Last October, China’s World No 3 Ding Liren defeated world champion Magnus Carlsen in a dramatic play-off to capture the prestigious Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, strengthening the growing impression that the 26-year-old can challenge the Norwegian’s global crown in 2020. The pandemic has put the prospect on hold, but by claiming the FIDE Online Nations Cup, China has asserted its credentials as a global superpower in chess, a game it had ironically banned in the incipient years of communist rule. The victory was a reflection of China’s real depth and quality, a triumph of the long-term strategy, Big Dragon, designed to make the country one of the leading chess powers by 2010.
Barring the men’s world crown, they have conquered vast areas of the 64-square board for the last decade. Hou Yifan, just the second woman after Judit Polgar to crack the list of the world’s top 100 players and the youngest ever world champion, has been sitting atop the women’s grid for the better part of the last five years. In the top 15, she has four compatriots for company. Like in badminton and table tennis, women’s chess has become a field of Chinese expertise. And unlike several western countries, China has thrived on home-grown and not assembled talent, by investing in people and spreading opportunity across the country. Yifan grew up in a remote county town in Jiangsu Province; Ding in a small town in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang.
The men’s circuit, though, was more difficult to crack. For several years, players with promise emerged from China but entering the top 10 proved difficult. Then came Ding, whose rise to World No 3 was as meteoric as it was spectacular. Barely a passing mention till 2017, he improved rapidly in the last three years, beguiling his adversaries and friends with a smile and an incredibly attacking game. If Ding manages to dethrone Carlsen, China’s emergence in the game it had once banned would be complete.
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