Nepo, Ding battle for the crown but Carlsen still rules

Apr 07, 2023 07:59 PM IST

The missing champion will cast a big shadow on Astana’s glass-domed, Kazakh yurt-inspired St Regis setting for chess’ ultimate title this weekend.

A World Chess Championship without the world’s best chess player. It’s odd, almost oxymoronic, yet not entirely unprecedented. In the absence of five-time champion Magnus Carlsen – world no 2 Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) and world No 3 Ding Liren (China) – will be eyeballing each other at Astana’s glass-domed, Kazakh yurt-inspired St Regis setting for chess’ ultimate title this weekend. Away from the familiar cauldron, Carlsen is kicking back with a skiing holiday in snow-capped Chamonix.

Magnus Carlsen(PTI) PREMIUM
Magnus Carlsen(PTI)

It must be freeing for Carlsen one might imagine. He never loved the format anyway. Over the past week, he wore a mop of overgrown hair and nursed a stack of chips at the Norwegian Poker Championship in Bratislava. He then had a horror mouse-slip to blunder his queen to throw away an Armageddon thriller at the Chessable Masters online super tournament, in what was his last competition as world champion.

Carlsen's decision to abdicate his title brings his ten-year reign to a close and will usher in a new world champion in a fortnight. Of course, the question of legitimacy – with the status of world champion and world’s best player eventually resting with two different individuals, remains. In the absence of Carlsen, former world champion Garry Kasparov has called it an “amputated event”. In 1993, Kasparov, then the most dominant player, created a new body – Professional Chess Association (PCA), to rival Fide, with its own world championship. It led to chess having two world champions for a few years, watering down the credibility of the Fide event. Of course in this case, Carlsen isn't in a rival match.

“It is a very unusual situation,” said five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, “There have been few instances when the highest-rated player did not play the match but Magnus' absolute dominance in rating and tournament results is what makes it remarkable. I was myself quite tired of playing the world championship year after year, but it never occurred to me that walking away is a legal move, as we say in chess. I guess it had to be left to Magnus to explore that possibility.”

The best of 14-game affair between Nepomniachtchi and Ding, two players who have never won the title before, is seen to be evenly matched. The Russian though is the slight favourite, holding the edge in opening preparation, crucial match experience and recent form. He’s won two Challenger events and played and lost last year’s match against Carlsen after going steady for the first five games. He's had access to the Zhores supercomputer based in Moscow’s Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology which can analyse millions of positions in minutes. It was originally built for artificial intelligence and machine learning. Nepomniachtchi used it in his preparation for the Candidates as well as his match against Carlsen.

With a live rating of 2795 and play that’s been impressively solid of late, Nepomniachtchi is possibly in his best patch of form. In recent months he’s been shredding his notoriety of being a talented but erratic player with a tendency to self-destruct. Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he will be playing under the world chess body, Fide’s flag and should he win, he’ll be the first from his country to do so since 2007.

The burden of history weighs a lot more for Ding. Ding is the strongest male Chinese chess player ever and the first to feature in a World Championship match. His country, however, has had incredible success in the women’s world championships so far. Since 1991, China has had six women’s champions and this year's competition is going to be an all-Chinese affair too. The success of China’s female chess players presumably had a bearing on Ding.

He grew up in Wenzhou and joined a chess club a year after the city hosted a match between Viktor Korchnoi and China’s first women’s world champion Xie Jun. The match lent Wenzhou its “city of chess” moniker and Ding now adds his own celebrity to it. Reticent and social media aloof with the guileless smile of a preschooler, Ding’s current form is hard to gauge.

At Wijk Aan Zee this year, the only tournament he’s played ahead of the €2million World Championship – he had just one win, against three losses, finishing a disastrous 5.5/13. For someone who went undefeated in 100 classical games between August 2017- November 2018 his recent inexplicable losses are quite out of character with his usually even play. Ding has suffered from not being able to travel out of his country (given China’s stringent restrictions) to play tournaments for a long time during the pandemic.

He had to make a mad dash – playing close to 30 games in a month – to qualify for last year’s Candidates, where he finished second. A spot at this World Championship opened after Carlsen chose not to compete.

Geo-politically, it’s a curious look – a Russian and Chinese in a gladiatorial battle for world domination in the backdrop of deepening bilateral ties between both countries against the West. As Russia continues to play aggressor and presses its forces into Ukraine, a world champion from the country might make for uncomfortable optics.

“It’s a fascinating match-up and frankly hard to decide who is stronger," Anand said, “While Ian has incredible talent, it will be wonderful to see the effect a (male) Chinese world champion can have on the sport. It will really come down to who wants it more right now.”

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