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Ding Liren: From improbable challenger to world champion

After 25 days of intense, exhausting chess, there’s a new world champion: China’s Ding Liren.

The world no. 3 overcame multiple setbacks over a match that spanned 14 classical games, four rapid tie breaking games and a total of 846 moves to take home the title against Russia’s world no.2 Ian Nepomniachtchi, the final score reading 9.5-8.5 in the favour of Ding. And with that, the Magnus Carlsen era, which lasted for 10 years, has come to an end.

The Ding win, though, was special for more than just that. Here’s why it’ll occupy a space in the pantheon of great championship victories:

The opening that never was

To celebrate Ding, it’s important to note his incredible journey in the last one year or so to get to this match.

He didn’t even qualify for the 2022 Candidates Tournament (the winner gets to play defending world champion for the title), but when Russian GM Sergey Karjakin was banned by FIDE, Ding became the best candidate (highest ratings) to replace him in the tournament.

Unable to travel outside due to COVID-19 restriction in China, Ding, at the time, hadn’t played the required number of rated games to make it to the tournament even with an invitation. In a span of one month, though, with the help of his country’s federation he played the required amount, while maintaining his ratings.

At the Candidates Tournament he then finished second behind Nepomniachtchi. That should have been that.

However, when Carlsen decided not to defend his title, FIDE invited second-placed Ding to play for the title against Nepomniachtchi. An opening that never was, suddenly became the opportunity of a lifetime.

Battling intense pressure and emotions

Playing his first world championship match, it was clear to see that the considerable pressure was getting to Ding initially, unlike his more experienced opponent.

In fact, he opened up about it after the drawn opening game: “I didn’t think about chess so much at the start of the game,” he said. “My mind was very strange. Had many feelings and many memories. Strange things happened. I thought maybe there was something wrong with my mind. Maybe it was the pressure of the match.”

He then lost the second game with white, where he made a move, an error, rarely seen in a big game (4.h3). At this point, chess experts wondered if the match would go the distance.

GM Susan Polgar, former women’s world champion said at the time: “It is hard to imagine that Ding can play worse with white in game 2 than in game 1. If he cannot find a way to be happy and more energetic quickly, this will be a short match. Having a strong team is more than just looking for novelties. It can help put the player in the right frame of mind, mentally and emotionally.”

After the first two games it had looked obvious that Ding was not in the right frame of mind.

Staying the course and making the most of his luck

But Ding stayed the course.

Unlike previous world championship matches, this one had seen more mistakes — Carlsen attributed this to both players’ willingness to play more complicated games in an interview with Chess.com. More mistakes meant more opportunities to gain advantage. The opening seven games saw five decisive results, but importantly, Ding did not allow Nepomniachtchi to take up a significant lead at any point.

Ding equalled the score after capitalising on Nepomniachtchi’s blunder in Game 4 but then made multiple mistakes in Game 5 to give the lead back to his opponent. In Game 6, it was Nepomniachtchi’s turn to lose, in what he called “one of my worst games ever.”

In Game 7, Nepomniachtchi once again took the lead, and that was followed by four consecutive draws. He was inching closer to the title.

Then Game 12 happened.

Ding did a whole 180 as he held his nerves under immense pressure from a chaotically attacking Nepomniachtchi to beat him and level the scores at 6-6.

It was a surprise for many. Former world champion Viswanathan Anand tweeted: “Nepo played at an incredible level and deserved to win. However, Ding is showing courage and taking big risks. It seems that he had to face the prospect of losing the match before luck smiled on him.”

Ding had bought that luck by clinging on when the going got the toughest.

Saving the best for the last

With the scores tied at 6.5 after another draw, Ding and Nepomniachtchi played a marathon final game — six hours and 40 minutes. Ding defended furiously as Nepomniachtchi went all out, and after 90 moves (the longest game in the match) he forced the draw. Which meant the match went into rapid tiebreak.

After three draws in the tiebreak, the fourth game was also heading for a draw when Ding refused to resign and went for the full point. He went on the attack with his black pieces and put Nepomniachtchi under intense clock pressure. Eventually, the world number two resigned, and Ding became the 17th world champion, the first from China.

What’s incredible is that Ding never had a lead in the match until this last game of the tiebreak. After winning the match, Ding said, rather poetically, “The match reflects the deepest of my soul.”

That last game, and indeed the whole match, was a testament to Ding’s fighting spirit and perseverance… and of a mighty will worthy of a champion.

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