Updated: May 6
While Magnus the chess G.O.A.T. sat aside, two imperfect players from two pariah nations stole the world’s heart with a match for the ages.
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(Dear Readers: You don’t need to know a damn thing about chess to appreciate this story... however, you might want to re-watch the 2022 Kentucky Derby and take note of Rich Strike's epic bolt from the rear to take the run for the roses... and unlikely path to victory that uncannily mirrors that of the new World Chess Champion. )
Let’s start this tale in 2022– the machine-like and universally-feared World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen has stunned the world by abruptly abdicating his throne...
...or, to briefly put it in formal and pedantic chess-ese, Grandmaster (GM) Sven Magnus Øen Carlsen of Norway is the reigning Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) World Chess Champion– a title he has held since 2013 and has successfully defended four times. In his most recent title defense he knocked off his challenger by the unusually dominant score of 7.5 to 3.5. And then, at the age of 31, GM Carlsen abruptly announced that he would NOT be defending his title in the next FIDE championship cycle.
Knowledgeable insiders suggest that Carlsen's surprising abdication came not out of some forbidden love (like King Edward VIII’s in 1936) but rather from a combination of ennui and the dreary prospect of endless preparation and study for a match he would likely win.
And so the 2022 Candidates Tournament– ostensibly set up to determine Carlsen’s next challenger– would instead produce from the 8 entrants a first- and second-place finisher who would then face off for the title in the 2023 World Championship Match. However, one of the eight candidates– Russian GM Sergey Karjakin– was disqualified from competing for violating FIDE’s code of ethics by publicly (and, truth be told, rather enthusiastically) supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So who would be Karjakin’s replacement in the tournament?
The open slot in the 2022 Candidates Tournament fell to Grandmaster Ding Liren of China... with assistance from Beijing in furiously arranging a series of prior tournaments that would boost Liren's record and rating in short order to the requisite tournament standards. (Yes, he got some much-needed help from the CCP... but yes, he also had to seize the opportunity all by himself with legitimate victories over strong opponents.)
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Amazingly, perhaps, chess had been outlawed in China during the Cultural Revolution (1965-76.) It was denounced– along with the entire Euro-centric classical music canon– as too closely associated with decadent western capitalism for proper Chinese sensibilities. But totalitarian dictatorships, even ones ruling a population in the billions, can turn on a dime when they want to. After Mao’s death, chess was suddenly emphasized in Chinese schools. If China– a nation never known for producing great athletes or giants– could spring upon the world an NBA Hall of Fame superstar (7’6” Yao Ming) then surely it could come up with a few chess geniuses, right?
Chess for the young masses in Post-Mao China
True child prodigies exist, really, in just three fields– music, mathematics, and chess. (By "true prodigies" I mean four-year-olds who compose symphonies, mentally solve multivariable calculus problems, or simultaneously beat roomfuls of adult chess players... blindfolded.) That a freaking board game joins the other two suggests that chess fundamentally comports to some innate human neurological hard-wiring… and that therefore it only remained for China to sift through their vast population for children thus gifted and then nurture them to world-class excellence. And why China’s sudden interest in chess? Most likely for several reasons– it identifies childhood intelligence that often (but famously not always) translates to proficiency in STEM academics, and it is also a cost-effective way for a developing nation to successfully compete on the world stage and thereby gain credibility and prestige… much more quickly and cheaply than, say, developing a soccer infrastructure sufficient to produce a World Cup champion.
Results came quickly for China. In 1991, GM Xie Jun became the Women’s World Chess Champion. 32 years later, Chinese Grandmaster Ding Liren– after his dramatic and hard-fought #2 finish in the Candidates Tournament– sat with the white pieces for Game One of the 2023 World Chess Championship Match in Astana, Kazakhstan. His opponent was the Candidates Tournament winner, Russian GM Ian “Nepo” Nepomniachtchi... he who had served as Magnus Carlsen’s javelin-catcher in that previous Championship Match. (Nepo had held Carlsen to 5 straight draws before falling in their epic Game Six after a WCC-record 136 moves, a nearly 8-hour physically draining mental brawl that seemingly crushed Nepo’s will to fight or even think straight for the match’s remainder.)
It is well worth noting that the Russian GM Nepomniachtchi– in stark contrast to his disqualified countryman GM Karjakin– not only publicly denounced his nation’s incursion into Ukraine but also agreed to play the Championship Match under a neutral flag rather than the colors of Russia. (I really hope he has a loyal food taster.)
I am on record as having cynically expected this 14-game match to be a boring draw-fest based more on extensive computer analysis and cautious risk aversion rather than over-the-board creativity. Sometimes I absolutely love being 100 freaking percent wrong… this was the most exciting match in most everyone’s memory, partly because it had it all– daring risks, nerve-racking time trouble, wildly speculative attacks, and even a desperate yet successful bluff by Nepomniachtchi in Game 8 to slyly salvage a draw from a dead-lost position. (Oh, those wily Ruskies!) And this match will also be notable for what it didn't have– the aforementioned Sven Magnus Øen Carlsen playing machine-like chess against a brilliant but fallible challenger toward an inevitable outcome.
Indeed, as rarely seen before in the history of FIDE World Championship contests, this match featured TWO eminently fallible human beings... and the resulting chess was fantastic to follow.
I’ll skip the detailed game-by-game, move-by-move analysis; for those interested, I highly recommend agadmator’s YouTube Channel– the home of Croatian chess master Antonio Radić, one of the most popular chess-splainers in all of cyberspace. He has a stand-alone episode for every game, all very engaging and entertaining. For our purposes here we’ll fast-forward to the finish of the match's final game.
The first 14 games were played under classical time controls– 2 hours per player for the first 40 moves, then suitable allotments for the ensuing blocks of moves, if necessary. To the surprise of few, the score was tied 7-7 after 14 games. (How they got to 7-7 is, as previously referenced, a whole ‘nother story.) The tie score meant that a tiebreaker was necessary– they would play 4 games in one day under much shorter time controls... and if they were still tied after that, they would play “blitz” games with only 5 minutes per player. After that… and after that… the time controls get shorter and the chess gets accordingly crazier until someone eventually wins.
The first three time-shortened tie-breaker games (officially Games 15, 16, and 17) were hard-fought draws, and game 18 seemed inexorably headed to the same conclusion. But then Ding Liren– playing black, with perilously little time on his clock– made a seemingly counterproductive and definitely counter-intuitive move ("self-pinning" his rook) that shocked the expert commentators and presaged a subtle yet powerful attack... if he had enough time to find the right sequence. Nepomniachtchi seemed stunned by the game's sudden turn– he defended bravely, missed a forced draw a few moves later, committed a final inaccuracy, and then– with his clock steadily ticking to zero– he grudgingly conceded the game and therefore the tie-breaker and the match itself.
The winner weeps while he loser walks away. We
who watched felt our hearts melt for both of them.
Both men were utterly spent and overwhelmed with emotion. Both clearly needed a hug, but chess grandmasters don’t do such things. (After their 1972 epic Game Six, World Champion GM Boris Spassky DID notably stand and applaud GM Bobby Fischer and his brilliant win. It was classy, but a little weird.) Ding Liren, out of a dead-drawn game suddenly the new World Champion of Chess in a matter of mere minutes, instead reached over to his crushed and dispirited opponent and extended his hand for an unprecedented second handshake, clearly an expression of gratitude, empathy, and camaraderie. And then he sat at the board alone, weeping hard-won tears of relief and joy at not only his success but also, perhaps, at the sheer beauty of the masterpiece of a match that they– in the strenuous tension as opponents in the crucible of all-or-nothing competition– had together created for posterity.
And as the new World Chess Champion sat there with his typhoon of emotions, he did so not as a representative or a "product" of China, but rather as a very kind, polite, articulate, and relatable gentleman who had just fulfilled his most optimistic dreams. His vanquished opponent, meanwhile, will likely be recalled not so much for the title that agonizingly slipped through his hands but rather for his courageous stand against his own country– the same nation that once jailed former world champion GM Garry Kasparov for dabbling in politics distasteful to Vladimir Putin.
Both Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi, it can be said, succeeded to a large degree in putting human faces on pariah nations. If two chess players– one Russian and one Chinese– can demonstrate such brilliance, class, and humanity in such a high-stakes international competition, perhaps there is hope for this deeply troubled and bitterly divided world.
And that's why, I think, we ALL won.
(For further reading, check out this Great Piece from USChess.org.)