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Nepomniachtchi Stabilizes With Draw, Ding To Play White In Final Classical Game
A tense draw left the players on 6.5 points with one game remaining. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Nepomniachtchi Stabilizes With Draw, Ding To Play White In Final Classical Game

JackRodgers
| 84 | Chess Event Coverage

Following a devastating 12th-game loss, GM Ian Nepomniachtchi was able to stabilize and achieve a 38-move draw against GM Ding Liren in the 13th game of the 2023 FIDE World Championship on Thursday. Despite Nepomniachtchi playing with White, Caruana dubbed it "a good result for Ian," as the players moved to 6.5 points apiece with one classical game remaining. 

Should the players draw in the final classical game, rapid tiebreaks will await them.

After a rest day, the 14th classical game will take place on Saturday, April 29, at 15:00 Astana time (2 a.m. PT/11:00 CEST).

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The live broadcast was hosted by GMs Fabiano Caruana, Robert Hess, and IM Tania Sachdev.

Since throwing away an immense advantage in the seventh game, much of the talk has revolved around Ding battling his own demons. Many questioned his resilience and some even claimed that a comeback would be too difficult. However, after a turn of fortune in game 12, the tune changed. 

Riding a wave of momentum, Ding showed up to game 13 with a renewed sense of energy, stoic in stature and devoid of any obvious emotion. In complete contrast, Nepomniachtchi appeared sporting a white shirt, having ditched the coral color which he had worn for six games straight while leading. The shirt swap was the most obvious sign that the pressure was back on him.

The coral shirt is no more. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The ceremonial first move of the game was played by the Akim (mayor) of Astana, Zhenis Kassymbek, and he was correct in his prediction that 1.e4 would be Nepomniachtchi's choice. After six moves, the Ruy Lopez Opening: Morphy Defense, Closed, Martinez Variation had developed on the board which didn't come as a surprise to Ding, who had struggled to make inroads against the same variation in game 11.

The challengers approve of Kassynbek's ceremonial move. Photo: Maria Emelianova.

Nepomniachtchi's 10.Be3 was the first diversion from common theory and Ding's response, 10...Na5 was played in just under two minutes, indicating preparedness on both sides. The atmosphere in the playing hall was nothing short of intense and while the emotional state of Nepomniachtchi was firmly under the microscope, he would later state: "Yesterday something went wrong, I felt it. Today that feeling went down."

The first moment of major tension came soon after when Nepomniachtchi opted for 14.d4, encouraging an asymmetrical pawn structure and a central battle. Despite the imbalance, the pair coasted through the early middlegame at a healthy pace. However, White's moves were soon brought into question by Caruana as the evaluation began to shift in Ding's favor.

Intensity. Any emotion other than determination was hidden from Nepomniachtchi's face. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Expressing that Nepomniachtchi had played the most "obvious" moves, Caruana suggested that the game might be starting to slip away from the world number-two. The 2018 world championship challenger recalled that "yesterday he [Nepomniachtchi] started to make some superficial decisions that weren't based on calculation," and by move 18, declared that something similar may be happening in game 13.

Sensing blood in the water, Ding chose the fascinating 21...Re5!?, which later became a talking point in the press conference. The move left commentators Caruana, Hess, and Sachdev, as well as many of the world's top players, perplexed as to what the idea of the move was. GM Irina Krush would later have the opportunity to ask Ding about the purpose of the move, to which he simplified his idea, claiming it was to "defend the knight on e5." 

Little came of the creative 21...Re5!? though after Ding followed up with the puzzling 23...Qe7?, which Caruana outlined as "visually shocking" and "unnatural." The evaluation bar tended to agree with the assessment and Nepomniachtchi sprung back into action, centralizing his queen and minor pieces, prompting Ding to sacrifice the exchange for a bishop and pawn. A queen trade followed, but the endgame was far from simple.

While we may have seen a "very different Ian" (Sachdev) in the penultimate game, he was able to navigate the middle and endgame with clinical precision, once again demonstrating his resilient nature.

The resulting endgame did favor Nepomniachtchi and when his d-rook was able to infiltrate the seventh rank, and the first signs of a win for White started to creep in. At the press conference, he later highlighted his intentions in the endgame: "I thought it was healthy to trade rooks, but I don't know. I didn't see anything."


Desperation in defense. Ding found all the right moves to hold on to the endgame. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The rook trade was indeed forced moments later, but as they both expressed after the game, little opportunity to play for a win without serious risk was possible after this. Stifled by powerful c- and e-pawns and supported by Ding's knight, White's rook was unable to find a way into Black's position and repetition soon followed.

GM Rafael Leitao's game 13 annotations have been included below.

A nervous game in which both players had some chances, but Ding probably could have pushed harder from the position he got in the opening. The tension grows and now we have a rest day before the final classical game. Will Ding play aggressively to fight for a win with White or is it better not to risk it and continue the battle in the tiebreaks? We'll know soon enough.

Ding revealed in the press conference that he had considered playing for a win with 36...Ke6, which certainly would have made for interesting viewing. His reason for not going down this path, in his own words, was that he didn't want to play a "dark ocean kind of position." Carrying psychological momentum also carries weight, and with a rest day and the white pieces to follow, his greatest chance may come in the final game...

Will Ding become China's first chess world champion? Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Momentum has been a key factor in many of the most memorable world chess championship matches, and the ebb and flow of this match has been reminiscent of many of the epics including GM Bobby Fischer and GM Boris Spassky's 1972 match, as well as five world championship matches between GMs Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov spanning from 1984-1990.

Whether or not momentum ends up deciding the championship, it has and will continue to add excitement to what has been a thrilling match. With tiebreaks being "very, very likely" according to Caruana, rapid chess may well decide the 2023 FIDE World Championship and preparation must begin in case this becomes a reality. The words of former world champion Kasparov could never be more relevant: "The ability to adapt is critical to success."

Be sure to tune in on Saturday for the 14th game, which may decide the 17th world champion!

You can watch video recaps of the FIDE World Championship in our playlist below (click here).

Match Score

Fed Name Rtg 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Score
Ding Liren 2788 ½ 0 ½ 1 0 1 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ . 6.5
Ian Nepomniachtchi 2795 ½ 1 ½ 0 1 0 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ . 6.5

The 2023 FIDE World Championship is the most important over-the-board classical event of the year and decides who will be the next world champion. Nepomniachtchi and Ding play a match to decide who takes over Carlsen's throne after the current world champion abdicated his title. The match has a €2 million prize fund and is played over 14 classical games; the first player to gain 7.5 points wins.


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