Ian Niepómniashi lost the penultimate game of the World Cup in Astana (Kazakhstan) in the worst possible way. He had it won after playing as a computer until the key moment. But then one of his old demons arose: move fast when you have to think to deliver the killing blow. The Chinese Liren Ding also suffered from tremendous tension, but managed his nerves better and is now the favourite, with the score even (6-6) with two to go. The thirteenth is played this Thursday, with the Russian in command of the white pieces but emotionally hit hard.
It was a day of great importance, especially for Ding, whose situation fit well with the lyrics of one of the hits of the Kazakh singer-songwriter Dimash Qudaibergen, guest for the kick-off: “If you want to change your world, start today. It’s now or never”. And what the Chinese did with that objective was to choose a totally inoffensive third move from the prism of trying to gain an advantage in the opening, but intelligent if one looks more deeply: thus he avoided his rival’s homemade preparations, probably aimed at seeking an equalizer. brazenly, and posed a very long-term fight.
Niepómniashi gave a recital of strange gestures and postures before making his next four sets. So much so that a spectator new to chess would think that the Russian, with his head bowed and buried between his arms against the table, had decided to take a nap shortly after starting such an important fight. He also leaned back in the chair with his whole body backwards, or stared at the wall or the floor or the opaque glass that separated him from the spectators. All that body language paraphernalia has a simple explanation: he was trying to remember where he had seen a game similar to what the Asian was proposing, and what were the ins and outs and nuances of that scheme. And besides, his nerves gripped him.
But suddenly, on the eleventh move, Niepómniashi changed the time signature, from adage to the allegro: He did something unexpected and provocative, inviting Ding into a complex, double-edged position, the kind the Russian likes. And the Chinese picked up the glove because it was the big day, where a true aspiring world champion must get into the garden with very tall grass, even though he knows that there may be many snakes.
However, Ding did not shield his legs before attacking, putting him on the brink of a deadly bite. In the following sets, Niepómniashi hit each time with the one indicated by the computers as the best until he achieved a winning advantage, in the face of Ding’s impotence. Millions of fans around the world, following the game online, knew that Magnus Carlsen’s successor to the throne was almost certainly going to be Niepómniashi.
But then the Slav returned to display one of his weaknesses since his youth: the inability to feel that the game is at a critical moment, decisive to give the finishing touch, and that therefore you have to think for as long as necessary, even at the cost of suffering later clock troubles. Instead of the winning shot, Niepomniashi quickly made a play that left him lost, to the despair of the Russian journalists in the press room.
Ding’s winning idea wasn’t easy to see, but it wasn’t very difficult for the third best in the world either, after enough reflection. But the Chinese, who normally does not usually fail in this type of situation, was also nervous and erred like the Russian, who erred again afterwards. The symphony suddenly turned into an out-of-tune pachanga, and the sublime mental boxing match into a slum brawl with an unforeseeable outcome.
If the aforementioned singer Qudaibergen had been next to the Chinese on stage at that moment, perhaps he would have recited another of his lyrics: “Why do I live, why do I die? Why do I laugh, why do I cry? This is the SOS of an earthling in distress. I kind of yearn for a metamorphosis.”
The truth is that Ding was transfigured in a moment of maximum tension. It was movement 33. The clock was ticking to overcome the control of 40. Perhaps with the traumatic memory of his blunder (and defeat) eight days earlier, when he launched himself to win the 7th game in a similar situation instead of swimming and putting away the clothes, the Asian kept a cool head and made a bland move, which did not spoil anything and invited the rival to get tangled up.
And that was exactly what happened. Niepómniashi forgot his senses, lost his mind and continued to attack like mad when the position no longer allowed it. Soon he realized his blunder, and gave a recital of the typical gestures of a chess player when he suffers such a misfortune. It is not risky to bet on the most intense phrase that sounded in his brain at that moment: “How can I be so stupid!”. After lashing out at himself for a long time, making it clear that he wasn’t thinking about his next move but cursing himself endlessly, he quickly made three more and shook Ding’s hand in surrender.
The Russian was able to sum up what had happened to him: “The position seemed totally winning to me. But even then you have to be precise in the shot. And I have not been today. The Chinese summed up this way: “I came out of the opening better, but Ian then made a series of excellent moves and turned the game around. I saw that I was almost lost and decided to stir the waters”.
As much as his team covers him, pampers him and takes care of him, Niepómniashi will have in his mind tonight the ghost of the sixth game of the 2021 World Cup against Carlsen in Dubai: with the score tied, he lost it after eight hours of brutal combat, and from hence the duel was a military walk for the Norwegian.
One of the choruses of the song One night in Bangkok (One night in Bangkok), of the rock-opera chess (Chess), very successful in the mid-eighties, says: “I can feel the devil walking next to me.” The outcome of this World Cup may now depend on whether the current runner-up in the world is able to expel that demon from the Saint Regis hotel, where, for three weeks, a frenetic mental boxing duel has been taking place, sometimes enlivened by sublime symphonies and others by out-of-tune brass bands.
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