An unpredictable opening and dozens of probable responses: this is how a fight for the world chess throne is being prepared | Chess News

Eleven million games (played since the 16th century) in databases. Very powerful computers that are rented in the cloud to analyze positions. And elite grandmasters who work as helpers. They are the weapons of the Russian Ian Niepómniashi and the Chinese Liren Ding to prepare the last assault of the World Cup in Astana (Kazakhstan), which will be held this Saturday to decide who will succeed the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen as king and the distribution of two million euros in prizes . The score is even (6.5-6.5), but the Asian will have the initiative for the white pieces.

Only 40 years ago, chess players traveled to tournaments with huge suitcases full of books and magazines. It was almost the only way to store previous information about a rival. Today it is enough to type your name into the database ChessBase to obtain in seconds all the games you have played in your sports career, with schemes and statistics that break down your style, opening preferences (first moves), results and evolution year by year. An Indonesian fan, for example, who is going to play in the Chicago Open tournament can be sure that each of his opponents will know almost everything about him as a chess player.

In the case of Ding and Niepómniashi, these information mastodons are also used for something else. Suppose that the Romanian Richard Rapport, 13th in the world, an analyst of the Chinese, has an idea -in principle, very novel- to surprise Niepómniashi in the opening. The first thing he will do is make those moves on the game board. ChessBase on your computer and press the button that says “Reference”. In a few seconds you will see a list of games where this idea has been applied, whether it be among professional or amateur players, face-to-face or online.

If Rapport concludes that his quip is likely to surprise the Russian, the next step is to see if it’s actually a good idea. For previous generations, this required sticking your elbows on both sides of the board for many hours, analyzing all the possible variants and writing down the results in a notebook with a pen. Now it is enough to activate a module, which can run on a mobile, plays better than the world champion and calculates millions of plays per second.

If that first test is positive, it is convenient to extend the analysis with an even more powerful computer. Until a few years ago, chess stars used to ask their governments to allow them to use supercomputers for that purpose. For example, Niepomniashi had at his disposal the one in Skolkovo, a center of technological innovation that -saving enormous distances- is the closest thing in Russia to Silicon Valley. But now it is no longer necessary because it is not expensive (there are subscriptions for 35 euros per month) to rent an enormously powerful device in the cloud by the hour (or day): the client connects from his computer to another that does not know where it is.

If that check is also successful, Rapport will show Ding a summary of the variants it has analyzed with the silicon monsters. If the Chinese like the idea and give their approval, both of them will draw, either in writing or mentally, a kind of tree of variants with which they consider that Niepómniashi will choose as the most probable answers. And they will analyze them very thoroughly, memorizing not only the specific plays but, above all, the ideas and strategic plans that support them. In addition, Ding will contact the secret members of his team in China, and instruct them to also look for ideas or possible holes in the preparation.

While all this is happening in Ding and Rapport’s rooms at the Saint Regis hotel, Niepómniashi will have done something similar in his with the analyst who accompanies him, Nikita Vitiugov, 25th in the world, and will also be in telematic contact with the rest of his team, secret. But with an important nuance: Ding plays this game with white, and therefore has a better chance of surprising because he will make the first move. The Russian will have to rub his meninges, based on how deeply he already knows the Chinese, to figure out what the hell he’s preparing for him. On this particular occasion, that riddle is even more difficult than usual because Ding has hired Rapport, one of the elite’s most creative, unpredictable and quirky players, as an analyst. That choice has been one of the hallmarks of this duel, and it could be in the last game as well.

It is not unreasonable to predict that Ding will look for an opening that gives him a small but lasting advantage and in a low-risk type of position, with the aim of torturing his opponent for hours until exhaustion and nervous tension cause him to err. But that’s much easier said than done. Nor is it improbable that all that preparation effort is worthless because it is the Slav who retorts in such a surprising way that it disarms the Asian.

If such a thing happens, it is very likely that whoever is psychologically stronger will win. Both have failed miserably in that field, but Niepómniashi even more, despite the fact that he has valuable experience from his lost duel with Carlsen in Dubai (2021). For example, he repeated the same type of mistake in the last two games: playing fast in critical positions that require calm; he lost the twelfth and was close to catastrophe in the thirteenth, which was a draw.

Rafael Rodríguez Soler, professional sports psychologist and amateur chess player, emphasizes Niepómniashi’s habit of going very often to think in his dressing room, instead of staying on stage: “Several studies indicate that if you lose concentration it can take 15 to 20 minutes to fully recover it. And in that period a fatal mistake can be made, which this Saturday can cost a world title and hundreds of thousands of euros in prizes, in addition to the money that the champion can earn over the next two years for being one.

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