For New In Chess 2023/4 (published last Friday) I interviewed brand-new World Champion Ding Liren. I was expecting to learn more about the match in Astana than I had heard and seen so far, but of course I could not know what news and revelations I’d manage to extract from him. Ding did not disappoint. Speaking with the openness and frankness that the chess world came to love at the press conferences in Astana he provided fascinating details about the match.

At one point, however, he hesitated. When he was speaking about the great help he received from his second Richard Rapport – who not only prepared his openings, but had also proven such a great friend – Ding suddenly said that another grandmaster had been working for him as well. But he’d rather not reveal his identity.
Ding Liren - Richard Rapport(Photo by Lennart Ootes)
As might have been expected, the encounter between Ding Liren and his second Richard Rapport in Round 8 of the recent Bucharest Classic was a bloodless affair that soon ended in a draw.

Chess players are often reluctant to say who they work with. Not because they are too proud that they rely on the help of others. They simply don’t want their opponents to guess what they have been preparing. Say, if you hire an expert in the King’s Indian Defence there is a fair chance that at some point you will play the KID. And when you do, you hope that your opponent faces it as an unexpected – and unpleasant – surprise.
But why would you hesitate to reveal a secret second after the match? There may be good reasons for that too. For instance you may want to use them again as a secret weapon at a next occasion.

Yet, Ding’s persistence not to tell the name of his second adviser did not last very long.
When I cautiously prodded him suggesting that perhaps it was Wei Yi, a good friend of his and a very creative player, he shook his head in denial and said that he had only played training games with Wei Yi before the match. He had even asked him to come along to Kazakhstan, but unfortunately Wei Yi had other commitments.

And then, all of a sudden, Ding said that he would tell me anyway who was the other person that helped him. It was Vakhidov, Jakhongir Vakhidov from Uzbekistan, a member of the Uzbek team that sensationally won the 2022 Olympiad in Chennai. They had met at the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee last January, where Vakhidov had been helping the Uzbek talent Javokhir Sindarov (17). They had talked and it was decided that Vakhidov would remain behind the scenes during the match and send him opening ideas from home.
(Photo by Lennart Ootes)
Jakhongir Vakhidov, a member of the Uzbek team that sensationally won the last Olympiad, turns out to have been Ding Liren’s secret other second during the world championship match.

The revelation that Vakhidov had helped him was remarkable not only because you don’t expect a grandmaster who is relatively unknown outside Uzbek chess circles to play a role during a world championship match. What struck me even more was the last-minute nature of the decision to enlist him only months before the match.
While Ian Nepomniachtchi relied on an extensive well-oiled team of seconds and advisers that had known each other for a long time, Ding Liren more or less randomly composed his team after two conversations at the closing ceremony of the Tata Steel tournament – asking Richard Rapport and … yes, Jakhongir Vakhidov!

Naming Vakhidov wasn’t the only revelation that Ding Liren surprised me with in a conversation that I enjoyed a lot. There’s more that you’ll find interesting and remarkable, and it all can be found in the full interview in New In Chess 2023/4.