Ding Liren, the current world number-three and strongest Chinese chess player in history, speaks to David Cox about the rise of Chinese men’s chess, his remarkable 100-game unbeaten streak and the difficulty of maintaining a relationship while playing elite chess.
Growing up in the coastal city of Wenzhou as the son of an electrical engineer and a nurse, Ding Liren never dreamed he would go on to become the strongest Chinese player in history.
It is unsurprising that Wenzhou has yielded such a super-talent. The city has long been a chess mecca, the hometown of the former women’s world champion Zhu Chen.
But despite showing promise from a young age, winning two world youth titles and a string of China’s most prestigious junior competitions, Ding took some time to become fully convinced he was good enough to make a living out of the game. Before that, he even started [and later finished – Ed.] a law degree at Peking University.
Over the past three years, Ding has gone on to establish a reputation as one of the players most likely to challenge for Magnus Carlsen’s world crown, reaching the final of the past two chess world cups, breaking the 2800 barrier and beating Carlsen in a playoff to win the 2019 Sinquefield Cup.
Known for his cool nerves and calm demeanor at the board, Ding is one of the toughest players in the world to beat, recording a 100-game unbeaten streak from August 2017 to November 2018.
The interview was conducted via phone, and text may have been edited for clarity or length.
Chess.com: We’ve seen a huge boom in Chinese chess over the past 10 years. Next year’s candidates will have two Chinese players for the first time in history, you and Wang Hao. What has driven this chess boom in the East?
Ding Liren: It’s really popular now, especially among children and students. I think a lot because of school programs, the results we’ve had in important team championships, and our many women’s world champions—players like Hou Yifan, Tan Zhongyi and Ju Wenjun, who have all been world champion. And the men’s team winning the Olympiad and World Team Championship in recent years has received a lot of attention, so now many parents want to send their children to study the game.
But I have to say, chess is still not as popular as either Go or Chinese chess right now. Go is the most popular game in China. A lot of Chinese philosophy is deeply embedded in it, and in recent years things like the match between Ke Jie and AlphaGo have strengthened its popularity.
So how did you come to play chess rather than becoming an elite Go player?
Back in 1995, there was a famous match in Wenzhou between Xie Jun, the first women’s world champion from China, and Viktor Korchnoi. After this match, Wenzhou was awarded the title of “chess city” in China so there was a good atmosphere at that time for learning the game. After that, when I was four, I was sent to a chess club, and I was very lucky to have the same coach, Chen Lixing, who had helped develop Zhu Chen into a top player.
Speaking of Xie Jun and Zhu Chen, while China has always had some strong male players, it’s historically been the women who have dominated the world stage. It’s only been in recent years that China’s male players have become a force, with you, Yu Yangyi and Wang Hao all in the top 20. Why do you think that is the case?
First I’d say that our current women’s team is even stronger than in the past; it’s won the past two Olympiads! But with the men’s team, we do have a collection of young promising players, with Wei Yi as well. I think this is because 20 years ago, there was this tradition that the best male players in China like Ye Jiangchuan and Xu Jun were expected to coach the female players. During tournaments, they were expected to provide opening preparation for them. But now we all work alone. If the female players want to improve their skills, they have to hire a coach and pay for it.
When did you first feel that you could make it as a professional chess player?
I decided to go for a professional career back in 2009, when I was 16 or 17. Before then I’d had some very good results in the juniors against players my own age. For example, in China we have a very famous tournament called the Li Chengzhi Cup, which is like the Chinese junior championship, but I’d never had the same level of results against all ages.
Then in 2009 I won the Chinese championship, beating players like Wang Hao who were ranked 200 points higher than me, and the quality of the games were very high. Later that year I read an interview with Peter Leko who said he was watching me, and that my games had inspired him. That gave me a lot of belief, so I have to say thanks to him.
Did you ever worry there would be a problem making enough money to play chess competitively?
No, because at that time, I didn’t really know what else I could do, apart from play chess. I was quite good at math when I was a student but actually after I finished university, I realized I liked literature far more.
How did you end up studying a degree in law rather than literature?
I don’t regret doing law. I mean having done this, I now know what I want and what I like. But if I could choose again, I wouldn’t do this degree. Chinese literature is my hobby but maybe if I had to study this, and spend hours every day working on it, I would lose my interest in it. I read books for fun, and to relax. I like not being obligated to review something.
Which English language writers do you particularly admire?
Probably the American short story writer Raymond Carver— I’ve read a lot of his work. I also really like the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami; he’s been nominated many times for the Nobel Prize. He had a famous book Norwegian Wood.
In the past you’ve said how hobbies like your love of literature help you relax amid the pressure of elite chess. How do you cope with the pressure during major tournaments?
Before every game, I feel a few nerves and anxiety, especially against the strong players. But if I am well prepared, during the game I actually feel quite relaxed. There won’t be many emotional moments during the game. Normally I stay pretty level and calm. But sleep is also key for me. If I sleep well the night before the game, then I’ll have a very good mood at the start. If I’m tired, and my head feels wrong, then during the game I’ll drink some water or coffee, and I’ll just have to force myself into calculation and to focus on the game. But that’s hard, especially when you’re not feeling in good shape.
How important is your ability to read your opponent’s body language during the game?
Sometimes this does influence me. Some players are very confident. They stand up after every move they make, and they’re doing all these little things to show they have everything under control. And if a move comes as a surprise to me, then sometimes I’ll be less confident myself, and more influenced by my opponent. Sometimes it will change my decisions, and actually change my evaluation of the position. It’s something I’m trying to work on and not let happen as much.
At last year’s candidates, you were the first Chinese player in history to compete. Did you feel a sense of pressure and expectation?
Yes, there was some coverage back home, with media reporting on every round. And many people posting about it who don’t really understand the games. I don’t read these comments so much. During the tournament, my mother accompanied me. She sometimes cooked food for me, and she helped me a lot to deal with the experience.
I heard that your mother used to look after all your earnings from chess. Is this still the case?
I still live with my parents, and the money still goes to her bank account. When I want to use money, of course, she gives it to me. I am just not in the mood to be dealing with money just now. I don’t need too much money for daily life.
I’m guessing that the home cooking helped at the candidates, as I’ve read that you and other players sometimes live off pot noodles at tournaments! You’re not tempted to try the local food?
This is true! You see for lunch before the game, we just like to keep things simple and have more time to relax. And then after the game, normally we want to go back to the hotel as soon as possible. But yes, maybe after the tournament, once we’ve feeling relaxed, we will try and go out and see what’s going on, and try some of the local food.
Now you’re ranked third in the world and you’re one of the favorites to win the 2020 Candidates’ Tournament, are you getting a lot of attention back home?
I wouldn’t really know. In China, we don’t have Twitter or Facebook so much, and I’m not very active on Weibo. Many famous Go players have VIP accounts on Weibo, but I just have a normal account with a few people following me. This is OK with me. I don’t want to be that famous, to be written about every day, or interviewed after every tournament. I want to have my own life, and have some time for myself.
There is a price to fame. Of course I will earn more money if I become more well-known and maybe have better status, but I also won’t have my own time and I’ll be discussed every time that I do something wrong.
Speaking of the simple life back home, have you ever thought of moving out of your parents’ home and living on your own?
I think this will maybe happen when I have a stable relationship with a woman. I don’t really have any desire to live alone. Sometimes I go and spend time with my grandparents. They are very close nearby, and sometimes when my parents are working, I go see them.
But in China, it is the culture that you only (normally) get your own flat once you get married or when you get engaged, so basically when you have a stable girlfriend.
Does the life of a professional chess player make it difficult to maintain a relationship?
Yes, I have to agree. Nearly every relationship, it’s a problem being so far away most of the year. Especially this year, I’ve played many tournaments. In June I spent the whole month in Europe. It’s hard to find someone who’s happy with that. My last relationship ended at the end of last year, and the traveling was perhaps a reason for that.
I guess you have to be very single-minded to reach the top. Speaking of that, talk us through that remarkable 100-game unbeaten streak. What makes you so difficult to beat, and how did you manage to stay focused to remain undefeated for so long?
To be honest, I am not so concerned about those kinds of things. I think all strong players just focus on the chess itself. The media will ask you about records because you’ve completed 99 games without a loss, but I try not think too much about it. But the record was quite strange, especially drawing 13 of the 14 games in the candidates. Many of them had ups and downs, and I was nearly lost in three or four of them, and close to winning in another three or four. But everybody at that level hates to lose. They will do everything to prevent defeat, try every resource to save their position.
How did you feel when your defeat to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in November 2018 ended the unbeaten run? Were you disappointed not to surpass Sergei Tiviakov, who holds the all-time record for not losing, at 110 games. [Editor’s note: After this interview was conducted, Magnus Carlsen broke Tiviakov’s record.]
Since I hadn’t lost a classical game in such a long time, I wasn’t used to losing. Usually when I lose a game, I feel very sad; I don’t want to talk too much, and I have to sit and figure out what happened in the game. What went wrong for me…did I have the wrong moves or ideas? But once I figure out where I went wrong, I feel normal again. I did know that Tiviakov had the longest unbeaten streak, but maybe there is some unknown player out there who’s gone even longer without losing and nobody paid any attention. His streak was not at the highest level, so maybe it’s not that important to have this record.
How do you feel about online chess? More and more top players are competing in events like Chess.com’s Speed Chess Championship and Titled Tuesday. Are you a fan?
Not so much. Sometimes before rapid and blitz tournaments, I will maybe play some blitz. But in general I am not going to play too many online games. I think it will sometimes affect your chess ability, because when you play without thinking, it affects your ability to evaluate which move is better in a classical game. If you have played so many moves without too much thinking, you will find it difficult to work out which one is better over the board.
Finally, given your rise over the past few years, do you believe you can become world champion? Can you challenge Carlsen?
I think that maybe we have to wait for Magnus to get older! I cannot really challenge him. He is at the top, I think nobody can beat him. But if he is not in his best shape as he gets older, maybe we will have some chance. But to be honest, if I am unable to take this step to reach the world championship match, this is fine for me since I never dreamed of having such good results. I’ve already exceeded all my expectations by becoming the best-ever Chinese chess player.