Brad Pitt with Angelina Jolie, Abhishek Bachchan with Aiswarya Rai, Simon Yam with Qiqi and David Beckham with Victoria Beckham. These are the most glamorous celebrity couples in the world. The chess world may not be equal in terms of glitz and glamour to Hollywood, but it does not lack the Caissa version of golden couples over the chess board. From China to Australia, India to Spain, some couples are much more publicly known than others. From the pairing of Chinese beauty Zhu Chen with Qatari Mohamad al-Modiahki (their fame has transcended that of the chess world, having even been profiled by TIME magazine), to Vasily Ivanchuk with Alisa Galliamova (now dissolved), Sriram Jha with S. Vijayalakshmi and Gary Lane with Nancy Jones, their love blossomed after a chance meeting at chess tournaments.
There is another less known golden couple from China: GM Zhang Zhong (FIDE rating 2634) and WGM Li Ruofan (FIDE rating 2417). As if a match made in heaven, both of them were born in 1978 and share the same Chinese astronomical sign of the Horse. And, interestingly, they also share the same passion for the game of chess. In this second “Bisik-Bisik” series, we have a conversation with Zhang Zhong and his wife, Li Ruofan.
Edwin: Ni hao! [Chinese for hi or hello]
Zhang Zhong & Li Ruofan: Ni Hao!
Tell me, Zhang Zhong, were you and your wife born in the same city in China?
Zhang Zhong: I grew up in Chongqing while my wife grew up in the Jiangsu province. We live in Senzhen, China.
Jiangsu is situated near to Shanghai, while Chongqing sits quite far away to the West of Jiangsu. How did the two of you meet each other?
Zhang Zhong: We met while playing chess.
Ah, so-u-des-ka. So, Caissa brought the two of you together. Sweet! Have you all competed against each other over the chess board? And, if so, what is the score like?
Zhang Zhong: Most of the time, the results from our games are drawn.
Who had taught you all the game of chess? And, did you all pick up the game of xiangqi, first? (Note: Zhongguo xiangqi is also known in some countries, as Chinese chess)
Zhang Zhong: I started playing xiangqi first before taking up chess. My father taught me how to play xiangqi and I picked up the game of chess from friends in primary school.
Chinese Grandmaster Zhang Zhong
Li Ruofan: I learnt the game of chess first and picked up the game as part of a junior chess training program in the city.
What kind of training do you all go through in the junior chess training programs?
Zhang Zhong: The youth players were normally required to train for a longer period – about 5 to 6 hours a day in chess. Besides chess training, there are other forms of physical training too, such as table tennis, badminton, football and jogging for 1 to 2 hours a day.
Do you all have any coaches now?
Li Ruofan: My hubby, Zhang Zhong is my coach.
Zhang Zhong: I do not have a coach. Instead, I do self training.
As a chess-playing couple, tell me, do the two of you share the same liking for favorite players in the game?
Zhang Zhong: My favorite chess players are none other Kasparov and Karpov. These two players were at the height of their popularity when I first took up the game of chess in my childhood. And, without doubt, they have become my favorite chess players ever since.
Li Ruofan: My favorite player is Alekhine, as I like his playing style.
Is this your first time coming to Malaysia?
Zhang Zhong: No, this is my third time to Malaysia. I came here for the first time during the 1998 Asian Cities championship and then for a second time in 2003 for the GACC University chess championship.
Li Ruofan at the Malaysian Open 2007 (with Global Chess director Geoffrey Borg)
Li Ruofan: As for me, this is my second time visiting Malaysia. The first time was during the 2003 GACC tournament, as I was in the same team as my husband.
Have you all tried the local delicacies in your trips here? How is it? Do you all like it?
Li Ruofan: I have tried it before, but I still prefer Chinese food.
I understand that the two of you are currently involved in the Chinese Chess League that ends in the month of November. When does the Chinese Chess League’s season start every year?
Zhang Zhong: The Chinese Chess League happens from April to November each year. And, thereafter, we will have a break before the beginning of the following season next year.
Are there a lot of foreign chess players coming to play in the Chinese Chess League each year?
Zhang Zhong: Most of the players in the Chinese Chess League are Chinese. Over the years, there are a few foreign players coming to play in the Chinese Chess League, and they are mainly from Russia or Armenia. For example, we had GM Zvagintsev this year, while GM Asrian was involved last year.
OK, I have a question here for each of you. How do you see yourself in five years’ time?
Zhang Zhong: In an ideal world I would wish to be the World Chess Champion in five years’ time.
Li Ruofan: I don’t know! (with a laugh)