Long live the King!

by Jonathan Speelman
5/7/2023 – A week after Ding Liren became the new world chess champion and a day after King Charless III was crowned in London, GM Jon Speelman reflects on the memorable match from Astana. Referring to Ding’s much praised decision to play ...Rg6 in the deciding game, Speelman writes: “That’s the one moment of the match that I’m going to revisit, not so much from the technical point of view but the psychological. Decision-making in chess involves both pure chess skill and general intelligence, and the small calculated risk that Ding took was a prime example”. | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

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Sound and fury, Heaven and Hell

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

King Charles IIIOn Saturday, we Brits were encouraged to pledge our allegiance to King Charles III, most likely from our own living rooms. Ding Liren’s ascension to chess royalty was a week earlier, when last Sunday he took Magnus Carlsen’s vacant crown. 

So much has already been written about this here and elsewhere that I don’t have that much to add, but it is worth recalling the moment when poor Ian Nepomniachtchi resigned the final game, knocking pieces over on the table (not the board itself) and struggling to get up from his chair. Ding, meanwhile, remained preternaturally calm, restraining his emotions and covering his face to hide any tears. Though he did later cry during the official FIDE interview as he explained how he recovered his composure after the terrible early loss in game 2. 

The thing that stands out is how, under intolerable pressure, both strove to maintain public decorum. In sport, players celebrate success and are expected to by fans. Footballers take their shirts off, though rugby and cricket players tend to be more restrained. Mind sports’ players — or at least chess players — tend in my experience to try to mask their emotions in public, and I’ve always considered this a strength. It’s perfectly normal after a game to whoop with delight or kick a door in fury, but much better to do so in private. If you allow your opponents too close to the whirlpool at your centre, you may be offering them succour and giving them psychological leverage. 

Numerous interviews have appeared since the match, of which perhaps the most interesting was with El Pais’ veteran reporter Leontxo García. Asked how he would remain world champion, Ding replied, “I have to build a strong team, with great teachers and powerful computers. In short, I must be more professional”. And he added, “I am ready for all challenges, including playing against Carlsen if he wants to recover the title, or to defend it against the young stars”. 

The question of Carlsen is especially interesting. At one of the press conferences towards the end of the classical phase, the players were asked whether Carlsen might be able to short circuit the Candidates process and challenge them directly. They deferred to a FIDE representative (I didn’t see who exactly) who replied with a resounding “no!”. Certainly, a formal match for the title would be impossible, but Carlsen remains the world’s highest rated player and I’m sure that Ding would like to correct that. In any case, the two will play a number of times over the coming months in the normal course of events.

Meanwhile, the epicentre of battle has moved on almost immediately to Bucharest, where the first Grand Chess Tour event of the year, the Superbet Chess Classic, includes Nepo, Ding and Ding’s wonderful second Richard Rapport. Personally, I wouldn’t put too much store on how they play so soon after Astana, but it will still be a great to watch. 

Richard Rapport

Ding Liren’s second in Astana, Richard Rapport, is playing in Bucharest, and drew Ian Nepomniachtchi in their first-round encounter | Photo: Grand Chess Tour / Lennart Ootes

I was at the 4NCL last weekend and caught the first three rapidplay games while preparing fairly inefficiently to play black against Alexei Shirov. I did duly lose and have included the game’s finale — though the opening is still live theory, so I’ve skated over it.

It was only after we’d had a post-mortem that I learned that Ding had prevailed. People were raving about ...Rg6 and that’s the one moment of the match that I’m going to revisit, not so much from the technical point of view but the psychological. Decision-making in chess involves both pure chess skill and general intelligence, and the small calculated risk that Ding took was a prime example.

After a month of overwhelming tension in Astana — sound and fury, Heaven and Hell — we have a new champion. Long live the King!  

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How I became World Champion Vol.1 1973-1985

Garry Kasparov's rise to the top was meteoric and at his very first attempt he managed to become World Champion, the youngest of all time. In over six hours of video, he gives a first hand account of crucial events from recent chess history, you can improve your chess understanding and enjoy explanations and comments from a unique and outstanding personality on and off the chess board.


Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.