Only someone whose self-confidence is boundless can do such a thing. Liren Ding, 30, is the first Chinese to ascend the chess throne, occupied since 2013 by Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. And he does it with greatness, launching himself into the void with less than two minutes left in a devilish position. That courage paralyzed the Russian Ian Niepómniashi, who was certain that the fourth game of the rapid tiebreaker would end in a draw, like the previous three, in Astana (Kazakhstan). Ding will receive 1.1 million euros, and Niepómniashi, 0.9 million.
The most significant phrases that Ding uttered to reporters a few minutes later, after embracing Xie Jun, world champion in 1991 despite the fact that chess was banned in her country until Mao’s death in 1976, denote that she is a person very special: “This is the fruit of the 26 years of my life that I have dedicated to chess. When there were no tournaments, it was hard for me to find any other way to spend my time than training. (…) And if I have to choose a single key to my triumph, I think it is the Chinese school of chess. (…) But my goal was not to be world champion, but to play as well as possible”.
There is a scientific study that shows the great importance of scoring the first penalty in a series of five. Something similar can be said about winning with the white pieces the first assault of the four rapids (25 minutes for each one with 10 seconds of automatic increase after each move) with which this tiebreaker began. It started very well for Ding, who, in addition to surprising his opponent with a very rare opening, achieved a great positional advantage with the white pieces. But he missed a tactical device that Niepomniashi saw instantly. And soon after another, which allowed the Russian to spectacularly sacrifice his queen. However, Ding once again showed that he is capable of maintaining his composure in moments of great pressure and found a way to equalise, and even put pressure on his rival to force a draw.
It was Niepómniashi’s opportunity, who resorted again, in the second round, to the Spanish Opening, which Ding did not shy away from, unafraid of home preparations. White’s small advantage, which grew due to successive inaccuracies by the Chinese. But Niepómniashi once again repeated the same mistake that has marked this duel a lot: playing very fast in critical positions that require calm. From there, Ding did not give him any more chances and tied easily.
The Spanish economist Ignacio Palacios-Huerta is the author of the aforementioned study on the importance of taking the first penalty, and has also reached the same conclusion about playing the first round of chess duels with white. What he proposes to compensate for this advantage is to change the ABAB sequence to ABBA; that is to say, whoever plays white in the second also does so in the third. But the International Chess Federation (FIDE) has ignored him at the moment.
So Ding had the initiative in the third, and tried to surprise with the Catalan Opening, which owes its name to the fact that it was first used at the Expo Universal tournament in Barcelona in 1929. However, Niepómniashi was very well prepared. In fact, he was perhaps better than the Chinese, who seemed surprised in the twelfth cast despite the fact that he had already been used in 15 games, and 4 of them among high-level players. Despite the fact that the Russian lost a pawn, he had no problem signing the third draw of the afternoon.
This outcome put the fight in favor of Niepómniashi, who was going to lead the white pieces in the last round of the first round. In addition, there was another factor flying over the stage: if a draw was signed for the fourth time, it would go to lightning mode (two games with five minutes per side plus a three-second increase); and Ding acknowledged on Saturday that, due to the pandemic, he had played very few tournaments of this modality in recent years (in fact, he does not even appear among the hundred best in the world). Therefore, it could be understood that a draw in the fourth rapid would favor Niepómniashi, even if he played white.
Therefore, what the Slav decided is logical: to raise again the Spanish Opening, which had given him comfortable positions. More difficult to understand at that moment was that Ding was determined not to avoid her, for the opposite reason. But despite the fact that Niepomniashi deviated in his twelfth move from what he had done in the second game, Ding responded quickly with a very deep idea, no doubt prepared in advance. And that allowed him to equalize right away, and be even a little better. And playing fast, which indicated that he felt very comfortable and on well-trodden ground. In addition, it was clear that he was not satisfied with the fourth tie.
Suddenly, Niepomniashi made a mistake, perhaps because of his memory failing him, and gave Ding a chance to gain a large advantage. But it is very likely that the Asian was also following by heart some similar variant analyzed in his laboratory. In such a way that he omitted that very favorable blow and continued to develop his plan quickly. The position was objectively equal and the Russian had a few more minutes, but the Chinese gave off the sensation of feeling very good.
It was time for Niepomniashi to prove that he can also perform virtuosity under pressure, although his frequent trips to the dressing room at a rapid world title match did not bode well. However, Ding gave up patience and played to win very aggressively, and with risk.
The Russian kept his cool and defended well. But when he had a very advantageous continuation he made the same mistake for the umpteenth time: playing too fast, despite the fact that he was five minutes ahead of the Chinese. He was no longer worse off on the board, but he was on the clock (4 minutes, to 10 for his opponent).
Niepomniashi tried to take advantage of that advantage, pressing as hard as he could, but Ding was a steel plate that returned every blow. So that the Russian, after eating four of the six minutes of advantage, opted for prudence and began to repeat plays in search of the tie, feeling favorite for the lightning modality.
And then something difficult to compare happened since modern chess (with the queen as the most powerful piece) was created in Spain at the end of the 15th century: someone who is playing for the world title throws himself headlong into a very deep pool because it means that there is water Niepomniashi’s face when he saw that play was worthy of a portrait. Objectively, the position was even, but the Russian was so upset that he didn’t hit the best answers. Meanwhile, the Chinese played almost like a computer, with few inaccuracies.
And, finally, after more than three weeks of a tremendous duel, one of the most exciting and even in the last 50 years, Niepómniashi stopped the clock and shook his rival’s hand as a sign of surrender. The emotion caused by Ding by his courage was so great that the cries of joy came not only from the Chinese throats, but from many more. It was a multiracial admiration for a daring gesture that has nothing to envy to those that made Garri Kasparov or Magnus Carlsen famous. Ding is champion in a big way.
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