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Ding Liren, a champion in distress

Jun 02, 2024 11:52 PM IST

“Very concerned for him and his match vs Gukesh”, peers offer as China’s reigning world chess champion grapples with seeming mental struggles

In the moments after his Round 4 Norway Chess win over reigning world champion Ding Liren, Alireza Firouzja paused and wondered how to react. “I don’t know…Normally I should be happy after a win but clearly he’s not playing his best,” the French-Iranian Grandmaster said, a touch concerned. “I didn’t do anything particular in the game, it was just about him not finding accurate moves.”

Chinese chess grandmaster Ding Liren (L) in action.(AFP)

“I hope he gets his shape back...When he gets it back, I don’t expect to win games like this,” Firouzja said, cracking a smile.

Also Read | Viswanathan Anand, Magnus Carlsen, Ding Liren and Hou Yifan to feature in Global Chess League

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In the next round on Saturday, Ding collapsed to his third classical loss in a row and dropped out of the top-10 in the live ratings. His opponent Hikaru Nakamura spoke of what he saw, in some detail: “I’ve played Ding over the years, he’s definitely not the same person I played in (Candidates) 2022 where he outplayed me in the middlegame. Or the Ding who crushed Magnus in the Saint Louis tie-breaker. I’m not sure it’s visible on video…I was struggling to keep my composure because he was bouncing up and down and was literally shaking.”

In six months, another World Championship will be upon Ding and this time he has a title to defend. He’ll be playing Indian teen phenom D Gukesh, who’s bidding to be the youngest world champion.

“I would be very concerned for him, for his upcoming match against Gukesh because he just doesn’t look right,” Nakamura said. “Hopefully he’ll be fine and competitive. You hear everything and then you see him in person…it’s very awkward because obviously I’m still a competitor but you feel bad for the guy. You want him to do well. I mean he’s the current world champion… The hardest thing is to stay focused on the game because it started to feel at some point that it wasn’t really about the game.”

Ding seemingly hasn’t been himself for a while now. The Chinese player let us in on the first signs of distress during the World Championship against Ian Nepomniachtchi last year. In the duel to decide the world champion where details are typically fiercely guarded and not an ounce of extra information is given away by either side, Ding was freakishly honest. He spoke about struggling with his emotions and his mind being in a funk. We saw visuals of him in the players’ lounge with a white hoodie pulled over his head, arms crossed, sitting motionless. “It’s very strange, many memories, feelings, I felt a little bit there was something wrong with my mind... I was feeling cold because of the anxieties,” he said then.

It must be a debilitating situation to be in, for Ding. A player who’s known Ding for long spoke of him becoming “quieter” lately and ventured that he’d “closed himself up a little bit more”. “I doubt Ding has been doing any serious chess work at all for a while now. I don’t think he’s in the mood. It also seems like he doesn’t care too much either.”

In a chat with HT well ahead of the Candidates, Gukesh spoke about his impressions of Ding’s struggles and Carlsen choosing to walk away from the classical world title after five wins, as a young player: “Throughout history a lot of world champions have been very disturbed by the title I suppose… I guess this kind of a match takes a lot out of you. I suppose I can kind of understand, even if not entirely.”

In a profession where results mean everything and failures and success are public, it can often be overwhelming. The most decorated Olympian in history, Michael Phelps, has been open about his mental health struggles over the years. “Sometimes I just want to curl up into a ball in a corner,” he once said. The former swimmer has spoken about seeking help and focusing on what he can control. “So, you stack those bricks up one by one, then you’re able to move forward and just keep going,” he said in a 2021 interview. “…to make that transition from being submerged in water to taking a few steps on land.”

Praggnanandhaa beats world No 2 Caruana

Days after he defeated world No.1 Magnus Carlsen, 18-year-old R Praggnanandhaa logged full points with White against the second-highest ranked player in the world, Fabiano Caruana, at Norway Chess in Stavanger. In what appeared to be a theoretically drawn position, Caruana blundered. Instead of playing Kf7, to leave the f6 square free for his knight, he pushed his King to the wrong square with 66…Kf6. The Indian teen managed to spot 69…Nxh6 and it was soon all over for the American. With the win, Praggnanandhaa moved inside the top 10 in the live ratings. His sister Vaishali has been on a remarkable run and leads the standings after five rounds in a field that features the reigning women’s world champion Ju Wenjun.

He joined Arjun Eriagisi and D Gukesh to make it three Indians in the top 10 for the first time. Five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand is the 11th spot in the live ratings. Live ratings are of course subject to frequent change. Published ratings are out on the first of every month.

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