Chess: Ding at risk of finishing last as world champion falters at Wijk

<span>Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Ding Liren’s comeback at Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee is in danger of eclipse this weekend as China’s world champion, who took eight months off at the start of his reign due to an unspecified illness, has shown only glimpses of his former strength and has often bailed out of battle with routine draws.

After 11 of the 13 rounds at the “chess Wimbledon”, Ding trailed in ninth place with 4.5 points, just a solitary win, seven draws and three defeats. He is behind all five of the candidates who will meet in Toronto in April to decide who challenges the 31-year-old for his crown later in 2024.

His nadir was his eighth-round loss to France’s Alireza Firouzja, which was settled by an unforced error described by commentators as “unworthy of Ding’s status” and “something a moderately strong player would wince at”.

Ding’s 10th-round game on Wed­nesday was against his old rival Ian Nepomniachtchi, whom he defeated in an epic world championship match last year. This time the Russian won convincingly, though he said: “From the beginning of the game, I was ­looking at Ding and he seemed to be visibly unwell.”

The game followed similar Ruy Lopez lines from their title match, and Nepomniachtchi was prepared in depth, even noting that the computer had found a better 21st move for Ding.

Wijk aan Zee scores after 11 of the 13 rounds: Nodirbek Abdusattorov (Uzbekistan) 7.5, Dommaraju Gukesh (India) 7, Anish Giri (Netherlands), Wei Yi (China), Rameshbabu ­Praggnanandhaa and Vidit Gujrathi (both India) 6.5; Firouzja and Nepomniachtchi 6, Ding 4.5, Ju Wenjun (China), Parham Maghsoodloo (Iran), Alexander Donchenko (Germany), Max Warmerdam and Jorden van Foreest (both Netherlands) 4.

Games start at 1.15pm GMT on Saturday, and at 11.15am on Sunday, with live coverage at

All is not yet lost for Ding, whose last two opponents – Warmerdam and Ju – are both below him. A plus score from these two games would be a respectable total, given his long absence and his past and perhaps present health problems.

Alternatively, it could get worse. Ding is only half a point clear of last place and it is well known that demoralised players can suffer a string of losses. His final-round game on Sunday against the women’s world champion, Ju, who has had a ­successful tournament despite ­starting Wijk as the bottom seed, is ­especially interesting.

By general acclaim, Judit Polgar is the all-time No 1 woman and Hou Yifan the all-time No 2, but who is the No 3? Probably Nona Gaprindashvili gets the vote, due to her successes against male opponents at Hastings in the mid-1960s, which were unjustly ignored by Netflix in The Queen’s Gambit, and at Lone Pine 1977, where she tied for first. However, other women have a claim, including Ju, who at Gibraltar 2017 scored a 2731 performance which included wins against 2650+ opponents Sam Shankland and Polgar.

Ju, who has already defeated Firouzja at Wijk 2024, could cement her historic reputation and her claim as the all-time No 3 woman with a win against Ding, although the most likely outcome between compatriots is a mutually respectful draw.

At the top end of the table, both leaders are teenagers, so Wijk 2024 could be the occasion when the new chess generation really starts its long threatened takeover. Pairings for the final two rounds favour Abdusattorov over the Indian pair, although the main factor will be who can best handle the pressure of the occasion.

Thus far, Abdusattorov has impressed the most. The serious 19-year-old from Tashkent has a personality and a playing style reminiscent of Anatoly Karpov, world champion from 1975 to 1985. His seventh-round win over Giri had 5 c4! and 34 c4! as key moves in the opening and the endgame, which was a classic lesson in how a knight can outplay a bishop even in what looks a position better for the bishop.

Away from the Wijk Masters, France’s world junior champion Marc-Andria Maurizzi, 16, leads the Challengers by a point with 8.5/11 and is heading for the 2025 Wijk Masters. Hans Niemann, the controversial US top seed, is two points behind the leader and out of contention.

3904: 1 Qa2! bxa2 2 Bf5! Kxf5 3 Ng7 mate.