It’s just the worst version of me: Ding Liren on his struggles - Hindustan Times

It’s just the worst version of me: Ding Liren on his struggles

By, Bengaluru
Jun 06, 2024 12:58 PM IST

In an interview to HT, world chess champion Ding Liren spoke about contemplating withdrawal from Norway Chess and losing his passion for the game.

Ding Liren pauses to collect his words often, throws in a self-deprecating remark of being the ‘worst version’ of himself right now and says he wants to hit ‘restart’. The last bit is the glimmer of self-affirmation in a man – 31 years of age, reigning world chess champion, struggling with demons and a freefall of results. It's a rest day at the Norway Chess in the seaport city of Stavanger and Ding has plans to play a soccer game the organisers are putting together.

The world champion has during the course of this tournament, dropped out of the top 10 in the live ratings(Stev Bonhage/Norway Chess )
The world champion has during the course of this tournament, dropped out of the top 10 in the live ratings(Stev Bonhage/Norway Chess )

It’s been a rough tournament for the Chinese player – zero classical wins in eight rounds and bottom-placed with two rounds remaining. “I’ve had four losses in a row… I even considered withdrawing from the tournament,” Ding told HT in an interview on Wednesday. “But I stayed and continued playing. I thought I’d try to play better and get better results. But I’m now in last place.”

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Since his World Championship win last year, Ding has battled depression and sought treatment. He’s seen the concerned remarks of his colleagues at Norway Chess about him not being quite himself and those of his anxious, involuntary body movements at times during games. He says he doesn’t mind the comments. Of course he’s also perhaps the nicest chess player you’ll meet – unassuming, soft-spoken and kind to a fault with his child-like, guileless smile reaching his eyes even when he’s speaking his harshest truth.

“I’m here as If I'm not here. It’s the real me, not a fake one,” he says, laughing, “It’s just the worst version of me.”

For now, he’ll take the mini-moments – a good position, a couple of split points. Baby steps. Like his Round 8 match against world No 2 Fabiano Caruana who’s not having the best tournament and is just one spot above him in the standings. Ding had an advantage in the classical game but he squandered it and settled for a draw. In the Armageddon too, Ding went from completely winning to an equal endgame and a draw sufficed for Caruana to take the match.“I had the better position even though I did not win in the end. But it showed that I can still compete at the highest level…. To think carefully, to think longer, to totally focus on the game is what I’m finding most challenging. My openings aren’t as good as the others so they can surprise me on many occasions.”

The world champion has during the course of this tournament, dropped out of the top 10 in the live ratings. He’s not even the highest-ranked Chinese player at this point. Wei Yi is four spots ahead of him with a live rating of 2755. It’s a hard reconciliation. “I want to stop the bleeding, I want to stop losing more rating points. Now my ranking is out of the top 10… I believe it's fair because my level has dropped and my chess has not been as good as before.”

Ding says him being emotional and out of sorts during last year’s World Championship was a “different story” from the mental health issues he fought after the title. “Earlier, I wasn’t emotional. After some things happened in life, I’ve become more emotional. Now after each loss…how do I put it.. I’m very sad, very upset.”

“I was in very bad shape a few times (after the WC win). It was only after I saw a doctor and started taking medicines that my mental condition stabilised.”

The year-end World Championship against India’s D Gukesh isn’t on his mind yet. “Still many months to go..After I get back to China I will start to prepare a little bit.”

He’s forthright about the world title robbing him of his motivation for the game. “Many people perhaps see me as an idol or as a superhero. They admire me for having achieved the ultimate goal,” Ding says, before offering some self-assessment, “Since I’m playing so badly, there's a lot of room for improvement. For me, it’s not about winning tournaments right’s about still competing with the world’s best players. After I won the title, my passion for chess dropped a lot. I need to reset and be back to winning mode.”

In his road to recovery, Ding perhaps finds a streak of inspiration in Juventus and Italy footballer Federico Chiesa. “I love Chiesa…Though he’s had tough injuries in recent years, he recovered. He has a chance to play in the European Cup. I hope he can do well.”

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