World Chess Championship: There is still a lot to tell...

by André Schulz
5/3/2023 – The most exciting world championship match in recent history has come to an end and has produced the first Chinese World Chess Champion in Ding Liren. Ding is the 17th World Chess Champion and the new figurehead of world chess. We are sure to hear many more background stories about the course of the match soon. A few themes are already emerging. | Photo: Stev Bonhage (FIDE)

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Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren produced one of the most exciting matches of recent years in their battle for the World Championship. Both grandmasters played with an open mind, giving each other nothing and playing almost always uncompromisingly for a win. Nerves also played a big part and in some games both players made serious mistakes in the complicated situations they created.

Ding Liren was trailing most of the match and had to catch up, which he usually did, for the last time in game 13. Only once did Ding Liren take the lead, but that was at the most crucial time - at the end of the match, in the last and decisive game of the play-off.

The video of the exciting play-off was viewed over 200,000 times.

One of the first to congratulate Ding was Magnus Carlsen, Ding's predecessor as World Champion.

It is well known that Carlsen does not consider the World Champion title to be as important as being the number one in the world rankings. Whether the chess public and the chess and sports press see it the same way?

While Ding Liren experienced a lot of support from home, his opponent Ian Nepomniachtchi felt more headwind and pressure from home. Until Vladimir Kramnik lost the world title in 2007, the title had been in Soviet and then Russian hands for decades. On the one hand, chess fans in Russia hoped that Ian Nepomniachtchi would finally bring the title back to Russia. On the other hand, Nepomniachtchi had been critical of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine right from the start.

This did not go down well at home. As one heard off the record, Nepomniachtchi had received many unfriendly e-mails from Russian chess friends. Because he had dared to express himself critically. And because he showed weakness instead of dominating, as was desired in Russia. The comments of some officials were hardly encouraging either. We may never know how much this lack of support affected Nepomniachtchi. In order to sleep at all, it was reported that Russia's top player had to take pills. And it seems that room service accidentally took them away while cleaning his room.

The biggest emotional support for the sensitive Ding Liren was his mother. Originally, Ding did not want his mother to go on the trip, but she was there in Astana and gave her son mental strength in critical situations between matches, of which there were several. Ding's special thanks go to her.

Team Ding in Astana | Photo: Stev Bonhage (FIDE)

Here again, but more private

Ulrich Stock was a reporter in Astana for the German weekly Die Zeit. He followed the match closely and spoke to many chess friends there. Among Ding's supporters was Xie Jun, who in 1991 became the first Chinese woman to win the Women's World Championship.

Xie Jun behind Ding Liren | Photo: David Llada

In an interview with Ulrich Stock, she explained the Chinese team's long-term four-stage plan. First the women's individual title, then the women's team title. Then the Chinese should win the team world title and finally the men's individual title. This was the way the Chinese federations worked in all sports, Xie Jun said.

The former world champion also disagreed with some observers that the level was not good. "Nerves are part of it," she said, "and mistakes happen in chess. Xie Jun also had something to say about the choice of Richard Rapport as second. Ding himself had explained that having Richard Rapport as his second had forced him to speak English. This, he said, would also have forced Ding to think differently than when analysing with his Chinese compatriots.

After more than 30 years, the Chinese strategy, known as the "Great Dragon Plan", has been a complete success. All its goals have been achieved. As well as reigning women's champion Ju Wenjun, who will soon defend her title against Chinese challenger Lei Tingjie, there is now a Chinese men's champion.

The day after the final, the prize-giving ceremony took place as part of a colourful closing ceremony.

 Photo: Stev Bonhage (FIDE)

 Photo: Stev Bonhage (FIDE)

Afterwards, Ding Liren also had time for selfies, here with Rinat Naimanov, who has set up a major children's chess project in Kazakhstan.

Rinat Naimanov, Ding Liren

But Ding Liren, the new World Champion, and Ian Nepomniachtchi, the runner-up, do not have much time to recover from the match. Both will participate in the Grand Chess Tour, which starts this weekend in Bucharest with the Superbet Chess Classic. They may even be travelling on the same plane.


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.