Chinese grandmaster Ding Liren edged Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi in a tie-break on Sunday to win what has been hailed as perhaps the most thrilling world chess championship match in a generation.
With the score tied at 7-7 after a grueling 14 classic matches – the final of which lasted six and a half hours on Saturday – the action shifted to a shorter four-match series to break the tie. Had a winner still not emerged, a two-game “blitz” series would have ensued.
The first three games ended in a draw, with neither player able to muster significant chances to win. In the fourth game, however, Ding managed to take the initiative with the black pieces. But Nepomniachtchi fought back and a double-edged game ensued, with the Russian avoiding an opportunity to steer the game to a draw and thus a ‘blitz’ final tie-break.
When nothing subsequently materialized for Nepomniachtchi, he seemed to choose a perpetual line of check, a technique by which a player repeats a series of checks on the opponent’s king but is unable to progress.
With less than two minutes on his clock and a world title on the line, Ding refused rehearsal and played an unexpected and brave move that pinned his own rook to his king – but in doing so he deprived his opponent of further controls. . With two pawns passed as compensation for a less sure king, Ding played with pinpoint accuracy and managed to push his pawns while denying Nepomniachtchi’s counterplay.
After Ding managed to parry a final blow of desperation from Nepomniachtchi, the Russian held out his hand in resignation. A stunned Ding, overwhelmed with emotion, was unable to get up from the board.
Ding’s journey to become China’s first-ever world chess champion and the first new title holder since 2013 was highly unlikely. He only qualified for the Candidates Tournament, the round robin that determines who will face the defending champion, after Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin was dismissed. However, because pandemic restrictions in China had left him falling short of the required number of ranked games, he was forced to embark on a punishing schedule of tournaments hastily organized by the Chinese Chess Federation.
During the Candidates Tournament, Ding finished second – behind Nepomniachtchi – and was only catapulted into the championship match when five-time world champion Magnus Carlsen opted out of defending his title.
The absence of Carlsen, who has dominated professional chess for the past decade, was at first seen as a decrease in the game’s stature. However, as Ding and Nepomniachtchi traded blow for blow and delighted viewers with tense and upside-down matches, the encounter was increasingly seen as what former world champion Viswanathan Anand called “a match for the ages.”
Nepomniachtchi, making his second consecutive appearance in the world title match after facing Carlsen in Dubai in 2021, saw his bid to join a long list of Soviet and Russian world champions fall woefully short. Ding will pocket €1.2 million (over $1.3 million) for winning the match, while Nepomniachtchi, as runners-up, will take home €800,000.
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