International Chess Federation
Wednesday, 26 Apr 2023 16:32
Race for the title wide open as Nepomniachtchi suffers shocking defeat

In a shocking game filled with dramatic turns of fortune, Ding Liren emerged victorious after Ian Nepomniachtchi played hastily and completely destroyed a commanding position. With Ding Liren equalising and just two more games to go, the race is now wide open for the next FIDE World Chess Champion

Playing as White in game 12 of the match, Ding opted to go for the Colle System of Queen's Pawn, aiming to avoid theoretical debates in the opening, but ended up in a well-known position emerging from Caro Kann but with an extra tempi. In an attempt to organise an attack on the black king, Ding played a premature pawn advance with 17.g4 and it quicly backfired.

Ian Nepomniachtchi played all the right moves, neutralising White's attempts and, at the same time, orchestrating a strong counter-attack on the kingside. After miscalculating his attack plan, White found himself in dire straits ending in a situation where Nepomniachtchi was dictating the game while Ding had no realistic chance of creating any play. It seemed that the game – and, potentially, the match – was in the bag for Nepomniachtchi, as Ding was also falling short on time.

The Chinese made a desperate attempt for a break in the centre, which surprisingly worked very well for him. Black emerged with an extra pawn and initiative but after a seemingly unsuspicious move 27…Bb8, played after just one minute and 22 seconds, the tables have turned on Nepomniachtchi.

The evaluation bar changed completely: from giving a decisive advantage to Black to assessing White's position as much better. Luckily for Nepomniachtchi, Ding again did not demonstrate accuracy and returned the advantage to Black at least once. By this point, however, the two started playing very fast – despite still having enough time on the clock for the critical moment that transpired on the board.

In a series of moves that followed – all played fast by both sides - White dropped the advantage, and the position was even. However, on move 34, Nepomniachtchi again played in haste and made a fatal blunder with 34…f5.

The move was met with disbelief by grandmasters commenting on the game in live broadcasts and online. After that move, Black's position completely collapsed. It was notable that Ding Liren was also surprised by the move as he gave Nepomniachtchi a puzzled look. It was clear that Nepo had lost his nerve. Nepomniachtchi could not hide his upset as he angrily and disappointedly looked away from the board.

Now, there was no escape for Black, and Ding had a clear and simple path forward. A few moves down the line, on move 38, Nepomniachtchi resigned and left the board.

With just two more games to go, the match is now wide open and with this shocking game, it seems that Ding is the one in the driving seat.

Round 13 will take place on Thursday, 27th April, at 3 PM Astana time.

Here follows a closer look at game 12 of the match.

The honour of making the ceremonial first move was given to a world-famous singer, Dimash Qudaibergen, from Kazakhstan, who has achieved much success abroad. However, neither Nepomniachtchi nor Ding felt this game was "music to their ears".

Ding went for the rare Colle system, which isn't considered to be forcing. While this system may not be particularly innovative, it can serve as a suitable choice for players seeking to steer clear of an excessively theoretical debate in the game. After 6…Bd7 (the move frowned upon by chess engines), played by Ian, the opponents ended up in a well-known position of the Exchange variation of Caro Kann but with extra tempi for White. 

Commenting on the opening, Grandmaster Robert Hess noted that it is possible that Ding thinks that Ian "doesn't feel at home in this structure, and that's why Ding picked it."

This position emerged in over a hundred games, but it was Black to move. Somewhat surprisingly, Ding did not manage to find good use of his extra tempi. 

After 9.Re1 (9.Qa4!?) e6 10.Nf1 Bd6 11.Bg5 0-0 Black is OK to compromise the pawn structure around his castle in exchange for having a pair of bishops and the open g-file for his rooks.

12.Bxf6 Ding spent nearly half an hour on this move. While this seemed most natural, the computer preferred Bh4 to get the bishop to g3 and remove the queen and bishop pin down the b8-h2 diagonal.

After a series of logical moves, the opponents reached the first important position:

17.g4?! Somewhat rushed. 17.Kh1 or calmer g3 was considered a better move.

17…Rg8 18.Kh1 Ng6 19.Bc2? An inaccuracy by White played after 13 minutes of thinking. The logic of the move is to open the d3-square for the queen, to help the advance on the black king. However, it seems that Black can defend this easily with Rg6, Rg8 and f5. At the same time, the white king is also exposed to an attack.

Ian quickly played 19…Nh4 and grabbed the initiative. 

Black quickly built up pressure with natural moves, transferring his pieces to the kingside. "This is Ian's natural style, he's intuitive…" said Caruana. With his back against the wall, Ding ventured upon a bold but erroneous move... 

24.c4? dxc4 25.Qc3 trying to get his bishop to e4 and activate his defence.

25…b5! 26.a4 b4! - the strongest move in this position required precise calculation, although, from a practical standpoint, a cool-blooded 26…a6 might have been even more unpleasant for White - 27.Qxc4, we arrived at the second critical position. 

27…Rag8 played by Ian, who did not demonstrate accurate calculation. It was a rushed decision instead of 27…Nf3, which is the obvious choice. Indeed, after 28.Qc6 Nxe1 29.Qxa8+ Rg8 30.Qe4 Nxc2 31.Qxc2 Qh4 (threatening mate in one) 32.Qd3 f5! 33.Qf3 fxg4 34.Rxg4 Rxg4 35.Qxg4 Qxg4 36.hxg4 b3! 37.Nf6 Ba3! And if 38.bxa3 b2 and Black is promoting.

White should have taken an exchange with an inferior position, but Ding opted for 28.Qc6? 

26…Bb8? Played quickly by Ian. A logical-looking move, but the evaluation bar now went all the way to Ding's favour! 28…Nf5! was the best choice. White could just take the rook on g6, threatening to play d5, with a winning position for White now.

29.Qb7?? Ding returned the favour, handing over the advantage to Black again. Placing his knight to f5 was again the best option for Nepomniachtchi but instead, he played…

29…Rh6 And the position is even. "This is no longer about chess, it's pure nerves. Every move is a mistake now," said Fabiano Caruana.

Indeed, the opponents kept exchanging mistakes with the fest of mutual errors culminating on move 34. 

White is up a pawn on the queenside, while Black's rook on h6 is trapped. "If I were Ian here, I'd be in a state of panic. This is a position where you need to immediately generate ideas, or you will lose the game," commented Caruana.

Still, Black had some reasonable options at his disposal (34…a5 and 34….Bd6 to name a few), but instead, Ian played 34…f5?? 

"Give me a break", commented GM Daniil Dubov in disbelief when he saw what Black played. White is completely winning. Former world champion Vishy Anand had this to say: "…and Nepo's fallen apart! Pure nerves!"

Ding Liren looked at Nepomniachtchi, a bit puzzled after this move. "Ding was absolutely shocked by 34...f5 before capturing on e6," Anand noted.

35.Rxe6 White not only picked up another pawn but also got a crushing attack. 

The position is completely lost for Black. It was obvious that Nepomniachtchi was extremely unhappy as he disappointedly looked away from the board.

A few moves down the road, he resigned.

A shocking twist: Nepomniachtchi completely threw away not just a dominating position but also a crucial point, leaving the match open n the most critical, final phase.

Ding is counting his blessings now and has been given a huge boost by Nepomniachtchi. On the other hand, Nepomniachtchi is the one who will need to show he can regain his nerves and composure and fight back. In this match – it seems – anything is possible.

In the post-game interview, Ding Liren was asked about Fabiano Caruana's comment that the moves played in haste showed it's "no longer about chess" but "the nerves". Ding agreed that the quality of the moves played was "very low", but he said that his nerves were fine. "The game itself is quite bad," he added.

In his response, Ian Nepomniachtchi said it's "not the best thing to lose a supposedly winning position"… "It was a big, big mess"… "It happens," Nepomniachtchi said and shrugged.

Asked about when things started to go wrong for him, Nepomniachtchi referred to his choice to capture on c4 as "unnecessary."

Text: Milan Dinic

Photo: Steve Bonhage, Anna Shtourman and David Llada

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About the match

The 2023 FIDE World Chess Championship match between Grandmasters Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi takes place from 7th April to 1st May 2023 in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The match consists of 14 games, followed by a rapid/blitz tiebreak in case of a tie.

The time control for the standard games is 120 minutes for the first 40 moves, followed by 60 minutes for the next 20 moves, and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game, with an increment of 30 seconds per move starting from move 61.

The first player to reach 7,5 points in the 14 games will win the match. If it’s a tie, the two go to tiebreaks.

The prize fund for the match is two million euros, with the reward being split 60:40 between the winner and the runner-up.