Where is Ding?

by Sagar Shah
12/4/2023 – Ding Liren won the World Chess Championship 2023 and became the 17th World Champion. It's been 200 days since the last game of chess that he has played publicly. So where is Ding Liren, what is he up to? During his period of being away from the world of chess, IM Sagar Shah managed to get in touch with him and asked him about key position in the match. Ding also speaks about life after match and more. | Photo: Anna Shtourman

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Getting to know Ding Liren

The first time I properly got to know Ding Liren was at the FIDE World Cup 2017. That's when the Chinese Grandmaster made a dash to the top and qualified for the Candidates finishing runner-up at the event behind Levon Aronian. I would ask Ding for an interview after his games and he would usually oblige. The video interviews that were conducted over a period of 20 days ranged from winning against Wang Hao and spending the rest day washing clothes to beating Wesley So in the semi-finals and not being able to sleep!

A picture with 24-year-old Ding Liren after he had, in 2017, made his country proud by becoming the first ever Chinese player to qualify for the Candidates

After the event ended and Ding was packing up, I asked him if I could come to his room and do an in-depth interview with him about Ding Liren – the person and not the chess player. He agreed! And the result was this article, which is one of my favourites: Who is Ding Liren? Ding shared with me his email-id so that I could get a couple of pictures from him and since then we have been in touch.

Little Liren after winning the Li Chengzhi Cup! | Photo: Ding Liren's archives

Ding Liren with his father Ding Wenjun and mother Ye Xiaoping. He is an only child. | Photo: Ding Liren's archives

In 2019, Ding Liren visited India for the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid and Blitz 2019 which was part of the Grand Chess Tour. He managed to beat Magnus Carlsen in both the blitz games - with white as well as with black. His win with black pieces which featured a king march from g8 to other side of the board right after the opening was simply fantastic. At that point everyone was pretty sure that Ding would be the one to challenge Carlsen for the ultimate throne in the near future.

World no.1 Magnus Carlsen has had quite high regard for Ding as a player since many years | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Over the years, my respect for both Ding Liren the person as well as the chess player has grown immensely. And hence, I was extremely pleased when he managed to get a chance to fight for the ultimate world title earlier this year.

The match was filled with tremendous ups and downs and in the end Ding Liren triumphed with a score of 9.5-8.5. (7-7 in classical chess and 2.5-1.5 in the rapid tiebreaks) | Photo: Stev Bonhage

The match was tremendously intense with Nepo being in the lead on 3 occasions in the match and Ding fighting back and equalizing the score. With six decisive games in the classical format, it was a feast for the viewers. So many emotions, so much drama – and it ended with 7-7 tie at the end of 14 classical games. In the rapid format the first three games ended in draws and in the final rapid game, Ding Liren struck gold and took home the World Champion's title. 

It was all decided in a matter of few seconds! This victory of Ding Liren was a great example of his mental fortitude and his ability to come back every single time he was put in a difficult situation.

It was an extremely big moment in the life of the 1992 born Chinese Grandmaster. At the age of 30 years he had become the 17th World Champion of chess. | Photo: Stev Bonhage

After the match ended, I tried to get in touch with Ding Liren, but there was no reply for many days. I could understand that he was extremely busy, and his responsibilities had grown. The match had ended on 30th of April 2023, and I sent him a mail once again in June. Ding responded back saying that he was ready to do the video interview. However, the Chinese GM was extremely tired and he asked me if I could send him questions via email. I did that and for the next two months there was no response. But in August, Ding Liren suddenly messaged me: "My health situation has improved a lot and I can answer your questions." I was overwhelmed. The World Champion had kept my request in mind and had taken out time to respond back.

I now present this interview to you: 

Interview with the 17th World Champion Ding Liren

Sagar Shah (SS): How has life been after becoming the 17th World Champion?

Ding Liren (DL): It has changed a lot.

SS: You got to know that you would fight for the highest title roughly around October 2022 and had 6 months for your preparation. What were your main areas of focus?

DL: It revolved around the openings.

The last game of the Candidates 2022 proved to be the most important one as Ding Liren defeated Nakamura to finish second behind Ian Nepomniachtchi. When Magnus Carlsen refused to defend the title, Ding Liren got the opportunity to fight for the World Champion's title.

SS: How did the idea of having Richard Rapport in your team come about?

DL: It came after we played some training games.

The internet absolutely loved the friendship of Rapport and Ding. It was clear that Rapport's role was much more than just a second at the event.

SS: Were there any other seconds in your team? Could you tell us about them?

DL: Jakhongir Vakhidov from Uzbekistan. 

We interviewed Vakhidov at the Global Chess League, and he talks about working with Ding Liren and how it happened 

SS: How happy were you with the arrangements made? You shifted the hotels before the start of the event. Was it uncomfortable?

DL: Yeah, I remembered I was quite excited when the match was approaching, but I felt uncomfortable at the start of the match when we stayed at the official hotel. So I shifted my hotel.

SS: Coming to chess, What was the idea of 4.h3 in Game 2? What was the main position that you were aiming for?

Ding Liren (0.5) vs Ian Nepomniachtchi (0.5), Game 2

One of the moves that shocked the chess world was 4.h3 played by Ding in the 2nd game of their World Championship match

DL: Richard and I both thought it’s the idea that may bring us the full point. We had analyzed and played a lot, but the position occurred in the game after 11...Na5 was new to me.

Ding (0.5) vs Nepo (0.5), Game 2

Ding Liren was well prepared until this point, but the move 11...Na5 surprised him and this game ended in his first loss.

SS: When Nepo played 28...Nd4 in Game 4, what was your reaction?

Ding (1) vs Nepo (2), Game no.4

The position before Nf5-d4 was unclear. If Black played the move ...g5, it could have gone either way. But the move Nd4 was an error. Now the rook can simply chop it off, followed by Nb3-d4 with a winning advantage.

DL: Actually this was what I expected. My intention was to play 29.Qd1, but then I found 29.Rxd4. White is winning after that.

SS: When Nepo played 28...Nd4 in Game 4, what was your reaction?

Ding (1) vs Nepo (2), Game no.4

The position before Nf5-d4 was unclear. If Black played the move ...g5, it could have gone either way. But the move Nd4 was an error. Now the rook can simply chop it off, followed by Nb3-d4 with a winning advantage.

DL: Actually this was what I expected. My intention was to play 29.Qd1, but then I found 29.Rxd4. White is winning after that.

SS: In Game 5 you went for the move 19...Bd8 which was a slightly elaborate manoeuvre. ...Ne7 would have led to equality. Did you think ...Bd8 was the critical error?

Nepo (2) vs Ding (2), Game no.5

DL: No, I don't think so. I thought the critical mistake was 29...Nf5. Instead 29...Qf6 would lead to equality.

In this position Ding played ...Nxf5 but instead ...Qf6 would have led to equality.

SS: How did you decide to go for the London System in Game 6?

DL: I thought it's a good try.

SS: Top commentators like Anish Giri were very impressed with your move 41.d5 in game 6 of the match which weaved the mating net. Were you proud of the move?

Ding (2) vs Nepo (3), Game 6

Ding Liren's absolute genius and a firm grasp of tactical patterns was seen in this moment when he pushed the pawn to d5. The point is after ...a2 White goes Qc7! Kh7 Ng6 Rg8 and now the stunning move...

Qf7!! What a move. And the point of d5 comes to light. Ding Liren wants to play Qxg8 Kxg8 Ra8+ Kf7 and Rf8# Notice how the d5 pawn takes away the e6 square! This is the reason why Ding Liren pushed his pawn to d5 a few moves ago! What a brilliant concept!

DL: Yeah, I got excited when I found this idea during the game.

SS: How did you decide the French in Game 7? Were you happy with your decision?

DL: I spent almost the whole rest day preparing/reviewing the opening I used to play as a child. I was proud of the decisions I made at crucial moments and the only moves I found in critical situations. I messed it up around move 40 because I was too eager to play the best move in the position, which cost me a large amount of time and the game.

The 7th game was an extremely difficult one for Ding Liren

Ding (3) vs Nepo (3), Game 7

Ding Liren's last move was ...Rd2 and he played it taking nearly 5 minutes on the clock, having to make 8 more moves to reach move no.40 in just 45 seconds. It was humanly impossible. Ding had somehow frozen due to the pressure – as was dramatically captured in the live coverage.

SS: In Game no.8 you played the move 9.Ra2 and you called the idea a Canonball idea. I was listening to your favourite song Blowing in the wind by Bob Dylan. There is a line which goes "How many times must a cannonball fly before they are forever banned." Did the word cannonball come from there?

Ding (3) vs Nepo (4), Game 8

The new idea of Ra2 is what Ding Liren called the Cannonball

DL: Ha-ha. I didn't notice the lyrics. I knew the word from Damien Rice's "Cannonball". There is also a 'plant' called 'corn cannon' in the game Plants vs. Zombies.

SS: You mentioned that after the move 22...Bxe4 in game 8 you knew that you were winning, but you were not motivated to win. What happened there?

Ding (3) vs Nepo (4), Game 8

In this position Nepo went wrong with ...Bxe4, and Ding Liren knew that he was winning!

DL: Somehow I was wondering what will the others comment about this game. That it is not of not such a high quality. And what will happen if I win the match!

SS: When he played 31...Qh4 in game 8 were you surprised and what was the thing that you missed in your calculation?

In this position Ding Liren could have taken the rook and after Qe4+ Re2 Qb1+ Kd2 Qb2 Kd3 Qb1+ Rc2 Qxf1 Kd2 and the king escapes via c1 to b2. But instead he played Kd1 in the above position.

DL: I didn't go further into the line after 32.Qd8.

SS: When I interviewed Vishy Anand, he said he was very surprised that you did not play 37.Bc6 in game 8. Why did you not play that and went for 37.Bf3.

If Ding had gone Bc6 in the above position, he was clearly better. But instead he went Bf3, allowing ...Nxf2 Rxf2 Rxd7 when Black is fighting back in the game. 

DL: 37.Bc6 was my intention, but somehow I lost confidence and made a move which I thought was more careful.

SS: You were already trailing the match by 1 point when you reached game 12 and when Black played the move 23...Qg5 you were already in big trouble. What was your mindset during that point when you played c4. Did you feel that the title was going away from your grasp?

Ding (5) vs Nepo (6), Game 12

Black is completely better. Ding's 24.c4 was desperation more than anything else

DL: 24.c4 was a desperate try. I did feel like I was going to lose the match.

SS: You had a chance in game 13 to take the lead. On move 21....you went Re5. Do you think ...Rb8 would have led to a decisive result?

Nepo (6) vs Ding (6), Game 13

Here Ding played ...Re5, which was a fine move, but ...Rb8 would have been much stronger.

DL: 21...Rb8 is indeed better objectively.

SS: What made you decide to go for 12.Ng5 during the final classical game? Did you miss ...Qc7?

Ding (6.5) vs Nepo (6.5), Game 14

For the final classical game, Ding Liren's choice of Ng5 was very risky! Nepo found the cool and calm 12..h6 13.h4 Qc7! after which Black had an excellent position out of the opening

DL: First, I thought I was better at that point, so I wanted to seize the initiative by playing 12.Ng5. Secondly, the situation at that time lit the flames in my heart and created some eagerness to take risks. After 13.h4 I saw Qc7 and I realized that the offensive had been neutralized.

SS: Were you worried around move no.30 that you were in trouble in game 14. If Nepo had gone 36...Rb3 it might have been very difficult to hold that game, right?

Ding (6.5) vs Nepo (6.5), Game 14

In this position if Nepo would have played ...Rb3 he would have been extremely close to winning the title. However, he erred with ...e5 and after Rh8, White is back in the game.

DL: Yes. I was at the edge of losing at that point.

SS: Going into the tiebreaks what was the your mindset? Did you feel that you had good chances?

DL: After surviving the last classical game, I was in a positive mood.

SS: A lot has been said about the move 46...Rg6 in game 4 of the tiebreaks. Magnus said, "Self-pinning for immortality". Do you think this is one of the defining moves of your chess career?

Nepo (8.5) vs Ding (8.5), Tiebreak Game 4 

The move ...Rg6 which pinned the rook helped Ding Liren to avoid three-fold repetition, win the game and also the match!

DL: Well, during that moment I just thought it's the best try for a win. Actually I didn't take too much risk because I always have ...Qg4 in case of h4. Later the move earned enormous praise from outside, but at that moment, I just thought it's the best way to continue.

Final moments of Ding Liren becoming the World Champion 2023

The proud feeling of becoming the 17th World Champion | Photo: Anna Shtourman

SS: One of the things that was extremely striking was your honesty at the press conferences. Did you not feel that you were revealing a bit too much to your opponent?

DL: Maybe. But I thought it's better to focus on myself.

SS: Why did you say in one of your interviews that if you did not win the match, you would have retired from chess?

DL: At that point, I was lacking of the motivation of playing on. And I felt the openings have been fully studied.

SS: You mentioned that the match reflects the deepest of my soul. Can you tell us more on this?

DL: I remember the title of a book of poems, translated into English called "Until the World Reflects the Deepest Needs of the Soul". One night during a walk with Richard (Rapport), I came up with this phrase. But I missed the word 'needs' when quoting. I quoted this phrase again in the post-match press conference. All in all, this championship has changed me a lot and I have grown a lot.

SS: Ding Liren, are you spiritual? Have you read the Tao Te Ching? Are there any other spiritual books that you have read? ("The quote you had once mentioned: No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man - Heraclitus" is one of my favourites.)

DL: The question is very difficult to answer. I haven't read the Tao Te Ching. I would recommend Marx Weber's speech "Wissenschaft als Beruf".

The two books Ding speaks about:

  • Louise Elisabeth Glück is an American poet and essayist. This book contains a complete collection of Glick's two poems Averno and Village Life; in addition, there are also a selection of five early poems.
  • "Mark Weber's Wissenschaft als Beruf" which translates to Science as a profession.

SS: You mentioned that you have to now work harder and be more consistent as the World Champion. Do you feel a sense of responsibility as the 17th World Champion?

DL: Yes, I find the responsibilities of playing good and better.

After the World Championship Match

After the World Championship 2023, Ding immediately played the Superbet Grand Chess Tour event in Romania from the 6th to the 15th of May 2023. It wasn't the best of events for him. He lost 9 Elo points scoring 4.0/9. That was the last time that we saw Ding Liren on the chess board. Since then it has been 200 days. Of course, the question on everyone's mind is, where is Ding Liren? On 30th October the entire chess world heaved a sigh a relief when Ding Liren came out in public and did commentary at the Chinese national mind games. He looked in good spirits!

Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India, the biggest chess news portal in the country. His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, and to date close to a billion views. ChessBase India is the sole distributor of ChessBase products in India and seven adjoining countries, where the software is available at a 60% discount. compared to International prices.