Ding Liren defies odds to become China’s first men’s world Chess champion

Ding Liren defies odds to become China’s first men’s world Chess champion
Ding Liren of China attends Game 12 against Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia during the FIDE Chess World Championship 2023 in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 26 April 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Radmir Fahrutdinov)

Ding’s triumph means China holds both the men’s and women’s world titles, with current women’s champion Ju Wenjun set to defend her title against compatriot Lei Tingjie in July.

China’s Ding Liren was crowned as the 17th world chess champion on Sunday 30 April, after a tense match against Russian-born Ian Nepomniachtchi in Astana, Kazakhstan, in the last chapter of an odds-defying sequence of events.

Thirty-year-old Ding won the rapid chess playoff by 2.5 points to 1.5, capitalising on Nepomniachtchi’s mistakes in time trouble in the last of the shorter-format games, following the pair’s 7-7 tie in a psychological battle across 14 longer “classical” games.

“One Ding to rule em all,” fellow grandmaster Anish Giri wrote on Twitter, in honour of the new champion.

Ding’s triumph means China holds both the men’s and women’s world titles, with current women’s champion Ju Wenjun set to defend her title against compatriot Lei Tingjie in July.

“The moment Ian resigned, the game was a very emotional moment, I cannot control my feelings,” the new world champion said in a press conference.

Ding had levelled the score in the regular portion of the match with a dramatic win in game 12, despite several critical moments – including a purported leak of his own preparation.

The Chinese grandmaster took the crown from five-time world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway, who defeated Nepomniachtchi in 2021, but announced in July he would not defend the title again this year.

Carlsen said he was not motivated to play shortly after Nepomniachtchi won the Candidates tournament, the prestigious qualifier to the match.

Ding, runner-up in the Candidates thanks to an incredible second half of the event, was next in line.

He had only been invited to the tournament at the last minute to replace Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, whom the international chess federation (FIDE) banned for his vocal support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ding ranks third in the FIDE rating list behind Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi.

The new champion will attend the first tournament of the Grand Chess Tour in Bucharest, Romania, from 4 May, after being almost inactive since 2020 due to Covid-19 lockdowns in China.

Ding Liren of China moves during Game 12 against Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia during the FIDE Chess World Championship. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Radmir Fahrutdinov)

Psychological battle

The play of chess grandmasters Nepomniachtchi and Ding battling it out for the world title, oscillated between touches of brilliance and uncharacteristic mistakes, which their peers have attributed to flaws in their psychological stamina.

Grandmasters interviewed by Reuters before the match ended, described the world championship battle as unpredictable and unusual.

“All my predictions have been proven wrong so I gave up and will watch as a spectator,” said grandmaster Peter Svidler, the eight-times Russian champion. “Everything that had seemed obvious to me has since been disproven.”

Ding began the tournament admitting he felt like there was “something wrong” with his mind.

He said he felt a “bit depressed” after his opening game tie with Nepomniachtchi, who was blitzing some of his moves when Ding was under serious time pressure.

Froze under time pressure

In the seventh game, Ding froze under time pressure, leaving himself less than three minutes to complete nine moves, despite having been in a potentially winning position.

“He’s a very high-level player,” former world champion Alexander Khalifman said of Ding. “But even before the match, I predicted that psychological strength was not his strongest attribute.”

Grandmaster Georgui Castaneda said Ding projected the image of a “very emotional and vulnerable person” and that Nepomniachtchi had his own psychological flaws to overcome.

Khalifman, who has known Nepomniachtchi since he was a child, said the Russian’s psychological disposition was similar to that of his Chinese opponent.

Nepomniachtchi collapsed when facing Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, who opted not to defend his title after a 10-year reign, at the last edition of the tournament in 2021.

After five draws in the first five games, Nepomniachtchi lost game six, the longest in world championship history, with 136 moves over seven hours and 47 minutes. He never recovered.

“Nepo can find it hard to come back from a defeat,” said Marie Sebag, the only French woman to reach grandmaster level.

In his contest with Ding, Nepomniachtchi, however, recovered from two defeats and never trailed.

Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia arrives for his epic battle against Ding Liren of China during the Chess World Championship. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Radmir Fahrutdinov)

More spectacular than in recent years

“This match is definitely more spectacular than we have seen in recent years,” Svidler said. “I would perhaps like there to be fewer mistakes, but in terms of drama and intrigue, it’s difficult to wish for better.”

Adding to the intrigue was the unearthing of two public accounts on the Lichess platform, which last month played the exact opening moves of the 2023 world championship game eight.

“There’s no doubt, this has to be Ding Liren and Richard Rapport’s game. There’s zero chance that these aren’t their accounts,” said famous streamer and world number five Hikaru Nakamura.

Ding remained evasive on the subject.

Rapport, the world number 13, was one of Ding’s seconds at the world championship and one of the most creative players in the world. 

His input has been for everyone to see in the “Nepo v Ding” contest, with the Chinese grandmaster in game seven playing the French defence, which he had not played in a classical over-the-board game in 10 years.

The move left Nepomniachtchi – and pundits – wide-eyed with surprise. Reuters/DM

 Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Julien Pretot.



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