An exhausting draw, after six hours and 35 minutes, closed the fourteen slow games (7-7) scheduled for the World Chess Championship in Astana (Kazakhstan). The Russian Ian Niepómniashi and the Chinese Liren Ding will play this Sunday the succession of the current champion, the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, in four games of 25 minutes per side (plus a ten-second increase after each set). If the tie persists, they will continue fighting in lightning mode (two games of five minutes plus three seconds), until eventually reaching the sudden death (A single game with three minutes and two seconds, until someone wins).
Former world champion Vladimir Kramnik, Russian, Garri Kasparov’s executioner in 2000, sums up the general opinion this way: “If we only look at the numbers, Ian is slightly favorite because of the balance between the two in the fast modalities. But in a duel with so few games, and with the nervous tension skyrocketing, that’s not relevant. Whoever is able to control himself better will win.” Among the objective data is that Ding is not among the top hundred in the world in lightning because he plays very few tournaments of this modality; he attributes it to the pandemic. But he is 2nd in rapids, and Niepómniashi 7th.
The atmosphere prior to the last slow game was one of extreme tension, with around twenty photojournalists (double the usual number) authorized to be on stage during the first seven minutes of the game. To their frustration, both players also broke out of the ritual, victims of nervousness: first, arriving at the table less than five minutes early; and then, going to his dressing room to think during those authorized seven minutes, which reinforces those who maintain that the International Chess Federation (FIDE) should take measures that discourage players from leaving empty chairs.
As expected, Ding, who led the white pieces, surprised the Russian with an unusual opening variation in pursuit of a small but lasting advantage, allowing him to press for hours. But Niepómniashi quickly equalized without problems, making it clear that he played to draw and leave everything pending the quick tiebreaker on Sunday.
The Chinese then made a very astute decision. He made a risky move, not recommended according to computers if it was accurately replicated. But this meant getting into a tactical mess, instead of continuing to act passively. Niepómniashi reacted at that moment like a champion: he understood that he had to give a change of direction and get into whitewater, since, as everyone knows, he is superior to Ding in that area.
It is not unreasonable to assume that millions of fans who followed the game live on the Internet thought -influenced by what the computers were telling them- that Niepómniashi was going to achieve a clear advantage. But the Russian is human, he reasoned and played like one, and he just got a balanced position. Since Ding was also not clear about the possibilities to continue attacking, he offered the exchange of queens, which could be interpreted as a draw proposal.
But then, with the queens out, an amazing thing happened: instead of making normal moves in a balanced position, Ding got into another mess, sacrificing a pawn for next to nothing. That decision, undoubtedly wrong and that can only be explained by nervous tension, gave the Russian a clear advantage, although not yet a winner, to try to exploit it at will, without any risk of losing, for the necessary hours.
Ding’s main hope was that Niepomniashi is not Carlsen, who enjoys torturing his opponents in those types of rather boring positions. The Slav is the opposite, the march, situations with a lot of salt and pepper. Now, in this very specific case there was a nuance of great weight: Niepómniashi played that position to fulfill the most important dream of his life.
However, the Russian allowed himself to be carried away by impulsiveness for the umpteenth time, something that in all probability would not happen to him if he had worked with an expert psychologist in high competition, which he has always refused to do. He made his 22nd cast fast when accuracy would have given him a big advantage. Later, in the press conference, he acknowledged that his rushing into various critical positions in different games is one of the most important factors in this duel.
But Ding was made a flan and went back to get into unnecessary eggplant several times when he had options that almost guaranteed him a draw. Fortunately for him, his adversary was not up to very fine jobs either. However, Niepómniashi still had one trick to play: wait for Ding to run out of time in the sixth hour and then propose a variation that required a very precise defense.
This time, the Chinese honored his great defensive capacity. And peace was signed after 90 movements in six and a half hours of very stressful fighting for both, received with applause by the public in the corridors. And also for the witnesses. Eteri Kublashvili, press officer for the Russian Federation, put it this way when she was offered a bottle of water: “What I need today is vodka!”
subscribe to weekly newsletter ‘Wonderful play’, by Leontxo Garcia
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits