Magnus Carlsen has been dominating world chess for a decade like few did before him. He has been the World champion since 2013. After beating five-time World champion Viswanathan Anand, in the Indian’s hometown of Chennai, he went on to defend his titles against Anand (2014), Sergey Karjakin (2016), Fabiano Caruana (2018) and Ian Nepomniachtchi (2021).
But, by the end of the month, Carlsen will cease to be the World champion. Not because somebody will be dethroning him, but because he has abdicated his crown, and FIDE, the world chess governing body, has gone ahead with a succession plan without involving him. It will either be Nepomniachtchi or Ding Liren.
Carlsen was supposed to take on Nepomniachtchi, against whom he had scored a crushing 7.5-3.5 victory in 2021, once again in the World title match, but he withdrew. He had been talking of a lack of motivation for another World championship match for some time, so his decision hardly came as a surprise.
As Anand told Sportstar, ahead of the World title match at Astana, that decision gave Ding an opportunity. In that interview Anand, for whom this is the first World chess championship as FIDE’s deputy president, had predicted a close, exciting match between Nepomniachtchi and Ding. The two men haven’t let the Indian legend down: it has been quite a match in the Kazakhstan capital.
Going into the rest day on Saturday, just one point separates Nepomniachtchi and Ding. The Russian is leading his Chinese rival 5-4. Another five games of classical chess remain. The player who scores 7.5 points will be crowned the champion. If that doesn’t happen after 14 games, tie-breakers of lesser duration will be played.
It is, of course, Ding who is under more pressure going into Sunday’s 10th round. But all he needs is just one win to equalise the score. That is something he has done three times already in this match.
After the opening game was drawn, Nepomniachtchi won the second, in just 29 moves. In his first game with white pieces, Ding could not take the advantage he could have hoped for he also fell into severe time trouble.
This is Ding’s first ever World title match, while his Russian opponent seems to have gained from his experience of playing against Carlsen a couple of years ago. Before a match, a chess player prepares, with the aid of sparring partners called seconds, deeply and looks at the rival’s strength and weakness extensively. Anand had said that Nepomniachtchi’s experience of preparing for the Carlsen match could come in handy.
After that defeat early on in the game, it was important for Ding not to allow Nepomniachtchi to increase the lead. With black pieces, he got a draw in the second game after 30 moves. The game ended with a repetition of moves. Ding said after the game: “It was an interesting battle but I’m not so happy about the result.”
He was happy with the result of the next game, though. He scored his first win in the match and made the score 2-2. A blunder by Nepomniachtchi, with his knight on the 28th move, proved decisive. His position became worse and he was forced to resign 19a moves later.
The Russian, however, bounced back in the very next game. With white pieces, he got into a position he was comfortable in and the speed with which he made his moves in the Ruy Lopez game suggested that he had been preparing for the line. He was able to launch a potent attack on the king-side, and Ding gave up in the clearly inferior ending, unable to prevent the threats from White’s rook, knight and passed pawn.
So Nepomniachtchi went 3-2 up. But that one-point lead didn’t stay long. Ding won the sixth game. The Russian resigned with checkmate not far away. Remarkably, four of the first six games had produced decisive results – quite unusual for a World title match. When Ding was asked about the high number of decisive games, he said: “I guess we are not as professional as Magnus.”
True. Carslen rarely makes mistakes and gets the maximum out of a mistake from his rival.
Game seven saw Ding paying dearly for the mistake on his 33rd move with his rook. His position was now lost and he acknowledged it another four moves later. Nepomniatchi, thus, was back in the lead – 4-3.
The following two games, however, were drawn. The board is now set for an exciting finish.
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