China’s Ding Liren is world chess champ, trumps Russia’s Nepo in dramatic 11th-hour turnaround
Seals title with a 68-move win over Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi with black in the fourth and last rapid game of the tie-break phase in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Ding Liren sat there, holding his head. His overwhelmed opponent Ian Nepomniachtchi accidentally knocked the chess pieces off the table and struggled to get out of his chair. Emotions, exhaustion, and the enormity of what they had won and lost descended on both all at once. In that moment, both looked spent, nothing more to give.
Ding is the new world chess champion. The first male champion from China. Russia’s Nepomniachtchi goes home a broken man after a second successive failed attempt at the world title. The result also brought Magnus Carlsen’s decade-long reign to a close. The Norwegian had last year announced his decision to not defend his world title.
In a match that ran for three weeks, 14 classical games and a tie-break of four rapid games, the beauty and agony of chess was in exquisite display. It was the most dramatic battle for the title in recent decades with both players throwing punches, baring guts and spilling blood.
The Chinese world No. 3 was never in the lead throughout the classical phase. Neither had he won any of his previous games with black, against an opponent ranked one spot above him. He ended up doing both in the final rapid game after the first three games had ended in draws.
Ding started with white on Sunday and the first two rapid games were rich in quality and ideas. Ian missed a few chances in the second and Ding’s defensive resources didn’t desert him. The third meandered into a placid draw. As the prospect of a blitz decider loomed, Ding showed immense gumption in the fourth. He refused a repetition and self-pinned with 46…Rg6. The courage to seek such brilliancy while being low on time in an all-or-nothing move didn’t go unrewarded.
“This match reflects the deepness (sic) of my soul,” Ding said in a poetic summation.
Ding had arrived in Astana roughly 25 days ago, appearing to be the wobblier challenger. He spoke of feeling depressed, wondering aloud whether he should seek out a doctor and falling behind early with a loss in the second game. A rest day and emotional purging later, Ding was a different player in Game 3.
Leading up to the match, he had played less than five classical tournaments in three years since Covid-19 had made it tough for him to travel out of China. “Sometimes I thought I was addicted to chess because without tournaments I was not so happy. Sometimes I struggled to find other hobbies,” he said.
There’s almost a fatalistic dimension to Ding’s pathway to reaching the World Championships. He was invited to play the Candidates tournament at the last minute after Russia’s Sergey Karjakin was banned for his vocal support of the war against Ukraine. Nepomniachtchi won that tournament, Ding was second and Carlsen’s withdrawal fetched him an entry.
Six of the 14 classical games were decisive and the 7-7 tied scores brought about the tiebreaks. This was the fifth time in World Championship history that the match went into tiebreaks. Two of the previous four involved Carlsen – against Karjakin (2016) and Fabiano Caruana (2018).
“The key moment was in the second game,” Nepomniachtchi offered. “I had a chance to win but didn’t realise it. Then in the fourth game, I had to play more accurately. But after [48. h4??], the situation changed. The time was very little and it was very difficult to change myself, to change the game. White was close to winning. It was hard to imagine that I could lose. But things happen.”
Five decades ago, chess and China weren’t even spoken in the same breath. Chess was banned in the country during the Cultural Revolution (1965-76) since it was seen as a decadent capitalist sign. Chess books were burnt and the socio-political movement was bloody with thousands killed. The State’s policy towards chess changed in the years that followed and since 1991 China has six women world champions.
The next women’s world championship too will be an all-Chinese affair. In the mid-70s, Malaysian entrepreneur Dato Tan Chin Nam began to pitch efforts to grow chess in Asia under the ‘Big Dragon Project’. Ding’s coronation as world champion is the product of these cumulative efforts.
Nepomniachtchi was the one with previous match experience against Carlsen, holding a slight edge. Among those who helped him with this match was the last world champion from Russia, Vladimir Kramnik. The pressure on the 32-year-old to bring back the title to his chess-crazed country for the first time since 2007 was seemingly huge. It wasn't to be.
Distraught at the loss, he wondered what more he had left to offer.
“With this tournament, a huge piece of my life – all of the preparation, all of the work – has finished.” It was a distressing sight as the Russian waited for the ordeal of post-match questions to get over. Seated at the other end of table, Ding spoke of being relieved, of wanting to burst into tears, his boyhood dreams, and his hope of travelling to Turin to watch a Juventus game.
“(Growing up) I hadn’t really dreamt of becoming world champion,” said Ding, “It was not so important.” One of the things Ding did though at the start of the match was gush at the prospect of his picture finding a place on the walls of chess clubs everywhere alongside other world champions.
He may have never dreamt it, but he has sure enough made it happen.