Ding Liren crowned first Chinese male chess world champion
ding liren He 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 of them at once. At that moment both seemed expendable, with nothing more to give.
Ding is the new world chess champion. first male champion from China. Russia’s Nepomniachtchi went home a broken man after his second consecutive failed attempt at a world title. The result also ended Magnus Carlsen’s decade-long reign. The Norwegian had announced his decision not to defend his world title last year.
The three-week match, consisting of 14 classical games and four rapid games in tie-breaks, was a classic display of the beauty and agony of chess. It was one of the most dramatic title fights in decades, with both fighters throwing punches, guts and blood.
The Chinese world No. 3 has never been in the lead during the classical stage. Nor had he won any of his previous games with Black against an opponent one position higher than him. He ended up doing both in the final rapid game after the first three games ended in draws.
The Ding started off white on Sunday and the first two rapid games were full of quality and ideas. In the second, Ian missed a few chances and Ding’s defensive resources didn’t let up. The third turned into a quiet draw. As a blitz decider prospect, Ding showed immense courage in the fourth. He denied a replay and self-pinned with 46…Rg6. The courage to seek out such talent has not gone without reward, despite his short time in an all-or-nothing move.
Ding said in a poetic summary, “This mail reflects the depth (sic) of my soul.”
Ding arrived in Astana about 25 days ago, the most challenging player. He spoke of feeling depressed, wondering aloud whether he should seek a doctor and was quickly followed up with a loss in the second game. A rest day and emotional purge later, Ding was a different player in Game 3.
Prior to the match, he had played fewer than five classical tournaments in three years as Covid-19 made it difficult for him to travel outside China. “Sometimes I thought I was addicted to chess because without tournaments I was not as happy. Sometimes I struggled to find other hobbies,” he said.
There is an almost fatal dimension to Ding’s path to reaching the world championships. Russia’s Sergei Karjakin was invited to play in the Candidates Tournament at the last minute after being banned for his vocal support of the war against Ukraine. Nepomniachtchi won that tournament, Ding was second, and Carlsen’s withdrawal earned him entry.
Of the 14 classical games, six were decisive and scores equal to 7–7 brought about a tiebreak. This was the fifth time in the history of the World Championship that the match went to a tiebreak. Two of the previous four involved Carlsen – against Karjakin (2016) and Fabiano Caruana (2018).
“The key moment was in the second game,” Nepomniachtchi said. “I had a chance to win but didn’t realize it. Then in the 4th game I had to play more accurately. But after (48.h 4??) the situation changed. Time was short and to change myself, to change the game It was very difficult. White was close to victory. It was hard to imagine that I could lose. But things happen.
Five decades ago, chess and China were not spoken in the same breath. Chess was banned in the country during the Cultural Revolution (1965–76) because it was seen as a sign of decadent capitalism. Chess books were burnt and the socio-political movement turned bloody, with thousands killed. State policy towards chess changed in later years and since 1991 China has had six female world champions.
The next Women’s World Championship will also be completely Chinese. In the mid-70s, Malaysian entrepreneur Dato Tan Chin Nam initiated efforts to develop chess in Asia under the ‘Big Dragon Project’. Ding’s coronation as world champion is the product of these cumulative efforts.
Nepomniachtchi held a slight edge against Carlsen with the experience of the previous match. Helping him in this match was the eventual world champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia. The pressure was immense on the 32-year-old to bring the title back to his chess-crazy nation for the first time since 2007. It was not meant to be.
Distraught by the defeat, he wondered what more he had left to give.
“With this tournament, a huge part of my life – all the preparation, all the work – is over.” It was a sad sight as the Russian player waited for the post-match question section to end. Sitting at the other end of the table, Ding spoke of relief, his desire to shed tears, his boyhood dreams, and his hopes of traveling to Turin to watch a Juventus game.
“(Growing up) I didn’t really dream of becoming world champion,” Ding said, “it wasn’t that important.” What Ding did at the start of the match, however, was giddy at the prospect of having his picture on the walls of chess clubs everywhere, alongside other world champions.
He may never have dreamed of it, but he has made sure that he has made it happen.