Crafty Nepo, candid Ding: Mind games at world chess - Hindustan Times
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Crafty Nepo, candid Ding: Mind games at world chess

Apr 22, 2023 09:27 PM IST

The Russian and his Chinese rival are chasing their first world chess title and the intensity and mind games in Astana has been fascinating.

By any definition, this is a remarkable World Championship. There is drama, meltdown, comebacks, and an astounding five decisive games out of nine so far. What we have after almost a fortnight is two players who have found their feet after blows and still have a few tenacious rounds left in them. Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi leads China’s Ding Liren 5-4 and the match heads into its final five classical games starting Sunday.

Chess - FIDE World Championship Match 2023 - Game 8 - Astana, Kazakhstan - April 20, 2023. Ding Liren of China competes against Ian Nepomniachtchi of International Chess Federation. REUTERS/Turar Kazangapov(REUTERS) PREMIUM
Chess - FIDE World Championship Match 2023 - Game 8 - Astana, Kazakhstan - April 20, 2023. Ding Liren of China competes against Ian Nepomniachtchi of International Chess Federation. REUTERS/Turar Kazangapov(REUTERS)

Psychology is a dominant aspect of the World Championship. Both challengers are trying to test a version of themselves they have perhaps not put out before, to win something they’ve never won. “To me it looks as if both are trying hard to change something – be it Ding's openness or Nepo’s self-control,” says Viswanathan Anand, who has won the title five times.

For a World Championship challenger, Ding has been unusually candid. It is suggested that his team intercepted him on his way to the Game 8 press conference to brief/warn him against spilling any details about their preparation leak by a Reddit user. If Nepomniachtchi evaded an innocuous question on the number of pink shirts (he has worn them often) he packed for this trip, Ding picked a modest “five” when asked to rate his confidence of winning the title. Nepo listened intently to his opponent’s answer and broke into a half smile.

Ding has been enterprising in his openings and fearless in taking his opponent out of familiar paths – like he did in Game 8 with the 9. Ra2 move.

“In some ways this match is like the Anand-Topalov one. Ding is jumping around with openings, aware that his opponent perhaps has superior hardware for preparation (The Russian reportedly has access to the Zhores supercomputer) and trying to exploit the fact that he thinks he’s the better chess player,” says Peter Heine Nielsen, trainer to Anand and now Magnus Carlsen. “Like Topalov, Nepo is repeating his openings and perhaps trying to force his opponent to run out of ideas.”

On the day of the opening ceremony of his 2010 match against Veselin Topalov, Anand’s team learnt the Bulgarian had access to a supercomputer. It initially threw his team off as it meant they could no longer be certain if their preparation was enough for combat. They later decided to follow the strategy of landing the first surprise, using a variety of ideas and leaning on flexibility, spontaneity and non-computer chess. Anand won that match. It had five decisive results in 12 games, the most at a World Championship before the current match.

Unlike in World Championship matches through Carlsen’s reign, intimidation isn’t a factor in the Ding-Nepomniachtchi contest. Both have been fearless in taking their chances. Nepo pressed his slight advantage in Game 9 that lasted six hours and 82 moves but Ding didn't cave in with black pieces.

In an interview to chess.com Vladimir Kramnik once spoke of how not being easily intimidated, or being competitive by nature, made him a tough opponent for Garry Kasparov – he defeated him in the 2000 title match. “It was a very strange experience for him, just because he was so used to smelling the fear of the person sitting in front of him,” Kramnik said.

At the board, Nepo with his carousel of expressions – some that he can plant to misleading effect when his opponent makes an impressive move – is the more imposing presence. Ding isn’t into body language tricks and often buries his head in his hands at the board.

He’s found himself in serious time scrambles at least twice. In Game 7, he froze, and placed his hand over his mouth like he’d seen a ghost on the board. His time wound down from over five minutes to 45 seconds for eight moves as commentators hollered “make a move!” on behalf of chess fans everywhere. He lost that game. Nepo tried to trouble Ding the following game by playing quick moves and allowing him little room to think on his time in exchange for ceding some control on the board.

“This match is quite unique in that both players seem to have broken out of their shells – the dam seems to have burst. Once the first blow was struck, they have been going after each other without restraint,” says Anand.

Of the remaining five games, Ding will play with white in three. He'd want to hunt for wins with them and fight for draws with black. Nepo is one point ahead and Game 10 could be crucial. “It’s still early for Nepo to draw his way home, so to speak,” says Nielsen. “Ding has to make a comeback soon. He can’t afford to fall further behind.”

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