Pravin Thipsay writes: We’re witnessing the most spirited World Championships since early 19th century

One can be mistaken for thinking that the World Chess Championship games being played between Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi are boring. We can say that because we now have the smartest engines to predict the best moves.

At the board, inside that dome at St Regis in Astana, Kazakhstan, they don’t have access to anything. Even before the middlegame, they are reaching scenarios that haven’t been played before and hence, they have to work out the best possible move by themselves, with the clock ticking. (You can also read Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay’s insightful analysis for Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7.) 

By all means, we’re witnessing the most spirited World Championships since the early 19th century. They’re playing chess like it was played during the game’s Golden Era from 1830-1860.

Game 8 just proved how brilliant a match it’s turning out to be. Even though it ended in a draw, with Ding not making the most of white pieces, the game showed how both players are exhibiting fearlessness never seen before.
Ian Nepomniachtchi is leading the 14-game match 4.5-3.5, but the Chinese is not going to back down with six games to go.

I’ll go a step ahead and say that Ding is playing as though this is a street fight. This is a sort of courageous play that one doesn’t see in a World Championships.

Normally, when you play very strategically, it slows the game down. The game doesn’t open up much and you can easily predict the moves. What we’re seeing here, however, is just an all-out attack. And when you attack, it becomes a sharper game, with strategy not making much sense. The players are going straight for the opponent’s king.

Ding will regret not making the most of his white pieces though. After all, he missed a great opportunity when he let Nepo escape from an extremely difficult and hopeless position.

Ding started with his favorite Queen Pawn opening and Nepo replied with the Nimzo Indian Defence, one of the most solid openings. However, Ding took Nepo out of the known strategic paths with his ninth move Ra2, a move never played before.

Ding followed this up with an aggressive piece sacrifice on move 12, making it clear that he was going to keep his King in the centre. Nepo took the sacrifice and returned it immediately to safeguard his King and a roughly equal but extremely sharp position was reached after move 21.

Russian escapes

Nepo’s dubious decision to exchange his Bishop with Ding’s Knight, followed by a tactically inaccurate move, suddenly put Ding in a winning position. However, on move 26, Ding missed the opportunity of bringing his Queen Rook into an attack against Nepo’s King, and this gave the Russian some time to breathe.

Ding wasn’t done though. He continued with great energy and dominated the board again. On move 31, Nepo took the big gamble of sacrificing a Rook in pursuit of a ‘Perpetual Check’ which enables a player to draw the game by giving endless checks. In time trouble, Ding refrained from capturing the Rook, which turned out to be the biggest incorrect decision of the day.

Perhaps the fact that Ding lost Game 7 on time trouble was weighing him down. He wouldn’t want to lose on time again and perhaps that was what made him refrain from capturing the Rook.

After this slip by Ding, Nepo succeeded in eliminating an important White Pawn on ‘g5’, thereby creating a real chance to draw the game. Though Ding still maintained some advantage, he made a decisive mistake on move 37, thereby giving Nepo a chance to force a draw with resourceful play involving a Knight sacrifice.

It was a very close miss for Ding who had at least two opportunities to earn a full point. Now, leading by a full point, Nepo seems to be well placed to bag the crown. Ding plays with black pieces in the ninth round on Friday and unless he can win the game, I don’t think he has a chance of winning the world crown.

While Ding’s attacking mindset is lauded, we also need to appreciate Nepo’s shrewdness. He saw that Ding was in a winning position and took a gamble by sacrificing his rook. Had Ding accepted it, it would’ve been over for Nepo but the Russian knew that it was perhaps his only chance to fight for a draw.

Even in Game 7, Ding was in a winning position but Nepo was able to win because of his shrewd decision-making.

That’s something that Ding needs. He puts himself in very sharp but risky positions, but isn’t able to follow through with his plan. Taking risky decisions with less time on the clock isn’t helping him either.

(Pravin Thipsay is an Indian Grandmaster and a recipient of the Arjuna Award. He spoke to Anil Dias)

Moves (Game 8): 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 0–0 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 d6 7.Ne2 c5 8.Ng3 Nc6 9.Ra2!? b6 10.e4 Ba6 11.Bg5 h6 12.h4 hxg5 13.hxg5 g6 14.gxf6 Qxf6 15.e5 dxe5 16.d5 Ne7 17.d6 Nf5 18.Ne4 Qd8 19.Qd3 Kg7 20.g4 Bb7 21.Rh3 Nh4 22.g5 Bxe4?? 23.Qxe4 Nf5 24.Rd2! Rh8 25.Rxh8 Qxh8 26.d7? Rd8 27.Qxe5+ Kh7 28.Qh2+ Kg7 29.Qe5+ Kh7 30.Qh2+ Kg7 31.Qc7 Qh4?? 32.Kd1?? Qxg5 33.Kc2 Qe7 34.Bg2 e5 35.Be4 Nh6 36.Qxa7 Ng4 37.Bf3? Nxf2! 38.Rxf2 e4 39.Re2 f5 40.Qxb6 Rxd7 41.Qb8 Qd6 42.Qxd6 Rxd6 43.Bxe4 fxe4 44.Rxe4 Kf6 45.Re8 Game drawn by mutual agreement. ½–½


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