The 2023 World Chess Championship came to a dramatic conclusion on Sunday April 30 in Astana, Kazakhstan, with Chinese GM Ding Liren becoming the new World Champion after defeating Ian Nepomniachtchi in rapid tiebreaks.
Ding’s road to the world championship was a very rocky one. A combination of global politics, chess personalities and COVID made it very improbable that Ding Liren, the #3 player in the world, would even have a chance to compete in the 2022 Candidates Tournament, the winner of which would challenge for the championship.
First, it wasn’t until the Russian invasion of Ukraine that a spot opened up for Ding in the Candidates Tournament. Russian GM Sergey Karjakin had qualified, but his outspoken and rather trolly support of the invasion led to FIDE banning him from FIDE events (including the Candidates) for a period of six months. Ding, next on the ratings list, was invited to participate.
However, the severe “Covid Zero” policies of the Chinese government meant that Ding had been unable to play in most major tournaments for several years, and that made him ineligible because his current status was “inactive.” A hastily-arranged series of matches with a number of Chinese GMs allowed Ding’s status to be deemed active again, after playing nearly thirty high-rated games in one month.
Ding played well in the Candidates, finishing in second place behind Nepo. Normally, finishing second in this tournament is no better than finishing fourth in an Olympic sport: you know you’re good, but you missed the podium.
But the final bombshell that allowed Ding to enter the 2023 World Championship was Magnus Carlsen’s decision to not defend his title.
Winning (and defending) the world championship is terribly gruelling work, which Magnus had done five times in the period of a decade. After Nepo (who Carlsen handily defeated in 2021) won the Candidates again, Magnus decided to bow out, stating that he was “not motivated” to defend his record.
This paved the way for the top two finishers, Nepo and Ding, to duke it out for the title.
The players were very evenly matched, with fewer than ten ratings points separating them, and this was reflected in the best-of-fourteen classical match. Throughout the tournament Ding was never in the lead, and there were some dramatic points in the match where, if Nepomniachtchi had managed to increase his lead to two points over Ding, everyone assumed it would be lights out for the Chinese GM.
But every time, Ding managed to rally. After a surprising number of decisive games, including a terrible loss in game five, Ding played an incredible game six, winning with great style and resilience, and creating a nearly magical mating net.
A very surprising setback occurred during game eight. Competitors for the championship usually have a “second,” a strong player with whom they analyze their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and devise novelties in the hopes of coming up with surprising lines for a win. They prepare together for months prior to the match, and work together throughout the tournament.
Ding Liren’s second for this year’s World Championship was Richard Rapport, the top GM from Hungary (now playing for Romania.) This was a wise choice, as Rapport has a very attacking style of play, and is known for daring opening choices. Rapport’s influence was clear throughout the tournament, as Ding employed a wide variety of openings, hoping to get Nepo out of his comfort zone. In one game, he even played the London System, an opening that is almost never seen at the top level (though I’m sure you can have some success with it!)
In this internet age, all games are broadcast, and viewers happily input the moves played into various chess engines. The result is a broad-based crowd analysis of games in progress. One viewer, putting the moves of game eight into the Lichess engine, discovered something very odd. He noticed that the opening line of game eight was exactly duplicated by two low-rated, randomly-named Lichess accounts.
After a simple bit of sleuthing, it turned out that these two accounts were both rather new, had only played one another, had stopped playing shortly before the beginning of the championship match, and, as a final bit of intrigue, had also played games with lines that had appeared in earlier games in the match.
The internet was immediately abuzz with the news that Ding’s preparation for the match had been leaked. Hikaru Nakamura declared “there’s zero chance these aren’t their accounts.” Other chess journalists declared this to be a “rookie mistake.”
It would have been difficult for Ding and Rapport, separated by thousands of miles, to meet and play in person, but to play games on a very popular chess website, hoping that said games wouldn’t be found, was extremely foolish! Especially so when the code that underpins Lichess is freely available. It would have been quite easy for the two grandmasters to find somebody to create a private website using Lichess code so they could explore ideas with no chance of discovery.
Of course Nepo and his team looked at all of these Lichess games under a high-powered microscope, but even with this setback Ding remained optimistic and resilient, hurriedly devising more opening weapons, and it seems that his opening prep still managed to keep Nepomniachtchi off-balance.
After fourteen games, Ding and Nepo were tied with seven points apiece. This led to a four-game rapid (25 minutes + 10 second increment) tiebreak playoff, with the first to 2.5 points being crowned the new world champion.
Again, the players were very evenly matched (although Ding’s rating was somewhat higher than Ian’s in this time control), and after three draws, the players were tied with 1.5 each.
If a draw had happened in the fourth rapid game, a series of best-of-two blitz (5+3) games would have followed until somebody won.
But, with less than two minutes on the clock, Ding (with the black pieces) managed to find a way, beginning with a startling move that pinned his own rook. This, and the next few moves, turned the game from a likely draw to a clear win for Black.
A clearly-stunned Nepo, with less than ninety seconds left on his clock, accidentally brushed a piece or two off the table, and then conceded defeat. After shaking hands, signing each others’ score sheets, Nepo left the board, and Ding sat, head in hands, emotional and contemplating his achievement.
Magnus Carlsen, who had earlier declared that he didn’t care who won, was clearly watching the match, and tweeted: “Self-pinning for immortality. Congrats Ding!”
Ding Liren is now the 17th World Chess Champion, and the first Chinese man to hold the title. The current Women’s World Chess Champion, Ju Wenjun, is also a Chinese citizen.
Back in 2007 Viswanathan Anand became the first World Champion from India, and this led to an absolute explosion of interest in the the game in that country. Today we are seeing a large number of extremely talented chess masters from India. I can only imagine that, in the coming years, the world will see a similar pattern coming from China.
Congratulations Ding Liren!