With Ding Liren we reach one of the two absolute favourites to win the 2020 Candidates Tournament. The Chinese no. 1 and world no. 3’s recent 100-game unbeaten streak demonstrated how hard he’d become to beat, but the criticism was that he was too solid to score full points against the very best players. In the last year that’s changed, with the Sinquefield Cup and Grand Chess Tour triumphs including wins over both Fabiano and Magnus. Can he take the final step and win the Candidates, or will his preparation have been shaken by the coronavirus?
Ding Liren simply cruised into the 2020 Candidates Tournament. He began 2019 rated 2813 and never dipped below 2800 all year, while Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, rated 2817 in January, faded away. The Chinese no. 1 could afford not to play the Grand Prix series or the Grand Swiss and was guaranteed to qualify for the Candidates by rating before he sealed his place even sooner by getting to the final of the 2019 World Cup. For a second time in a row he lost in the final, despite having taken a 1.5:0.5 lead over Teimour Radjabov, but there was no harm done.
Ding Liren ended the year in real style, beating fellow Candidates Anish Giri and Fabiano Caruana in the Sinquefield Cup and becoming the first player in a decade to beat Magnus Carlsen in a speed chess playoff. He followed up by beating Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (who had beaten Magnus) to win the Grand Chess Tour finals in London.
What do we know about the Chinese no. 1?
You can also check out Ding Liren’s chess24 profile.
At 43 minutes, Laurent Fressinet, Jan Gustafsson and Peter Heine Nielsen spent longer discussing Ding Liren, and his win over Fabiano Caruana from the 2019 Sinquefield Cup, than any other player (though a Maxime Vachier-Lagrave update is still to come!). The Chinese no. 1 was the first player we’ve looked at in this series of articles where you couldn’t identify a real weakness.
Magnus Carlsen is among those to agree Ding Liren, and Fabiano Caruana, are in a class apart. This was his Candidates prediction:
So far it’s an open question whether it’s going to happen, but I think for a long time my favourite there has been Caruana, and as long as he makes it to Moscow [Yekaterinburg] and the tournament happens I’m sticking with that. I think if you divide the Candidates into tiers then Fabiano is 1a and then Ding is 1b and then everybody else is lower probably. Alekseenko and Wang Hao, they’re probably the lowest tier, and the rest obviously have a chance, but for each of them individually it would take the tournament of their life to make it.
Here are the scores:
For most of the categories the only question was whether Ding merited 5/5 or not. None of our experts thought he quite did for preparation, since as Jan pointed out, “he has a comparatively narrow repertoire compared to the Caruanas and Giris, who can play a lot of stuff”. Jan explained Ding is a 1.d4 player and:
It would be a shock if he started playing 1.e4 in the Candidates, which in such a field can be a disadvantage. With Fabi everyone has to be ready for 1.d4 or 1.e4.
Peter agreed, but explained why that hadn’t held Ding back too much:
I think he’s well-prepared. He gets a lot of good positions and he rarely gets in trouble with Black. I understand he’s a bit limited, the openings he plays, but he does it very well and scores well with them.
Only the final two categories saw some more notable disagreements. Laurent gave 5 for fighting spirit, while Peter only gave 3. Their debate began:
Laurent: He’s a great fighter and never a quick draw – always fighting to the end in tournaments!
Peter: But you were the one who just said that you cannot see him making 7 wins in Wijk…
Laurent: Because of his playing style... To be a good fighter you don’t have to play the Najdorf every game.
Peter: You’re allowed to have that opinion, but I think that’s the definition of a fighter, that you actually take risk to optimise your chances, while Ding actually tries to play correct chess, which might not be equity optimising. You can argue some random player plays extremely solid but he’s just playing chess, but that’s not fighting, fighting is trying to make the most points.
Peter also brought up the 2018 Candidates:
You saw the last Candidates he got on +1 and I think at some point he should have adapted to not just doing well but actually trying to win this event. That’s why I gave him 3, which is an average score… If we look at the top three players he’s behind Magnus and Fabiano in fighting spirit, that’s clear.
The last statement is hard to argue with, but the comment on Berlin is somewhat unfair! Ding Liren only got to +1 with two rounds to go - he’d spoilt a +19 advantage against Grischuk in Round 11 before finally beating Mamedyarov in Round 12. Then in Round 13 he drew a wild game where Vladimir Kramnik found a brilliant tactical shot:
And in the final round, where Ding Liren still had a mathematical chance of qualifying for a match against Magnus Carlsen, he came very close to winning before Sergey Karjakin managed to hold a fortress two pawns down. As with Anish Giri’s 14 draws, Ding Liren’s 13 draws and 1 win in Berlin was nowhere near as solid as it seems!
The other arguable category was “Hot or Not?” Ding is rated over 2800, and in the Sinquefield Cup and Grand Chess Tour in December perhaps scored the best results of his career so far. Why not 5s all round? Well, he hasn’t played competitively since December and he was, along with Wang Hao, the first player to be affected by the coronavirus, with left him cooped up in an apartment in China. Then he needed to arrive well in advance to complete 14 days of quarantine:
By now, however, most of the world has caught up with or surpassed the parts of China where Ding Liren found himself when the outbreak began. Let’s take a look at the reasons why he will, or won’t, win the 2020 Candidates:
He keeps on getting better: Ding Liren was still rated below 2300 on the eve of his 15th birthday, a time when most players with his potential are nowadays already grandmasters. He shot up fast after that, winning the Chinese Championship three times from 2009-2012, but overall his progress has been steady rather than spectacular. What really makes him stand out, however, is his ability to keep on getting better. His 100-game unbeaten streak from August 2017 to November 2018 - during which he got to the World Cup final, crossed 2800 and played his first Candidates – was remarkable for a player who seldom shied away from tactical skirmishes.
After the streak ended, however, he eventually added another dimension to his game. He made it to another World Cup final but more importantly showed he could beat the best and win supertournaments. Jan commented:
That’s the thing with Ding. It feels like he’s improving all the time. He’s already 27, but every year he’s making another step.
Peter argued, “It’s only now he starts looking like a World Championship contender” and didn’t rule out further improvement: “It’s hard for me to define Ding’s ceiling”.
The experience of Berlin: We’ve already touched on the Berlin Candidates in 2018. Ding Liren took part as the first Chinese player ever to reach a Candidates Tournament and ended up as the only player not to lose a game (though he was dead lost at times against, for instance, Grischuk and Caruana). Ding knows what it’s going to take and seems already to have made some of the adjustments required to win more than the one game he did in Berlin.
He’s ready to face Magnus: There’s winning supertournaments and then there’s winning supertournaments in which Magnus plays. Few have managed the latter, but in 2019 Ding Liren showed he could live with the best. In Norway Chess he finished joint top with Magnus if you counted only classical games. In that case Magnus easily won the tournament due to his crushing score in Armageddon chess, but in the Sinquefield Cup, after again matching Carlsen’s unbeaten +2, Ding Liren showed he could also win a speed chess playoff against the World Champion. If he does win the Candidates that could give him the confidence not to fear the tiebreaks we saw in the last two World Championship matches.
He rarely posts big scores: We’ve noted Ding Liren’s improvement in 2019, and the players he beat in classical chess include his fellow Candidates Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Alexander Grischuk, but he never racked up a big plus score in a single event:
In the World Cup after an easy 1st round he got to the final but only won two classical games, against Grischuk and Radjabov, while in the London Grand Chess Tour finals his one classical win was against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
So Ding Liren is a formidable player who’s hard to beat and can beat the best, but if anyone can rack up a +3 or higher score the Chinese no. 1 is going to have to go beyond his comfort zone.
MVL spoilt Ding Liren's + score: When Teimour Radjabov was playing the Candidates Ding Liren had an impressive +7 against the field, but with MVL (who he has a -2 score against) replacing Radjabov (+1) that score against the field has been cut to +4, and in fact that whole score can be accounted for by Ding’s +4 against his compatriot Wang Hao.
In a recent interview, however, Magnus Carlsen felt the inclusion of Maxime actually works to Ding’s advantage:
I think in general it’s favourable to Ding that Maxime plays instead of Radjabov. Although Radjabov is solid, I think Fabiano is better than Ding at beating the slightly lower-rated players, and I think in order for Ding to win he probably has to beat Fabiano in their individual encounters. I’m happy for Maxime that he’s there. I think he’s going to be a great addition to the tournament.
The coronavirus: The great unknown of the 2020 Candidates Tournament, even greater than the question of how and with whom Ding Liren has been working for the last three months, is the coronavirus. The players seem gradually to be making it to Yekaterinburg…
…though there are still, of course, scenarios in which the event might not start or finish. If it does go ahead one question will be who has been most affected by the pandemic. The Chinese players initially had their preparation plans interrupted, with Ding Liren then forced to travel to Russia over two weeks in advance.
It remains to be seen if that’s allowed him to acclimatise more than some of the other players, or whether by the end of the tournament his forced quarantine in both China and then Russia will lead to more than the usual level of fatigue. The best guess is that the Chinese no. 1 is unflappable and has had longer to adjust to the effects of the virus than the players who were hit by the chaos just before the event...
...but who knows! We should get a much better idea in the early rounds.
It’s now just 4 days to go until the Fide Candidates Tournament begins!
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