Ding Liren is the new world chess champion!

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/30/2023 – By winning game 4 of the rapid tiebreakers — after three draws — Ding Liren became the 17th undisputed world chess champion! Ian Nepomniachtchi seemed to have things under control in the deciding game, and even a bit of an advantage at times, but he overestimated his chances and allowed Ding to get a dangerous passer. Ding kept his nerves and converted his advantage brilliantly. | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

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Two remarkable fighters

A new world chess champion has been crowned, and what a match it has been! Three Sundays ago, on April 9, the first classical game was played, and now, following a nerve-racking rapid playoff, Ding Liren has become the 17th undisputed holder of the biggest title in chess.

Ian Nepomniachtchi was a worthy opponent, one that could have easily won the match, had he made the most of his chances in some of the games. In the end, it all came down to nerves, and Ding proved to be the stronger contender.

After game 8 (out of 14), multiple world champion Viswanathan Anand described the contest as “a match for the ages”, and the remainder of the duel was as epic as the first half. Dramatic games full of ups-and-downs were followed by a couple of extremely tense draws. The rapid playoff was the cherry on the cake, with both players keeping the tension throughout, until it was Ding who prevailed in the final hurdle.

As he had done throughout the match, first as a commentator and then as a social-media (deluxe) kibitzer, Anand shared an on-target final assessment from his Twitter account:

It’s impossible to praise both players enough. Even today, they went at it with full energy and the fourth game was so draining. However, Ding survived so many setbacks and saves his best for last!

Nepo deserved more, and this match was so thrilling because he was one of the two players. Someone had to lose and sadly for Ian, it was him.

Nepo’s meltdown in game 12 had been painful enough, and now, his losing a second consecutive match for the title (after winning a second Candidates Tournament in a row, in style) makes us wonder whether he will end up becoming one of the famous chess superstars who never quite makes it to become world champion. He would join a club full of renowned players, if so. As noted by Indonesian IM Irene Sukandar:

At the end of the day, though, chess is a sport, and there must be a winner.

Ding, as modest as ever, later confessed that “it’s not so important to become the world champion”. His emotional outpouring when Nepo resigned game 4 of the playoff was incredibly moving, nonetheless.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

It was a super close match — Ian Nepomniachtchi could have easily been crowned world champion on Sunday | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

A miraculous journey

Yet another great quote by Anand describes best how unlikely it was for Ding to even reach this stage of the World Championship cycle. The Indian wrote:

He was literally the last-minute participant from the Candidates stage, and this was a miraculous journey all the way!

Ding, at 30 years of age, became the first Chinese world chess champion in the open circuit. Before the third week of March 2022, he was not even qualified to play the Candidates Tournament. A series of improbable events had to take place for him to reach the pinnacle of the sport. This was the timeline:

Ding went even further back when he reflected on his chess journey during his first press conference as world champion. His difficulties speaking English often had him spending a few seconds thinking about his answers. In this case, the wait was worth it, as he elaborated:

I started learning to play chess at four years old and spent 26 years playing and analysing. I’ve tried to improve my chess ability in many different ways and using different methods. I think I did nearly everything. Sometimes there are tournaments when you are not so happy. Sometimes I struggle to find other hobbies to make me happy. But I was trying to learn from the best. The match reflects the deepest of my soul.

During the interview, Ding thanked his family and his friends. As had been the case after most games during the match, he was received by Richard Rapport, his second, in the lobby outside the playing hall. Rapport’s creative ideas were certainly a big factor in the match.

Richard Rapport, Ding Liren

Richard Rapport’s creative style inspired Ding Liren to play adventurously in some of the games | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

Out of the 17 undisputed world chess champions, most hailed from Europe and the Soviet Union / Russia, one hailed from Cuba, one from the United States, one from India, and now, one from China. Perhaps the seventeenth is also the humblest?

For the time being, both world champions, in the open and the women’s circuits, are Chinese. And that will not change in the short term, as Ju Wenjun, the women’s world champion, will defend the title against her compatriot Lei Tingjie later this year. 

“Self-pinning for immortality”

Ding’s victory ends Magnus Carlsen’s 10-year reign as world champion. The Norwegian voluntarily gave up the title and is still regarded as the strongest player in the world (Vladimir Kramnik recently went as far as saying that “chess is Magnus Carlsen”), but that did not prevent him from congratulating his colleague on Twitter, wittily adding a reference to a critical move in game 4 of the playoffs:

Self-pinning for immortality. Congrats Ding!

Carlsen was alluding to the following position.

Commentators on the most popular channels (Sagar Shah for ChessBase India, Daniil Dubov for FIDE and Fabiano Caruana for chess.com) all thought it improbable for Ding to play 46...Rg6 as a response to the check. Nepo, who had little trouble with white throughout the match, seemed to be in control in this game as well. The Russian was not winning, but it was clear that Ding was the one struggling to find accurate moves in a double-edged position.

The alternative 46...Kg8 would have most likely led to a perpetual check, and to a blitz tiebreaker (for a first time in history in a match for the title!). Nepo, who has a positive score against Ding in blitz, would have surely been the favourite in that stage.

Ding’s bold choice worked wonders, though, as after 47.Qf5 c4 Nepo blundered with 48.h4

Now Ding’s 48...Qd3 all but neutralized his opponent’s ideas.

48.Qf4 was the only way to keep the balance for White, as Black’s pawns on the queenside are dangerous, and Black has perfectly coordinated his pieces to prevent White from successfully attacking his king.

Dubov rightfully pointed out that converting this position with a bit over a minute on the clock (both players were in mild time trouble already) was no easy task. Engines show that Nepo missed a few chances to fight for equality later on, but Ding’s determined moves and incredible focus ended up prevailing. After all, playing with the initiative is easier, especially under pressing circumstances.

Resignation came on move 68. And Ding’s decision on move 46 turned out to be, indeed, a self-pin for immortality. Olimpiu Di Luppi, once again, clipped the epochal sequence:

Ding Liren

The 17th undisputed world chess champion: 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.