China strengthens bid for world crown as Ding Liren wins key match
Friday 24 July 2015 11.26 EDT
China is on the verge of gaining its first ever player in the world top 10. Despite winning the two premier team competitions, the 2014 Olympiad and the 2015 world team championship, China’s grandmasters, eight of them with elite ratings above 2700, have until now peaked at the top 20-50 level.
Chinese chess leaders have long wanted to break the top-10 barrier, hence last weekend’s match where Ding Liren, 22, the country’s highest-ranked player, took on the vastly experienced Boris Gelfand, 47, who challenged for the world title in 2012. The stake was $20,000, far above what China would normally allow for an event of only four games with two players, and showing the importance attached to the result. On paper they were evenly matched but Ding, playing in his home city of Wenzhou, proved better prepared, exploited the Israeli veteran’s chronic time pressure and ran out a 3-1 winner, showing his confidence by taking the final game when a draw would have sufficed.
Ding is now No11 in the world in the live ratings, and with 2759 points is only six behind Levon Aronian of Armenia, the No10. He could close that small gap as early as this weekend, when the latest round of the Chinese league gets under way. This is a monster event with 22 matches in the season where England’s 4NCL league, in common with most European leagues, has only nine games.
Ding in the top 10 would be just a step in China’s long-term plan to challenge for Magnus Carlsen’s world crown. The 2016 candidates qualifier is too early, so the target is to capture one or more of the eight places in the 2018 candidates which will decide the title challenger that year. By 2018 the talented 21-year-old Yu Yangyi and the prodigy Wei Yi, 16, could also be serious contenders.
The icing on the Chinese cake has been provided by Carlsen’s dismal performance at Stavanger last month, which raised questions over whether the Norwegian 24-year-old can stay at the top for a long time.
Just how intensively Beijing prepares its major talents has been revealed by an interview with Wei Yi in the latest issue of NIC magazine. He left his family home at age seven to live with his chess coach, and a year later transferred to the Wixi chess academy, where half the day was devoted to school and half to chess, and which top Chinese GMs visited frequently to play the students.
By 2010 Wei Yi was world under-12 champion, defeating the US top seed Kayden Troff, who is also now a teenage grandmaster, in the decisive game. In 2011, aged 12, he turned professional, receiving a state salary and spending seven hours a day in chess training plus basketball and table tennis.
This year Wei Yi , a fully fledged elite grandmaster ranked in the world top 30, has competed virtually non-stop, a technique used by Bent Larsen in his pomp and recently by Fabiano Caruana. The Chinese teen has already played in 2015 at Tata Steel Wijk, where he won the B group and so qualified to take on Carlsen and the world top in 2016, in Tradewise Gibraltar, in team matches where China defeated India and Russia, in China’s gold medal squad in the world team championship, in the Chinese championship where he was the youngest ever winner, and in the Danzhou GM tournament. This weekend he is playing in the Chinese league.
All this leads up to the 128-player World Cup in September, whose two finalists qualify for the 2016 candidates and where Wei Yi, Ding and the other Chinese entrants have an outside chance. The entire programme is impressive and, for Western GMs used to less hectic schedules, a little frightening.