Chess is considered the ultimate game of cold, logical calculation, but it is also a game of passion and, at the highest level, of nerves. It was clear Sunday when the world championship match in Astana, Kazakhstan, ended with Ding Liren, the new champion, sitting alone in front of a board in a dark theater, his head in his hand, crying tears of joy.
Ding’s win came in a tense and thrilling fast-paced final against Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, and only after three weeks of slower games that had failed to produce a winner. The result made Ding the first man from rising chess powerhouse China to hold the world championship, simultaneously preventing Russia, which has dominated the game for a century, from reclaiming it.
Ding’s match against Nepomniachtchi was decided in a series of four decisive matches made necessary after the regulation part of the match, 14 grueling classic matches, which ended in a draw. Each player has won three games in the regulation portion; the other eight ended in draws.
The tiebreakers, all played on Sunday, were quicker matches in which each player had 25 minutes to start, with 10 seconds added to each shot. The first three games were draws, but each one was very tense and fierce.
In game 4, Nepomniachtchi, playing in white, repeated the opening he had attempted in game two of the tiebreaker. On move 13, he tried a new idea, but Ding – capitalizing on his flaws – quickly got the upper hand.
Still, the match seemed headed for a draw when Nepomniachtchi, with more time left on his clock, decided to make the game more complicated to see if he could force Ding into a mistake. Instead, it was Nepomniachtchi who cracked, making critical errors that allowed Ding to take control. Nepomniachtchi resigned at move 68.
It was the first and only time Ding led in the championship game. He earned $1.1 million for his victory, while Nepomniachtchi took home $900,000 as runner-up.
Ding’s win sent waves across Chinese social media late in the evening, with a hashtag linked to the new champion quickly garnering more than 10 million views on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. Chinese users, full of pride and relief after three anxiety-filled weeks, celebrated the championship even though some admitted their ignorance of how to play chess. Almost all agreed, however, on the weight of the moment.
“We Chinese have ascended to the highest level of chess,” wrote one commentator. “Ding Liren is the pride of China.”
The match had been clouded from the start by the absence of Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian grandmaster who had held the world title since 2013. Carlsen had voluntarily chosen to give up the crown last July because he had grown tired and bored of preparing matches, a process that takes months.
Carlsen has long been critical of the length of games for what is known as the Classic World Championship. Each can take hours and, especially in recent years, where players have been able to prepare in advance with computers, they often end without decisive results. (For example, Saturday’s Game 14, the day before the tiebreaker, lasted nearly seven hours and ended in a draw.)
For fans and potential sponsors, this can make the biggest chess event less exciting. The match in Astana didn’t have this problem – almost half of the matches ended in victories – but that didn’t change Carlsen’s opinion.
In an April 28 podcast on NRK, Norway’s largest media company, Carlsen said, “There’s a lot of talk now about this world championship proving that ‘classic chess is doing well’ and all that. I have to admit that I don’t believe it at all.
He explained that Nepomniachtchi and Ding took a lot of risks in the early stages of their league game, but it was atypical. In his matches, Carlsen said, that didn’t happen because his opponents were scared of him and tried to limit the risk. The result, he argued, was that the games weren’t interesting.
Five-time United States champion Hikaru Nakamura suggested during a recent livestream that it doesn’t matter who won the Ding-Nepomniachtchi showdown. “The world champion will not be treated as a world champion,” he said. “I don’t care if Nepomniachtchi wins. I don’t care if Ding wins. Both will fully deserve to win the match. But that won’t make them the world champion in anyone’s book.
Ding’s triumph was significant for China and Russia. Russians have dominated chess for most of the last century, partly a legacy of the Soviet Union, which promoted supremacy in the game as proof of its superiority over the West.
China, rather than adopting the game for similar reasons, rejected it because it was popular in what it considered the “decadent” West. For eight years, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the game was banned.
The perception of chess in China began to change after Xie Jun won the Women’s World Championship in 1991, becoming the first non-Russian, non-Georgian woman to hold the title. This sparked a frenzy of state-sponsored activities designed to cultivate elite players, a project known collectively by a grandiose title, “Big Dragon Plan”. Chinese schools established chess clubs, and training institutions and tournaments proliferated. Last year, the Chinese government unveiled a new 10-year plan to develop the country’s next generation of prodigies.
China’s engagement has already yielded results. A succession of women after Xie won the Women’s World Championship, helping China hold the title for most of the last 32 years. The current defending champion is Ju Wenjun, who became champion in 2018. She will face a compatriot, Lei Tingjie, in a match in July, ensuring that the women’s title will remain in the hands of the Chinese.
China has also produced some very good male players in recent years, half a dozen of whom have made it into the top 20 in the world rankings at one time or another. But Ding was by far the best of them.
Born in Wenzhou a year after Xie’s victory, he was taught to play chess by his father, a chess enthusiast, when he was four years old. He started competing in tournaments soon after and won his first national title at the age of five. He rose to international prominence in 2009, aged 16, when he became China’s national champion. He won the title again in 2011 and 2012.
He was ranked No. 2 in the world and is the only Chinese player to ever achieve a rating, the point system used to rank players, of over 2,800.
Ding’s path to the title was littered with obstacles. The pandemic and China’s isolation had forced him to stop competing, but to take part in the Candidates Tournament last year – a condition for selecting a challenger for the championship game – he had to have played a minimum number of competitions. The Chinese Chess Federation stepped in to hold three tournaments early last year to enable it to meet the requirement.
In the Candidates Tournament, held last June and July in Madrid, Ding finished second to Nepomniachtchi. Normally, that would only have qualified Nepomniachtchi to play for the title against Carlsen. But after Carlsen refused to play, Ding became the other challenger.
The loss was crushing for Nepomniachtchi. Born the same year as Carlsen and often called Russia’s answer to the Norwegian grandmaster, he had been overshadowed by his rival for years. Nepomniachtchi played Carlsen for the world title in 2021 in Dubai, but after getting off to a good start by drawing the first five games, he fell apart and lost in one of the most lopsided results ever. event history. This year’s match, with Carlsen’s retirement, was a golden opportunity for him.
At the press conference that followed, as members of Ding’s family and Xie, the first Chinese champion, looked on, Ding was asked if the match was one of the most defining moments of her life. He struggled to explain his feelings. “The match,” he finally replied, “reflected the depths of my soul.”
Chang Che contributed reporting from Seoul.
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