be in big trouble. Yes, perhaps Black can hold this position, but it would need a lot of effort and hence Nepo decided not to choose this setup. He went ahead and took the h4 pawn.

We finally reached this position, where the engines still thought that it was a draw. The commentators felt that White does have realistic chances, while Nepo was fighting with all his might! It was nice to see that even in this computerized and engine era, there were differences in opinions and not everyone thought similarly.

Carlsen pushed his pawn to f3 and this didn't look like the best move weakening the 2nd rank. Especially since Kh2 was possible. But it seemed like Magnus didn't like something about Kh2 and hence went for f3. Nepo realizing that he had his chances very much intact kept posing Magnus with new problems on every single move.

This is Nepo in the 7th hour of play. Look at the freshness on his face. It's amazing! As his trainer Vladimir Potkin spoke in the interview, "Ian has prepared himself for such struggles leading up to the match!" | Photo: Niki Riga

Carlsen managed to win the pawn on f5, but is now losing his pawn on e3. But the World Champion had a powerful strike in store. White to play, what do you do here? Rxf7!+ Kxf7 Rb7+ and Rxa7. A new phase of the game had begun.

9. That's a tablebase draw!

Objectively this should be drawn, but White is the only one with practical chances!

Once the pawns were exchanged, we had seven pieces left on the board. We have tablebases now which tell us the result of every single position with seven pieces on the board with absolute certainty. According to the tablebases, the position is drawn. When Carlsen was asked about whether he too felt that same, he said, "I thought that it was nearer to a draw. But once I got my knight to g3 and my rook to d5 and f5, I got very optimistic. Although probably it was still a draw. It's easy to sort of be lulled into a false sense of security there and as you saw in the game, things can easily go awry."

10. Carlsen wins!

The last mistake made by Nepo was the following:

In this position it was important for Nepo to play Qb1 or Qc2. The point is that you want to get with your queen on g1 or g2 or f2 from where it would eventually pin the knight on g3. Ensuring that the knight cannot take part actively is a good way for Black to hold the balance here. Nepo, played the move ...Qe6 and this was the final straw. After Kh4 followed by Nh5, White went on to win the game!

The final position where Nepo resigned. The threat is e7+ and any check from the black queen will be futile as the White king will soon go and hide on g8.

That final handshake which signaled the end of he game captured by Amruta Mokal

That special moment went Carlsen got to know he has broken the longest game record at a World Championship match! | Photo: David Llada

Magnus after the game said, "Obviously I am elated to get this result. It wasn't easy and nor, frankly, should it be. There was a lot of the same emotions as the game that I won against Karjakin. It was just a marathon there as well. So yeah! (laughs ecstatically) Obviously this was huge!"

What did I learn from this game

Magnus Carlsen surrounded by media after his victory | Photo: David Llada

Watching such a closely contested encounter at close quarters taught me so things. Firstly I loved how Magnus went out of the trodden path to get a fresh position out of the opening. I was thoroughly impressed with the way in which Nepo met Carlsen's opening surprise and played ambitiously even though a draw with black is completely acceptable. In time pressure, both players did make errors, but the quality of the game was nonetheless very high. It was amazing how both Ian and Magnus fought tooth and nail right until the very end. They looked fresh even in the seventh hour of play. It seemed like all the work that both of them had done prior to the tournament related with physical exercise had borne fruit. When it seemed like the position would end in a draw, Magnus kept grinding on the board, looking for his chances. You could sense the intensity in his eyes. You could sense, that Magnus understood the mammoth difference between a draw and a win in this game. The win doesn't come with mindless play. You need to not just find the best moves on the board, but use the best psychological tricks as well. One statement of Magnus in the press conference made a deep impact. He said, "You have to try for every chance no matter how small it is. And at some point I thought I should make the game as long as possible so that we both will be as tired as possible when the critical moment came. That turned out to be a good strategy." Finally after the game ended, Ian did interviews with quite a few reporters and then also attended the press conference giving detailed answers to the questions posed to him. When Maurice asked him, "Ian, is it just one game do you bounce back?" Ian replied, "Hopefully in style! (Smiles) I mean sometimes you make mistakes, it's a pretty human thing... I don't think you can play consecutive games just winning or losing...It's all part of the sport, so let's see..." So much to learn from these champions.


Lesson 1: When things are not working, champions try to do different things!

Lesson 2: Believe in your abilities when you are surprised

Lesson 3: Physical fitness is of paramount importance when you don't want your quality of work to dip.

Lesson 4: Never give up

Lesson 5: You have to wait for the perfect opportunity to strike and when the iron is hot, you strike!

Lesson 6: Failure is not fatal, Success is not final. It's the courage to continue that counts - Winston Churchill

Post game Press conference

By Satanick Mukhuty

The post-game press conference after round 6

Maurice: Were you aware of the fact this was the longest game in a World Championship in history? How do you feel at this moment, breaking through and winning this game after not having won any in more than five years?

Magnus: I think I held the previous record as well, probably against Anand? Although that was not nearly as many hours (and moves) as this one.   


Maurice: Actually it was Korchnoi versus Karpov.

Magnus: Ah, it was Korchnoi-Karpov. Yeah! the one where he tried to win with the bishop and wrong pawn. Anyway, yeah somebody told me after the game, obviously I am elated to get this result. It wasn't easy and nor, frankly, should it be. There was a lot of the same emotions as the game that I won against Karjakin. It was just a marathon there as well. So yeah! (laughs ecstatically) Obviously this was huge!


Maurice: Were you surprised in the opening? It seems he played this move b5 and you froze for some time.

Magnus: Yeah, I couldn't remember the lines properly there so...from there on I had to sort of invent things over the board. In any case, I think after that it was fairly balanced most of time. 


Maurice: Congratulations Ian on a tough fight. I know this isn't the result you wanted, of course. Can you contexualize the struggle that this game was and your feelings about it?

Ian: Yeah, well basically I fought like I should try to play for more than a draw out of the opening. I felt my two bishops were nice. Somehow I thought like maybe e5 and b4 instead of Nd4 would be interesting but it would be very very unclear. In general, it was a pretty equal game. But, I guess, during the first time-trouble it started to get a little bit wrong for me and then of course this Qe4 was unnecessary. Just play Kg6-Kg7 and this is very likely draw. But I mean anyway I would say Magnus capitalized on very few chances he got in this game, which is very nice of him. But in general, I believe this queen against knight and rook and two pawns should be a draw. But it was basically blitz and if you don't know the correct set-up and misplace your queen a little bit it becomes tricky already.


Maurice: Can you speak of the level of fatigue that you feel after such a long game?

Ian: Well, obviously it wasn't the most pleasant game. But anyway, life goes on. It's not a big deal.


Maurice: Magnus, you're famously fit, but this definitely tested your endurance?

Magnus: Sure. That's the way it is. As I said, it shouldn't be easy. You have to try for every chance no matter how small it is. And at some point I thought I should make the game as long as possible so that we both will be as tired as possible when the critical moment came. That turned out to be a good strategy.


Magnus on how relevant the World Championship experience was in today's game (It was Magnus' 51st World Championship Game).

"I feel like today was more about experience of playing long games in general. Yeah, I would say today's game didn't have much to do with World Championship experience or pressure. I don't particularly think so."


Magnus on the time pressure and the mood inside the playing hall during crunch moments:

"Oh for sure. I think that's the way it is supposed to be. There should be that added element of intrigue with the clock. Obviously it isn't entirely pleasant, but I think it is appropriate. I would say the last few moves before the time control I was mainly guessing. I had three minutes left and then I was hit by a nasty surprise which I hadn't seen. So there wasn't much time."


On whether they will spend time reviewing today's epic game:

Ian: "Well, I guess it wouldn't take long. I think the play from both sides was far from excellence, but what to do!"

Magnus: "I think there will be a time and place for that, but I don't think it's today."


Magnus on whether the long game will mess up their schedule?

"Yeah, I think such a long game sort of messes up everybody's schedule. But that's why we are here. It's fine."


Magnus on how he manages to keep up without any food for 7-8 hours?

Magnus: Yes, I was running on fumes at the end. It's not easy! (Laughs)

Photo and video gallery

Start Early! | Photo: Amruta Mokal
Henrik Carlsen, father of Magnus Carlsen, speaks about 8 years of Magnus being the World Champion, PlayMagnus, Ian Nepomniachtchi as an opponent and more.
Feel the atmosphere when we were 7 hours into play
Interview with Zhansaya Abdumalik, the top Kazakh female player. She is in Dubai to watch the world championship match and also to take part in a rapid and blitz tournament where she is the 23rd seed out of 24 players.
Interview with Jeet Banerjee, the director of Gameplan, which organizes Tata Steel Chess India on what he learnt from his visit to the World Championship 2021
Special devices which help less strong players enjoy the game with Anand and Anna's commentary

Team Nepo who come to the playing hall consist of Nepo, Potkin and Nepo's girlfriend Snehzana | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Outside the tournament hall, you can always watch enthusiasts playing chess! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Although game 6 lased for 7 hours 45 minutes, a lot of people stayed back until the very end | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Important Links:

All the information related to schedule, time control etc. of the World Championship Match

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Day 0: Reaching Dubai

Game 1: A battle of equals?

Game 2: They are also human

Game 3: Who is pushing whom?

Game 4: Why did Magnus Carlsen play 1.e4?

Game 5: The Challenger misses his chance to strike

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