Chess is considered the ultimate game of cold, logical calculation, but it is also a game of passion and, at the highest level, of nerves. That was clear on Sunday when the world championship match in Astana, Kazakhstan, ended with Ding Liren, the new champion, sitting at a board by himself in a darkened theater, his head in his hand, crying tears of joy.
Ding’s victory came in a tense and gripping rapid-play finale against Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia, and only after three weeks of slower-paced games that had failed to produce a winner. The result made Ding the first man from China, a rising power in chess, to hold the world championship, simultaneously preventing Russia, which has dominated the game for a century, from reclaiming it.
Ding’s match against Nepomniachtchi was decided in a series of four tiebreaker games made necessary after the regulation portion of the match, 14 grueling classical games, ended in a tie. Each player won three games in the regulation portion; the other eight ended in draws.
The tiebreakers, all played Sunday, were faster games in which each player had 25 minutes at the start, with 10 seconds added every move. The first three games were draws, but each one was highly tense and hard-fought.
In Game 4, Nepomniachtchi, playing white, repeated the opening he had tried in the second game of the tiebreakers. On move 13, he tried a new idea, but Ding — capitalizing on its defects — soon seized the upper hand.
Still, the game seemed headed for a draw when Nepomniachtchi, with more time left on his clock, decided to make the game more complicated to see if he could force Ding into a mistake. Instead, it was Nepomniachtchi who cracked, making critical errors that allowed Ding to take control. Nepomniachtchi resigned on Move 68.
It was the first and only time that Ding led in the championship match. He earned $1.1 million for his victory, while Nepomniachtchi won $900,000 as the runner-up.
Ding’s victory sent waves through Chinese social media late in the evening, with a hashtag related to the new champion quickly amassing over 10 million views on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. Chinese users, full of pride and relief after three anxiety-filled weeks, celebrated the championship even as some admitted to their ignorance of how to play chess. Nearly all agreed, though, on the weight of the moment.
“We Chinese have stepped atop chess’ highest stage,” one commenter wrote. “Ding Liren is the pride of China.”
The match had been overshadowed from the start by the absence of Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian grandmaster who had held the world title since 2013. Carlsen voluntarily chose to relinquish the crown last July because he had grown weary and bored of preparing for the matches, a process that takes months.
Carlsen has long been critical of the length of time of the games for what is known as the classical world championship. Each one can take hours and, particularly in recent years, when players have been able to prepare beforehand with computers, they often end without a decisive result. (For example, Game 14 on Saturday, the day before the tiebreakers, had lasted nearly seven hours and ended in a draw.)
For fans, and potential sponsors, that can make the biggest event in chess less exciting. The match in Astana did not have that problem — nearly half of the games ended in victories — but that did not change Carlsen’s opinion.
In a podcast on April 28 on NRK, the largest media company in Norway, Carlsen said: “There is a lot of talk now this world championship proves that ‘classical chess is doing well’ and all that. I have to admit that I don’t buy that at all.”
He explained that Nepomniachtchi and Ding took many chances in the beginning phases of the games in their championship match, but that was atypical. In his matches, Carlsen said, that did not happen because his opponents were afraid of him and tried to limit risk. The result, he argued, was that the games were not interesting.
Hikaru Nakamura, a five-time United States champion, suggested on a recent livestream that it did not matter who won the Ding-Nepomniachtchi showdown. “The world champion is not going to be treated as a world champion,” he said. “I don’t care if Nepomniachtchi wins. I don’t care if Ding wins. Both of them will be very deserving of winning the match. But that will not make them the world champion in anybody’s book.”
Ding’s triumph was significant for both China and Russia. Russians have dominated chess for most of the last century, partly a legacy of the Soviet Union, which promoted supremacy in the game as proof of its superiority over the West.
China, rather than embracing the game for similar reasons, rejected it because it was popular in what it viewed as the “decadent” West. For eight years during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, playing the game was banned.
The perception of chess in China began to change after Xie Jun won the women’s world championship in 1991, becoming the first non-Russian, non-Georgian woman to hold the title. That sparked a frenzy of state-sponsored activities designed to cultivate elite players, a project collectively known by a grandiose title, “Big Dragon Plan.” Chinese schools created chess clubs, and training institutions and tournaments proliferated. Last year, the Chinese government unveiled a new 10-year plan to develop the country’s next generation of prodigies.
China’s commitment has already yielded results. A succession of women after Xie won the women’s world championship, allowing China to hold the title for most of the last 32 years. The current titleholder is Ju Wenjun, who became champion in 2018. She will face a compatriot, Lei Tingjie, in a match in July, ensuring that the women’s title will stay in Chinese hands.
China has also produced some very good men’s players in recent years, with half a dozen rising into the top 20 in the world rankings at one time or another. But Ding has been far and away the best of them.
Born in Wenzhou a year after Xie’s victory, he was taught to play chess by his father, a chess aficionado, when he was four. He began to compete in tournaments soon after and won his first national title when he was five. He rose to international prominence in 2009, at 16, when he became China’s domestic champion. He won the title again in 2011 and 2012.
He has been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, and is the only Chinese player to ever achieve a rating, the points system used to classify players, of more than 2,800.
Ding’s path to the title was littered with obstacles. The pandemic and China’s isolation had forced him to stop competing, but in order to play in the candidates’ tournament last year — a requirement to select a challenger for the championship match — he had to have played a minimum number of competitions. The Chinese Chess Federation stepped in to organize three tournaments early last year to allow him to satisfy the requirement.
At the candidates’ tournament, which was held last June and July in Madrid, Ding finished second behind Nepomniachtchi. Normally, that would have only qualified Nepomniachtchi to play for the title against Carlsen. But after Carlsen declined to play, Ding became the other challenger.
The loss was a crushing one for Nepomniachtchi. Born the same year as Carlsen, and often called Russia’s answer to the Norwegian grandmaster, he had been overshadowed by his rival for years. Nepomniachtchi played Carlsen for the world title in 2021 in Dubai, but after getting off to a good start by drawing the first five games, he collapsed and lost in one of the most lopsided results in the history of the event. This year’s match, with Carlsen having stepped aside, was a golden opportunity for him.
In the news conference afterward, with members of Ding’s family and Xie, the first Chinese woman’s champion, looking on, Ding was asked if the match was one of the crowning moments of his life. He struggled to explain his feelings. “The match,” he finally answered, “reflected the deepest of my soul.”
Chang Che contributed reporting from Seoul.