The torchbearer of a new generation of Chinese players, Ding Liren was at first something of a mystery. On the eve of his 15th birthday, when many young prodigies have already become grandmasters, he was still rated below 2300 and appeared to have played only a handful of rated games in the previous years. Then he achieved lift-off, and in 2009 he spectacularly won the adult Chinese Championship as an untitled 16-year-old, after Wang Hao spoilt a 1.5 point lead with two rounds to go.
Any suspicions the victory was unmerited disappeared when Ding went on to win the Chinese Championship again in 2011 and 2012. Ding Liren’s combined score in those events was an incredible 18 wins, 15 draws and 0 losses. Successful performances for the Chinese team also helped to confirm both his rating and his standing as one of the world’s top juniors – in 2012 only Fabiano Caruana and Anish Giri were ranked above him.
Ding Liren almost achieved his first major international success in Biel 2013, but in the final round he lost to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave when he only needed a draw and then went on to lose the playoff to the same opponent. He continued to make quiet progress until he began to accelerate in 2017. He played one of the most spectacular games you'll ever witness in the Chinese League...
...and reached the final of the 2017 World Cup in Tbilisi. Although he lost to Levon Aronian he became the first Chinese player to qualify for the Candidates Tournament, and in Berlin 2018 he scored an unbeaten +1, entering the final round with an outside chance of qualifying for a match against Magnus Carlsen. In the end he was 4th, but that tournament came as part of a 100-game unbeaten streak in classical chess that saw Ding Liren cross the 2800 barrier.
There was no turning back, with Ding Liren cruising to qualification for the 2020 Candidates Tournament. He would have made it by rating anyway, but instead earned his ticket in advance by getting to the final of the 2019 World Cup, where he this time lost to Teimour Radjabov. He showed he had learned how to win at the highest level when he won the Sinquefield Cup, beating Magnus Carlsen in a rapid playoff, and then went on to win the Grand Chess Tour with victory over Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
He went into the interrupted 2020 Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia as one of the hot favourites, but he was heavily affected by the coronavirus that saw him quarantined in China and then later again for two weeks when he entered Russia. He got off to a disastrous start, losing to Wang Hao and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and though he then beat his co-favourite Fabiano Caruana another loss to Ian Nepomniachtchi leaves him needing the result of his life to qualify for a World Championship match if and when the tournament resumes.
Ding Liren adapted well to online chess during the pandemic, however, fighting internet issues to reach three semi-finals of Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour events and qualify for the Grand Final. He shocked Magnus Carlsen by winning Day 1 of their match but ultimately went on to lose 3:1.
Ding Liren will be back for the 2020-2021 Champions Chess Tour.
Photo (after winning the 2019 Sinquefield Cup): Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour
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