Will China Become THE New Chess Nation?

Chess Nation China***

Who closely followed the world’s chess events within the last few months will have certainly come to one conclusion (besides the one that Magnus Carlsen will deservedly be World Champion for another while):

The Chinese are moving in!

The Dutch city Vijk aan Zee is currently hosting the “Tata Steel Tournament”, at which players like Carlsen, Caruana, Aronian, and Giri – to name only a few participants of world-class level – will give their honors. After the third round on Monday evening, 22 year-old Liren Ding has already scored 2 winning points. The Chinese number one ranked 22nd in the January edition of the FIDE World Rankings, but has already surpassed Andreikin and Radjabov and now ranks 19th. Welcome to the Top 20!

Just recently, at the Hastings International, the 28 year-old Chinese Zhao Jun prevailed with a Rating-Performance of 2851 over players such as Maxime Lagarde, Deep Senupta, Romain Edouard, and Alexander Frier, and finally took home the gold medal.

In August at the 41st Chess Olympics in Tromsö, the Chinese secured – against all expectations (Russia was rated top-favorite team) – the very first victory, even though they left three players with ELO-ratings above 2700 points at home. China is obviously choosing its players from such a large pool of top-class players by now, that they can easily forego the two best players behind Liren Ding. Where are they coming from all of the sudden?

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The “Big Dragon Plan” is Working

China is not looking back on long-standing chess tradition, at least not in the classical European way. Xiangqi (also known as “Elephant Chess”) is a derivative of the Persian original version of chess called Chaturanga and has been popular there for many centuries. The kind of classical chess that we know today was officially added to the list of sports in China only in 1956. The same year, only six players from all of China participated in the first National Tournament.

In the early sixties, the

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Chess Association of China was founded (as a sub-division of the Chinese Xiangqi Association), to promote the sport’s popularity. This progress, however, was hampered by a chess prohibition during the first eight years of the revolution (1966-76). When chess was allowed again in 1974, the Malaysian developer and entrepreneur Dato Tan Chin Nam (born in 1926) significantly contributed to the sport’s success by investing large amounts of money into the sport as the first Chinese chess sponsor. He helped develop the Big Dragon Plan, the goal of which was to reach a professional level of gaming performance in the Asian countries as quickly as possible. Part of this plan was the decision to support chess in China first, where they saw the largest potential for success. Until the new Millennium China was supposed to play its way to the world’s top. An investment that is definitely paying off now.

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Chinese Have Ideal Conditions

Liu Wenzhe was the first Chinese player in history to win a duel against a Western grandmaster (1978 against Jan Hein Donner) and became coach in the early eighties. In 2002 he published the book “Chinese School of Chess” in which he describes why China would eventually replace Russia as the Chess Nation. He writes about how the Chinese have a natural talent of understanding the logic of chess, which goes back to the long-standing tradition of and great preparation through Xiangqi and I Ging. Liu Wenzhe as well as Xie Jun, the first female Chinese Chess World Champion (1991), in fact were successful Xiangqi players. Over and above that, Chinese do not fear hard work. Xie Juns World Championship preparations consisted of a 190-day exercise plan that scheduled every minute of her day from sunrise to sunset, including the daily eight hours of practice. Last but not least, Wenzhe points out the favorable social conditions in China: Chess is greatly supported by society. China also pays great attention to ideal selection, intensive practice, and tournament support.

China has access to a talent pool of 1.4 billion people. More than three million of them play chess already and 300,000 of them are members of chess clubs (Germany has about 90,000 members). The Chinese also consider chess an opportunity to promote the country’s prestige. The governmental support is therefore much higher than in western countries. Young talents are recruited and coached in special school over many years, and many Chinese consider a professional sports career the only way to future wealth and well-being. This is an incentive that countries with long-standing chess traditions, such as Germany, is lacking almost completely. In those countries, many young talents try to participate in tournaments like the European or World Youth Championships in their spare time and at their own cost. The support is thus passed on to the families that don’t have the time or funds to adequately support their youngsters in their talents.

Given these conditions, China’s chances of becoming a nation with a significant amount of players in the World Rankings or even replacing Russia as THE Chess Nation one day are quite good. Who knows – Perhaps the currently youngest grandmaster in the World, Wei Yi, will become the next Magnus Carlsen?

written by Sarah, translated by Birthe