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Nepomniachtchi Inches Closer To World Championship Title After 82-Move Draw
After the draw, Nepomniachtchi is just two and a half points away from claiming the title of world champion. Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Nepomniachtchi Inches Closer To World Championship Title After 82-Move Draw

JackRodgers
| 103 | Chess Event Coverage

A draw in the ninth round of the 2023 FIDE World Championship was welcomed by both challengers on Friday, who both had incentives to take half a point from the round. GM Ian Nepomniachtchi moved to two and a half points of the world championship crown after adequately dealing with GM Ding Liren's Ruy Lopez Opening: Berlin Defense. 

After several tumultuous days, Ding was happy to hold with black in a long-winded knight and pawn endgame down a pawn, squashing any concerns about his emotional state and keeping himself within striking distance of Nepomniachtchi with the scores poised at 4-5.

The world championships will continue on Sunday, April 23, at 15:00 Astana time (2 a.m. PT/11:00 CEST) after a rest day.

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

Amid heartbreaking collapses and rumors of leaks, all eyes were on Ding and how he and his team would respond to the growing pressure on him as the championship reaches the pointy end.

Arriving at the playing hall, neither player looked particularly nervous; however, Nepomniachtchi was spotted by Chess.com's senior reporter FM Mike Klein sporting the same color shirt for the third round in a row. Despite claiming he isn't "superstitious," it is interesting that he has chosen the same shirt color for each round since the match tilted in his favor.

Caruana, who joined the Chess.com commentary team in round nine, predicted that the "Berlin (Defense) would be a good (opening) choice for Ding" and suggested that the world number-three needed to procure a position where he could dull attacking attempts by his opponent and focus on his calculation abilities.

Caruana liked Ding's choice to play the Berlin. Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

For 11 moves, the pair followed a game between GMs Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura from the 2022 Chess.com Global Championship semifinal that included the topical 10.Nb8!?, which has yielded positive results for Black at the master level. Boasting a 33-percent win rate, 44-percent draw rate, and 22-percent loss rate over nine games, it's understandable why Ding found this line interesting.

Characterized by its symmetrical pawn structure, many pundits were predicting a draw early, but former world champion GM Viswanathan Anand was quick to comment that "the positions are quiet, but by no means sterile," later tweeting: "Ding's preparation looks very effective indeed."

The first signs of cracks appeared on move 17 when Ding played the slightly inaccurate 17. Rb8? instead of the safer 17.Bf8, which included a dynamic pawn sacrifice that the commentators agreed should have been considered. Caruana highlighted that Black's 17th move was "not a very practical approach," further stating: "He (Ding) is giving Ian easy moves and himself, difficult decisions to make,"

Although the consequences were subtle, Nepomniachtchi was able to find the right continuation, placing his knight on h5 and opening up space for his queen to move into a more aggressive position, meaning that White was suddenly able to build an attack on the kingside.

Kingside attacks by Nepomniachtchi have spelled trouble time and time again for Ding in Astana. Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Within several moves, it seemed as though Ding was starting to get into trouble and during the press conference, Nepomniachtchi would admit that after 17.Rb8? and 18.Nh4, "There is a very nice initiative for White." Generally thriving in such positions, the world number-two didn't need to be asked twice and shuffled more pieces toward the kingside, utilizing pins and various other tactics to ensure their safe passage.

Despite playing with the utmost precision in the middlegame, White's intensity was matched by Ding, and the players eventually liquidated into a rook, knight, and three pawns versus rook, knight, and two pawns ending in favor of Nepomniachtchi. Having reached the first time control right at the beginning of the endgame, Nepomniachtchi then tried his hand at causing problems in what both players determined to be a drawn, albeit difficult ending.

Ding expressed his dismay as the reality of his situation dawned on him, stating: "I thought it was an easy draw, but then I realized it was not so simple." Nepomniachtchi shared this sentiment and after the draw was exacted, he would assert: "I should have posed more problems in the endgame, but somehow it was not so simple to move my pawns forward."

Understanding the importance of a hold in round nine, Ding was visibly nervous at points throughout the endgame. Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

The endgame in question reached a climax on move 55 when Ding was forced to take imminent action after Nepomniachtchi drummed up one last chance with an earlier pawn sacrifice. Choosing between two moves, 55.Ke7 and 55.h3, Ding chose the latter, claiming that he thought "h3 was the only move to save the game." The pawn sacrifice, which was indeed one of the two best moves in the position, was the moment when the players realized that a draw would most likely be reached.

Nepomniachtchi rightfully played on, heeding the classic mantra, "A pawn is a pawn," and the game was eventually drawn in 82 moves, the most of the championship so far. While it paled in comparison to the gargantuan, record-breaking, 136-move epic from the GM Magnus Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi match of 2021, the drawn-out pressing seemed like attempts to tire each other out.

A draw was agreed to on the 82nd move of the game. Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

GM Rafael Leitao's analysis of the round-nine clash has been included below.

During the press conference, Ding was asked to rate, on a scale from one to 10, his level of confidence when it came to winning the overall championship match. With a wry smile, the ever-humble Chinese GM responded with "five."

While a one-point deficit seemed like a nearly insurmountable lead in previous world championships featuring Carlsen, the high number of decisive games (55 percent so far) and joint proclivity for chaotic gameplay means that either player still has real chances of winning the 2023 FIDE World Championship.

Heading into a rest day, Ding will look to repeat his round four and six heroics with the white pieces when play resumes in round 10, and it is worth noting that Nepomniachtchi has struggled with the black pieces so far against Ding's unpredictable repertoire.

The leader meanwhile, clarified his strategy moving forward, announcing "I will do my best and see what happens." For the 2021 championship runner-up, his shot at redemption is potentially just three games away. As for Ding, the most important game of the match now awaits him in game 10, and we should expect to see a blockbuster clash at the St. Regis Astana Hotel on Sunday.  

To paraphrase the first official chess world champion Wilhelm Steinitz, "Chess is not for the faint-hearted."

One of these players will be crowned the new world champion in a week. Photo: Mike Klein.

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

Match Score

Fed Name Rtg 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 Score
Ding Liren 2788 ½ 0 ½ 1 0 1 0 ½ ½ . . . . . 4
Ian Nepomniachtchi 2795 ½ 1 ½ 0 1 0 1 ½ ½ . . . . . 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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