Ding Liren is overcome by emotion as he wins the World Championship title
"Self-pinning for immortality — congrats, Ding!!" said Magnus Carlsen as Ding Liren took over his World Championship title. Ding found one last chance to play for a win in the final rapid tiebreak game, just when everyone was sure we were heading to blitz. It was the end of an incredible story for Ding, who never led until the final handshake of the match.
Replay live commentary on the 2023 FIDE World Championship tiebreaks from Fabiano Caruana, Tania Sachdev and Robert Hess (and replay all the games of the match with computer analysis).
Going into the tiebreaks day of the 2023 FIDE World Championship match in Astana, Kazakhstan there was only one certainty. Magnus Carlsen’s reign as World Chess Champion, that began when he clinched a 6.5:3.5 victory over Vishy Anand in Chennai on November 22, 2013, was coming to an end.
But who would take his place? Over the course of the match, it was Ian Nepomniachtchi who had come closest. The Russian three times took the lead, and twice in the final stages could have landed a knockout blow. He lamented afterwards:
I guess I had every chance. I had so many promising positions, and probably should have tried to finish everything in the classical portion, because once again it was a matter of one or two precise moves, both in Round 12 and Round 14 as well. But once it went to tiebreaks of course it’s always some sort of a lottery, especially after a 14-game match. Probably my opponent made the penultimate mistake. That’s it.
Ian Nepomniachtchi had come much, much closer than at his first attempt, but still missed out on the World Championship title | photo: Anna Shtourman, FIDE
The match would be decided when, after three draws, Ding Liren won the 4th and final 25-minute rapid game. He had never led the match at any moment, but landed the winning blow just when it mattered to become the 17th World Chess Champion, and the first Chinese player to win the overall World Championship title.
Ian mentioned a lottery, but this felt more like destiny. Ding Liren’s pandemic-related travel issues had seen him end up with no route to the 2022 Candidates Tournament, and hence no chance of becoming World Champion in 2023. Only Sergey Karjakin’s six-month ban from chess for support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine left Ding a glimmer of hope to qualify by rating, but he needed to play an unprecedented number of classical games in a month to be eligible. That’s just what he did!
Then in the Madrid Candidates Tournament he began with a loss to Ian Nepomniachtchi, and despite winning the final game on demand against Hikaru Nakamura his second place would usually mean nothing more than hard luck.
This time, however, when world no. 1 and World Champion Magnus Carlsen announced he wouldn’t defend his title it meant a World Championship match.
Ding Liren was the comeback king in the match, three times coming from behind, but after the flurry of decisive results early on he also went into the tiebreaks boasting of a 7-game unbeaten streak. Would the tiebreaks keep up the intensity of the match that had gone before? In a word, yes!
They couldn't both be unstoppable! | photo: Stev Bonhage
Game 1 saw Ding go for the sideline 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.c3, but Nepomniachtchi barely blinked. Nevertheless, Ding seemed to build up a big advantage until he overlooked the power of Ian’s bold combination of defence and attack.
22…Rh5! worked like a dream when Ding replied 23.Rb1!? (23.Qc2!) allowing 23…Ne5! to come with force. 24.e4! was an essential move, since otherwise Nf3+ would either win the queen or deliver checkmate with the bishop on f3 and rook on h1. That was only the start, however!
Nepomniachtchi unleashed 24…b6!! 25.cxb6 axb6!, sacrificing his queen, again with the lethal Nf3+ tactic in mind.
Ding was unshaken, however, and played the only good move, 26.Nb5!, attacking the black queen a second time, but also offering up his own queen on d2.
It was extraordinary stuff, but as so often in such cases, the game fizzled out into a draw, with a repetition of moves.
How could the players top that? Well, perhaps they couldn’t in terms of material sacrificed, but arguably the complicated Ruy Lopez in Game 2 came closer to seeing blood spilt. In fact it was the moment Ian seemed to regret most, wishing he could have been “a bit more accurate” when he gained an advantage.
Fabiano Caruana also felt Ding Liren was on the verge of defeat, but here, for instance, after 20…Nd5 it seems Ian should have maintained the tension with 21.Bg3! instead of capturing on d6.
Nepomniachtchi pushed hard in Game 2 | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE
Ding was sticking to the strategy of active defence that had almost cost him a loss in the last classical game, but this time it worked like a dream, with 27…d3! equalising and, it seemed for a moment, perhaps even more.
If the d-pawn gets to d2 it can become unstoppable, and combined with threats such as Ne2+, Ne6 or Rxa4, it meant that 28.cxd3! was strictly the only move to hold the position together. Ian did play it, but only after giving his fans a nervous three minutes. From there the draw was in little doubt, though Ian kept hunting for small chances until the end.
Ding was pure determination and didn't make a single serious blunder all day | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE
Game 3 would turn out to be a breather. Ding Liren played 1.Nf3 for the first time in the match, and probably has few regrets about not trying it sooner. Nepomniachtchi was ready in an offbeat system, with 12…Nf4! one of those moves you want to know the details of before you play it in a World Championship match.
What followed was the least dramatic game of the match, as Ding was able to win a pawn but Nepomniachtchi defended with ease.
After three draws in a row, some were already announcing the end of rapid chess.
One of the features of the tiebreaks was that the players had just 10 minutes between games, time for some minor adjustments but not to polish new ideas. It was fascinating, therefore, that the players repeated Game 2, before Ian varied with 12.Nc3 and 13.Bb1!? That bishop move got the computer’s stamp of approval, but not when Ian failed to play c3, leaving the bishop entombed on b1.
Ding Liren didn’t need to be asked twice to go on the offensive while one of his opponent’s pieces was essentially out of the game, but 29…e4!? wasn’t quite working.
After 30.dxe4! Ne5! 31.Qg2 it was already a bail out for Ding to go for 31…Nd3!, when Ian exchanged off that much-suffering light-squared bishop.
Weird computer lines aside, the position was close to equal, and Anish Giri took one last chance to poke some fun at the still World Champion.
A draw was on the mind of neither player, however, with Ian pressing and Ding treading an incredibly fine line to stay afloat. When he grabbed a pawn on c3 he had to have seen the only moves 41…Rf6! and then 42…Qe2!
Ding is ready to meet 43.Rxc3? with 43…Qe1+, picking up the rook on c3. It’s noteworthy that any other move would have allowed Ian to play Qd1-c2 and win the pinned bishop on c3.
Ian would later comment:
At some point it seemed to me that with pins White was quite close to a win, but perhaps move by move everything was holding. I couldn’t imagine that the position was possible to lose, but it turned out it was.
Nepomniachtchi was unable to adjust when he suddenly found himself in peril | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE
Ding Liren, meanwhile, said he was already dreaming of more when he played 43…Bb4 instead of forcing pieces off with 43…Bd4.
When I played Bb4 I realised that I could play for a win, because if you take on c5 (44.Bxc5) I can play 44…Be1! and not exchange the bishop.
Just when it looked certain that Ding Liren would take a draw by shuffling his king back and forth — and the tiebreaks would switch to two 5+3 blitz games — he played the remarkable 46…Rg6!!? It would earn him the highest praise from the man the move would help him replace.
The move was also drawing, but Ian confessed that he was unable to adapt to the new situation. 47.Qf5!? was logical but already shaky, since after 47…c4! there was no way to pick up Black’s extra pawn. 48.h4? was the most natural move in the world, threatening h5, but it was a losing mistake.
Ding solved the problem of the pin with 48…Qd3!, a surprise new resource because of the pawn on c4, and it was in his hands to win the World Championship match.
WIth stakes so high and time so low, mistakes were inevitable in what followed, and, for a while, it seemed as though Ian might escape after all. A semi-bluff worked, echoing Game 8, and then on move 59 there was a last chance for Ian to keep his title dreams alive.
White can’t stop the passed pawns, but 59.Bxg7! turns out to work. If Black captures the bishop, White can give perpetual check. Perhaps a more human solution is 59.h5!, and the threat of Qf7 and giving perpetual check could also have saved Ian. 59.Qc7? was the wrong path, however, and 59…Qg6! was not just defending but winning.
By the final position everything had collapsed for Ian Nepomniachtchi, and he conceded defeat for a second time in a World Championship match. Ding Liren was the 17th World Chess Champion!
Ian couldn’t hide his anger, while Ding Liren was overwhelmed.
He explained afterwards.
I’m quite relieved. The moment Ian resigned the game it was a very emotional moment. I cannot control my moods, my feelings, and I know myself, I will cry, I will burst into tears, and it’s quite a tough tournament for me. I would like to thank my friends.
Ding Liren seemed inconsolable afterwards in the rest area — another indication of just how much it meant | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE
Ding Liren’s friends, including his second Richard Rapport and Richard’s WGM wife Jovana, were not far away.
Ding explained what chess means to him.
I started to learn chess from four years old, and I spent 26 years playing, analysing, trying to improve my chess ability with many different ways, with different training methods, with many new ways to train, maybe it’s not so well known among the other players, so I think I did nearly everything. Sometimes I thought I was addicted to chess, because sometimes time without tournaments was not so happy. Sometimes I struggled to find other hobbies to make me happy, so I was influenced and inspired by many sayings, to achieve, to climb the mountain, or to strive for the best, to learn from the best. I think the match reflects the best of my soul.
There was seemingly zero Chinese press in Astana, but Ding had a lot of support | photo: Anna Shtourman, FIDE
Ding gave a surprising answer, however, and one that might have been tough for Ian to hear, when asked about when he’d first dreamt of becoming World Champion.
No, actually I haven’t dreamt of becoming World Champion. At one point I just want to become the player who plays best, and it’s not so important to become World Champion.
No-one doubted Ding Liren's chess abilities, but by the end of the match he also looked completely at home in the press conferences | photo: Anna Shtourman, FIDE
Ding was asked if he had regrets and replied, “Since the result is excellent, I don’t have any regrets”. Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, would have done one thing differently: “win more games, lose less!”
Ian confirmed a rumour that the 14th World Champion had himself half-denied earlier in the match. Who were his seconds?
It was quite a big team. Nikita Vitiugov, Ildar Khairullin, Maxim Matlakov were in the team, and I also consulted with, studied with and prepared with, Vladimir Borisovich Kramnik.
Ding Liren can now rest and bask in the glory of his achievement.
He can’t rest too long, however, since he’s set to play Ian Nepomniachtchi, Richard Rapport and such monsters as Fabiano Caruana, Alireza Firouzja, Anish Giri, Wesley So, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the Superbet Chess Classic that starts in Bucharest, Romania in less than a week, on Saturday May 6.
The Richie and Ding show is headed to Romania | photo: Anna Shtourman, FIDE
If he’s not too exhausted it might be a chance for Ding Liren to launch himself on that other goal he hinted at — to become the world’s best chess player. The way Ding adapted to the pressure of a World Championship match, you wouldn’t put it past him.
Of course, it would be more fun if Ding and Magnus faced off directly in a World Championship match. Might the challenge of a new opponent lure Magnus back into the cycle? For now, though, it's all about Ding, who has earned his place in chess history.