A Ding-Nepo playoff it is, after heart-stopping Game 14

A Ding-Nepo playoff it is, after heart-stopping Game 14


“This match is totally nuts!” said Anish Giri as Ding Liren went all-in with the white pieces in the final classical game of the match. It backfired spectacularly, with Ian Nepomniachtchi getting a series of chances until in the endgame he once more looked on the verge of becoming World Champion. One rushed move, however, and Ding Liren snatched his chance to force a drawn rook endgame and take the match to a playoff on Sunday.

Replay the live commentary on Game 14 of the FIDE World Championship in Astana from Fabiano Caruana, Tania Sachdev and Robert Hess (or check out the game with computer analysis).

14 classical games have proven insufficient to separate Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi after a wild game, the longest of the match, ultimately ended in a draw.

Ding Liren went into the final classical game of the 2023 World Championship match with the advantage. The scores were level and he had the white pieces, and the standard approach in such a position would be to play for a small advantage while avoiding any unnecessary risk.

As in Game 8, Ian Nepomniachtchi played the Nimzo-Indian Defence, but Ding, who had come within a whisker of winning that game, varied already with 5.Bd2 instead of 5.a3.

At first it looked unassuming, but Super-GM observers were on hand to interpret the Chinese no. 1’s approach.

Ian had looked at this before, however, and while Ding spent 13 minutes on 9.Qc2!?, Ian was able to blitz out a reply he remembered, 9…dxc4!, and after 10.Bxc4 Nbd7 it looked as though we might get a quiet day at the office.

As so often in the match, however, this was just the prelude to an explosion. After 11.Rd1 Be7!? Ding didn’t go for the genuinely promising 12.e4, but the knight lunge 12.Ng5!?. Fabiano Caruana could see into Ding’s soul.

Ding confirmed Fabiano’s impression afterwards, saying that a lead in development had convinced him that the position was ripe for an attack.

I think I have some chance to launch an attack, for example, even g4 I was considering. I was very, very optimistic after Ng5, also excited when playing this move…

Ian Nepomniachtchi’s verdict on the move was clearly somewhat more sceptical.

He later verbalised it:

I just didn’t buy it… If Ng5 and h4 would win every game, chess would be much easier for White!

Ding did follow up 12…h6 with 13.h4

…but then 13…Qc7! came as a very cold shower. Ding noted:

Then I realised after Qc7 suddenly I have to go to a defensive mode. That’s the turning point of the game, I guess… At that point I thought it might be the decisive game, but it’s very lucky.

After almost 22 minutes, Ding played the somewhat sad 14.Be2!?, and watching grandmasters were unsure what to think. Anish Giri declared, “this match is totally nuts”, while Vishy Anand second Grzegorz Gajewski was also amazed at what we were seeing.

Nepomniachtchi didn’t find the most forcing variations and it looked as though there might be a chance for Ding to regain the initiative with a g-pawn push and sacrifice on f7, but Nepo decided enough was enough and chose sanity with 15…Nf8.

This was the cue for Ding to bring back his errant knight and make a solid draw, but his retreating it to e4 instead of f3 was already a small hint that he wanted to remain active, while 19.Bb4!? was a cry for help.

Ian gave his verdict:

It was slightly unpleasant for White, but after 19.Bb4!? it seems like if things don’t work out too well White is probably just lost after this move… Bb4 is such a decision that probably indicated that my opponent thinks he’s in trouble.

There wasn’t long to wait for the next dramatic moment, with 21.Nc5!? by Ding offering up a pawn on g2. Fabiano Caruana called it “a crazy responsible decision” and felt it indicated Ding just couldn’t bring himself to calculate.

Ding admitted afterwards, “actually I didn’t calculate carefully the line Bxg2”, and Vishy Anand pointed out a trick to give Nepomniachtchi a big advantage.

Ian missed it, however, playing 22…Bd5 after just 12 seconds instead of the cunning 22…Bc6!.

Ian was asked afterwards about his problem of sometimes moving too fast, though not about precisely this move.

That’s a good point. Probably I should have spent more time, but in the moment normally it seems that I knew what was the correct move, but not every time it was correct!

The drama continued as Ding was able to re-establish the material balance by capturing a pawn on b7.

His nerves were shown when he stopped himself midway into making a knight move, but no harm was done and again, briefly, a quiet end to the day looked possible. Then, just when the computer was suggesting tricky ways to equalise completely, 30.Rcg3?! once again set alarm bells ringing.

Here simply 30…g6! was the strongest option, but as Ian pointed out, his 30…Nxc5 also worked out as well as you could hope.

Actually I thought that 30…Nxc5 is nearly winning because of my rook activity, and the bishop on e2 is placed really poorly, so if I would think that Nc5 is not enough, probably I would consider g6, but I guess I quickly got a winning position after Nxc5 anyway.

Ding walked a tightrope with 31.bxc5 Rxc5 32.Rxg7+ Kf8 33.Bd3! Rd8 but 34.Ke2? saw him slip.

He needed to play 34.Kd2! precisely to stop the move that followed, 34…Rc3!, and Ian was winning the game and the World Championship title. It only lasted for a couple of moves.

After 35.Rg8+ Ke7 36.R1g3 Ian made a perfectly natural move, but one which gave away all his advantage, 36…e5?

Ian explained afterwards:

I guess e5 is the move that spoils the advantage, because I missed the idea that after 37.Rh8! he can double actually on the back rank, play Rgg8 — this was quite a shocking moment. I guess some move like 36…Rb3! instead of e5 and White is just paralysed, so it would be basically a matter of quite simple technique. White has two ideas. The first is b6, if I move my rook away from the 8th rank, and the other idea is Rgg8, and surprisingly White can unpin, so this was quite unlucky. I felt like e5 could never spoil anything — such an easy move, fixing the pawn structure and everything, but probably Rb3, with the idea that after Rh8 already I have this Rd4 or Rd6, should be easily winning.

Once again you could point to how fast Nepomniachtchi had made the move, but another top player could have spent a lot of time and made the same mistake.

37.Rh8! was already a big move, and after 37…Rd6 Ding Liren executed the beautiful solution to almost all his problems, 38.b6!

The key is get access to the b5-square, with no good way to avoid the tactical sequence that followed: 38…Rxb6! 39.Rxe8+! Kxe8 40.Bb5+ Rxb5 41.Rxc3. Ding had made the time control with a rook endgame that should be a draw, though he had needed to jettison a pawn along the way.

When the adrenaline rush began to wear off, Ding, commentators and chess fans had to adapt to the new reality that there was no instant draw — Ding was a pawn down in what could be a treacherous endgame.

Even when move 60 was made, and the players started to get a 30-second increment each move, there was ample room to go wrong.

The good news for fans of the Chinese no. 1 was that his sense of danger was very much intact, as witnessed by the way he literally ran from the stage when Ian made a move just as he was getting up from the board.

Ian kept turning the screw masterfully, but Ding kept coming up with the crucial moves, such as 65.f4! in a position where everything else was losing.

“White is pretty much on a precipice,” said Caruana shortly afterwards, but Ding kept solving every puzzle posed until it was finally clear that this was not going to be the day the World Championship match ended.

82.e6! was the move that matched Game 9 for the longest game of the match, and it also made it very clear the game would end in a draw. The e-pawn couldn’t be eliminated except by allowing Ding to gobble up the a3-pawn, and when that happened we were hurtling towards the conclusion. The players didn’t quite play on to bare kings this time, with a draw agreed on move 90.

It was time for the penultimate recaps…

After the wildest World Championship match in decades you feel as though the players deserve a rest day, as they would have got in the past.

Not this year, however, and they’re back for the playoff at the same time on Sunday. It starts with four 25+10 games, which in 2012, 2016 and 2018 has proven enough for a player to win. It would be a brave man who would bet against a more chaotic outcome, however, and if the score is still tied, the players play two 5+3 games.

If still tied, there are two more 5+3 games, and if still tied they switch to 3+2 games. That could, theoretically, go on forever, since the players will keep playing single games with colours reversed until someone finally wins.

Ding Liren will start with the white pieces, after no-one was harmed in the drawing of lots… though it was close!

Ding commented:

I need to take a rest and try to find the motivation for tomorrow’s rapid tiebreak.

He probably meant “energy”, since the players must be absolutely exhausted but have as their motivation the biggest goal in chess — winning the World Championship. By Sunday night, either Ding Liren or Ian Nepomniachtchi will take over from Magnus Carlsen to become the 17th World Champion. You don’t want to miss this!

Don’t miss all the action from 15:00 local time (5am ET, 11:00 CEST, 2:30pm IST)!

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