World Championship Game 7: Ding crashes and burns in time trouble

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/18/2023 – A dramatic seventh game saw Ian Nepomniachtchi taking the lead for a third time at the World Championship match in Astana. Ding Liren shocked Nepo and the audience by playing the French Defence, which led to a double-edged position. While Ding managed to solve his problems and gain the initiative, he also got in deep time trouble. With only seconds on his clock and no increment, he blundered the game away. | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

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“Extremely sharp and extremely tense”

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

Ding Liren’s 4.h3 in game 2 of the World Championship match was not the last — nor the biggest — surprise he had in store. In game 7, the shocker came as early as on the first move, as Ding decided to play the French Defence in an unprecedented decision for 21st century world-title contests. Ian Nepomniachtchi, who had similarly surprised the chess world by playing the French in the Candidates, chose not to enter the system’s sharpest lines, but that did not prevent the game from becoming a double-edged affair.

Peter Heine Nielsen referred to a 1959 game between Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Tal (a Sicilian, which was not a Caro-Kann) as he quipped on Twitter:

Tal would have put the pawn on e5, kept it in his hand, smiled, and put it back on e6.

Once again the influence of Richard Rapport, Ding’s second, came to the fore. Smiling despite the painful loss, Ding explained in the post-game press conference:

I told Richard that I was going to play the French Defence. But it was half-joke, half-serious. He took me seriously and told me that I can try this to surprise my opponent. 

Rapport is known for playing offbeat systems, and he often employs the French with black. In this case, his advice turned out to be right, as Nepo shied away from entering the most trying lines, thus losing a chance to showcase his splendid preparation with the white pieces. It was not the opening what went wrong for Ding, but his handling of the clock.

As the game progressed, Ding continued to look for the most precise continuations, perhaps noticing that this was a great chance to take the lead given his opponent’s cautious approach. The Chinese star eventually gained the initiative, correctly assessing that he could give up an exchange for the bishop pair in a very dynamic position. But his clock kept ticking down, while Nepo, true to his nature, continued to play confidently despite the exigencies of the situation.

Ding spent almost 5 minutes on move 32, and found himself with less than a minute (with no increment) to make eight moves. It was distressing for spectators to see him freeze before making a decision with so little time left on his clock. Somewhat expectedly, he blundered in the very next move.

Nepo had more than enough time to find the refutation, as he went on to win the game four moves later. Commentator Irina Krush described the game as “heartbreaking”, while Erwin l’Ami was one of many pundits who shared that sentiment on Twitter.

Time-trouble meltdown notwithstanding, credit should be given to Nepomniachtchi for keeping a cool head throughout the game. His choice to play it safe in the opening and his well-known decisiveness allowed him to reach the critical stage of the game with a clear advantage on the clock — a crucial factor in a game with no increments before the first time control. He later explained:

The whole game was extremely sharp and extremely tense. There were a lot of sharp lines, but I couldn’t figure out what to do, so I went to this position where I was slightly worse.

Nepo’s pragmatic approach gained him a lead on the scoreboard for a third time in the match. Remarkably, this was the fourth consecutive decisive game that sees the player with the white pieces winning in Astana. Will the players surpass Tal v Botvinnik from 1961? Douglas Griffin shared on Twitter:

Following a rest day, games 8 and 9 will take place on Thursday and Friday.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi took his chance to regain the lead in the riveting confrontation | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Rapport’s influence everywhere

While it has become commonplace to ridicule the London System and the French Defence on social media — the two openings Ding played in games 6 (which he won) and 7 — the likes of Vishy Anand and Paco Vallejo have been enjoying the show. Right after Tuesday’s game started, Vallejo shared:

Ding knew that he needed to make concessions in this system, as he agreed to play with an inferior queenside pawn structure while dealing with White’s threats on the kingside. In exchange, he managed to activate his pieces.

Black’s next two moves were praised by the commentators (and later by Nepomniachtchi himself): 20...Nh5 21.f4 Bd6, and Ding was playing for more than equalization.

By entering this line, Black was prepared to give up an exchange, as Ding blitzed out his moves in the following sequence: 22.c3 Nxf4 23.Bxf4 Rxf4 24.Rxf4 Bxe5 25.Rh4

Black’s bishops and queen look menacing, while White’s battery on the h-file is not as effective, given the fact that the dark-squared bishop is now unopposed and plays a double role from e5. 

Understandably, Nepo played Bd3-e4 on the next move, offering a bishop trade, which Ding accepted (to Anish Giri’s bewilderment). Ding still had the upper hand, though, until disaster struck on moves 32-33.

Extreme precision is needed here to keep Black’s advantage, and Ding was surely considering 32...Be5 (the best alternative) as he saw his time dangerously running out. His 32...Rd2 results in a 0.00 evaluation by the engines, but White still needs to be careful to keep everything under control.

Nepo, who still had a reasonable amount of time on the clock, replied by 33.Re2. Ding then erred with 33...Rd3 (33...Rd5 was the way to go), and the Russian calmly calculated that his king is safe after 34.Qxc5 Rd1+ 35.Kg2 Qd3 36.Rf2

White has not only grabbed the c-pawn, but is also counterattacking along the f-file. Ding resigned after 36...Kg7 37.Rcf4 Qxc3. Heartbreaking, indeed.

Ian Nepomniachtchi, Ding Liren

Three seconds on the clock | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris - Video and annotated game


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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.