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Favorite Ding Liren is weakening at the World Cup Candidates Tournament

Alongside Fabiano Caruana, Ding Liren entered the World Cup Candidates Tournament in Madrid as the biggest favourite. But the start failed. Because the world champion Magnus Carlsen may not defend his title, the chances are still intact.

Ding Liren shows unusual weaknesses in Madrid.

Fernando Villar/EPO

Ding Liren sits at the chess board, shaking his head. Despite the disadvantage of the black pieces, he defeated his opponent Teimour Radjabov in the fifth round of the World Cup Candidates Tournament in Madrid classically outmanoeuvred and with elegant foil stitches on the left and right achieved a decisive positional advantage. But then, after a four-hour fight and on the last move before the time control, nerves start to falter. Ding lets his time run out to a few seconds – and the winning move, whose certain existence he feels, eludes him.

Instead of exchanging the bishop for the knight, he moves a pawn in front of his king. He puts his hand in front of his face and quarrels; instinctively he knows that his choice wasn’t right, couldn’t be right.

Ding Liren botches a clear winning position twice

In fact, Ding Liren has thus given up all advantage. His opponent manages to draw with a few precise moves. After a debacle in the opening round, the nominal favorite has botched a clear winning position for the second time. After six laps he is fifth and two points behind the leader Jan Nepomnjaschtschi.

The Russian, who was clearly inferior to Magnus Carlsen last winter, is on course to qualify again for the title fight against the world champion. However, not even half of the tournament has been played yet. Ding Liren can still fight back.

Ding Liren suffers a debacle against Teimour Radjabov.

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In addition to the US-American Fabiano Caruana, the 29-year-old Chinese from Wenzhou was traded as the biggest favorite to win the tournament. In the world rankings he has been consistently in the second to fourth place for four years, and he has also shown in various individual duels that he need not fear Carlsen. At the last Candidates Tournament 2020/21 in Yekaterinburg he had already been treated as a hot tip, but the pandemic threw a spanner in the works.

He was the only one who had to go into quarantine for several weeks in Russia when the epidemic had just broken out because of his Chinese origin and started the tournament with a significant handicap. By the time he found his usual rhythm, he had already suffered two defeats – a disadvantage he was unable to make up for.

The preparation for the World Cup Candidates Tournament in Madrid was anything but optimal. While his competitors had been able to prepare for the most important tournament of the year and the seven opponents for months, Ding had to complete an exhausting game program. He could no longer complain about a lack of match practice, but of course his Chinese opponents were not of the same class as he now faces in Madrid. The chances of winning show that he still has to find the “candidate mode”.

The Chinese Association rushes to Ding Liren’s aid

Travel and visa restrictions due to the pandemic had prevented Ding Liren from participating in all three qualifying tournaments. It is thanks to Putin’s attack on Ukraine and Sergei Karjakin’s glorification that he finally made it into the field of eight candidates. The latter, originally from Ukraine, was handed a six-month ban for his aggressive war rhetoric and thus lost his starting place. The vacated seat should go to the player with the highest rating, provided they have played at least 30 rated tournament games in the last 12 months.

With online tournaments not counting, Ding seemed to be losing out again having just played four board games. But the Chinese association stepped in. In the four weeks until the deadline at the end of April, he organized a mammoth program for Ding with 3 tournaments and 28 games in a row. After that, Ding Liren had not only reached the required number of games, but even added a few rating points.

If Magnus Carlsen carries out his threat, Ding Liren could be the beneficiary

A ray of hope for Ding are the statements of world champion Carlsen. Shortly after the last, successful World Cup, he indicated that he might not be able to defend his title. The World Cup duels every two years are too complex and not satisfying enough. If his next challenger does not come from the “new generation” – which could only mean 19-year-old Alireza Firouzja – he will probably not want to defend the title.

Ding Liren beats world champion Magnus Carlsen.

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And since the Iranian-French rising star has started with similar restraint as Ding, it is conceivable that Carlsen will carry out his threat. Should he resign, the runner-up in the Candidates Tournament moves up. As unpleasant as Carlsen’s behavior is from the point of view of the chess world: For Ding it means an additional chance to still qualify for the World Cup duel despite all the corona hurdles. Carlsen’s unclear announcement remains a huge annoyance: Nobody will know until the end whether second place in Madrid is worthless as usual – or equivalent to victory.

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