World Championship Game 2: Nepo scores, despite Ding’s opening surprise

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/10/2023 – Ian Nepomniachtchi took the lead at the World Chess Championship in Astana after beating Ding Liren with black in Monday’s game 2. Ding shocked onlookers with his fourth move, but Nepo reacted in principled fashion, entering the most trying continuations. Soon enough, the Russian’s position went from slightly advantageous to completely winning. Ding resigned the game on move 29. | Photo: FIDE / Anna Shtourman

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“The position more or less plays itself”

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

In 2021, Ian Nepomniachtchi only got to play 11 out of 14 games at the World Championship in Dubai — Magnus Carlsen had a 4-point lead by then, which was enough to secure match victory. Nepo did not win a single game in the lopsided confrontation. Now, in his 13th game in a match for the world crown overall, the Russian scored his first victory, as he beat Ding Liren with black in a rather shocking 29-move encounter.

Much has been said on social media regarding Ding’s statements about his mental state after the first game, and the fact that he has been spending most of his time at the resting area on the first two days of action. A long-standing elite grandmaster diagnosed what might have provoked Ding’s disappointing start in Astana. Levon Aronian thinks that stress is taking a toll on his colleague:

The Chinese himself described Monday’s game as “a disaster”, giving credit to his seconds for preparing the unexpected 4.h3, while noting that it was he who “didn’t play it very well”. Former women’s world champion Susan Polgar (she beat Xie Jun in the 1996 match for the title) reflected on Twitter:

If [Ding] cannot find a way to be happy and more energetic quickly, this will be a short match. Having a strong team is more than just looking for novelties. [The team] can help put the player in the right frame of mind, mentally and emotionally.

As for Nepomniachtchi’s performance, it was admirable how he took the bull by the horns after seeing Ding’s startling fourth move. The Russian, true to his nature, played the most forcing continuations when the position called for it, leaving his opponent no room for counterplay. In usual plainspoken fashion, Nepo described the game in the press conference:

The position more or less plays itself. I threw the pieces in the centre, and it was enough.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi, a slight favourite before the start of the match — can he be regarded as a big favourite now? | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

An early surprise, quashed

In Sunday’s inaugural game, Ding, playing black, spent over 9 minutes on move 7. Today, Nepo saw it necessary to think for around the same amount of time even earlier in the game, on move 4! Ding shocked his opponent with a seemingly innocuous pawn push.


4.h3 is not what you expect to see in a World Championship match. Now that it is known that Richard Rapport is one of Ding’s seconds, though, there is a plausible explanation for the Chinese’s decision. As GM Alexander Shabalov put it:

This move definitely comes from Richard Rapport, Ding’s second. The main idea here is to take Ian out of the book. But Ian’s reaction was absolutely amazing, he played in the most aggressive way.

Nepo reacted with 4...dxc4, the most principled continuation, knowing all too well that Ding had this position fully analysed by a top-level team. White’s 5.e3 was already a novelty.

While Nepo continued to spend at least a couple of minutes on each decision (he needed over 10 minutes twice in the next five moves), Ding played almost instantly — until a critical point was reached on move 12.


Both knight captures (on c5 or f6) are playable, with the computer favouring the capture of the c-pawn. Ding knew this was a crucial decision and spent over half an hour on 12.Nxf6. The time spent was perhaps excessive, albeit understandable under the circumstances. The shocking element came after the game, though, when Ding confessed that Nepo’s 12...gxf6 had been a total surprise — he only looked at 12...Qxf6 during all that time!

After 13.e4Anish Giri’s first instinct, though inferior to 13.dxc4 — c4 14.Bc2 Qc7 it became clear that Black had at the very least dealt proficiently with the early surprise.

Four moves later, Nepo was already in the driver’s seat.


19...f5 was the way to go! Opening the position clearly favours Black, as White has struggled to find an active plan, shuffling his light-squared bishop back and forth on c2 and d3. After 20.Bc2 Nc6 21.Bg5, Nepo continued to play vigorously, as he replied with a move that, according to Vishy Anand, was “screaming to be played”.


Nepo went for it — 21...Rxg5 22.Nxg5 Nd4 followed, and White will have a lot of trouble dealing with Black’s attacking potential along the g-file supported by the queen on c7 and the bishop pair.

Four moves later, Black asserted his domination on both flanks of the board.


White’s major pieces look helpless after 26...c3 27.bxc3 bxc3. Moreover, a potential exchange sacrifice is useless, as Black is already two pawns up and still has a strong initiative. White resigned two moves later.

Ding will get a rest day to try to regroup. In Wendesday’s game 3, Nepo will get the white pieces for a second time in the match.

Ding Liren

Time to regroup — Ding Liren | Photo: FIDE / Anna Shtourman

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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.