Ding Liren and and Ian Nepomniachtchi at the end of game 12

Ding Liren dramatically levelled the scores at 6-6 with two games to go in the €2mn world championship match in Astana, Kazakhstan, when the Chinese grandmaster, 30, recovered from a lost position in Wednesday’s error-strewn 12th game against Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, 32. Earlier, the 10th and 11th games were drawn on Sunday and Monday after relatively calm play. 

The final outcome now depends on Thursday’s 13th and Saturday’s 14th and final game. If the score is then 7-7, they go to rapid and blitz tie-break games, the chess equivalent of a penalty shoot-out, on Sunday. Play begins at 10am BST, and the official website with grandmaster commentary is worldchampionship.fide.com. Play can also be watched on the major chess sites chess.comchess24.com and chessgames.com.

Wednesday’s outcome looked very different when Ding followed up an insipid queen’s pawn opening with a bishop for knight exchange which opened the g file for the Russian rooks. Nepomniachtchi seized the initiative and was a pawn up with the more active position, but then made misjudgments followed by a massive blunder at move 34, which not only lost a pawn but opened up his defences to an invasion by Ding’s pieces. He used up all but two minutes of his remaining time vainly seeking an escape, and resigned on move 38 material down with a mating attack looming.

Earlier in the match, White won four games in succession, which should have been five when Ding missed clear chances in game eight, where 26 Rd3! and 32 Qxd8! were winning.  

Magnus Carlsen, Norway’s world No1, who abdicated his crown after a 10-year reign, had long stretches of draws in most of his title defences, and even in 2021, when he defeated Nepomniachtchi 7.5-3.5, five games were halved before the Russian collapsed following his marathon 136-move loss on game six.

There was a clear gap between Carlsen and his rivals, but it was not fully translated into overwhelming match results. Instead, his clearer superiority on tiebreaks at faster time rates became a kind of goal difference, a potential threat which tempted opponents to overreach in the classical section.

The combative approach by both players in Astana, a clear contrast to Carlsen’s matches, has split chess fans, with some delighted by the increased fighting spirit but others displeased by the higher percentage of errors. 

Will Carlsen be tempted into a comeback against whoever wins in Astana? It seems very unlikely. The 32-year-old  played only 40 classical games in 2022, the smallest number of his career apart from the pandemic-affected 2020. His current schedule for 2023 also plans for only around 40, although it is possible that he will add the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, from which he withdrew in controversial circumstances last year following his loss to Hans Niemann, where the fallout included a still unresolved lawsuit.

Instead, Carlsen is giving priority to the online Champions Tour of rapid and blitz games, and to his growing interest in poker. He has always said that he plans to retire from chess by his forties, so 2023 could be viewed as the early stages of a winding down.

This week’s final two games in Astana will be a mental and emotional test for the  players.  Ding has momentum on his side, but both have shown vulnerability to stress and the outcome remains uncertain.

Puzzle 2517

White mates in three moves, against any defence (by Johann Berger, 1887). The black king is exposed to White’s queen and rook on an open board, but White’s first move is a surprise.

Click here for solution

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