Ding Liren's Crisis: Can the World Chess Champion Overcome Mental Struggles to Defend His Title?

05.06.2024 15:18 | News

The reigning world chess champion Ding Liren faces mounting concerns over his recent form and mental state as he prepares to defend his title against rising star Gukesh.

Fellow grandmasters and the chess community are expressing their worries following a string of losses and visible signs of distress.

After his Round 4 victory at the Norway Chess tournament over reigning world champion Ding Liren, Alireza Firouzja found himself at a loss for how to react. "I don’t know... Normally I should be happy after a win, but clearly he's not playing his best," said the French-Iranian Grandmaster, showing a hint of concern. "I didn’t do anything particular in the game, it was just about him not finding accurate moves."

Firouzja added with a smile, "I hope he gets his shape back... When he does, I don't expect to win games like this."

In the following round on Saturday, Ding suffered his third consecutive classical loss, dropping out of the top-10 in live ratings. His opponent, Hikaru Nakamura, provided a detailed account of what he witnessed: "I've played Ding over the years, and he's definitely not the same person I played in the 2022 Candidates, where he outplayed me in the middlegame. Or the Ding who crushed Magnus in the Saint Louis tiebreaker. I'm not sure if it’s visible on video… I struggled to keep my composure because he was bouncing up and down and literally shaking."

In six months, Ding will face another World Championship, this time defending his title against Indian teenage prodigy D Gukesh, who aims to become the youngest world champion.

"I would be very concerned for him in his upcoming match against Gukesh because he just doesn’t look right," Nakamura stated. "Hopefully, he’ll be fine and competitive. You hear everything and then 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, at some point, it started to feel like it wasn’t really about the game."

Ding has seemingly not been himself for a while now. The Chinese player showed the first signs of distress during last year's World Championship against Ian Nepomniachtchi. In a duel where details are usually fiercely guarded, Ding was unusually candid. He spoke about struggling with his emotions and feeling mentally off. We saw images 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 like there was something wrong with my mind... I was feeling cold because of the anxieties," he admitted at the time.

This must be a debilitating situation for Ding. A player who has known Ding for a long time mentioned that he has become "quieter" and suggested that he has "closed himself off a 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 conversation with HT ahead of the Candidates, Gukesh reflected on Ding’s struggles and Magnus Carlsen’s decision to step away from the classical world title after five wins. "Throughout history, a lot of world champions have been very disturbed by the title... I guess this kind of 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 successes and failures are public, the pressure 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 explained in a 2021 interview. "...to make that transition from being submerged in water to taking a few steps on land."

Final Question: What's Up with Ding?

With the chess world watching closely, the pressing question remains: What’s going on with Ding Liren? As he prepares for another World Championship and battles both on and off the board, the hope is that Ding will find his form and return to the top of his game. 

0x 677x Petr Koutný
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