Ding Liren pounces on blunder to win Game 4

Ding Liren pounces on blunder to win Game 4


Ding Liren is truly back after a pawn sacrifice and sustained pressure saw Ian Nepomniachtchi crack in Game 4 of the FIDE World Championship in Astana. “A little hard to believe!” is how Ding Liren described his realisation that his opponent had blundered, though Ding demonstrated his new-found confidence by taking only a minute to play the winning move. It’s now 2:2 going into the second rest day, with 10 games to go.

Replay the day’s live commentary from Anish Giri, David Howell and Daniel Naroditsky.

Replay Game 4 of the FIDE World Championship in Astana with computer analysis

It was already clear in Game 3 that Ding Liren had recovered from his almighty emotional wobble in the first two games of the match.

In Thursday’s Game 4 he once again spent his time at the board, not in his rest room, and looked confident both in his skin and, as it turned out, in the hotel. He revealed afterwards that he’d moved back into the luxurious hotel where the match is being played. Why?

I started to get used to this hotel and I want to try and win. That’s the main reason I came back.

If the connection between where he was sleeping and his will to win wasn’t entirely clear, his moves spoke for themselves. His own assessment was accurate.

Of course, I’m very happy to win the game, and I’m pleased with the quality. It was a very hard game, and I managed to keep things under control.

Before the first move of a World Championship match the Gods have put the ceremonial opening move, and in this case it was Mike Klein making it on behalf of Chessable. What could it be but Adhiban’s infamous 1.b3!?

Ding appreciated the joke, but quickly put the pawn back on its rightful square. In that clip you can hear David Howell share his opening thoughts.

I predict not an English. Ding lost in the English in the Candidates to Ian…

But Ding saw no ghosts and did indeed play the English Opening with 1.c4. Had Nepo expected it?

Yes, not this particular line, but yeah, it’s one of the main openings for Ding, so yes, but shame on me for not repeating my lines properly!

Ian varied from Game 1 of the Madrid Candidates already with 1…Nf6, but it was Ding who managed to steer the game towards a sideline he knew better, where White pushes a pawn to e4 in two moves. By move 9 the only previous game remaining in the database was one Ding’s second Richard Rapport had played against Ilja Zaragatski in the 2013 Chess Bundesliga.

Nepomniachtchi had relatively quickly taken the big decision to transfer his knight from f6 to h5 and now f4, and Anish Giri, who knows such things, was sure Ian had mixed something up. The computer evaluation backed that up, as did Ding’s admission afterwards:

To be honest, I was out of prep after Nf4. I was on my own after that.

It’s noteworthy, therefore, that Ding kept playing, Nepomniachtchi-style, like a man deep in prep. The time he spent on 10.Bxf4 exf4 11.0-0 Qf6 12.Rfe1 suggested he was just doing some cursory checking, but 13.Bd3!?, played after his first significant think, raised some eyebrows. Once again, those eyebrows were Dutch.

Ian did play 13…Bg4!, and though Ding’s many fans may have breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t go for the premature aggression of 14.e5!?, his 14.Nd2 felt slow. It had the effect, however, of luring Nepomniachtchi into a plan that he ultimately deeply regretted: 14…Na5!?

If Ian could follow up with c5 he’d have solved most of his problems, but it turns out the position he was aiming for was what happened in the game: 15.c5! dxc5 16.e5! Qh6 17.d5!

White has sacrificed a pawn, but Black’s pawns on c5 and f4 won’t win any beauty prizes, while White’s central pawns can become monsters. The knight on a5 is also nervously wondering where it can head next.

Nepomniachtchi explained he’d gone for this willingly.

I guess it was a very tense game, so I think I misjudged the position after c5, letting all this structure happen. I thought it’s quite nice for Black, but even if so, it’s incredibly difficult to play.

Ding had a wealth of strengthening options, and Scottish Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson said afterwards that he felt the key move of the game was not the objectively winning move that came later, but 20.Be4!, ratchetting up the pressure.

The tactical justification is 20…Rxe5? 21.Bxh7+!, but the idea did indeed turn out to be to play Bf3. While in Game 2 of the match Ding had fallen woefully short of trying to get his light-squared bishop to a good square on f1, this time everything was going to plan.

Nepomniachtchi also kept making good moves, but seasoned observers of the mercurial star might have worried that he was competing with Ding for the speed at which he could take significant decisions. For instance, Black could have taken advantage of Ding’s choice not to exchange bishops on h5.

The computer advocates 25…Bg6, partly, no doubt, to keep an eye on the potentially powerful white knight, but Nepomniachtchi, who was not in time trouble, took just 45 seconds to go for 25…Nf5!?.

This time Ding did take the chance to exchange off the bishops on h5, and after 26.Bxh5 Qxh5 27.Re4 storm clouds were gathering over the black position — if Black loses a pawn, he’ll simply be worse for no compensation.

If the speed of Ding’s play at this point was deliberate, it was brilliant psychology, since it encouraged Ian to play at the same rhythm. After 27…Qh6 Ding spent just 42 seconds on 28.Qf3 and suddenly Ian plunged off a precipice with the move 28…Nd4?, played in under two minutes.

Ian commented:

You have basically no idea what to do, but I guess it was more or less playable until I just lost my focus and ended up letting Rxd4 happen.

There was some logic to Ian’s move — Black is fine after 29.Qxf4?! — but Ding took just 1 minute and 17 seconds to unleash the crunching 29.Rxd4!

The speed was remarkable, since Ding confessed he hadn’t seen the idea in advance.

To be honest, when I played 28.Qf3 I was calculating something like 28…Nxd4 and 29.Qd3 back, but when he played Nxd4 I suddenly saw the idea of the exchange sacrifice, and the important point is that after c5 I have d6, which is very, very lucky for me, since c5 doesn’t work and he not only loses a pawn, but also my knight is very, very strongly-placed on d4. Suddenly I felt I was winning at that point — a little bit hard to believe!

Giri pointed out this had been just the kind of “outrageous, crazy blunders” that condemned Nepomniachtchi in his match against Magnus Carlsen, while Ian explained that he had seen the exchange sacrifice but missed that the follow-up 30.Nb3! is “that deadly”.

Both players explained that the key point was that 30…c5 runs into 31.d6! (taking en passant would leave Black chances to survive) and e.g. 31…Rxe6 32.Rxe6 Rxe6 33.d7!

33…Rd6 34.Qa8+! is mate-in-2, but it sums up the position that even the queen sacrifice 34.Qd5+ is possible, since after 34…Rxd5 35.cxd5 Black can’t stop the d-pawn queening.

At this point, as towards the end of Game 2, both players were completely aware that the outcome of the game was set in stone — Ding was going to win and level the scores in the match, with the only question remaining when. Ian had few choices and made them, while Ding went about winning the game with clinical precision. Anish was jealous.

In the end Ian had finally seen enough on move 47, and Ding Liren was right back in the match.

It was a game made for recaps, and they poured in, from some of the very top players. Jan and Laurent were this time joined by non-chicken Peter Svidler.

Fabiano Caruana crossed the one-hour mark…

Hikaru Nakamura limited himself to 20 minutes.

What’s clear to everyone is that the fears of a one-sided contest after the first two games have receded.

In fact it’s Ding Liren who suddenly has all the momentum, so much so that Giri ventured the opinion that Ding is now an 80% favourite to win. That feels excessive, but suddenly Ian Nepomniachtchi has been hit by adversity and will face a test he never did in the 2022 Madrid Candidates, where he led from start to finish.

Ding Liren also has the company of his spirit animal, Richard Rapport.

The consolation for Nepomniachtchi is of course that he’s no worse off than when the match started, since for the 7th World Championship match in a row the players have reached a 2:2 scoreline.

Of those seven, only Carlsen-Anand in 2014 witnessed decisive games, with Vishy Anand hitting straight back in Game 3 after losing Game 2. Vishy is also the last player to lead a match after four games, after storming back from losing the first game in Sofia in 2010 to win Games 2 and 4 against Veselin Topalov.

We’ve still got 10 games to go and, as after the Game 2 loss for Ding, Nepomniachtchi now has a rest day to recover. He’ll then have the white pieces on Saturday and every opportunity to change the narrative again. Don’t miss all the action from 15:00 local time (5am ET, 11:00 CEST, 2:30pm IST)!

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