Ding Liren of China Wins World Chess Championship

Ding Liren of China won the world chess championship in a tiebreaker on Sunday, defeating Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia to become the first Chinese man to hold the world title.

Ding’s victory is the latest high point in chess for China, a rising power in the game. The country, which once banned chess as a symbol of a decadent West, now holds both the men’s and women’s world championships.

But the result is also a setback for Russia, which had been looking to reclaim a title it has held for much of the past century and reassert its dominance in the game even as it remains a global sports pariah as a result of its invasion of Ukraine last year.

Ding’s victory sent waves through Chinese social media late in the evening, with a hashtag related to the new champion quickly amassing over 10 million views on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. Chinese users, full of pride and relief after two anxiety-filled weeks, celebrated the championship even as some admitted to their ignorance of how to play chess. Nearly all agreed, though, on the weight of the moment.

“We Chinese have stepped atop chess’ highest stage,” one commenter wrote. “Ding Liren is the pride of China.”

The match was overshadowed from the start by the absence of Magnus Carlsen, who had held the world title since 2013. Carlsen voluntarily chose to relinquish the crown last July because he had grown weary and bored of preparing for the matches, a process that takes months.

Carlsen has long been critical of the length of time of the games for what is known as the classical world championship. Each one can take hours and, particularly in recent years, when players have been able to prepare beforehand with computers, and they often end without a decisive result. For fans, and potential sponsors, that can make the biggest event in chess less exciting. The match in Astana did not have that problem — half of the games ended in victories — but that did not change Carlsen’s opinion.

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In a podcast on April 28 on NRK, the largest media company in Norway, Carlsen said: “There is a lot of talk now this world championship proves that ‘classical chess is doing well’ and all that. I have to admit that I don’t buy that at all.”

He explained that Nepomniachtchi and Ding took many chances in the beginning phases of the games in their championship match, but that was atypical. In his matches, Carlsen said, that did not happen because his opponents were afraid of him and tried to play risk-free. The result, he argued, was that the games were not interesting.

Hikaru Nakamura, a five-time United States champion who has nearly two million social media followers, suggested on a recent livestream on his channel that the quality of play would have consequences for whoever won. “The world champion is not going to be treated as a world champion,” he said. “I don’t care if Nepomniachtchi wins. I don’t care if Ding wins. Both of them will be very deserving of winning the match. But that will not make them the world champion in anybody’s book. That’s the simple reality.”

Russians have dominated chess for most of the last century, partly a legacy of the Soviet Union, which promoted supremacy in the game to prove that communism was superior to “decadent” capitalism.

China, rather than embracing the game for similar reasons, rejected it because it was popular in what it viewed as the “decadent” West. For eight years during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, playing the game was banned.

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The perception of chess in China began to change after Xie Jun won the women’s world championship in 1991, becoming the first non-Russian, non-Georgian woman to hold the title. That sparked a frenzy of state-sponsored activities designed to cultivate elite players, a project collectively known by a grandiose title, “Big Dragon Plan.” Schools created chess clubs, and training institutions and tournaments proliferated. Last year, the Chinese government unveiled a new 10-year plan to develop the country’s next generation of prodigies.

China’s commitment has already yielded results. A succession of women after Xie won the women’s world championship, allowing China to hold the title for most of the last 32 years. The current titleholder is Ju Wenjun, who became champion in 2018. She will face a compatriot, Lei Tingjie, in a match in July, ensuring that the crown will stay in Chinese hands.

Ding has been far and away the best men’s player to come out of China. Born in Wenzhou, a year after Xie’s victory, he was taught to play chess by his father, a chess aficionado, when he was four. He began to compete in tournaments soon after and won his first national title when he was five. He rose to international prominence in 2009, at 16, when he became China’s domestic champion. He won the title again in 2011 and 2012.

With his chess career on the rise, he came to a crossroads about whether and how to continue his education. He ended up studying law at Peking University, but went back to being a full-time player in 2018.

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He has been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world and is the only Chinese player to ever achieve a rating, the points system used to classify players, of more than 2,800. He played in three candidates’ tournaments, the last step on the path to the championship, finishing second last year behind Nepomniachtchi.

After Carlsen declined to defend the title, Ding became the other challenger, according to the regulations of chess’s governing body.

Chang Che contributed reporting from Seoul.