The smiles said it all. If you saw Ding Liren and his mother exiting the playing hall after his heady victory in Armageddon over World No. 2 Hikaru Nakamura, you would have felt he had won the Norway Chess event itself. But heading into the final round of the prestigious tournament on Friday, Ding is last in the six-player standings, with just six points from nine games. He hasn’t won a clash in the classical format yet at this year’s edition and the win over Nakamura via Armageddon was only his second via the shorter and faster time control where the player with white chases victory and the player with black just needs a draw to win.

Defeating Nakamura was not so much about lifting Ding in the standings but more about uplifting the psyche of a player whose form seemed to have deserted him. In the handful of tournaments Ding has played in since 2024 started — Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee and the Freestyle Chess GOAT Challenge — he had woeful results. At a local tournament in China, he even finished last.

“It’s a big win for me. I finally stabilized in the openings in the Armageddon games. It gives me a lot of confidence going into the final round,” Ding told The Indian Express after his win in 46 moves on Thursday. “Finally, I started to get points after having four defeats in a row (at one stage). I started to get better. I started to play decent chess.”

Ding also revealed that he had watched a lot of snooker videos on the rest day on Wednesday to keep himself occupied.

Ding will take on 18-year-old D Gukesh from India in the world chess championship battle at the end of the year.

Asked if he started to enjoy the Armageddon format slightly more, Ding said: “Not really, because overall (record in Armageddon) is also quite bad.”

Festive offer

Before the event began, the man who became world champion only a year ago said that he was just hoping not to finish last at Norway Chess.

“Maybe I became weaker in chess (after becoming world champion). Not as strong as before, maybe two years ago,” Ding had told The Indian Express. “This year also my performances did not go well. I spent more time resting rather than playing chess (in recent months). Every time I play a tournament, I lose ratings, be it classical or rapid tournaments. It’s not been very easy.”

While he was constantly losing, Nakamura had raised concerns about Ding’s issues last Saturday, when the American had defeated the Chinese GM.

“I don’t know what’s going through Ding’s head… it’s very clear that he’s not the same person he was back when I played him in 2022. Everything, including the body language, doesn’t feel right. I would be very concerned for him for this upcoming World Championship match against Gukesh. He just doesn’t look right. You still feel bad for the guy… Not sure if it was visible on the video but at some point, I was struggling to keep my composure because at some moment he started bouncing up and down, he was shaking, like literally shaking,” Nakamura had said when they played their first game on Thursday.

Praggnanandhaa can still win

Ding’s win on Friday was a setback to Nakamura’s hopes of winning the Norway Chess event. Magnus Carlsen leads the standings with 16 points with Nakamura on 14.5. India’s Praggnanandhaa is third with 13 points.

The 18-year-old from India lost to Fabiano Caruana in the Armageddon in Round 9 but can still win the event in theory. Praggnanandhaa plays Nakamura on Friday in the final round. Here he will need to win outright in the classical format, while Carlsen will need to lose outright. If this happens, the contest will head into tiebreaks.

Nakamura also has a chance to win the event but will need considerable luck in his corner.

In the women’s section at Norway Chess, Vaishali Rameshbabu was handed a defeat in the classical event by Lei Tingjie which pushed Vaishali to fourth place in the standings with 11.5 points. She is currently four and a half points behind world women’s champions Ju Wenjun in the standings, meaning she cannot win the title anymore.

But the biggest story of the day was Ding’s win over Nakamura, which opened up the possibility that Ding could rediscover his form in the coming months in time for the world chess championship battle against Gukesh.

“I haven’t started to prepare for the World Championship yet. It’s still a long way to go. We’ll see what happens.”