Nepomniachtchi and Ding go head-to-head in Astana to succeed Magnus Carlsen

The Russian player, who is ranked No. 2, faces his Chinese rival, who is No. 3, in Kazakhstan for the world title after the Norwegian elected not to defend his title

Ding, in the foreground, next to Nepomniachtchi, in Kazakhstan.
Ding, in the foreground, next to Nepomniachtchi, in Kazakhstan.ANNA SHTOURMAN (FIDE)

World number two Ian Nepomniachtchi, recognizes his mistake in the previous World Championship in Dubai in 2021, where he did not remain faithful to his own style against Magnus Carlsen, who has elected not to defend his classical chess world title this year. China’s Ding Liren, ranked third, was the opponent Carlsen feared the most in 2019 and he will take on Nepomniachtchi instead at this year’s world championship. The contest, with $2.2 million in prize money at stake, will last for 14 games beginning on April 9 in Astana, Kazakhstan, where EL PAÍS spoke to both finalists.

Conversing with Ding requires the patience that Buddhism advocates. He wants to answer as best he can, but his extraordinary shyness is coupled with difficulty expressing himself in English, leading to long silences. But when he does speak, he does so openly: “I have to go back to being the 2019 me. Then the pandemic came and, at the same time, I had a crisis with my girlfriend and we ended up breaking up. Chess now fills my life, but I also have a good friend. She and my team of analysts pull me out of emotional slumps very well,” is the synopsis of a 20-minute conversation.

For someone so timid, Ding is not circumventive in answering a difficult question: in what way does he think he holds an advantage over his opponent? “Although Ian has prepared longer than me, I think I understand chess more deeply than he does, and that’s why I got to be higher than him on the world list. I started playing when I was four years old and my career can be divided into three phases: until the beginning of 2020, from then to last year, and the third, which starts now.”

Ding cites the Spaniard Paco Vallejo among the four players who have influenced him the most, together with Carlsen, Garry Kasparov and the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov. He also implies that he isn’t bothered about the level of importance the Chinese government placed on the contest, because for him it is of huge significance: “If I win, I will be the first Chinese world champion and I will be among the greats with the 16 previous champions.”

Nepomniachtchi is far more loquacious and extremely self-critical, even beyond chess: “I was an unfriendly and not very respectable young man. I am very intuitive, but very lazy; I didn’t start training seriously until I was 26 or 27, but the results show that I didn’t make that decision before it was too late.” The Russian does not believe he is superior to Ding “in any way,” but he underlines that it is not enough to simply be a good player: “You also have to play well at specific times and be the one who makes the fewest mistakes. And I have come here to try to make sure that it is me.”

There is one aspect in which Ding and Nepomniachtchi are very similar, which comes up when the world number two is asked which version we are going to witness in Astana: the very creative and risk-loving Nepomniachtchi of pre-2020, or the conservative one who was beaten by Carlsen in Dubai 2021: “I want to go back to being myself. In Dubai I made a mistake by adapting to Magnus’ style, trying to bore him. The decisive thing was not that I lost the sixth game, but that I had serious problems sleeping from the outset. Mentally, I felt empty. But I learned a lot and I will try not to repeat the same mistakes. For example, I am not approaching this match as a matter of life and death. Chess is a game, and it’s important to remember that because if you approach it as a game, it is a big advantage.”

Nepomniachtchi, who won the Candidates Tournament in Madrid last July, responds quickly and firmly when asked about an apparent contradiction: he signed a manifesto against the invasion of Ukraine a few days after it was launched and he plays under the flag of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), but it is the Russian flag that appears next to his name on the official world list. “I signed that manifesto with my heart. That war is horrific, a tragic catastrophe. I understand to a certain extent the sanctions against Russian athletes, although I have serious doubts whether they will help to improve the situation. If I am forced to play under the FIDE flag, as happened when Russia was punished for the massive doping scandal, I will do it. But I do not identify the Russian flag with war, which horrifies me, but with my country, which I love.”

The day after his triumph in Madrid, Nepomniachtchi took issue in public with the author of this article when quizzed about his main weakness — his serious difficulty in recovering from a defeat — and whether he had worked with a psychologist specializing in elite competition. After losing the sixth game to Carlsen in Dubai, he collapsed completely. In Madrid, both he and his analysts gave the impression that losing even one game out of 14 (he triumphed undefeated) would constitute a catastrophe. Later, during an informal conversation after the closing ceremony, he admitted that in the mental sport par excellence it should be considered the norm to work with an expert psychologist, as all of the biggest stars of the Olympic disciplines do.

Now, he admits that he is considering it: “I haven’t done so yet because a lot of people think that if you go to a psychologist, you are not capable of learning from your mistakes. But I am. However, it is not an easy subject, because every player and every situation is different.”

On May 1, Carlsen will cease to be the world champion. On Friday, he lost his final game as occupant of the throne against American Hikaru Nakamura in an internet rapid tournament due to a slip of his computer mouse, provoking a horrendous move by his queen. Also on May 1, the Russian Chess Federation will move from the European Chess Union to the Asian Chess Federation. It is a move designed to circumvent sanctions, but it is not yet clear if it will succeed. Chess, in vogue across the world due to confinement of the pandemic and the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, is nonetheless in turmoil. But no one doubts that Ding and Nepomniachtchi are talented enough to thrill millions of fans over the course of the contest, even if one is shy and the other is lazy.

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