Ding lets out his emotions in battle for chess’ ultimate prize - Hindustan Times
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Ding lets out his emotions in battle for chess’ ultimate prize

Apr 14, 2023 08:56 PM IST

The World Chess Championship match between the Chinese world No 3 and Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi is evenly poised at 2-2

The first two games of this year’s World Chess Championship teetered along perilous terrain. We stared at two empty chairs for the greater part of four hours. One of the two participants appeared to be on the brink of an emotional breakdown and in need of a chat, hug or support dog and the match without the world’s best player appeared to be hurtling toward a possible wipe-out.

Grandmasters Ian Nepomniachtchi (L) from Russia and Ding Liren from China compete against each other.(AFP) PREMIUM
Grandmasters Ian Nepomniachtchi (L) from Russia and Ding Liren from China compete against each other.(AFP)

At the end of four games, Ding Liren has managed to turn the complexion of the contest on its head. The match between him and Ian Nepomniachtchi has sprung to life and stands evenly poised at 2-2.

Also Read | World Chess Championship: China’s Ding Liren bounces back to win fourth game

Ding is no longer the spooked, melancholic guy who turned up in Astana at the start of this week. In a mano-a-mano battle for chess’ biggest prize where players, in an unwritten cardinal code, are fiercely frugal with the information they divulge, Ding has done quite the opposite and spilled his guts.

It’s rather unusual. But it seems to be working for him.

Ding spoke of “feeling depressed” and questioned aloud whether “something was wrong with his mind” right after the draw in the first game. Of course, his choice of words could be partly attributed to his tenuous grasp over the English language.

Chess fans have had front row seats to his emotional turmoil and seeming catharsis. He spoke of friends helping him with the emotional purge and confirmed he's feeling better. It’s a good thing for Ding that his mental tumult and resolution happened early in the match and he had to live with a troubled mind and a trailing score for only a couple of days before it turned into a full-blown catastrophe.

It’s almost as if Ding is fighting his fears. He turned down the assistance of a translator and has moved back to the official hotel (that also serves as the match venue). When asked about the rationale behind the decision to return, Ding threw in a chuckle before a brief pause. Nepomniachtchi turned to his right to look at his rival, perhaps equally curious of the answer. “Well, I started to get used to the hotel,” he began on an anodyne note before dropping in the profound — “I want to try to win. That’s the big reason why I came back.” It was perhaps the first time that he’d expressed his intent to become the next world champion out loud before an audience. His Russian opponent wore an impassive look but couldn’t help touching his face almost instantly in perhaps an involuntary act of stress release.

Both players have been a study in contrast — at the post-game press conferences, it’s been a frank, cherubic Ding to a terse, dour Nepomniachtchi. Ding is a World Championship freshman, as opposed to his opponent who’s been through this wringer once before.

Nepomniachtchi has been guarded about his team of seconds, while Romanian GM Richard Rapport has been the most visible presence aside from the protagonists. Rapport is assisting Ding and is usually the first to throw an arm around his teammate after every game. It’s an odd combination but perhaps one that fits — a technically astute Ding and an ever-creative Rapport.

Ding’s first win of the match on Thursday also brought with it a sort of role reversal. He stayed put at the board, while Nepomniachtchi looked edgy, often choosing to analyse the position on the lounge screen. He paced around the stage and took little over 40 seconds to arrive at 25…Nf5 — an impulsive move that would backfire. Ding set up a potent pawn structure in the centre when Nepomniachtchi blundered with 28…Nd4 inviting an exchange sacrifice by Ding. For the greater part of the remaining moves, the Russian swivelled in his chair, body half turned away from the board, disgusted with himself.

Nepomniachtchi has a tiny all-time score advantage over Ding in classical games: four wins to three losses with 10 draws. It isn’t saying much though. The last time a match was 2-2 after four games was in 2021 (Carlsen vs Nepomniachtchi). After the Russian lost the sixth game then, he never really found his way back. It’s something he needs to watch out for this time — capitulations after a loss. Before that match, Nepomniachtchi had a positive score against Carlsen in classical games.

For all the quiet hell raising that Ding is doing, his country isn’t particularly hooked on chess. XiangQi, the fast, combative Chinese version of the game as well as Go, are the preferred board games. “I did not see an increase in Chinese audience, at least from people commenting (maybe they are silent watchers),” Agadmator, among chess’ most famous Youtubers and a self-professed Ding fan, said.

A Reddit user from China wrote: “None of my students are aware that someone Chinese is playing in the WCC. To be fair I am no longer in a large school in an urban area, if I was, I'm sure I'd have a few students interested. Chess content isn't as rampant on Duoyin as it is on TikTok as far as I can tell (My students live on Duoyin and I've literally never seen a chessboard on their screens).”"

Game 5 on Saturday will have Nepomniachtchi play White before colours are reversed for Game 6. It’s still early days in the match and it's after a while that a World Championship doesn’t have a clear favourite.

But there are perhaps few things as poetic as having the nice guy finish first.

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