A Long March in April for Ding Liren, China’s No. 1 chess star

A Long March in April for Ding Liren, China’s No. 1 chess star

What was supposed to be a marathon has become a sprint for one of the world’s best chess players as he hopes for a shot at the world title.

GM Ding Liren, the greatest (male) player in China’s history and now second in the world rankings behind only Norwegian champion Magnus Carlsen, had expected to qualify the traditional way for a slot in this June’s eight-grandmaster Candidates Tournament in Madrid to select the next challenger for Carlsen.

But COVID-19 restrictions sharply limited Ding’s chances to play abroad in 2021 and, new COVID-19 surge early this year prevented him from taking part in the just-concluded three-leg FIDE Grand Prix, where two more coveted slots were being awarded.

With Carlsen and other rivals saying Ding’s results earned him the opportunity to become China’s first-ever world champion, a slot unexpectedly opened up when Russian GM Sergey Karjakin was banned last month from the Candidates cycle for his incendiary comments in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ding was in position to claim Karjakin’s spot based on his sky-high rating, but had only played four rated games in the past year, when FIDE qualifying rules demand at least 30 for the year ending April 30.

All that has inspired a frenetic rush of activity by Ding and Chinese chess officials to get him the requisite number of games in the next three weeks. The arrangement has also raised a few eyebrows, as Ding’s Chinese opponents can’t be too successful against him over the next three weeks or his rating will drop and so will his shot at qualifying.

Still, national federations are known to do all they can to get their top players a chance. We wouldn’t be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bobby Fischer’s title win over Boris Spassky in 1972 if U.S. GM Pal Benko hadn’t volunteered to step aside two years earlier and let Bobby have the place he earned in the Candidates’ cycle.

Thus Ding has embarked on a Long March of games this month, as Chess.com’s Peter Doggers reports, including a highly unusual four-player triple-round robin in Hangzhou, a six-game match with GM Wei Yi starting later this week and 10 qualifier games for the 2022 Asian Games, putting him just over the 30-game minimum.

So long as Ding survives the ordeal — and keeps his No. 2 rating in the May FIDE listings, he’s in, and rivals such as American GMs Levon Aronian and Wesley So are out.

As we noted, the arrangement poses a dilemma for Ding’s Chinese opponents, who one assumes would love to beat a world-class grandmaster but don’t want to deny their compatriot his best shot at the game’s ultimate prize. In Hangzhou, GM Li Di gave Ding all he could handle in their first-round game before succumbing to a grandmasterly comeback.

Ding’s Botvinnik English as White fails to impress after 11. Bd1 Bd7 12. Bc2?! (an odd repositioning of the bishop to what seems a much worse square) Nh5 13. Kh2 Nd4 14. Bxd4 (Bd1, admitting the positional misjudgment, might be better here) exd4 15. Ne2 Qf6, and already White is fumbling for a decent plan while Black has a number of promising options on both wings.

Not backing down a bit, Li offers a promising positional piece sacrifice to push back White’s forces: 17. Qc1 b5!? (g5 18. g4 Ng7 19. f4 gives White some play) 18. g4 bxc4 19. gxh5 d5!, already threatening 20…cxd3 21. Bxd3 dxe4 22. Bc4 Bd6+ 23. Ng3 Bf4 24. Qc2 d3 25. Qc3 Be5, with great compensation for the sacrificed material.

White’s woes compound on 21. dxe4?! (Nxe4 Qh4 22. f4 Bf5 looks equal) Rab8 22. f4 d3 23. e5 Qb6 (Qh4! was even stronger; e.g. 24. Bd1 Bc5, with the deadly threat of 25…Bxg1+ 26. Rxg1 Qxh3 mate) 24. Bd1 Bc5 25. Rb1 Bc6!? (and here 25…Be6! is hard to meet in lines like 26. Bg4 Be3 27. Qe1 Qd4 28. Qc3 Qxc3 29. bxc3 Rxb1 30. Rxb1 Bxf4) 26. Nf3 Bd5 — Black remains down material, but both his rooks and bishops are operating at maximum efficiency.

In a sequence featuring high-class tactics on both sides, Li cashes in with 28…d2 29. Qxc4 Bxb1 30. Bb3! Qe6! (Bxf5? 31. Qxf7+ Kh8 32. Qxf5 a4 33. Ng6+ Kh7 34. Nf8+ Kh8 35. Qh7 mate) 31. Qxc5 Rxb3! 32. Rxb1 (axb3? Bxf5 33. Nxf5 Qxf5 34. Qd5 Qc2 35. Kh1 Rb8, and Black is dominating) Rxb2 33. Rd1.

As the smoke finally clears, material in nominally equal, but the position remains unbalanced: Black has a big asset in the pawn on d2, but Ding can finally generate counterplay with his nimble knights.

Class tells in the game’s final sequence as Black unwisely creates some holes around his king and falls for a mating trap: 35. a4 f6?! (this will prove costly; better was 35…Rd8 36. Nd6 b5! 37. axb5 [Nxb5? Rc8 38. Nf3 Rc1 39. Rxd2 Rxd2+ 40. Nxd2 Rc2 and wins] a4, with chances for both sides) 36. Nd6 Re6 37. Ng6 fxe5 38. fxe5 — the rook on e6 is essentially frozen and the g6-knight dominates the kingside, but even here Black can still fight on.

After a spirited fight Li finally succumbs on 40. Kg3 (see diagram) a3 41. Rf1! (White ignores the terrifying passed pawns to go after the Black king) Rb3+ 42. Kg2 Rxg6+?! (in a wild position, the computer prefers 42…Kh7! 43. Nf8+ Kg8 44. Nxe6 Rb2 45. Kg3 Rb3+ 46. Kg4 a2 47. Ne4 Rb4 48. N6c5 Rb1 49. Nxd2 Rxf1, holding the balance) 43. hxg6 a2 (White also comes out on top after 43…Rb2 44. Kg3 Rb3+ 45. Kg4 Rb4+ 46. Kh5 Rd4 47. Rd1 a2 48. b6 a1=Q 49. Rxa1 d1=Q+ 50. Rxd1 Rxd1 51. e6!, and one pawn must queen) 44. Nc8!, and Li resigned as there is nothing to be done about the coming 45. Ne7+ Kh8 46. Rf8 mate.

—-

It was an all-American final in the third and final leg of the FIDE Grand Prix, with GM Wesley So defeating GM Hikaru Nakamura in the rapid playoff after they drew their two classical games.

It can’t be too big a disappointment for Nakamura, who after a long absence from over-the-board play is one of the hottest players on the circuit. He won the first leg of the Grand Prix in February and cemented a Candidates’ slot with his runner-up finish in Berlin. And despite the loss to So, he has just surpassed Carlsen to take over the No. 1 world rating in both rapid and blitz play and will likely be one of the favorites in Madrid.

Ding-Li, China Hangzhou GM Tournament, Hangzhou, China, March 2022

1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e5 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. e4 Bb4 5. d3 d6 6. h3 O-O 7. Be2 Bc5 8. O-O a5 9. Be3 Re8 10. Qd2 h6 11. Bd1 Bd7 12. Bc2 Nh5 13. Kh2 Nd4 14. Bxd4 exd4 15. Ne2 Qf6 16. Nfg1 Bb4 17. Qc1 b5 18. g4 bxc4 19. gxh5 d5 20. Ng3 dxe4 21. dxe4 Rab8 22. f4 d3 23. e5 Qb6 24. Bd1 Bc5 25. Rb1 Bc6 26. Nf3 Bd5 27. Nf5 Be4 28. N3h4 d2 29. Qxc4 Bxb1 30. Bb3 Qe6 31. Qxc5 Rxb3 32. Rxb1 Rxb2 33. Rd1 Qb6 34. Qxb6 cxb6 35. a4 f6 36. Nd6 Re6 37. Ng6 fxe5 38. fxe5 b5 39. axb5 a4 40. Kg3 a3 41. Rf1 Rb3+ 42. Kg2 Rxg6+ 43. hxg6 a2 44. Nc8 Black resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at dsands@washingtontimes.com.