Ding is the ‘Miracle Candidate’.
Back in 1970, Bobby Fischer got into the Inter-zonal because Pal Benko stepped aside, going on to win it by a 3.5-point margin. He was never behind, except against Boris Spassky, and we all know his match for the world title. Similarly, in Ding Liren’s case, he had not qualified at all. This may have had something to do with the COVID restrictions, but nonetheless he hadn’t qualified.
Sergey Karjakin had to get himself banned for his conduct. Ding had to play multiple games against his compatriots to meet the qualifying criteria for the Candidates, which was dominated by Ian Nepomniachtchi. Ding finished second in the last minute by beating (Hikaru) Nakamura in the last game from a drawn position. If the game had ended in a draw, Nakamura would have been playing the title-match, instead of Ding.
Moreover, with Magnus Carlsen giving up his world title, a spot became available for Ding. He didn’t lead once in the match. And when he led, it was over.
Six decisive games? That’s insane. All the things that people were saying about classical chess… that in World Championship matches teams are well-prepared and fight, these two guys went at each other with gusto. They seemed to be happy to take the battle into each other’s territory. Ding went to insane levels to destabilise the position and we had a phenomenal match. This was the most exciting match that anybody can recall.
In the rapid tiebreaker, there were multiple moments that could have gone one way or the other but nothing sensational. And finally (in the fourth rapid game), Ding had the courage to try something with Rg6. By itself, the move doesn’t win. But if you don’t try and just agree to perpetual checks, then you won’t win.
What he showed is that sometimes you must make a bold attempt to win something. You have to take the risks. And like I said, it has a little bit of this miraculous quality. He was so unlikely to become a world champion. I mean, firstly, it was impossible, because he hadn’t qualified. Then, after multiple events, we now have a Chinese world chess champion. It’s quite a story!
In fact, Ding has a reputation for being a solid and technical professional player. His openings were well thought out and his playing methods, modern. There was nothing to suggest otherwise but what was funny in this match was that their roles reversed. Ding started to take risks like he has never taken before, and seemingly went to unbalance the position of his opponent. Maybe, it was really Richard Rapport’s influence on him.
Nepo, as he had already shown in the previous match, had prepared thoroughly well. He was happy to participate and get into the mud with Ding. And they fought brilliantly. The fact that we had so many decisive results, and there could have been even more, tells you a little bit about how hard they fought. The main thing was that they just fought like crazy, the kind that doesn’t happen anymore. That’s what made this match so special.
In my opinion, Nepo was the better player in this match, but he was more unstable. Ding played quite out of character with his risk-taking approach and everything, at least, initially. Afterwards, circumstances forced him to take the risks when he fell behind. But he equalised in powerful style but somehow never surged ahead.
Nepo could be ‘God’ one day. He could play horribly in the next game, back and forth. I think the match itself was reflected strongly in the 12th game. That is, maybe, the most significant game of the match. Nepo could have doubled his lead or at least taken a one-point lead in the end. What happened that day was crazy. I feel that Nepo had the match in his hand and simply squandered it. Tension certainly played a role, but he often played impulsively.
Ding had a lot of fans who were really rooting for him in this match because he seemed so gentle and soft-spoken. I think his biggest impact is going to be as the first Chinese men’s world champion. China has had multiple Women’s World Champions, but Ding is the first men’s World champion. That’s going to be, maybe, the way in which he has maximum impact. Otherwise, a lot of the discussions about the World Championships are going to be the same old ones we’ve had multiple times.
I think the tenacity of Ding made the eventual difference. He simply hung in there. In my opinion, Nepo landed most of the blows. Ding hung in there till the end and almost collapsed onto the winner’s podium. He defended very well. The thing is, we can talk about Nepo’s mistakes but there had to be somebody on the other side to provoke them and Ding did that.
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