Chess is the ultimate game of cold logical calculation, but it is also a game of passion and, at the highest level, a game of nerves. That was evident Sunday when the world championship match in Astana, Kazakhstan, ended with Ding Liren, the new champion, sitting on a plank alone in a darkened stage, his head in his hand, crying tears of joy.
Ding’s victory came in a fast, tense and impressive finale against Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia, and after only three weeks of slow matches that failed to produce any winners. The result made Ding the first man from China, a rising chess power, to hold the world championship while at the same time preventing Russia from regaining it.
Ding’s match against Nepomniachtchi was decided in a four-game tiebreaker series that became necessary after the regulation portion of the match, a grueling 14-game classic, ended in a draw. Each player won three matches in the regulation division; The other eight ended in a tie.
The tiebreaker was played on Sunday, and were faster matches as each player was given 25 minutes to start, with 10 seconds added for each move. The first three matches were a draw, but each match was very tense and tough to fight.
In Game 4, Nepomniachtchi, playing in white, repeated the opener he attempted in the second inning of the tiebreaker. On Step 13, he tries a new idea, but Ding—taking advantage of its flaws—quickly gets the upper hand.
However, the match seemed headed for a draw when, with more time remaining on his clock, Nepomniachtchi decided to make the match more complicated to see if he could force Ding into a foul. Instead, it was Nepomnyashchi who cracked, making blunders that allowed Deng to take control. Nepomniachtchi resigned at Move 68.
It was the first and only time that he captained Ding in the championship game. He earned $1.1 million for his victory, while Nepomniachtchi won $900,000 as runner-up.
Ding’s win sent waves across Chinese social media late in the evening, as a hashtag related to the new champion quickly garnered more than 10 million views on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. Chinese users, full of pride and relief after three worry-filled weeks, celebrated the tournament even as some admitted their ignorance of how to play chess. Almost everyone agreed on the weight of the moment.
One commentator wrote: “We Chinese have risen to the highest stage in chess.” “Ding Liren is the pride of China.”
The match was overshadowed from the start by the absence of Magnus Carlsen, the great Norwegian coach who has held the world title since 2013. Carlsen voluntarily chose to give up the crown last July because he was sick and tired of preparing for matches, the process that takes months.
Carlsen has long been critical of the length of matches for what is known as the World Classic. It can take hours for each player, and especially in recent years, when players are able to prepare ahead of time using computers, they often end up with no decisive result. (For example, Game 14 on Saturday, the day before the tiebreaker, lasted nearly seven hours and ended in a tie.)
For fans and potential sponsors, that could make the biggest chess event a little less exciting. The Astana match didn’t have that problem – almost half of the matches ended in victories – but that didn’t change Carlsen’s mind.
in podcast On April 28 on NRK, Norway’s largest media company, Carlsen said: “There’s a lot of talk now about this world championship proving ‘classic chess works well’ and all that. I have to admit I’m not buying that at all.”
He explained that Nepomniachtchi and Ding took many chances in the early stages of matches in the championship match, but that was unusual. Carlsen said that did not happen in his matches because his opponents were afraid of him and tried to limit the stakes. The result, he said, was that the games weren’t fun.
Five-time US champion Hikaru Nakamura suggested in a recent live broadcast that it didn’t matter who won against Ding Nepomoniachichi.
“A world champion will not be treated as a world champion,” he said. “I don’t care if Nepomniachtchi wins. I don’t care if Ding wins. They both deserve to win the match. But that wouldn’t make them world champions in anyone’s book.”
Deng’s victory was significant for both China and Russia. Chess has been dominated by the Russians for most of the last century, in part because of the legacy of the Soviet Union, which encouraged supremacy in the game as proof of its superiority over the West.
Instead of China adopting the game for similar reasons, it rejected it because of its popularity in what the country considered the “decadent” West. For eight years during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the game was banned from being played.
The perception of chess in China began to change after Xie Jun won the Women’s World Championship in 1991, becoming the first non-Russian, non-Georgian woman to hold the title. This sparked a flurry of state-sponsored activities designed to develop elite players, a project known collectively as the Dragon’s Big Plan. Chinese schools established chess clubs, and training and tournament institutions spread. Last year, the Chinese government unveiled a new 10-year plan to develop the country’s next generation of Miracles.
China’s commitment has already yielded results. A string of Chinese players after Xie won the Women’s World Championship, allowing China to claim the title for the most of the past 32 years. The current defending champion is Guo Wenjun, who became champion in 2018. She will face compatriot Li Tingjie, in a match in July, to ensure the women’s title remains in Chinese hands.
China has also produced some very good men’s players in recent years, with half a dozen players ascending the top 20 in the world rankings at one point or another. But Ding was the best of it all.
Born in Wenzhou a year after Xie’s victory, he was taught to play chess by his father, a chess fan, when he was four. He achieved international fame in 2009, at the age of 16, when he became China’s domestic champion. He won the title again in 2011 and 2012.
He is ranked second in the world and is the only Chinese player to have a rating, the points system used to rank players, of more than 2,800.
Ding’s road to the title was strewn with obstacles. The pandemic and China’s isolation forced him to stop competing, but in order to play in last year’s Candidates Tournament – a requirement for selecting a challenger for the championship game – he had to play a minimum number of competitions. The Chinese Chess Federation stepped in to organize three tournaments early last year to allow it to meet requirements.
In the Candidates Tournament held this past June and July in Madrid, Ding finished second behind Nepomniachtchi. Normally, that would have only qualified Nepomniachtchi for the title play against Carlsen. But after Carlsen’s refusal, Ding becomes the other contender.
The loss was crushing for Nepomniachtchi. Born in the same year as Carlsen, he has often been called Russia’s answer to the great Norwegian landmark and has been overshadowed by his rival for years. Nepomniachtchi played Carlsen for the world title in 2021 in Dubai, but after getting off to a good start with a draw in his first five matches, he collapsed and lost in one of the most lopsided results in the history of the event. This year’s match, with Carlsen stepping aside, was a golden opportunity for him.
In the ensuing press conference, with family members of Ding and Xie, China’s first female champion, Ding was asked if the match was one of the crowning moments of his life. He struggled to explain his feelings. “The match,” he finally replied, “reflects the deepest of my soul.”
Zhang Chi contributed reporting from Seoul.
“Student. Incurable problem solver. Amateur baconaholic. Introvert. Infuriatingly humble music fanatic.”