International Chess Federation
Friday, 07 Apr 2023 09:45
2023 FIDE World Championship Match: Preview

The eyes of the world turn to Kazakhstan as the Match for the title of World Chess Champion takes centre stage in the capital of the central-Asian country

From 9th April to 1st May two players – neither of whom is a defending champion – will meet for a 14-game match to decide who will be the new, 17th World Chess Champion.

The upcoming match is a clash of two contenders – Grandmasters Ian Nepomniachtchi from Russia (currently ranked second in the world) and Ding Liren from China (currently ranked third in the world). Following the decision of the reigning World champion Magnus Carlsen to give up his title, the match is played between the winner and the runner-up of the Candidates Tournament, which was held in July 2022 in Madrid, Spain.

While Argentina, Mexico, and China showed interest in hosting the FIDE World Chess Championship, Kazakhstan's capital stood out as the obvious choice given its location and chess legacy, as well as a convenient geographical location for both players.

The match will feature a prize fund of 2,000,000 euros. The winner of the match, if decided in the 14 classical games, will receive 60% of the prize fund, while the runner-up will receive the remaining 40%. However, if the match goes into tiebreakers, the winner will get 55% of the prize fund, and the runner-up will receive the remaining 45%.

The NASDAQ-listed Freedom Holding Corp, a US-based corporation that offers financial services and has Kazakh origins, will act as the General Partner of the event.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi (32), also called "Nepo" in chess circles, has played once already in a World Championship Match – in December 2021 in Dubai, when he was beaten by Carlsen. However, in the Candidates Tournament in Madrid in June/July 2022, he had a stellar performance, winning the event with a round to spare.

With his previous experience in a World Championship match, Nepomniachtchi could be considered the senior player of the two. Despite his loss to Carlsen in Dubai, he exuded confidence and used his experience in later tournaments to raise his level of consistency.

An important factor in Nepomniachtchi's victories has been the stability of his repertoire with the black pieces. However, a big risk for Nepomniachtchi is to be content with his current level of play and not push himself further, which may not be enough to win the World Championship match.

Ding Liren

On the other hand, Ding Liren (30) was not expected to play in the Candidates Tournament but was brought in as a replacement. His journey to the big match was filled with ups and downs, with a key win in the final round securing second place which, following Carlsen's decision to abdicate the chess throne, was enough for Ding to qualify for the Match! 

"Ding's A game is probably better than Ian's, but if they're both not at their best, I would say Ian has much better chances. His low is not that low," was the assessment of GM Daniil Dubov, one of the official match commentators for FIDE, who was part of Carlsen's team in the previous World Championship.

In spite of being one of the top players in the world for some time now, Ding Liren is less visible publicly and gives very little away in his interviews, as he prefers to stay out of the limelight and be perceived as the underdog. This mindset may work to his advantage in the upcoming match, as he can find his psychological comfort zone and show his best.

Their previous clashes

Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren know each other well. In 2009, the Russia vs China chess summit saw the first encounter between the two. Nepomniachtchi won all four games in their match, which consisted of two rapid games and two blitz games. Over the next three years, Nepomniachtchi began to dominate in faster time controls at these summits, winning six games and drawing one in rapid and blitz.

Nepomniachtchi's first classical win against Ding Liren happened in 2016 at the Hainan Danzhou GM event.

Ian Nepomniachtchi – Ding Liren

35…Qc8? (only 35… Крg7! offered the chance to continue the battle) 36.Rxa6 Rb8 37. Bf2! White won a piece and three moves later Black resigned 1-0

Ding Liren's payback was in 2019 at the Cote d'Ivoire rapid event, followed by his first classical win at the Croatia Grand Chess Tour tournament later that same year.

Ding Liren – Ian Nepomniachtchi

Black’s king is in great danger and Ding launched the final onslaught 27. b4! Rc8 28. bxc5 Rxe1 29. Rxe1 hxg3 30. hxg3 dxc5 31. Кg2! Qc2 32. Qe3 Rc7 33. Qe6 Лd7 34. d6 Kc8 35. Rh1! 1-0

In 2019, the players competed in a speed event, and Nepomniachtchi dominated and won 19-12. Nepomniachtchi also secured an important win against Ding at the 2020 Candidates Tournament, ultimately winning the event, while Ding Liren managed to equalize the score by winning the return game in the last round.

Ian Nepomniachtchi – Ding Liren

Ding Liren has just played 33… Rc5? but it failed to 34. Qe8+ Kh7 35. Ng1! Rxb6 36.Qxd8 Rxb2 37. Rxb2 Rc1 38.Qh4+! and after White's trading the queens it is all over for Black 38… Qxh4 39. gxh4 Rd1 40. f3 1-0

Ding Liren – Ian Nepomniachtchi

After precise 19. Qg5! Ding captured Black’s trapped knight – 20..Nxf3+ 20. gxf3 Qh3 21. Bf4! Qxf3 22. Nd2 f6 23. Qxg6+ hxg6 24. Nxf3 – and converted his extra material in the endgame 1-0

At the last Candidates Tournament in Madrid, held in 2022, Nepomniachtchi won the very first round with Black, setting the course of the event.

Ding Liren – Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ignoring the threat to his b7-pawn Ian launched a dangerous attack – 25…g5! 26.Nxb7? gxh4 27.Nc5 h3 28.Rxe4 hxg2 29.Rxe8+ Kg7 30.f4 – and eventually got to the White’s king 30...Qh1+31.Kf2 Qxa1 32.Kxg2 Bh3+ 0-1

The second game was drawn as Nepomniachtchi executed a drawing line with the white pieces. On the other hand, Ding has shown that he is persistent and that, even if things go terribly wrong, he can make a huge comeback.

While Nepomniachtchi has a clear advantage at faster time controls, the classical score stands at 3-2 in his favour, with two of those wins being secured during the crucial Candidates Tournament.

Ultimately, the match will be decided by better nerves and form, as both players will prepare to the best of their ability. While Nepomniachtchi may be considered the favourite due to his greater experience, Ding Liren's underdog status could work in his favour. The Astana Match will be a closely watched event for chess enthusiasts, and the winner will be crowned the 17th World Chess Champion.

Text: Milan Dinic

Photo: Stev Bonhage

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