2023 World Chess Championship: Game 12

2023 World Chess Championship

Astana, Kazakhstan (April 7th-May 1st)

Game 12: Explosive game ends in crushing defeat for Nepo
The agony of defeat. Photo by Stev Bonhage
Match Score: 6-6
Official Site: https://worldchampionship.fide.com/

2023 World Chess Championship: Game 12
Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Game 12 will go down in world championship history as one of the most back-and-forth battles. However, the chess world seems to believe that both players should play like a computer while giving several consecutive moves question marks when it is almost impossible to believe a human would find those moves in such a complicated position.

Many high-level commentators were not able to find critical moves or understand why the engine was giving certain evaluations, yet everyone talks about all of the “blunders.” It is clearly an oversimplification of the match environment with the palpable tension. There is a difference between engine analysis and practical play. Granted there was a rash of inaccuracies in critical phases, but the amount of pressure is stifling.

Before the game, there was the opening move by Dimash Kudaibergen, who is an unbelievable singer/songwriter that many in the Western world have not heard of. Ding seemed to be honored to meet him and it turns out he would need the extra inspiration.

Ding Liren happily greets Kazakh singer Dimash Kudaibergen,
who is a superstar throughout Asia.

Photos by Anna Shtourman

Now onto business. Let’s discuss the madness of the day.

Ding trotted out the quiet Colle System which sidesteps all of the complicated lines. Earlier he played the London System and won an impressive game sending waves throughout the chess world. Another surprise came in Game 12 when Nepomniachtchi played 6…Bd7!? No one could figure out why the bishop belonged on d7 as opposed to f5 or g4, but perhaps it was to avoid any preparation that Ding brought in playing the Colle. Fabiano Caruana stated that it may have been a case of mixing up preparation.

After the first ten moves, the position appeared to be an Exchange Caro-Kann after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.Bd3. In the game, after 8…Bg4 black was a tempo down. White’s bishop is still on c1 (instead of f4), but has already castled and it’s his move. Caruana suggested 8.h3 to prevent the next move.

Ding did not force the issue, but a critical moment came when Ding played 11.Bg5. This may be the first attempt to take advantage of the extra tempo, but Nepo calmly castled in the face of a damaged pawn structure after 12.Bxf6 gxf6. His bishop pair turned out to be more than enough compensation. The game would now heat up.

After Black looked to stifle pressure on the b1-h7 diagonal with 13…f5 (not 13…e5), white began to mobilize his pieces and struck with 17.g4!?

This move had a lot of strong points, but was not a favorite of the chess engines. In the ensuing analysis, Caruana went through some serious complications involving 17…Rg8 18.Kh1 Ng6! If 19.gxf5 Nh4 is a strong attack for black after 20.Qe3 exf5! 21.f4 Ng2! Seeing the danger, Ding opted for 19.Bc2? played after 13 minutes. After 19…Nh4 Nepo started gaining momentum, and in a matter of moves, his pieces were clustered around the white king.

Looks menacing and was assessed as winning for black. However, tension is building, and black has ways to go wrong. After 24.c4 dxc4 25.Qc3 (with an eye on the king), Nepo played 25…b5! At this point, many observers were predicting a win for Nepo. Susan Polgar, who has been actively following the match posted a dire prediction for Ding.

Those claims would be premature. No one could’ve imagined what would happen next. The next five moves would be as exciting as they were puzzling. While Ding claimed not to feel any pressure, it could have been because he expected to lose the game. On the hand, Nepo showed why the hardest task in chess remains “winning a won game.”

Ding decided that instead of slowly watching Nepo build up a devastating attack, he wanted to muck up the position. The pawn sacrifice diverted Nepo’s attention and held him off long enough for him to go wrong. Caruana admitted that neither he nor other commentators saw what was coming. In fact, they were also giving dire chances for Ding.

After 26. a4 Nepo played 26…b4 (instead of 26…a6) and a maze of variations ensued. Caruana in his must-see C-Squared podcast gave some mindblowing variations that showed how difficult it was to play this position at the board. Certainly, fans have the comfort of engines and the evaluation bar, but neither Ding nor Nepo are machines and some of the lines were simply incalculable.

The move 40…Bxf2 is the end of one variation given by Caruana starting at move 26! Most of the variations were winning for black, but there were still chances for Nepo to go wrong as we would soon see.

This is why is a shame that some fans are so critical of the errors here not realizing the difficulty and the pressure. Looking at an engine and saying “that’s a blunder” doesn’t do justice to the players. It’s one thing to see the evaluation bar change, but another thing to understand why. Even GM Rafal Leitao’s littering the annotations with double question marks failed to put things into proper context.

After 26…b4, Nepo followed with a rash of mistakes after 27.Qxc4. He spurned 27…Nf3 for 27…Rag8. While still winning, Nepo started making his moves quickly and errors piled up. After 28.Qc6, Nepo played 28…Bb8?? instead of the computer-like 28…Nf5! Again… none of the observers saw these lines but had an engine showing the black was losing his winning advantage.

Already the players had expended tremendous energy. Caruana kept making reference to the time they had left, but if your brain is suffering it may not help. He mentioned that Nepo calculation had “switched off.” Surely, Nepo was beginning to tilt. He handed Ding a golden opportunity with 28…Bb8 and Ding declined the winning advantage with 29.Qb7? Both players were in a psychological hurricane. 29.Bxg6 was winning for Ding. Nepo played 29…Rh6 and now his advantage has dissipated. The final error was 30…Rf8 and black’s pieces go from being coordinated to being a jumbled mess.

In this position, white’s pieces are now better placed. Even the g1-rook is playing an active role.

Nepo lost the thread on the position and played the timid 30…Rf8, but the final blow came five moves later when he played 34…f5?? which donates a pawn, and suddenly black can’t avoid getting mated or losing massive material. Unbelievable.

The Agony of Defeat

Photos by Stev Bonhage

Game 12

Game 12 – Full Broadcast

Video by FIDE

Press Conference – Game 12

Videos by FIDE Chess

C-Squared Podcast

Video by Christian Chirila/Fabiano Caruana

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