World Championship Game 1: Nepo gains edge, Ding holds

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/9/2023 – Game 1 of the World Championship match was a nervy affair. Ian Nepomniachtchi, playing white, got the upper hand out of the opening, eventually gained a pawn, but then failed to convert his advantage. Ding Liren, who might become China’s first-ever world champion, confessed in the press conference that he had difficulty focusing on chess at the start of the game, most likely due to the pressure of the match. | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


“I didn’t think about chess so much”

Find expert commentary — video and game annotations — by well-known coach and author IM Robert Ris at the end of the article.

Pundits have repeatedly mentioned that Ian Nepomniachtchi’s previous experience might play a significant role in the 2023 World Championship match. Two years ago, the Russian grandmaster collapsed emotionally and lost his match against Magnus Carlsen. Much like Vishy Anand in 2013-14, however, he bounced back immediately, convincingly winning the next edition of the Candidates Tournament.

For Ding Liren, on the other hand, this is his first outing at such a pressure-filled event. Moreover, he comes from playing less often than usual during the last three years, due to the pandemic and the strict travel-related restrictions issued by the Chinese government. 

After surviving with black, a candid Ding confessed in the press conference that he had felt out of sorts at the outset of the match:

In the first part of the game, before the middlegame, I didn’t think about chess so much. My mind was very strange — memories, feelings, strange things happened. I feel maybe there’s something wrong with my mind, maybe it was due to the pressure of the match.

Mike Klein,’s on-site reporter, mentioned in a video dispatch that Ding is no longer staying at the St. Regis Hotel, where the match is taking place. The Chinese star asked FIDE to move out because “the room was too big”, although there is widespread speculation that he felt slightly encroached by the Russian presence in the event’s official hotel.

It is also known by now that Ding has his family in Astana, along with second Richard Rapport. As for Ian Nepomniachtchi, his long-time friend and second Nikita Vitiugov has also made his way to the Kazakh capital.

Ian Nepomniachtchi, Ding Liren

This is the dream for most professional chess players — to get a shot at winning the world crown — but a lot of pressure comes with the territory | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Down on the clock

Ding’s difficulties adjusting to the situation did not start in game 1, but the day before, as he confessed not to have made last-minute preparations for the inaugural encounter of the match. Nepo played 6.Bxc6 out of a Ruy Lopez, a move against which Ding had good results in the past, and after 6...bxc6 went for 7.Re1, a manoeuvre that surprised both the commentators and the world champion — Carlsen shared on Twitter, responding to a tweet by his former second Jan Gustafsson:

Did we check this for 2016 or 2021? I had no idea 7.Re1 existed.


Although this has not been played by elite players in a long time (Viktor Bologan played it in 2013), it was somewhat surprising to see Ding spending 9 minutes this early in the game. The Chinese also used about half an hour of his clock on moves 10-14.

By move 15, it was clear that Nepo had the upper hand. At that point, he could have entered a sharp line that would have led to a different, more tactical struggle going forward.


Both 15.Bh6 and Nepo’s 15.Nxe7+ are approved by the engines, but the former would have been perhaps more fun for the spectators, since Black would have needed to find a concrete answer amid a number of equally attractive (or unattractive) alternatives in a double-edged position with attacking potential for White.

What happened in the game, which was perfectly understandable from Nepo’s side, was not much easier to navigate for Ding. On move 25, he played a move that was described as “very ugly” by more than one commentator (Jan Gustafsson and Anish Giri among them)


Ding spent over 11 minutes on 25...c6, a pawn push that permanently weakens his queenside pawn structure. By that point, he had about 20 minutes on his clock, with no increment to help him reach the time control.

Nepo, of course, knew he was in the driver’s seat, and continued to play confidently, as he tried to win an inaugural game in a World Championship match for the first time since 2010, when Veselin Topalov beat Vishy Anand in Sofia. 

According to the engines, Nepo lost much of his advantage on move 31.


31.f4 is a straightforward way to make progress (31.h4 also seems tempting, albeit not as direct), but the computers give 31.c3 as the best alternative here. For a human, though, pushing the c-pawn to cover the d4-square looks somewhat unnecessary, since 31...Nd4 after f3-f4 would not make sense due to 32.c3 Nb3 and the knight would find itself rather stranded on the queenside.

Nepo continued to up the pressure, nonetheless, and even grabbed a pawn shortly after the time control was reached.


42.Bxa5 Kf7 43.Bb4 Nd3 followed, and Black managed to coordinate his pieces in defence at the cost of a single pawn. Ding continued to show good technique until securing a draw six moves later.

Both contenders can find positives from the first game of the match. Nepo showed his excellent preparation with white to get an early advantage, while Ding managed to survive both an inferior position and his emotional struggles in the high-profile confrontation for the most coveted title in the chess world.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Ding Liren

Ding Liren | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris - Video and annotated game



FIDE World Chess Championship 2023

Master Class Vol. 12: Viswanathan Anand

This DVD allows you to learn from the example of one of the best players in the history of chess and from the explanations of the authors how to successfully organise your games strategically, consequently how to keep your opponent permanently under press


Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.