Ding Liren survives scare in Game 1

Ding Liren survives scare in Game 1


Ding Liren confessed he wondered if “there was something wrong with my mind” as he came under heavy pressure from Ian Nepomniachtchi in Game 1 of the FIDE World Championship match in Astana, Kazakhstan. Ian sprung an opening surprise, and though Ding reacted well at first, he drifted into trouble. Nepo looked on the brink of a possibly decisive advantage, but then stumbled, with Ding finding all the correct moves in time trouble to make a 49-move draw.

Replay Game 1 of the 14-game FIDE World Championship match.

1. e4
2. ♘f3
3. ♗b5
4. ♗a4
5. O-O
6. ♗xc6
7. ♖e1
8. d4
9. ♕xd4
10. ♗f4
11. ♕e3
12. ♘d4
13. ♘c3
14. ♘f5
15. ♘xe7+
16. ♗g3
17. f3
18. h3
19. ♔h2
20. ♖ad1
21. a3
22. ♘e2
23. ♖xd1
24. ♖d3
25. ♕d2
26. ♖xd8+
27. ♕f4
28. ♕b8
29. ♗d6
30. ♘g3
31. f4
32. c3
33. h4
34. ♕b7
35. ♘f5
36. ♕b8
37. ♕xd8
38. ♘d4
39. e5
40. ♔g3
41. ♗c7
42. ♗xa5
43. ♗b4
44. e6+
45. ♘xc6
46. ♘d4
47. ♔f3
48. g3
49. ♔e3

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Anish Giri and Daniel Naroditsky.

Game 1 of a World Championship match is always fascinating, with months of tension and speculation finally crystalising into a game of chess where every decision is subject to extreme scrutiny. That hasn’t always led to decisive action, with the last full point coming when Vishy Anand forgot his Grünfeld theory in Game 1 of the match in Sofia against Veselin Topalov.

2023 saw the World Championship debut for Ding Liren, who looked visibly nervous, though Anish Giri for one wasn’t buying that World Championship veteran Ian Nepomniachtchi was as calm as he appeared.

It was Ian to move first, and he stuck to his trusted 1.e4.

Ding Liren also stuck to his preferred 1…e5, but he delayed his move 49 seconds. Asked about that in the post-game press conference, he responded:

I thought of some other moves, but in the end I decided to play 1…e5.

If another player had delivered that reply with a smirk you might have taken it as sarcasm, but all Ding’s answers felt genuine, and the fact that Richard Rapport is accompanying him as a second in Astana may herald a wider opening repertoire than we’re used to from Ding. Why had he picked Richard?

First, I like his creative playing style, and secondly, I can speak English with him. That also helps me get familiar with this English-speaking environment. I think there is something different, maybe I also change my playing style a little bit by speaking English — it’s kind of two different ways of thinking. Also, we have many things in common. For example, we love 80s music, the kind of music we listen to together.

In Game 1, however, Ding continued to play his standard openings. He met the Ruy Lopez not with the Berlin, but 3…a6, and it was Nepomniachtchi who got to pull the first surprise with 6.Bxc6, a move swiftly followed by a much bigger surprise, 7.Re1.

At this point it turned out a certain Magnus Carlsen, still the reigning World Champion until the match is over, was watching proceedings, or at least the Twitter of a former World Championship second.

They say that some of the best new ideas in chess are simply moves that have long been forgotten, and the game had a famous predecessor.

It was only on move 11, when Ian Nepomniachtchi avoided an exchange of queens, that paths diverged.

Here 11…Ne6!, hitting the f4-bishop, preparing Bc5, and taking control of the d4-square looks to have been the way to go, though Ian would no doubt have had something prepared.

Instead 11…Bg4!? was a first inaccuracy of the match, with Ding looking shaky. That felt visible in the way that, like Nepo in the match against Carlsen in Dubai, he seemed to spend as much time as he could in his rest area. That left a curious spectacle of no players at the board…

…though it didn’t mean the players were shielded from prying eyes.

Ding commented:

I was very cold at the beginning of the match, maybe because of the anxieties.

That was just one of the glimpses that we got into the troubled mind of a genius at the press conference.

He’d changed hotel to move away from the hotel where the match is being played, saying only that he’d felt bad there. Then he was remarkably open about how he felt for the first part of the game.

He added, “actually I didn’t prepare anything yesterday because I’m struggling with my feelings, my emotions”.

The immediate problem, however, was purely on the chessboard, where Nepomniachtchi took a 24-minute think and played 23.Nc3!, which after 13…Rad8 could have been followed by 14.h3! Then Ding would have been forced to find a move such as 14…Bh5 or the trickier 14…Rfe8 or 14…Bf6, since 14…Qxd4? would walk into the blow 15.Nd5!

We never got to see if Ding might have fallen for that, since Ian went for another tempting option, 14.Nf5!?, when after 14…Ne6!? things could have got spectacular fast.

Ian went for the more modest 15.Nxe7+, which was impossible to criticise, since Nepo was able to gradually grow a risk-free advantage. The consensus was that everything was going right for Ian…

…with Anish pointing out that the Russian’s Achilles’ heel of at times collapsing under pressure relies on something first going wrong.

In Astana it only looked as though things were going wrong for Ding, who faced the constant struggle of when to push pawns or exchange pieces, with the dispiriting goal of reaching a holdable endgame a pawn down.

Anish Giri called 25…c6?! “a very ugly move”, while Jan Gustafsson went further.

Ian seemed to have reached the same verdict as he took very little time to play 26.Rxd8+ Nxd8 27.Qf4!. “He smells blood!” said Daniel Naroditsky.

Ding was getting low on time and was on the ropes in a position where one mistake in calculation would mean his downfall, but perhaps that was his happy place. Ding mentioned in the pre-game press conference that he aspires to play like an AI, and when it comes to pure calculation, there’s arguably no-one better. As he commented:

Starting from the time trouble I’m getting back to the game, I’m not down a pawn, and his attacking chances seem not that strong, so I find that my position is not that as bad as I expected.

That of course required some help from Ian Nepomniachtchi, who instead of going for a queen exchange with 30.Qc7 and a big endgame advantage, decided to try and “maintain the tension” in his opponent’s time trouble with 30.Ng3!?

If the hope was for Ding to sink into thought, that didn’t happen, as he relatively quickly played 30…Ne6!, while 31.f4!? looked rash. Were we witnessing a micro-tilt?

Ding didn’t play the computer’s recommended 31…Nd4, but his 31…h5 was also strong, and he had a plan. After 32.c3 c4 33.h4 he was finally able to offer a queen trade on his terms with 33…Qd8!

On some level Ding had perhaps been replaying in his head the way he lost Game 1 of the 2022 Candidates Tournament to Nepomniachtchi, but now he realised he was right back in the game. Ian’s queen ducked and weaved but couldn’t avoid being exchanged, so that 39.e5! was essentially a last-ditch attempt to provoke a mistake before move 40.

Given the time, Black would love to be able to assess 39…Nxd6? fully, since if it works, it might simply be a fortress that brings the game to a close. As it turns out, however, it doesn’t work, and would at best have been insanely risky to go for based on intuition alone.

Ding was back in control by this point, and opted for 39…Kg8 40.Kg3 Bd7 when, with the addition of one hour on his clock, he had all the time in the world to carefully navigate an already much-simplified position.

Nepo did eventually pick up a pawn, but by this stage it gave him only a nominal advantage, and at times it seemed his main problem was that Ding Liren was so briefly on stage that it was hard to catch him to offer a draw. There was a lot of time to reflect.

A draw was finally agreed on move 49 and we’re one game into the 14-game match that will decide the identity of the 17th World Chess Champion.

We live in the age of recaps, with the best known “content-creators” offering their instant views on the game. For instance, world no. 5 Hikaru Nakamura.

A new hat in the ring is that of the Chicken Chess Club, with Magnus Carlsen seconds Laurent Fressinet and Peter Heine Nielsen finding themselves in the unusual position of observing the match from the outside.

If the post-game press conference went into almost no chess detail, however, it was a revelation, largely because Ding Liren apparently failed to get the memo about hiding your thoughts and feelings until the match is over. At the moment, he seems like he could be a life project for a sports psychologist, but on the other hand, he managed to survive and also appears refreshingly grounded. What is he planning to do after the game?

Go out with my parents, or with Richard. I prefer to go somewhere near the river, or a park.

In Monday’s Game 2 Ding will have the white pieces and we’ll get answers to a whole new set of questions. It promises to be unmissable, and you can again tune in to commentary from Anish Giri and Daniel Naroditsky from 15:00 local time (5am ET, 11:00 CEST, 2:30pm IST).

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