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5 Most Memorable Games Between Ian Nepomniachtchi, Ding Liren
Nepomniachtchi and Ding shake hands in Madrid in 2022. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

5 Most Memorable Games Between Ian Nepomniachtchi, Ding Liren

Marignon
| 108 | Chess Players

With the 2023 FIDE World Championship coming up soon, what better time to look at some of the two challengers' best games against each other?  

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi has a small lifetime score advantage over GM Ding Liren in all time controls: 3 to 2 with 9 draws in classic games, 4 to 2 in rapid, and 4 to 1 with 2 draws in blitz over the board, as well as 26.5 to 19.5 in online events.

Lifetime scores between challengers can be deceptive: two years ago, Nepomniachtchi had a positive balance of past classic games vs. GM Magnus Carlsen, but everyone knows what happened

The 2023 opponents are matched more evenly, so their character and mentality may have a greater impact on the outcome than anything else. Let's see how their personalities are revealed in the decisive games between the challengers.

Ding Nepomniachtchi Candidates 2022
Nepomniachtchi is not impressed by Ding's move. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Might And Magic In Sochi

Ding and Nepomniachtchi played their first games at the annual Russia-China friendly match in 2009. Before the match, Nepomniachtchi (then 19) ranked 28th in Russia with a 2632 rating, while Ding (even younger at 16) ranked 14th in China with a 2530 rating. Both made their debuts on the national adult teams as promising young players, but Nepomniachtchi was much more experienced.   

Nepomniachtchi was unhappy with his chess in the first half of the tournament (five draws in five classic games) and relaxed by playing "Heroes of Might and Magic" with GM Evgeny Tomashevsky. Nepo redeemed himself in rapid (8/10) and blitz (6.5/10), winning all four games vs. Ding, who scored below 50 percent in all controls. 

Sochi, 2009. Nepomniachtchi (on the sofa) seems exhausted by "Heroes of Might and Magic," but Tomashevsky can talk about chess. Photo by A. Shustaev/RCF.

Nepomniachtchi Goes Big In China 

Neither Ding nor Nepomniachtchi was among the usual invitees of prestigious tournaments, so their next decisive game was played seven years later at the Super Grandmaster Tournament in Danzhou in the Hainan province of China.

Nepomniachtchi was on fire: he won five and lost two out of nine games and secured the trophy, while Ding, whose rating already was more than 50 points higher (2778 vs 2725), scored 50 percent and finished in fourth place.

Nepomniachtchi with his trophy. Photo: Chinese Chess Association, cca.cmsa.cn.

Ding's First Victories 

Ding won his first game vs. Nepomniachtchi in 2019—10 years after their first match. This victory happened at the first-ever super tournament on African soil—the Côte d’Ivoire Rapid & Blitz in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Nepomniachtchi played in the rapid tournament far below expectations, and Ding masterfully exploited his exposed king:

Ian Nepomniachtchi and his second Vladimir Potkin. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com
Ian Nepomniachtchi and his second, Vladimir Potkin. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Nepomniachtchi retaliated by winning both blitz games, but the Chinese GM climbed higher in the overall standings: 18.5/36 vs. 15.5/36 points. The ruling champion Carlsen dwarfed all competitors with a record 26.5/36 score. 

Ding dealt another blow at Grand Chess Tour Croatia, where Nepomniachtchi started with 4/5 and was leading one point ahead of Carlsen after five rounds. All eyes were on him, but in round six he lost to Ding, finishing with a horrible 1.5/6 score. Ultimately, Nepomniachtchi and Ding both scored 50 percent, while Carlsen finished in first place with 8/11. 

Ding and Nepomniachtchi shake hands in Abidjan. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Quarantined Candidates

Ding defeated Carlsen in the tiebreak of the 2019 Sinquefield Cup and was regarded by many as a clear favorite of the 2020 Candidates Tournament. He arrived in Russia two weeks early but... spent that time locked in COVID-19 quarantine.

Ding said two years later: "Of course, in the first half of the tournament, I played very badly due to a long quarantine, and I did not prepare too well."

He started with two losses, then defeated Fabiano Caruana, but lost again to Nepomniachtchi in round six. What happened in that game? Let's listen to GothamChess:  

Ding took his revenge in the same event. However, COVID-19 was spreading over the globe by the next year, and the 2020 Candidates tournament was postponed.

Online Overdose

In the fall of 2019, Nepomniachtchi defeated Ding by a 19-12 score in a Speed Chess Championship quarterfinal match, winning both the five- and three-minute segments by a big margin, which made an impact on their lifetime online scores. However, Ding has played more successfully in recent Speed Chess events. For example, he lost in a close semifinal match vs. GM Hikaru Nakamura in 2021 and reached a quarterfinal in 2022, while Nepomniachtchi left the competition at earlier stages.

Ding also regularly outplayed Nepomniachtchi in online tournaments during the lockdown. Their clash at the FIDE Chess.com Online Nations Cup stands out as a huge success for the winning Chinese team and for Ding, who defeated his Russian opponent with a solid opening preparation. 

This game, where Nepomniachtchi overpressed with Black and quickly got a nearly lost position, looks like a preview of the last round of the Candidates tournament that was resumed in 2021. Nepomniachtchi crashed in flames against Ding's rock-solid defense, but he did not mind losing because he won that tournament with a round to spare. 

The Miraculous Challenger

After the Candidates 2021, Ding stopped playing over the board for another year. The Chinese government maintained a zero-tolerance stance on COVID, international travel was interrupted, and Chinese players skipped one tournament after another. 

By chance, Ding jumped on the departing Candidates 2022 train, but he hardly had enough time to prepare. Nepomniachtchi was waiting for him for the starting round.

Ding was shocked by another catastrophic start... Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Nepomniachtchi dominated his opponents in Madrid more decisively than in Yekaterinburg. In round eight, he made a quick draw with white pieces vs. Ding and secured his leadership. Ding finally recovered from his difficult start, won three games in a row, and ultimately finished in second place. 

...but nevertheless, he became a challenger. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Concerning the upcoming FIDE World Championship 2023, it is important for Ding to hold on at the beginning of the match and for Nepomniachtchi to not overpress. Two years ago, the tension rose with each drawn game, and finally, the nerves broke. However, the new match may be more balanced, with ups and downs, and close combat until the very end.

Which games between Nepomniachtchi and Ding did you like the most? Who are you rooting for in the 2023 FIDE World Championship? Let us know in the comments below!

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