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Carlsen vs Nepo World Championship 2021 Game 4: Why did Magnus Carlsen play 1.e4?

by Sagar Shah - 01/12/2021

It's clear that Nepo has come to the World Championship match with the intention to be super solid, at least with the black pieces. So when Magnus would go 1.e4, it was very likely that he would either go for the Petroff or the Berlin. Yet, why did Magnus Carlsen go for 1.e4? Why did he let his opponent play an opening that's almost unbreakable? We try to figure that out in this article. Currently four games of the World Championship match have been completed and the score stands even on 2-2. There is nothing much to choose between the Champion and the Challenger, but with every passing game, the excitement and the suspense is building. 

2-2 after four games in Dubai

Report by Sagar Shah and Amruta Mokal


Recently I went to the doctor. Throat pain was killing me and I wanted some medicines, antibiotics to be precise, to stop the pain. The doctor told me it was some sort of infection and starting with the medicines made sense. However, he was extra cautious. He told me, if I could bear the pain for another day, then he would recommend me to get my RTPCR test done. "Although the chances of Covid are close to nil, I just want to rule out the possibility," he said. I went ahead with his plan. Did my RTPCR test, next day morning the reports came - it was negative. I went to the doctor again, got my dose of antibiotics and got better in the next three days. In all it took me four days to recover. I could have also got better in three days if I had taken those medicines on the first day I visited the doctor. But I just wanted to be 100% sure. That's reason why we did the Covid test.


I think Magnus Carlsen and his team did something similar in game four of the FIDE World Championship 2021. They have narrowed down that the super solid Nepo is most likely going to play the Queen's Gambit Declined against 1.d4. At least go for Nf6, e6 and d5 setups. But what about 1.e4? Shouldn't we check if Nepo and his team are going to give us chances there? Most likely they knew that they were either going to face the Petroff or the Berlin. But what if he went for his favourite Sicilian Najdorf? Or what if he played the French, like he did in the Candidates?! Was it worth checking out? Team Carlsen decided it was and hence he played 1.e4. The result? Just like how I ruled out Covid in my case, Magnus is most likely going to rule out 1.e4 in the rest of the match. But, while Anti-biotics was the clear solution to my problem, what is Magnus' solution against Ian's super solid openings? No idea! We will just have to wait and watch.

The birthday boy makes a confident entrance into the enclosure!

Adjusts his pieces

In comes the Challenger...

A moment of calmness before the game for Nepo as he gets ready for the big fight

His Excellency Saeed Mohd Hareb, Secretary General of Dubai Sports Council made the opening move for Magnus

....And off we go!

Ian plays the Petroff against Carlsen's 1.e4

Not the Petroff again!

Nepo got out his secret drink! Maybe the Russian tea?!

Nepo takes off his suit after a few moves and gets comfortable

Meanwhile Vladmir Potkin, one of the main seconds of team Nepo, was quite happy with how things turned out

Did Magnus really have some new idea up his sleeve in this well known line?

Nepo did his best to recollect all his preparation

Carlsen tried to be on his toes! But it was not much of use when facing the rock solid Petroff!

The first new move of the game! Nh4 by Magnus. His idea was to of course go Nf5. But Nepo stopped it with g6. Carlsen continued with g4 and then followed it up with Ng2 hinting to go to e3 or f4 to attack the pawn on d5.

After the game I asked Magnus about his decision to play Nh4 and it seemed like Ian easily managed to equalize, to which Carlsen responded:

Magnus: "There are insanely complicated lines in this variation. The approach that he chose isn't the only one. And in the other variations, it's insanely complicated and really, really risky for Black. To be honest, the one he chose also looks really, really risky. To keep that knight on f8, if you have miscalculated something, you just lose without any chances. But it's a lot easier of course when you have studied it before hand and you know it's a draw. You can then sort of work it out from there. But believe me there are many other options for Black that lead to much more complications than what happened in the game. I think what he did was very sensible. The approach looks a bit dubious at first but with concrete calculation you can make it work. And that's how you solve your opening problems, you want to avoid lines where you have to remember everything, and you try to chose something that you can work out from the general ideas."


I tried my best to find where those insanely complicated lines were and with some help from the engines and Anish Giri zeroed in one a variation that might have been what Magnus was looking for.

While ...Nf6 is the move that leads to complications, Nepo played the rock solid defensive idea with ...Rfc8! Was Nepo well prepared for Carlsen's move? Nepo: "I mean without preparation it looks like playing Nh4 and leaving a potential passer on a5 well protected by b6 is kind of risky. Fortunately, I knew the idea and I remembered more or less what to do. I mean, of course I was kind of surprised but even though this is a sideline, it is a principled way of playing the opening. And it's good to more or less know the moves than figure everything out over the board." 


After this Magnus had to go Bf4 and exchange those dark squared bishops

Carlsen won the d5 pawn but in return lost the c3 pawn. After Rd3 Re7, the black knight had to sit passively on f8 for the rest of the game. But Nepo believed in his passed a-pawn

Magnus thought for a very long time whether there was any point in continuing this game. After much deliberation he concluded that it was safer to repeat with Ne8+ Kg8 Nf6+ and draw the game.

IM Sagar Shah analyzes a critical moment from the game on the giant chess board!

Game 4 Press conference

By Satanick Mukhuty

The entire press conference

The energetic host of the post game press conferences - GM Maurice Ashley

Maurice Ashley: First of all a very happy birthday to you Magnus. In that regard what, if you would you let us know, is your history of playing chess on your birthday, and how did that possibly affect your approach or mindset today?

Magnus: I would have of course loved to have a rest day on the eve of my rest day so that I could at least have a token celebration (smiles). Apart from that I would say it's pretty good. I think I won at least one game in the World against Amonatov, I believe, in 2005. And obviously the match in 2016 was decided on my birthday in the tie-breaks. So it would take a lot for me to have bad recollections on my birthday, even though I lost to So last year.


Maurice: Ian, did Magnus having his birthday matter to you in any way? Chess players are often known to be superstitious. What's your experience on your birthday?

Ian: Well, of course, my big goal was not to forget to congratulate Magnus today! I mean at least after the game. So congratulations (Magnus) once again. In my case, I definitely recall playing some games on my birthday. The only effect it had, I would say, is not being able to have a party or something!

A very successful game no.4 for Ian Nepomniachtchi

Maurice: Magnus, speaking of the game, did you expect the Petroff, which isn't an opening traditionally played by Ian? Were you at all surprised by it?

Magnus: No, it was one of the main openings that I had expected since I saw him use it in the Candidates. And also in the first game with Black he took a more classical approach rather than a sharp one. Obviously, I couldn't have known what exact lines it was going to be, but Petroff in itself was very much expected.


Maurice: And your feeling about the position out of the opening that you got?

Magnus: What can I say? I tried something concrete, and it didn't work. That I think is a very normal result. I obviously didn't expect him to miss the line I played completely. But in some other iterations of it there can be some difficult decisions to make for Black, I think. But the way he played just shows the state of modern chess, nothing much to say about it!

The state of modern chess! Carlsen was unable to make any headway against the Petroff.

Maurice: It did look though that you were trying very hard in the end to find something. What was going through your mind?

Magnus: I think it sometimes happens at World Championships, you work a lot before and during the match, on openings and such, somehow this makes you work less over the board. I didn't particularly think I had anything but my approach was clear: I have two hours for the game, so I should spend them all looking for whatever chances can be found.


Maurice: Ian, did you feel like you were in any difficulty at any point during this game?

Ian: Well, the line that happened would be known by many who play the Petroff. These lines are quite principled. 18.Nh4, I believe, is quite an interesting try. Perhaps I would have even wanted to play it some day with White myself. In general, I think the task was to not mix up things or do something stupid because as far as I know this line is very safe for Black. Of course, I was checking everything twice and also calculating a lot. But in general, I think this is quite safe.


Maurice: Draw in this game for you, is that a satisfying result?

Ian: Well, since I played the Petroff, indeed!


Maurice: And Magnus for you a second draw with White. Is this at all frustrating or is it still too early in the match?

Magnus: No, it's okay. I have started with a lot more draws than this earlier. When you play a forced line as today, you don't expect to hit very often. But the idea is to hit once in a while, take your opponent by surprise, the other times you just want to be safe. Yes, I would have loved to win this game. I would have loved to find more chances, but I think it's a normal result against a well-prepared opponent.


Magnus on how did he do on the rest day in football.

"I was on the winning team the whole time in football, don't know if they threw away intentionally, if they did, I don't really care (everyone laughs). But it definitely raised my spirits, so that's good!" 


Magnus on how the tenor in his camp is at the moment.

"People have emotions of their own, those who work with/for me, but I'm the one who has to play, after all. So, their emotions if not unimportant, they are not really of relevant factor to me. I would say so far there is very little to report I guess"


Magnus on whether the current World Championship format needs a change to be on par with other sports

"There is a saying that, if you don't have anything nice to say, you shouldn't say anything at all (the room laughs). So I am going to invoke that particular saying right now." 


Nepo on whether a classical approach in the opening is the result of his recent success.

"Basically, it doesn't matter what you play if you know what you are doing. In general, you pick up three or four solid openings and study them by heart, I guess you will be more or less successful. Speaking of my recent success, I think it's the result of a change in general approach rather than of picking up specific openings."


Magnus Carlsen, who shares his birthday with Winston Churchill, shares a quote of his with regards to his opponent

"There was a quote by Churchill I think where he said of his opponent that he was a very modest man and had reasons to be modest. With regards to my opponent I would say he is not a modest man and with good reasons."

Magnus on whether too much sports can affect him negatively on rest days.

"There was a person in the team yesterday who had one task and one task only and that was to pull me out after a set number of matches!"

Photo Gallery

More smiles and more fun on the official FIDE channel with the commentary of Vishy Anand and Anna Muzychuk

A special birthday cake from FIDE for the world champion, who turned 31 years old

Saravanan, Sagar and Botez sisters at the post game conference

Dimitri Komarov in the press room with his comments which are always funny and at the same time insightful

The clash of two sisters Andrea and Alexandra Botez with commentary by Komarov! It can't get better!

Magnus has many sponsors and logos on his shirt. One of the major ones is Master Card!

Before the game began, Arkadij Dvorkovich took on the Secretary General of Dubai Sports Council, His Excellency Saeed Mohd Hareb in a game of chess!
Judit Polgar on the match and commentating with Anish Giri for Chess24
How strong is FIDE's managing Director Dana Reizniece Ozola

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?

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