When Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren face off on Sunday in the first game of the world chess championship, their matchup — tinged with politics — will play out in the shadow of an absent rival: Magnus Carlsen.
Carlsen, a Norwegian ranked No. 1 in the world, announced last year that he would voluntarily relinquish the crown he has held for the last decade. In July, only seven months after he had routed Nepomniachtchi in the last of his four successful title defenses , Carlsen said he lacked the motivation to prepare for another challenge — a process that can take months.
Instead, whoever wins the best-of-14 match in Astana, Kazakhstan, between Nepomniachtchi and Ding will have the official title of world champion and earn 1.2 million euros (about $1.3 million), which is a 60 percent share of the prize fund. The only problem is that Carlsen’s absence has robbed the match of its most compelling draw, and perhaps some of its legitimacy.
Last month, during a call-in to the commentators of the American Cup, an elite tournament held in St. Louis, the former world champion Garry Kasparov dismissed this month’s showdown for the game’s greatest title. “I can hardly call it a world championship match,” Kasparov said. “For me, the world championship match should include the strongest player on the planet, and this match doesn’t.”
Kasparov added that he was not trying to take anything away from the second-ranked Nepomniachtchi or the third-ranked Ding, who earned the right to play for the title by finishing first and second in the candidates’ tournament last year. But, Kasparov noted that the game had to go back to 1975 to find the last time the undisputed champion did not play in chess’s ultimate showcase. That year, Bobby Fischer, the temporal American who had won the crown three years earlier, was stripped of the title because he and the International Chess Federation, the game’s governing body, could not agree on the terms of his title defense.
Yet even that comparison is not perfect, Kasparov said, because after winning the title in 1972, “Fischer stopped playing chess.” Carlsen, he pointed out, most definitely has not.
That does not mean the match will proceed without drama. Even long before the players arrived, the International Chess Federation, known as FIDE, was confronting a series of thorny public relations issues.
One of them is Nepomniachtchi’s Russian nationality. Though he was one of 44 elite Russian chess players who signed an open letter last April condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and while sanctions mean he is playing under FIDE’s flag — pro which makes him specifically the official of his beating Ding might put chess in an awkward position: placing the game’s pre-eminent title in Russian hands for the first time since 2007 while the country continues to wage war in Ukraine.
He is not the championship’s only Russian connection: The president of the International Chess Federation, Arkady Dvorkovich, is a former deputy prime minister of Russia, though he, too, has been careful to distance himself from the invasion. Freedom Holding Corp., a retail brokerage and investment bank listed on the Nasdaq, has raised its own concerns. The bank is headquartered in Kazakhstan but its founder, Timur Turlov, 35, is Russian. Last June, Turlov switched his nationality to Kazakh, but he remains on the Ukrainian government’s sanctions list.
A victory by Ding, meanwhile, would give China both the men’s and women’s world championships. (Ju Wenjun is the current women’s champion, and she is slated to play a title match against Lei Tingjie, who won the women’s candidates’ tournament this week to guarantee the women’s title will go to a Chinese player.)
Either way, the men’s title will be seen as a major prize by the country that claims it amid heightened geopolitical tension between Russia, China and the West. Should China claim both, its triumph would carry quite a bit of irony.
Chess was banned during the first eight years of the Cultural Revolution as a game of the decadent West. Even today, xiangqi, the Chinese version of chess, remains more popular in China. By the end of the month, it could be home to multiple world champions.