Who is Ding Liren?

by Sagar Shah
9/30/2017 – World Cup runner-up, Ding Liren, the chess player, is well known to everyone. But what about Ding Liren the person. Not much is known about his personal life, his education, his likes, dislikes, hobbies, his girlfriend, daily routine, future aims and so on. It was with the aim to fill this void that IM Sagar Shah met with Ding after his World Cup 2017 journey and interviewed him. The answers of Chinese player show you the kind of person he is. To put it succinctly: his feet are firmly secured to the ground, but his mind thinks big and he aims high — very high! | Photo: Ding Liren's archives

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The personal side of Ding

The crowd erupted into applause as Ding Liren extended his hand in resignation. The Chinese player had lost the second game of the rapid tiebreak, making Levon Aronian the World Cup 2017 champion. While everyone congratulated Aronian, Ding made a quiet exit. He wanted to go back to his room, but was caught by a journalist who wished to get his views on the match. It's not easy for Ding to say 'No' to someone and so he obliged. I knew that the victory celebration in the Armenian camp would go on for quite some time, so I went to Ding first and did a short interview with him.

After Ding explained why he had lost the finals and the interview ended I asked him if he could spare 30 minutes after the closing ceremony or the next day for me. "But I already have spoken to you after every game of mine", was Ding's reply. "Yes, that's true. That's why the interview is not going to be about your games or World Cup 2017. I want to know more about you, Ding Liren the person." I could see he wasn't too keen, but as mentioned before, he is too kind to say 'No'. And so he agreed. "But before the closing ceremony, please", was his request.

Therefore at 7 p.m. I called Ding's room from the reception. "Can I come to your room. If yes, you need to come to the ground floor as I cannot access the eleventh floor where you are staying with my room card." Within two minutes Ding came down to meet me with a smile. We went to his room and he asked me to make myself comfortable. The view was not what I expected to see when I enter a 24-year-old person's room. Everything was in its place. There was absolutely no mess. It was as if Ding Liren had decided to leave the room after the closing ceremony. But he wasn't going to. He was going to stay for two more days!

"That's where I usually sit", he said pointing towards his chair. I sat on a table opposite him and we began:

China's number one and the man who has qualifed for Candidates 2018 | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Sagar Shah (SS): Firstly, how should I address you?

Ding Liren (DL): My first name is Liren and my family name is Ding. Everyone in China calls me Ding Liren. Usually people call me with my full name or the first name, but using my family name is also fine.

(SS): Ding Liren, can you tell us when and where were you born?

(DL): I was born on October 24th 1992 in Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province.

SS: And you still live there?

DL: My parents still live in Wenzhou. Nowadays I am normally in Beijing because I am studying in the Peking University. I still have one class left at the university. Once I finish that, I will be able to spend more time in my hometown.

SS: What are you studying at the university?

DL: I study law. I would have graduated from the university by July. However, I still have one class that has to be completed. So, I think I will go back to the university in October and finish my pending class. My main aim is to just pass in every subject, not to get good or great results.

SS: So would you like to be a lawyer or a professional chess player?

DL: Professional chess player, of course.

SS: Then why are you studying law?

DL: I was studying in class ten until 2009. It was only then that I decided to become a professional chess player. My parents think it's much better to learn something other than chess. I had the chance to go to Peking University, which is one of the best in China, without giving any entrance examination. I got the admission based on my chess achievements. It's a good chance to open my eyes to the world, to learn something new. 

SS: Your parents wanted you to go university, but what about you? Do you enjoy it there?

DL: Now I can say I enjoy my life at the University, but before the examination it is very hard. Sometimes a class starts at eight in the morning and I usually get up at nine or ten! Also due to tournaments I would have to miss my classes. Usually my results are pretty good. I score something like 70-80%, but this time I still have certain subjects that I have not been able to clear, so I have to do it all over again.

Ding Liren with his room mate at the Peking university! | Photo: Ding Liren's archives

SS: What is the profession of your parents?

DL: My father is an electrical engineer and my mother is a nurse in a hospital.

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

SS: How did you start playing chess?

DL: It happened so early in my life that I do not remember it. What I know is only from others and newspaper clippings that I have. I was four years old when my mother and their friends decided that their kids should learn chess. So they took us to a chess club. Wenzhou is a chess city in China. Former women's World Champion Zhu Chen is from Wenzhou and also the match between Xie Jun and Korchnoi took place in the city. There is a good atmosphere to study chess here. I had the same initial coaches as Zhu Chen had. Chen Lixing was my first coach. He is very famous in the Wenzhou Chess Association.

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SS: What was your initial success in the game? How did you get better at chess?

DL: Every year in summer and winter vacations I would participate in the Li Chengzhi Cup when I was young. It's the strongest tournament for teenagers. I performed very well and won it every year. I played in all the age categories — under-10, 12, 14, and so on. I participated in this tournament until I was 18 or 19. The Li Chengzhi Cup helped me to grow up into a strong chess player, to develop my chess skills, to fight with other players from different provinces in China.

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

SS: Who were your biggest competitors in the Li Chengzhi Cup?

DL: Yu Yangyi and Wei Yi are currently the most upcoming players of China. But I am two years older to Yu Yangyi and Wei Yi is much younger than me. Wang Chen, Ma Qun and Gao Rui were my competitors back then. They are all now in the range of 2550-2650.

SS: And you have reached nearly 2800. What do you think is the reason for your meteoric rise, that no other Chinese player has been able to achieve?

DL: I work hard and I love chess. And I don't like to play video games! [Laughs]

Ding Liren's success mantra! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

SS: Not like Wang Hao!

DL: But he plays interesting games! Not like the normal video games that everyone plays. Normally people will play video games...[ponders], I don't know how to say it...like everybody does!

SS: So, why don't you play video games?

DL: I find them boring. That's why I can focus my time on chess. Also I am not into teaching others and spend more time on my chess improvement. I think Yu Yangyi, Wei Yi and me have the best chance to achieve more and have greater ambitions in chess.

SS: Like becoming the World Champion?

DL: That's another story, that's a little far away. But we can break some records in the near future.

SS: You definitely broke many records at this World Cup2017.

DL: Yes, I did. But in the finals I did not perform well. If I would have won the World Cup, it would have been a convincing result.

SS: But, making it to the Candidates is a big thing. Did you know you are only the second player after Vishy Anand from Asia to reach the Candidates. [Subsequently we realized that Ding Liren is not the second Asian as Eugene Torre had already qualified for Candidates in 1983 - Ed]

DL: [Smiles] I didn't know that.

SS: What does a normal day in the life of Ding Liren look like when he is not going to the university?

DL: I don't like to make a plan for myself. I study chess when I feel like doing it. Usually I wake up at 9 or 10 a.m. I cannot really go to sleep early at night. 1 a.m. is the normal time to go to bed for me. After waking up and having my breakfast I go through the games that have been played yesterday. I use 2700chess.com or The Week in Chess to find games. If I get some interesting games I go through them and try to analyze deeper. Once I am done seeing the latest games, it's usually time for lunch. I like to take some rest after lunch. I do some physical exercise in the evening or play basketball with my friends. After that I play chess games online and often also follow the live league games that are being played. I also like football, so if there is some match that is being played I watch them. And before going to sleep I like to read a book or listen to some music. I think this is a normal day for me.

SS: What sort of music do you like?

DL: I like Chinese music, mainly folk songs. In English music my favourite singers are Damien Rice and the Passenger. I think their style is similar.

Beautiful Birds by Passenger — one of Ding Liren's favourite English songs

SS: What are some of the other sports that you like?

DL: I like football and basketball. My favourite teams in Football are Bayern Munich and Juventus. I do not usually have a favourite player because quite often a club will sell them and it is difficult to follow them in a different club. I prefer to have teams as my favourite.

SS: Ding, do you have a girlfriend?

DL: [Smiles] Yes. She is a chess player, but not so strong. We do sometimes practice chess in Beijing. I do not wish to reveal her name.

Ding Liren smiling

Heartbreak for Ding Liren's female fan followers?! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

SS: Fair enough. Who is your best friend in the chess world?

DL: Wei Yi is currently my closest friend in the Chinese chess team. He was my room mate at this World Cup. Wan Yunguo is my very good friend, but presently he doesn't play much. He spends most of his time teaching chess to children. But we will meet at the Chinese League and get a chance to catch up with each other. During the Chinese league after every game we play basketball with each other.

Being top players of the world Wei Yi and Ding Liren often have to fight each other over the board, but off the board they are best friends! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

SS: Is it true that the government of China sponsors you and other players to the tournament and the prize money that you win has to be given to them?

DL: In this World Cup we had to make our own arrangements and pay for our expenses and hence the prize money will also be entirely ours.

SS: So, are you happy with this development?

DL: Yes, I think what has happened is good. Everyone in China wants it to be this way. We will at least earn more. And in future too I hope it is this way. They [the Chinese chess association - Ed.] cannot control everything.

SS: So 64,000 USD, that's what you earned after finishing as the runner-up at this World Cup. What are you going to do with this money?

Ding Liren after receiving the runners-up cheque (US$ 80,000 less 20% FIDE fee) at the closing ceremony | Photo: Amruta Mokal

DL: After deducting the room cost, it will come down to 60,000 USD. It's a good sum. I will give it to my mother, like I do everytime.

SS: So you won't keep any of the money with you?

DL: No, I don't need it. I don't like to buy things that are expensive and luxurious. I like to live a simple life. Perhaps, sometime I would like to visit a restaurant and eat some good food, but there too I try to make sure that it is not very expensive. You know when Wei Yi was here we sometimes would just have instant noodles and we were very happy having that. 

Ding Liren doesn't believe in luxurious clothing. He wears what he feels comfortable in. | Photo: Amruta Mokal

This year at the Moscow FIDE Grand Prix, my mother accompanied me and cooked food for me. Usually she would make simple noodles or rice which would give me more time to study chess.

SS: Can you tell us something about Xu Jun, your coach for this tournament.

The man who was always by the side of Ding Liren: his coach Xu Jun | Photo: Amruta Mokal

DL: He is the coach in the Chinese Chess Association and we have very good relations. Normally he is helping me and Wei Yi. He is from the same province as Wei Yi. He is a very old school coach and likes to write lines in notebook and show them to me. In the fourth classical game of my finals with Aronian, he had seen this line with ...Bd7 in the Ragozin, which Aronian had played against Grischuk. But he forgot to tell me. During the game he was regretting it very much, but fortunately I was able to make a draw. He was relieved. Having him with me in such a long tournament was very useful and helpful.

Many Chinese players helped me during the event like Ni Hua, Bu Xiangzhi and others. They didn't work particularly on opening lines but gave me some good and sound advice. Coach Li Wenliang, who now lives in the US with his wife, also helped me during the event. So a lot of people contributed to my good performance and I feel very warm.

SS: Do you think your life will change after this result at the World Cup?

DL: No, I don't think so. If I would have won the Championship, it would have changed a bit. As you saw after my last game with Aronian, everyone surrounded the winner. The second placed person is a bit lonely. But this is very normal, of course.

SS: But I came and did an interview with you! (Laughs)

DL: [Laughs] Thank you very much. I think my skill was not enough to win this championship, and I was exhausted after the semi-finals. I couldn't play my best. This is a very acceptable result.

SS: What is your aim in chess?

DL: I just want to work hard and keep improving. I do not like to keep an aim in chess like winning the World Championship. Right now it's very far. I will try to be happy and have good mood in daily life and then show my chess skill. I want to be a little bit different from a normal person.

SS: And how do you do that?

DL: By achieving something unusual in chess!

We stayed for the entire duration of the World Cup 2017 and watching Ding Liren in action throughout the event was one of the biggest pleasures for us. Wishing him all the best for Candidates 2018.

Ding Liren's video interviews on ChessBase India Youtube Channel

Round 4.3: I will wash some clothes on the rest day

Quarter finals 5.3: The only Chinese player to reach World Cup semi-finals

Semi-finals 6.1: After Kc3! I didn't have a move

Semi-finals 6.3: I am so happy that I won't be able to sleep tonight

Finals 7.1: I really want to play some interesting chess in the finals

Finals 7.2: I was under so much pressure that I couldn't eat my banana

Finals 7.3: Matches in China have helped me to prepare for World Cup finals

Finals 7.4: Tomorrow is another day

Finals 7.5: Aronian played better than me

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.


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