Ian Nepomniachtchi didn't put a foot wrong after the opening | photo: Maria Emelianova, Chess.com
Ian Nepomniachtchi won his first World Championship game at his 13th attempt as he crashed through with the black pieces to beat Ding Liren in just 29 moves. Ding had sprung a Richard Rapport-inspired surprise with 4.h3, but his first long think of the game was followed by a move that he admitted completely overlooked Nepo’s potential kingside attack. Ian made no mistake in what followed and takes a 1.5:0.5 lead in the match.
Replay the day’s live commentary from Anish Giri and Daniel Naroditsky.
At first, Game 2 of the match in Astana was all about Ding Liren. After the absolutely standard 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 he played a move that had barely been seen, and never in a serious top-level game, 4.h3!?
Ian Nepomniachtchi confessed he had to do a double take to make sure the pawn wasn’t on g3, with this twist one that no-one had seen coming.
Ian jumped to the same conclusion as most observers in attributing the move to Ding’s new second, Richard Rapport.
I had some feeling maybe it’s some influence of Richard. It’s a little bit like these tricky moves without some direct idea. It shouldn’t be very venomous, because basically after 4…dxc4 I can get a one tempi up Queen’s Gambit Accepted.
It was another tough press conference for Ding Liren | photo: Anna Shtourman, FIDE
Ding essentially confirmed the origin of the move.
It's just a move that is very rare, and actually I know a lot of ideas after h3, but today the game was a disaster. The idea was a good invention of my seconds, but I didn’t play it very well.
One experienced World Championship observer wasn’t impressed.
But Nepomniachtchi was forced to dig deep early on to formulate a response.
He explained his strategy:
I just decided to go for a position which I’d seen in my prep, from another move-order, but with the pawn on h3. I’m not sure if this move is good or bad. Maybe it just changes nothing, but in the end I think Ding got a well-known position but having this h3 tempi up, so finally it worked. It clearly has its own idea.
The crucial moment came when Nepo offered a pawn sacrifice with 11…Na5.
Ding, who had been playing almost instantly to build up a 30-minute lead on the clock, suddenly sank into deep thought. As during Game 1, he did the thinking in his rest area, leaving the spectacle of no-one at the board.
Jorden also tweeted:
Feels like we're here to admire the chairs more than the players, with all the time they're spending in those rest areas! Maybe time to reconsider their necessity.
Asked at the end of the game, Ding gave a curious answer:
Thinking in the rest room reminds me of the days when I was playing online, but it’s totally different thinking over the board. I come to the board only in the time trouble, but it’s a little too late.
Levon Aronian noted that Ding’s break from over-the-board chess had been much more drastic than for non-Chinese players who didn’t come under so many restrictions.
The issue had already been raised during the last World Championship in Dubai, so that Ian Nepomniachtchi was not going to be judgmental.
It pretty much reminds me of this COVID, online times, or maybe some correspondence, but jokes aside, I guess if it’s comfortable to think in the room, it’s comfortable to think in the room. I don’t think there should be some restrictions. I can recall myself spending quite some time in the room in Dubai, maybe because I was eating a lot.
What was puzzling was that Ding had been in almost exactly this position before, but with a rook on e1 and his pawn still on h3, in a Speed Chess game against Levon Aronian.
In that game he’d continued by grabbing the pawn and following a line with a c6-pawn sacrifice that was also being recommended by the computer for the position against Ian Nepomniachtchi. This time, however, Ding made another move which, by his own admission, was based on a huge oversight. He played 12.Nxf6+?! after 33 minutes.
Ian spent just 2 minutes and 42 seconds to reply 12…gxf6!, opening up the g-file for an attack on the white king. Astonishingly, Ding, when quizzed by Irina Krush, admitted he’d missed that move in his calculations, only looking at 12…Qxf6.
I only expected Qxf6 and I was preparing to play e4 and Bg5, e5. 12…gxf6 came as a total surprise, and then I couldn’t find a good way to put my pieces.
The problem was perhaps that Ding was reluctant to reveal his oversight at the board and start thinking again, since 13.dxc5! would still have led to a playable position. Instead he quickly went for 13.e4!?, which despite being a natural move was now much less effective.
The difference was that after 13…c4! Ding could no longer play 14.Bg5, as he could have done after 12…Qxf6, and instead 14.Bc2 was the first of a series of awkward moves to try and give some sense to his pieces. Nepo’s moves, meanwhile, were natural and strong, as he castled queenside and prepared an assault.
With 17.Bd3 and 18.Re1 Ding was one move, Bf1, away from getting some kind of harmony and defending the g2-square, but he ran into what he called “a brilliant move”, 18…f5!
The key point is that 19.exf5? runs into 19…Rxd4!, which wins on the spot. 20.Nxd4? is mate-in-4 after 20…Rxg2+, but 20.Bf1 Bxf3 21.Qxf3 Rxd2 is just a slower death, a full piece down.
This was the moment Ian was sure he was going to win.
It’s clearly very, very shaky for White… The position almost plays itself. I just threw all the pieces in the centre and it was enough.
Ding could no longer get his bishop to f1 and, after 20 minutes, he played 19.Bc2 with a heavy heart. That was the engine’s top move, but so was what Ding called the “very nice move” 19…Nc6!, taking advantage of the pressure being removed from the c4-pawn to return the knight to the action. Ian simply called that “more or less a question of culture”.
20.Bg5 was a reasonable attempt by Ding, since if Ian didn’t find the best response White might still have some chances to survive.
Ian was merciless, however, and took just six minutes to unleash 20…Rxg5! 21.Nxg5 Nxd4, when for a tiny, and temporary, material investment, Black had total dominance of the position.
Much of the tension in what followed was over which would happen first — Ding resigning or losing on time — since Ian was playing powerful moves with barely a pause for thought. Daniel Naroditsky noted that the main winning idea of pushing the c-pawn wasn’t one that you needed to be a 2800 grandmaster to spot.
Finally, with 46 seconds to make 11 moves in a hopeless position, Ding threw in the towel.
After 11 games without a win in Dubai, and then one draw in Astana, Ian Nepomniachtchi had won his first World Championship game, and with the black pieces.
It also took him to 2799.8 on the live rating list, while Ding Liren dropped below Alireza Firouzja to the number four spot. He confessed, "I missed nearly everything in the game".
The recaps keep coming in.
With the psychological weaknesses Ding Liren has exposed in the first two games it’s hard not to fear for him, but on the other hand, after losing to Ian Nepomniachtchi in Game 1 of the Madrid Candidates Tournament he went on to draw the next seven games before winning three in a row. The 14-game World Championship match is perfectly suited to such a strategy of “digging in”, though the problem is that each day he’ll be facing the same opponent he lost to.
First, however, there’s a free day on Tuesday. Ding commented:
A rest day’s a good way to recover from this tough loss.
Ian Nepomniachtchi now finds himself in the novel position of leading a World Championship match | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE
The players will be back in action on Wednesday, when Ian Nepomniachtchi will have White in Game 3 and may already be dreaming of landing what could be an almost decisive blow for the match. At some point the “real” Ding Liren is likely to show up, but Team Nepo may be hoping that will come too late to matter.
Tune into all the action on Wednesday at 15:00 local time (5am ET, 11:00 CEST, 2:30pm IST) when David Howell will join Anish Giri and Daniel Naroditsky.