Ding Liren will never forget Madrid. For many reasons. Here he won the right to fight for the world chess title, Magnus Carlsen’s resignation through, after a spectacular comeback that crowned the last day in a direct duel with Hikaru Nakamura. A game in which coincidentally the first move on the board was made by the FIDE president, Arkady Dvorkovich, as if he were aware of the importance for the immediate future of what would happen on that board.
The Chinese patiently played a Queen’s Gambit with White and had trouble with the clock again, after spending almost half an hour thinking before playing 15.Bb1. He avoided the exchange of pieces and waited until the American blundered with 35…Bd8 This allowed Ding to keep his rook on the seventh rank and from there he was suffocating his opponent with deadly precision. until seeing him reach out after more than five hours on move 58, securing second place in the Candidates tournament with a score of 8 points in 14 games, half a point more than Nakamura and behind only the undefeated Ian Nepomniachtchi and his 9.5 points.
Ukraine opened the door
Ling thus put the culmination of a comeback of great merit after a disconcerting first lap in which he started at the bottom of the standings. Ling was the player with the highest ELO, the coefficient, of the participants, but he had entered the tournament due to the disqualification of Sergey Karjakin, who after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, made numerous public statements praising the invasion in what was seen as propaganda for the Putin regime. And in March 2022, the FIDE Ethics and Disciplinary Commission ruled that Karjakin had violated the FIDE Code of Ethics with his statements, thus banning him from playing FIDE-related tournaments for a period of six months. Which left him out of the Madrid Candidates tournament, which was held between June 16 and July 5.
To replace him, the Chinese man was rescued Ding Liren who was initially out of the tournament. Ding had only played 4 of the 30 required games due to his inability to travel to tournaments outside of China during the pandemic of Covid-19. The Chinese needed to play at least 26 games between March and April, which would be added to the May 2022 ranking list, and the China Chess Association organized three tournaments in a row so that Ding could meet the minimum number of games required.
This is how it happened and the Chinese landed alone in Madrid, without company or coaches or analysts, the night before the tournament opened. Thin, fearful and elusive, he stood in the hall of the central Four Seasons in Madrid, staying out of the crowd that surrounded other more charismatic rivals such as Caruana, Nakamura or Nepomniachtchi. Respectful in greeting, extending a fragile hand that was accompanied by a bow, I remember that a smile broke out on his face and he responded with a discreet “Thanks, you’re welcome!”, when I wished him luck together with the Yugoslav grandmaster Ljubomir Ljubojevic. “I like that boy, he is patient and surgical when the game demands it”, the Serb warned me, married to an Andalusian woman he met in Linares.
Pang Pang’s Corner
Days before, David Llada, FIDE’s director of communication, made an appointment with me at ‘El Rincón de Pang Pang’, a lost Chinese restaurant in the Letters neighborhood in which one would never have entered if it had not been there. It was like being teleported to China, once we closed the door of the establishment behind us, there was nothing to suspect that we were in Madrid. A dozen tables packed with Chinese tasting food from their country in a place where everything was written in their language. Llada was looking for places where Ding could socialize and maintain a diet that was as similar to that of his country. Liren arrived alone and took refuge in places like this, which he turned into his fortress, being just 150 steps from the Palacio de Santoña, where the tournament would be held.
After overcoming the ‘jet lag’ and acclimatizing to the stifling heat of Madrid, which he did not take well from the first moment, Ding began to display his surgical game. On the fifth day he was last in the standings with only two points, tied with Radjabov. In the tenth round he was already part of the hat-trick that was chasing Nepomniachtchi (7 points) with 5.5 points, along with Caruana and Nakamura. And on the final day he gave the coup and confirmed the ‘suspicions’ of Ljubo: “I told you. It would be a major step for chess if Ding wins a World Cup. Because 1 billion people in a country playing chess can only be good news.” The truth is that not even Ding himself had any idea of what would come next, and I’m not referring to the World Cup with ‘Nepo’.
Covid and the fight for the world title
Hours after finishing second in Madrid, and in the midst of insistent rumors that he could be a candidate to fight for the World Cup with Nepomniachtchi after Carlsen’s resignation, Ding received other unexpected news: he was infected with Covid! The news did not reach the media then and the Chinese secluded himself in his room waiting for the disease to subside. Infected as he was, he could not travel and he only had to follow the forced exile of him in a hotel room in Madrid alone. It was not a comfortable or short convalescence, but during it Ding Liren received the news of his official proclamation as a contender in the World Cup final against Nepomniachtchi.
The two games he had played against the Russian in the dazzling Palacio de Santoña, with a defeat and a draw, were still fresh in his memory. ‘Nepo’ was more dynamic than him. He handled himself more easily when he could take the initiative, but it was worse when his rivals pressed him and demanded that he show his consistency. He was an intermittent opponent who did not mentally digest defeat well. In those days, confined in Madrid, he began to draw up a plan to become world champion. It was precisely in Madrid that he established a closer relationship with Richard Rapport, the Hungarian with a Romanian passport who became one of the attractions of the tournament because of the jackets that his wife, the Serbian chess player Jovana Vojinovic, chose for him. The creative and courageous style of Richy It was what Ding needed to put pressure on the Russian and make him think by pushing him into error. And in that lonely hotel room he began to forge the strategy that this past Sunday made him the 17th world chess champion.
Ding Liren, the man who turned inconveniences into opportunities, the boy who slipped into the Candidates tournament because of the war in Ukraine, the young lawyer who teleported every day from ‘Pang Pang’s Corner’ to China, the young man who did not throw in the towel until the last day, going back to Nakamura, the Covid patient who suffered and overcame the disease confined in Madrid without raising his voice or giving any clue while receiving the great news: he would fight to be world champion. A movie story with a happy ending.