Ding Liren becomes China's first world chess champion

Chinese chess grandmaster Ding Liren moves a piece during the first day of the chess Candidates Tournament FIDE 2022, in Madrid on 17 June, 2022AFP

Ding Liren became China's first world chess champion on Sunday after a rapid-play tie-break victory over Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi in Kazakhstan.

Ding, 30, takes over as winner of the World Chess Championship from Norway's Magnus Carlsen, who chose not to defend his title after a 10-year reign.

He and Nepomniachtchi had finished on seven points each after the 14 first-stage games played in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

Each had won three, with the other eight ending in draws.

For the tie-break stage of the match, also in Astana, the contenders had only 25 minutes to make their moves, plus an additional 10 seconds for each move played.

Ding clinched victory after winning the fourth of Sunday's quick-fire games following three draws.

Both players reacted emotionally, with Nepomniachtchi getting up from the table quickly after shaking hands to concede defeat, and shaking hands again before leaving the hall.

Ding sat in front of the board, his face resting on one hand as he tried to compose himself.

"I'm quite relieved," said Ding, in comments posted after the match by FIDE, the International Chess Federation.

Grandmaster Ding Liren from China competes during the first game of a 14-game match to decide who will be the new 17th World Chess Champion in Astana on 9 April, 2023

"The moment Ian resigned the game was a very emotional moment. I couldn't control my feelings. I know myself, I will cry and burst into tears. It was a tough tournament for me."

He had held his nerve to come back from behind three times during the 14-match classical play series: each time Nepomniachtchi won a game to take the lead, Ding eventually levelled the score with a win of his own.

Breaking the deadlock

No Chinese player had ever previously won the competition, in which men and women can compete.

But China has dominated women's tournaments since the 1990s and Ding's triumph signalled the country's rise as a major player on the global chess scene.

Ju Wenjun is the reigning world champion in women's chess and will face compatriot Lei Tingjie in July to defend her title.

China also won the Chess Olympiad, the game's most important international competition, in 2014 and 2018, with Ding playing a major role in his nation's success on both occasions.

The 14th and final game Saturday in the classical format had demonstrated once again that, at this level, chess is as much a question of nerves as a battle of minds, as both players made uncharacteristic mistakes.

Although Nepomniachtchi pushed hard to convert a slight advantage into a win, he finally had to settle for a draw in what was the longest game of the tournament: 90 moves played over more than six and a half hours.

Sunday's action followed a similar trend, with the games likely to be most remembered for their dramatic circumstances rather than the quality of play.

Nepomniachtchi appeared to acknowledge this in his comments after the match.

"I guess I had a chance and many promising positions," he said, in comments posted by FIDE.

"Probably I should have tried to finish everything in the classical portion, because it was a matter of one or two precise moves."

Rise to stardom

Born in Wenzhou, which has become known as China's "chess city", Ding burst onto the scene in 2009 when he became the country's youngest chess champion at national level.

He then became the highest-ranked Chinese player in the world rankings, reaching a high of second place in 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic held back Ding's progress and he initially failed to obtain a visa for competitions leading to qualification for the Candidates Tournament, which players must win to challenge the world champion.

The disqualification of Russia's Sergey Karjakin from all tournaments organised by the International Chess Federation, which took a pro-Ukraine position following Moscow's invasion, freed up a space at the 2022 Candidates Tournament which Ding took as the highest-ranked non-qualifier.

He finished second at the tournament, but Carlsen's decision to step aside from the World Chess Championship allowed him to compete against Nepomniachtchi in Astana.

At Sunday's closing news conference, Ding said he wanted to dedicate the victory to his friends, mother and grandfather.

"I started to learn chess from four years old... I spent 26 years playing, analysing, trying to improve my chess ability with many different ways, with different changing methods, with many new ways of training," he said.

"I think I did everything. Sometimes I thought I was addicted to chess, because sometimes without tournaments, I was not so happy. Sometimes I struggled to find other hobbies to make me happy. This match reflects the deepness of my soul."

The two-million-euro ($2.2-million) prize money will be split 55-45 between the two players.